On Muslim Women, Feminism, and Diversity of Experiences

On Muslim Women, Feminism, and Diversity of Experiences July 16, 2009

Rabble.ca, an alternative news source in Canada, recently posted a podcast that was originally broadcast on Co-Op Radio in Vancouver, on their show “The F Word,” which looks at feminist issues.  Entitled “Islam, women and feminisms,” this segment features interviews with two Canadian Muslim women, Itrath Syed and Farzana Doctor.

The host of the show talking about the prevalence of images of Muslims in media and popular culture, especially post-9/11, and the need to look critically at these.  She spoke with particular suspicion about the “so-called ‘survivor stories’ about Muslim women escaping to the freedom of the West [that] have become international bestsellers of late.”  The host explained the motivation for the show as originating in a feeling that “we must encourage a less judgmental and more open dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim feminists.”

Itrath Syed. Image via Vancouver Sun.
Itrath Syed. Image via Vancouver Sun.

The first interview was with Itrath Syed* (shown left), a long-time social justice activist in Vancouver, who is also a university and college lecturer, and has taught, among others, a course on “Contemporary debates in Muslim women’s feminisms” at Simon Fraser University.  This interview was a great overview of some of the major issues that Muslim feminists deal with, both from within and from outside of Muslim communities.

One of the first questions was about the role of Syed’s family and community in her identity as a Muslim woman.  Although she acknowledged that family and community play a role, Syed emphasized that:

“It’s beyond an identity politics.  It’s what I believe, it’s who I am… For me, my feminist politics comes out of that space where I engage in a relationship with the Divine, which I believe requires believers to strive towards justice, and definitely gender justice is a key portion of that.”

I loved this acknowledgment that, for her, as for so many Muslim women, being Muslim is so much more than an identity label.  I’ve found myself in way too many spaces lately where “Muslim” has turned into a political identity above all else (and I think this is pretty common, especially given current political contexts where “Muslim” ends up as such a politicized and racialized term), and Syed’s affirmation of the centrality of Islam in her life “beyond identity politics” is an important way to begin a discussion about Muslim women’s feminism.  So is her statement that it is Islam that motivates her feminist politics, and that the two need not be seen as two separate ideologies (or as two contradictory identities, as they are so often portrayed.)

The interviewer asked Syed about the reactions to Muslim feminism within mainstream Muslim communities.  Syed responded that there are at least two issues at play: one is the re-engagement with scripture, which involves its own debates, and the second is the challenging of sexist practices within the community, which, as she said, “doesn’t really go well in any community.”  In other words, while Muslim communities may have our specific battlegrounds where sexism is being challenged, resistance to these challenges of the status quo is far from unique to Muslims.

Syed also made a point of separating the label of “feminist” from politics relating to gender justice, arguing that the word is often too narrow, and that many communities have worked against sexism in different ways without necessarily identifying as feminist.  She mentioned that, although she herself identifies as feminist, many women of her mother’s generation, and even of her own, may not use the term, but that their lived experience may still reflect struggles for equality based on gender (and other categories.)  The common images within much of feminist history of Muslim women as “the space against which white Western women measure the distance they’ve traveled” was also raised by Syed in a critique of dominant feminist narratives.

Shockingly, the topic of hijab came up (yeah, I know you’re all surprised too. *yawn*.)  The interviewer referred to an obsession over the veil among non-Muslims, and Syed agreed that “it is clearly [a] mad, crazy obsession,” but clarified that the obsession manifests itself among Muslims too.  Like many of us, Syed expressed how tired she was of all of the discussions about covering, and described it as an “inherent need to see ideological struggles play out over women’s bodies, and to control women’s bodies as sites of representation.”  Within many non-Muslim communities, she said, hijab is seen as “an absolute symbol of oppression and a marker of pre-modernity,” but she also talked about the problems with it being seen within many Muslim circles “as the only marker of Muslim identity for women.”  Syed described these as two facets of the same problem – or, to use her lovely expression, “same shit, different piles” – and argued that “either way, it’s about controlling women’s bodies and removing women’s autonomy over their bodies.”  It was kind of refreshing to hear people on both sides get called out for being way too hijab-obsessed.

One aspect of the interviewer’s questions that I particularly appreciated was her recognition of her own lack of knowledge.  She asked Syed for recommendations of books or writers to read; Syed recommended staying away from the “survivor stories” mentioned at the beginning of the show, and instead suggested work by people such as Asifa Quraishi, Jasmin Zine, Amina Wadud and Mohja Kahf, as well as an anthology entitled Windows of Faith.  As a final thought, Syed emphasized the multiplicity of identities and beliefs of Muslim women, and reminded us that “Muslim women, above all things, are also human, and tend to have a wide diversity of experience.”

The second part of the interview was with Farzana Doctor, a psychotherapist, social worker, and writer, who lives in Toronto.  Much of the interview focused on Doctor’s first novel, Stealing Nasreen (shown below right), which is about the relationship between a couple who have recently moved to Canada from India, and a a queer South Asian-Canadian woman.

Doctor's book, Stealing Nasreen. Image via Farzana Doctor's website.
Doctor's book, Stealing Nasreen. Image via Farzana Doctor's website.

Doctor described the book as one that looks at the intersectionality of South Asian, Muslim, and queer identities, a perspective that she felt was missing in the world of literature when she herself came out as queer*.  Doctor described her own religious identity as more of a political and cultural one, based on the relatively secular household in which she was raised, although she said that she felt a need to engage more critically with her Muslim identity when she began to identify as queer, especially given the lack of examples she could find of others who were struggling with similar conflicts.  She stated that her book has been very well-received among South Asian circles and within queer Muslim groups, by people excited to find a story that reflects parts of their own experiences.

Asked about the reactions within the mainstream Muslim community to her book and to her own identity, Doctor echoed Syed’s reminder that there is no one “Muslim community,” and that the diversity of Canada’s Muslim communities is reflected in the wide range of reactions, from those who simply state that it is impossible to be both Muslim and queer, to those who are searching for alternate ways to understand how these identities can coexist.

Overall, although at times I wished the interviewer could have gone into a bit more depth on some issues, I thought she raised some important questions, and did a good job with allowing her guests to speak for themselves, rather than assuming that she knew how they should feel.  I’m also really glad that she acknowledged the problems with all the “survivor stories” out there, and that she included on the show women who have had their struggles with Muslim communities and yet continue to see themselves as working from within a Muslim framework, rather than needing to escape from Islam.

*Full disclosure: Itrath is also a friend of mine, and someone I really admire, so I might be just a little biased.  But that’s only because she’s so awesome.

*“Queer” is the term that Farzana used to describe herself, and thus we have used it here. The term is often used by LGBT communities in order to reclaim it.

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