Islam, misogyny and the limits of feminismSeptember 5, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Feminisms, International | 9 Comments
Should anyone wonder why Heresy Corner is held in such high regard, this response to my recent post on Islam & western feminism should prove instructive. When something is this well written & persuasively argued , you wonder whether it’s even possible to make a critique, even if you do have disagreements.
Expanding on what I thought were misguided generalisations about feminism’s ‘betrayal’ of Muslim women, The Heresiarch accepts that there are plenty of feminist writers & organisations who do take an interest in the misogyny practiced in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, Heresiarch contends, there remains a feminist mainstream; a “largely middle-class, whitish, left-leaning, “progressive”, Guardian-reading type of feminism” which can be accused of barely paying lip service to what happens beyond their borders.
Instead, these ‘mainstream’ feminists obsess over provincial issues – female representation in positions of power, equality in the workplace, pornography, prostitution & sexual harassment – which appear minor when compared to acts like genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings & banning women from working or learning. After quoting my (by no means comprehensive) compilation of blogs & organisations who do show vigilance, Heresiarch responds. “It’s not that feminists never talk about these issues. It’s just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.”
My first problem is this: if we are to accept that the relatively minor challenges at home bring the injustices abroad into sharp relief, and conclude from this that feminist activism on domestic issues is at best frivolous, and at worst ‘limitless self-regard’, then the same charge could be made of most of us. What on earth are we doing whinging about incandescent light bulbs when there are villages in Africa without electricity or sanitation? Why do we indulge in panics about our social services when around 1 in 4 Zimbabwean children is an orphan? Sure, the expenses scandal might be an affront to our democracy, but why not take a trip to Burma and see if we prefer how they do things over there?
We may be considerably more healthy, better educated, more materially well-off and more free than billions of people across the planet, but that does not stop us from being restless; demanding that we improve further; imagining a better future for our country. Whilst our problems may be minor in a global context, and though we might sometimes overstate their importance, to campaign on domestic issues need not signal apathy for problems elsewhere, regardless of the movement or ideology you subscribe to.
But aside from feeling a sense that Heresiarch’s response expects more of feminists than would be expected of other political movements, I think his snipes at relativism & his expectations of what western feminists could achieve for Muslims are misjudged.
In June 2007, the Carnegie Endowment published a report which noted the growth of some kind of feminist movement in countries like Egypt & Lebanon. Sure enough, the report was ignored by all & sundry – no feminists publicised their cause and no neo-cons clucked about ‘freedom on the march’. Why was this encouraging development not heavily publicised? Because the trend being observed was happening within Islamist organisations, and the women the authors interviewed were members of Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood.
The report found that these groups began appealing to women purely as a means of expanding their political power. However, as time went on they became dissatisfied with being relegated to ‘women’s branches’, and started agitating for greater representation, the right to work and the right to study. Whilst western feminists have always been able to frame these issues in secular rhetoric, for the ‘Islamist feminists’, their arguments have remained rooted in their faith:
Rather they believe that the cause of women’s rights needs to be pursued by reviving Islamic thought and promoting a new interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. They dismiss the idea that by advocating such interpretation they are rejecting an established body of Islamic law and thought, claiming instead that they are building on the contributions of previous generations using the same tools of interpretation.
Indeed, many of the women campaigning for equality do not consider themselves ‘feminist’ at all, and regard western feminism with a great deal of scepticism, charging that it is excessively individualistic, anti-family, and obsessed with the ‘irrelevant’ issue of gay rights:
By contrast, Islamic activists are concerned with the entire community, which they want to be just and egalitarian within an Islamic framework, recognizing not only the intrinsic equality between men and women but also the different roles they play.
Obviously, there is much about Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood which we find repulsive, regardless of whether we identify as secularists, feminists or none of the above. It is also true that this incipient ‘feminism’ is starting from a very low base, and that there are far more appealing groups who advocate secularisation as a means of achieving equality. Some, such as Wafa Sultan, even argue that it is Islam itself, and not just the interpretation of it, which is fundamental to sustaining women’s inequality. But whilst Sultan may be feted in the west, she is widely-rejected by Muslim scholars who view her as implacably opposed to their faith.
But given how badly secular voices are marginalised in this area, what seems apparent is that if there is to be a move towards better rights for Muslim women, it will have to demonstrate how those rights can be compatible with Islam. To that end, the Carnegie report speculates that ‘Islamist feminism’ actually stands a greater chance of achieving its goals than some secular, western-influenced version:
It is premature at this point to conclude that a full-fledged Islamist paradigm for addressing women’s issues and concerns has emerged, but there is certainly an attempt to develop one. And if such a paradigm were to become widely accepted, it could be enormously influential in the Arab world and more broadly in the Muslim world, much more so than the efforts to promote women’s rights by Western and Western supported feminist organizations.
For me, these developments demonstrate that rather than simply peddling cultural relativism, the consensus among feminists that change should come from within Muslim societies actually seems like pragmatic politics. If feminists embraced the ‘Islamist feminism’ that women are trying to spread through groups like Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood, feminism’s critics wouldn’t be asking ‘where are the western feminists?’ but rather ‘why do feminists hate the west?’ Equally, if they stood squarely behind the kind of secular feminism which more closely resembles their own, they would only succeed in further toxifying an ideology which is already looked-upon with great suspicion.
Heresiarch’s contention that feminists could bring great pressure to bear on their governments to demand the end to misogynistic practices also strikes me as a little optimistic. At present, the ability of western (particularly British & American) governments to use their power to influence foreign governments is more restricted than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In nine months alone, the Obama administration has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, and made a speech in Cairo with barely a mention of women’s rights. Each of these decisions were morally questionable, yet all could be rationalised as acting in the self-interest of the United States.
These are not good times to be an internationalist. With staggering deficits, two wars & a massively depleted political capital, human rights advocates, secularists & feminists all face quite insurmountable hurdles towards getting our governments to intervene in cases of rank injustice. As dreadful as it might be, I suspect that even if feminists did all band together to demand that their government get tough on the abysmal Karzai government, the Obama administration wouldn’t possess either the will or the means to follow that through.
Ultimately, I suspect the differences between myself and Heresiarch are relatively minor. Whilst we might differ on matters of strategy or whether feminists should be doing more, we can both agree that secular governance is just objectively better than any superstition-fuelled alternative, and that secularism is the surest way of abandoning centuries of misogyny. Lastly, we both know who the real culprits are for allowing this misogyny to continue, and that certainly it isn’t other women.
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