Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review: Women and Gender In Islam

[TW: Sexual assault]

First off, thanks to reader EDB5Fold for recommending that I read author Leila Ahmed, PhD, whose book Women and Gender In Islam is the focus of this post. I chose to read this book primarily because it is a historical account of the status of women in the Middle East that is written by a Muslim feminist woman from Egypt.

On that note, anti-feminists, MRAs, and other such folks continually mock and criticize Western feminists for failing to adequately address the Plight of Middle Eastern Women. But, before we begin wholesale exporting Western feminism into the Middle East, it would be an understatement to say that maybe the perspectives of Muslim feminists and women in the Middle East should be taken into account regarding that matter.

So, that point is a good intro to Ahmed's arguments. (All quotes from Women and Gender in Islam unless otherwise noted). In her chapter "Discourse of the Veil," Ahmed notes that women "emerged as the centerpiece of the Western narrative of Islam in the nineteenth century, and in particular in the later nineteenth century, as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in the Muslim countries" (150). Ahmed traces how colonial narratives simultaneously and hypocritically perpetuated the Victorian English narrative that European men were superior to women while also denigrating Muslim culture for being oppressive to women.

That is, Victorian colonists "appropriated the language of feminism in the service of its assault on the religions and cultures of Other men... at the very same time as it combated feminism within its own society" (152). It's the classic anti-feminist bait-and-switch that we still see from today's Western anti-feminist and anti-Muslim bigots who bark: "Don't criticize us, criticize Them."

The veil, "to Western eyes" then became "the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies" (152). Christian missionaries sought to save Muslim women by attacking the custom of veiling and converting women to the (also male-centric and sexist) religion of Christianity. The fundamental premise of some Western (purported) feminist narratives was that veiling was oppressive and that, therefore, Western-style male dominance should replace Islamic-style male dominance (162).

Most colonialists- whether patriarchal men, missionaries, or purported feminists- assumed that saving Muslim women must entail ridding Islamic societies of all "native religions, customs, and dress" because European society was superior (154). The Muslim resistance to this colonialism, then, supported veiling, not necessarily as a symbol of female subordination, but as a reaction against colonization and assumptions of European supremacy.

In more contemporary times, Ahmed explains that the veil can have the practical effect "carv[ing] out legitimate public space" for women, where they can interact with men "without cost to their reputation" in societies that are beginning to integrate the public spheres (224). The veil can "declare women's presence in public space to be in no way a challenge to or a violation of the Islamic sociocultural ethic" (224). Thus, with nuance, does Ahmed aptly explain that to view the veil as signifying anti-feminism is to grossly oversimplify.

As a radical feminist who is religiously agnostic, I am not exactly the biggest fan of organized religion, particularly the three major androcentric monotheistic faiths. And, lest you think Ahmed lets Muslims off the hook for perpetuating female oppression, she doesn't. She is a harsh critic, but her criticisms are aimed more at fundamentalists who overlook Islam's "ethical voice" of equality in favor of an oppressive fundamentalist version that adherents are, when pressed for details, pretty uninformed about (observations that could aptly be made of Christianity and fundamentalist Christians as well).

She lambasts the historical "male-engendered debate about women, with its fixation on the veil," which in contrast to female-authored narratives, "often seem[ed] preoccupied with abstractions and oblivious of the appalling human cost to women and children and ultimately to men exacted by the male dominance enshrined in the laws and institutions of Arab societies" (183). She critiques Islamic family law policies- like polygamy and divorce laws- that give men almost total control over women and children. She observes that laws depriving women of the right to participate politically and earn a living are explicit in some states (231).

Although, Ahmed also acknowledges that "[w]hatever the source or sources a fierce misogyny was a distinct ingredient of Mediterranean and eventually Christian thought in the centuries immediately preceding the rise of Islam" (35). That is, misogyny was and is hardly unique to Islam.

Ahmed ends by suggesting that there is a need for a feminism that is "vigilantly self-critical and aware of its historical and political situatedness if we are to avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in racist ideologies whose costs to humanity have been no less brutal than those of sexism" (247). I find that that suggestion resonates with my instincts, even if I could not fully articulate them.

I have long been uncomfortable with US leaders, particularly those who are anti-feminist, co-opting the language of feminism for (alleged) purposes of justifying war in the Middle East and mandating an end to veiling. For, if the ultimate goal of invasion is to civilize Backwards Muslim Countries(tm), is it really a feminist victory to replace one androcentric culture and religion with another?

Would it be, say, a feminist victory to unveil women in Iran and begin importing an American Girls Gone Wild! culture? What about importing a fundamentalist patriarchal Christian culture? Is it a feminist victory to eradicate the oppressive Taliban by using the US military, a military imbued with a large sexual assault problem, and defense contractors who shield their employees from being prosecuted for rape?

I think, in general, it would be a nice change if conversations about Western feminism's role in Saving (or Not) Middle Eastern Women took these issues and complexities into account.

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