Material Girls: Talking about Gender and Consumerism at ISNA

I spent this past weekend at a conference near Toronto, co-hosted by ISNA Canada (the Islamic Society of North America) and Reviving the Islamic Spirit.  The theme of the convention was “Serving God, Serving Humanity: Moral Basis of Effective Social Action.”  Overall, I have to say it was probably the best Islamic conference I’ve ever been to, and a very powerful (and much needed) pre-Ramadan spiritual boost, alhamdulillah.

Rabia Khedr. Image from the ISNA Canada website.

As much as I loved the convention, my biggest complaint, not surprisingly, was that out of 14 presenters, only one, Sister Rabia Khedr (pictured left), was female.  We’ve been through this before, with the last Reviving the Islamic Spirit convention in December.  As I said then, it is not okay for organizers to make so little effort to have female speakers, and there are indeed many very qualified women out there.  I really hope they start making changes in this area soon.

Also not surprisingly, the one female presenter who was there presented as part of a panel geared specifically towards women’s issues.  It seems rare to see women asked to speak on general Islamic topics; such topics end up being the domain of men (since maleness is generally seen as more neutral and normative, in contrast to the female “other”), with women pigeonholed into talking about female-specific issues, or even simply talking about personal experiences.  To clarify, there is nothing wrong with having women talk about women’s issues or their own experience; my issue is that these become the only places where women’s voices are heard, and that it would be nice to see more opportunities for women to speak on Islamic issues without it having to be from a specific framework of gender analysis.

The panel that the woman was speaking on at this particular conference was entitled “Don’t Be a Material Girl Living in a Material World.”  (Never thought you’d hear Madonna quoted at an Islamic conference?  Yeah, me neither.)  Speaker Rabia Khedr was joined by Imam Magid Ali and Imam Zaid Shakir.  The panel description was as follows:

The popular singer Madonna proclaimed, “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” The forces of rampant egoism unleashed in the contemporary world, particularly target women, pulling them away, in many instances, from a willingness to sacrifice for their families and communities. How can our sisters stand in the face of forces that encourage self-centeredness, vanity and egoism?

Upon reading the description, a friend of mine expressed concern that the focus was too exclusive one women, and took away from the fact that men can definitely also be victims of “self-centredness, vanity and egoism.”  She also worried that the women who are already sacrificing a lot for their families would be made to feel that they weren’t sacrificing enough, and that the burden of sacrificing for families and communities was again being placed too heavily on women.  I shared her concerns, and also worried that not enough emphasis would be placed on those who were promoting materialism and egoism in the first place.

I was very happy to have my concerns proven wrong, and to see an analysis that focused not so much on female sacrifice, but rather on issues of capitalism, consumerism, and disability.

Imam Zaid Shakir was the first speaker, and talked about how our current economic system reflects a “triumph of the material over the spiritual,” in which processes of commodification have replaced individuality and spirituality with market value.  He then talked about this in the context of women, femininity and female sexuality being transformed into material commodities, and their market values become the only way that they are considered to have worth.  He also discussed ways that women end up being seen in terms of utility value, with the result that if the utility is seen to be gone, women end up being discarded.  He advocated a focus on the Divinely-given spiritual value and integrity of each person as a way to counteract the negative effects of modern economic systems on human relationships and on gendered oppression.  It was a really interesting analysis of the relationships between economic oppression and patriarchal oppression, and very cool to hear it all talked about within an Islamic framework.

Rabia Khedr, a consultant on disability issues who founded and directs the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities (CAMD), was next. She began her talk by asking if there was anything additional that she could do to accommodate any of her audience members.  Khedr herself is blind, and let the audience know that we would have to give her verbal cues in response to her speech.  The focus on making sure that everyone could access her speech was a powerful way to start; I would love to see such issues arise more often in conference spaces (Islamic and otherwise.)

Khedr emphasised that self-centeredness, egoism and vanity are traits possessed by all genders, races, religions, and so on, and that women have always sacrificed for their families (generalizing, of course), so it is unfair to target women alone.  Interestingly, this comes from my notes from her talk, which I was writing as she was speaking (and not while looking at the conference program), but the language she used seems to respond very directly and explicitly to the panel description, and to challenge it based on some of the very same concerns that my friend and I had about it.  Khedr put a lot of blame on men (and their families) who look for a “Doctor Barbie traditional housewife in hijab” when searching for a wife, and dared families to look for someone other than Barbie when trying to find a spouse for their sons.

Khedr talked about how Islam doesn’t restrict having wealth, but that it does place conditions and call for responsibility for how wealth is used.  She mentioned in particular that Divine rizq (sustenance) is pre-determined, and that it is futile to be trying to gain more material wealth than has already been established for us (not to say that we shouldn’t have to work for what we earn, but rather that the material gains should not be our goal, as they are ultimately not in our hands.)

What I found particularly interesting about Khedr’s speech was the way that she integrated an analysis of her own (physical) blindness.  She talked about blindness not as a defect, or a weakness, or an obstacle to overcome, but rather as a way of being that might cause some challenges, but also allows her certain insights that sighted people might not have.  For example, she talked about how she doesn’t see the material world, and the relationship that this has to her understanding of materialism.  She later talked about how people have asked her if she would want to undergo a procedure to give her sight, and she said simply that she’s not all that interested because she doesn’t see her self as broken, and therefore does not think that she needs to be fixed.  As she said, she was made this way, and “I am comfortable with God’s creation.”  It wasn’t a romanticization of disability, but a realistic way of looking at it that understands disability not as a problem, but as a way of experiencing the world.  I’ve spent some time in a disability studies class, so I’m familiar with this perspective, but had never heard it from an Islamic angle before. CAMD’s position is that we are all created equal and therefore we all deserve accommodation and equal opportunities to be engaged in our communities: their slogan is “Nothing about us, without us.”

Last, Khedr talked about how Muslim women need to speak up for ourselves, especially considering that women represent 51% of humanity.  She encouraged us to stand up to all those who might try to speak for us – men (Muslim or not), non-Muslim women, even Muslim women who can’t speak for our experiences – and to become engaged in social activism.

Imam Magid Ali was the last speaker. His talk focused on consumerism and materialism more generally, with very little dealing directly with gender.  He talked about the dangers of over-consumption, and specially encouraged the audience to use Ramadan as a time to change our spending habits.  Definitely useful advice.

All in all, I was really impressed by this panel, which dealt with the complexities of gendered oppression, popular images of femininity, disability, and consumption, in ways that were critical and thought-provoking.  I hope to see more like this at future conferences insha’Allah (and I hope to see more female speakers at all panels, regardless of topic.)