RIS Knowledge Retreat, Gender, and Feminism

Yesterday, we posted Sharrae’s analysis of gender issues at the 2011 Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention.  Although I wasn’t able to attend the Convention, I did make it to the Knowledge Retreat, a six-day series of classes with several of the RIS scholars.  There is much to say about the Retreat, but one moment in particular deserved attention.  (Please read through the whole post, as the ending of this is the most important.)

Dr. Abdal Hakim Jackson. Image via Loonwatch.

On December 29, Dr. Abdal Hakim Jackson spoke about gender segregation, and how strict segregation is often justified as “erring on the side of caution” and “avoiding the harm” of men and women mixing freely.  He raised the issue that there are other kinds of harm that we should be thinking about too, giving an example of a young woman who felt ignored and dehumanised when the Muslim brothers in her community would barely look at her or talk to her, despite all the work she does in the community, and despite how comfortable the men seemed to be in talking to women who aren’t Muslim.  Dr. Jackson described the psychological impact that segregation can have on women, and argued that this is another kind of harm that needs to be taken into account in discussions about segregation within Muslim communities.

That part was great, and a really important challenge to the ways that discussions on segregation are normally framed.  What was disturbing at the time was that he didn’t seem able to make that point without first going into a long preamble about how he is not a feminist, and doesn’t support feminist discourses, because they are based on something other than following God and God’s Messenger.  The next day, when someone asked him to clarify his comments about gender segregation, he again began with the same disclaimer, distancing himself from feminism and feminists.

It won’t surprise anyone that I was bothered by this need to disavow feminism, both because it implied that the concerns would be less valid if voiced by someone who did identify as feminist, and because it erased the many feminists who do, in fact, centre God and Islam in our thinking.*

And then, on the final day of the Retreat, Dr. Jackson began by saying that he had an apology to make.  He described his earlier comments about feminism, and told us that he was wrong to make them, acknowledging that there are indeed Muslims who are feminists, and that it’s not fair to assume that all feminists are ignoring Islam.  He acknowledged the diversity within feminism, and was clear that to generalise and misrepresent feminism as he had done was a form of injustice, one for which he took responsibility and sincerely apologised.  It was a full-out, real, honest apology; not just an “I’m sorry you were offended” or even “I’m sorry to offended you,” but a genuine “I did this, and it was wrong, and I’m sorry.”  In fact, his remarks were welcome not only as a correction to his previous remarks about feminism, but as a model for how to acknowledge and apologise for things we’ve done wrong.  I really appreciated his comments, as did several people I talked to, and my respect for Dr. Jackson definitely increased.

I don’t know what it was that made him change his mind, but it’s possible that someone might have talked to him about his comments.  If that’s the case, much respect also goes out to whoever it was who took that risk to challenge one of the highly-respected RIS scholars, and who didn’t simply let it go or tune it out.

*Just to be clear, this isn’t at all meant to be a reference to our debates on Islam and feminism from a few weeks ago.  I think the arguments that Dr. Jackson was making were somewhat different from those being made in those debates.