I recently read Layal Ftouni’s essay “Rethinking Gender Studies: Towards an Arab Feminist Epistemology” where the author thinks through those long-standing “stark, defined binaries between tradition, as indigenous and repressive of women; and modernity, as Western and progressive.” The essay is included in the book Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field, and it is focused on feminist movements in Arabic-speaking countries. However, Ftouni’s central concern seems to be reassessing gender relations and women’s status in Islam. Essentially, she deals with the double move: on the one hand, Muslim women must combat those who depict Islam as obstructing their acquisition of liberal rights, and on the other, they must fight against the establishment, which, Leila Ahmed argues “silences the ethical and egalitarian voice of lay Islam.” According to Ahmed, “it is because Muslim women hear this egalitarian voice that they declare (generally to the astonishment of non-Muslims) that Islam is nonsexist.”
Following the responses to Alice in Arabia and to Abu Esa’s comments on International Women’s Day, I think it is clear that there are many Muslim women who are active both in rejecting the androcentric codification of Islam and in establishing a counter-discourse against anti-Muslim prejudice. The difficulty lies in doing both at the same time.
Take the hashtag #NotYourStockMuslim. Such responses are important in performing what Ftouni calls “a reversed denunciation,” which turns “what modernity regarded as backward (Arab women, Islam) into progressive and liberal, (Islamic ideals as modern, Muslim women have agency).” So, the “stock Muslim” who is imagined as backward is “proven” not to be so through a hashtag campaign.
I’m not hating on hashtags. But we should keep in mind that as long as we are only denouncing the stereotypes, we will be caught up in the assumptions behind them. So we say that we are not the Stock Muslim, or we talk about who does not represent us (“Saudi Arabia does NOT represent me”), but what does that say about what we are? As Lila Abu-Loghod has written: “what Western Liberal values are we unreflectively validating by proving that Eastern women have agency, too?” Of course, many Muslim women are “NotYourStockMuslim” – and many Muslim women live in oppressive conditions, both under oppressive autocratic governments, and under patriarchal systems. The difficulty lies in the need to constantly be aware of connections between women’s agency and the structures of power around them. So “reversed denunciation,” while necessary, is insufficient. We need to be able to fight Islamophobia without being caught up in “an apologetic or self-denying defense of Islamic gender practices or a justification of the oppressive discourses of Islamist ideologues and rulers.”
#NotYourStockMuslim came in part as a response to Alice in Arabia, along with many other responses that noted the problems with the premise of the show. Ironically, in Brooke Eikmeier’s recent article about the “media mob” who killed her pro-Arab, pro-tolerance TV series, she herself does an excellent job critiquing the presentation of Alice in Arabia, saying she “cringed” at the way it was described – although apparently she saw no problem with the title itself.
When I read Eikmeier’s complaint, I imagined what the reaction would be to a show by an Arab woman called “Alys fi balad-al-gharb” (the Arabic translation is Alys fi balad-al3ajaib, Alice in the Land of the Wonders, so replace “wonder” with “west”). The TV series would feature the “mixed race” Alys, who is more familiar with Arab culture (in order for the audience to relate to her). As the show begins, Alys is in detention (like Adama Bah), where her character development “arc” begins with all the worst stereotypes Arabs have about the West – the “West” as a materialistic, imperialist, hypocritical society that treats women like sex objects. Like Eikmeier, who can point to certain truths her show engages, I could point to wars, the weapons industry, drones, propping up dictators, rendition, detention and torture, or rape statistics and issues around women’s body image. Like Eikmeier, I could take bits of reality and weave them together into a stereotypical representation. Would this series be described as pro-West or pro-tolerance though?
However, while we call attention to the problematic premises of Alice in Arabia, from the descent into the netherworld idea to the underlying assumption of “Arabia” as a barbaric Agrabah that is representative of the “Islamic world,” we have to, and at the same time, speak about the stories of real women who suffer under the Saudi regime. Women like Alanoud AlFayez, the former wife of the King of Saudi Arabia, who says her daughters have been under house arrest for twelve years. If you speak Arabic, here is a program about her story. Sahar, one of the daughters, is quoted here as writing:
“Women and children [in Saudi Arabia] are abused, while their male guardian enjoy privileges granted by the court in cases of domestic abuse. Princes and the elite entourage are protected and the victims and their families suffer injustice.”
We can’t keep from reacting to these realities because they might reinforce stereotypes; otherwise, we will only be attending to one side of the “double move”. To pridefully say that we are modern, we are liberated, and then fail to be outraged or to suppress the airing of dirty laundry is to play into the hands of those who use these stories as an excuse to promote simplistic binaries. Stories like that of AlFayez are often used as reinforcements for an unproblematic coupling between freedom and the unversality of the category “woman.”
Of course, in many Muslim-majority countries women are oppressed. In order to take the systemic issues seriously, we need to attend to specific national, cultural, and class contexts, and to say that yes, many Muslim women face challenges, but those challenges are not always the same. And it’s not as though Muslim women become liberated as soon as they leave “Muslim countries.”
Because just as there are women like Alanoud AlFayez, there are women like Zezag Ibragimova, whose story was also in the news recently, although not as widely spread. Ibragimova is a Chechnyan Muslim woman with a four-year-old daughter, Jasmin, who has spinal cord malformations and a severe and rare form of hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Without treatment, Jasmin might die – yet she and her mother are being deported from Sweden back to Chechnya, where the mother says there is no possibility for treatment for her daughter. Ibragimova is facing conditions that are not related exclusively to the category “woman”.
As Ftouni puts it, “it is not only our ’being a woman’ that is at stake here, it is also our being and becoming in language, culture and society.” In the context of the Arab world, Ftouni goes on to explicate the double task, writing that being an Arab feminist “requires a strategic double move, to both empiricise the lived experience of women…and to theorise new ways of knowing and representing.”
This is what the double move comes down to: we need to be able to describe, represent, discuss the actual lived lives of Muslim women around the world, in their different specific contexts, and insist on the specificity of those contexts – and at the same time we need to do the more abstract work of thinking through what those experiences add up to, to imagine answers to the broad questions. We need to be able to respond both to Alice in Arabia and to Abu Eesa, to the story of Alanoud AlFayez and of Zezag Ibragimova.