How do you hear the voices?

Islamic history is full of examples of early Muslim women asking for their rights, making complaints, bringing up their grievances and having their voices heard. Most if not all of these women were not rich or famous or from the aristocratic class. The first few Muslims were mainly from the poorer class who realised that Islamic system offered them not only security but also equality. In Islam every Muslim is equal.

So I was thinking today that Islam must have offered women from this poorer social class so much freedom and so many rights. But how much does the Islamic Feminism of today take into account the problems and plight of women from the poorer Muslim classes? This is not a rhetorical question. I am genuinely interested in knowing if Muslim feminists reach out to their poorer sisters.

Many Muslim feminists champion for the rights of their sisters who need help and have means of reaching out to the public for support – for example, Saudi women’s demand to drive or the gay girl in Damascus hoax stirred many Muslim feminists into action. But these are instances we know of because these people had the means to reach out for public support. What about those silent women who either don’t have the means to ask for help or don’t know how to ask for it. What are we doing for them? Would you like to share your experiences?

A friend goes to a different  poor area of her town every week asking women if they have enough food or medicine or even clothes. She has set up a local charity with friends who contribute graciously and she was telling me that she is surprised how many women need help but have no means of asking for it. She met a woman who had chopped off her thumb in a kitchen accident but had no nearby clinic for medical attention. Another woman had miscarried and developed a fever because the fetus hadn’t been expelled completely but her mother-in-law forbade her from going to the doctor because she thought going to a male doctor is haraam. A third woman was beaten by her husband who was a cleric and had told her that enduring his beating would earn her heaven. There was another woman who was taught that to massage her adult son’s feet was her religious duty! The friend is busy helping such women through donations and also dispelling myths by hiring a female scholar who goes to such women and teaches them about *real* Islam and how many rights their religion gives them.

Here is the surprising part – this friend has never heard of Islamic Feminism! It made me wonder if the ‘Movement’ is exclusively a Western construct. What do you think? When I told her about my research she was completely surprised and asked me if I think she was a Muslim feminist.

I told her she is one of the best I know.

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37 thoughts on “How do you hear the voices?

  1. Nahida says:

    The term itself–“Islamic feminism” wasn’t used before, but that’s what it always was. It’s not a Western construct. Islamic history is full of feminists.

  2. Amena says:

    I would say that islamic feminism is definitely a modern and western thing. There are many examples of women asking for rights as you have said but there was no formal movement. Muslimahs didn’t get together to identify as a group. You will not find many Muslimahs knowing or understanding the name outside the western Muslim world.

  3. Zuhura says:

    Feminism, whether Islamic or not, requires some intellectual distance from one’s own situation, some awareness of women’s oppression beyond one’s own society, and I think that makes it more common among women who are educated, have traveled, etc. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by your non-rhetorical question. How *would* Islamic feminism “take into account the problems and plight of women from the poorer Muslim classes”? Some individual Muslim feminists have done so, but I don’t think there is a “movement” that *can* take this on. I don’t see such a movement, actually, with any kind of unified goals. I see a bunch of feminists who are Muslim, or a bunch of Muslims who are feminists, but I don’t see that we’re part of a movement. That would be great, but I don’t see it.

  4. Metis says:

    I too wish there was at least a body. I believe that feminist trends and inclinations have been around since the beginning of Islam but I think whatever loose form of movement or even the association with feminism that there is in Islamic Feminism is a late 20th Century construct of at least the educated women like you point out Zuhura.

    ” How *would* Islamic feminism “take into account the problems and plight of women from the poorer Muslim classes”?”

    Yes, almost. I mean do Muslim Feminists only care about broader issues related to gender and Islam or is there also a human rights type of action involved? I would speak for myself that sometimes I get too bogged down with the theory rather than the actual mechanics. I would think or debate or write on hijab and spouse discipline etc rather than actually put on my shoes and go out to help a neighbour who I find out is being abused by her husband. However, if I knew there was a body of Muslim women I could approach to help me help this woman I think I would be more proactive.

    How can we create a formal movement or body that offers Muslim women the protection, safety, rights and equality that the Prophet offered them when Islam was established?

    • Zuhura says:

      I didn’t mean that as a paraphrase of your question; I meant it as a question back to you. I don’t think we can talk about how feminism is doing that because it’s not clear to me that it can. People can, but not feminism itself. And people can’t unless there is a movement/body as you say, except in small, individual ways.

      I agree that I tend to think more about theory than mechanics. Although I think writing in a semi-public way is helpful, bringing feminist ideas into open discussion by women who may not be intellectuals (although it appears many of us are in some fashion).

      Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgartner has a lot of ideas for mainstream feminists (especially younger women) to become more active. Maybe we could come up with a Muslim version?

      • Metis says:

        Oh I’m sorry I didn’t understand you – was on dense mode 🙂

        How would IF do that? Mmm, we could start by forming small groups like my friend did and reaching out to the underprivileged Muslim women. But before we do that I think it is essential that we educate Muslims about IF. We could each promise to sponsor one Muslim girl child from an underprivileged background (if we can afford to do that, that is). It is something the most basic that we can do and one doesn’t even have to travel far to do that; it can be done online. I agree with you that even writing about IF is service of one form. I receive emails several times from women asking me some question about an issue on Islam and gender with which they need help. If I feel I can answer them immediately I do that otherwise I take the question to an imam I trust. One even told me that she had begun reading Metis with a mindset thinking she knew a lot about Islam and it was enough; she had no place for IF in her life but she realised that most of her beliefs resonate with the beliefs of Muslim feminists who read and comment here 🙂

        • Zuhura says:

          Irshad Manji suggests giving small loans to Muslim women. I tried to do that via Kiva but they didn’t have a lot in places that are Muslim-majority. I ended up giving to a woman in Mali, where many people are Muslims.

  5. Nahida says:

    I have a huge issue with people claiming the feminism is Western–I think it stems from the privilege of the West to claim everything, no matter how built-in these values are into the original culture. And it allows Western women to run in like white knights and ban burkas. They don’t get to define feminism. They don’t own it; it existed long before, and when they borrowed it they didn’t just borrow it–they stole it for themselves and then acted like they could hand it out in portions to “all these poor women!”

    • Zuhura says:

      I agree with you that it is problematic for Western women to try to save non-Western women. In fact, I’m sure that is part of the reason I’m less politically active than I might be otherwise. However, I disagree with you about the West claiming feminism. Lots of women in the world have rejected feminism as a Western construct. People want to reject feminism, even within the West, so it makes sense that where being from the West is tarnished by colonial histories that the label will be used to discredit feminism.

      • Nahida says:

        But from what I’ve heard, Muslims reject feminism precisely because they believe it to be from the West instead of intrinsic part of Islam. On the other hand, they have no problem allowing their own cultural practices to become, in some cases, an obligatory part of the religion.

        • Zuhura says:

          That’s my point. It’s not that Western feminists have claimed to create feminism, but rather that Western definitions of feminism have come to dominate discussions of feminism (and Western ideas that have nothing to do with feminism may be associated with feminism by conservatives both within the West and elsewhere).

      • Nahida says:

        And while the idea that feminism “belongs” to the West may be a result of the global patriarchy in these respective countries where men have erased the histories of powerful women before them, the West reinforces the idea by insisting that Islam isn’t feminist.

        • Zuhura says:

          I think most Muslims also insist that Islam isn’t feminist.

          I’m not sure it’s helpful to speak of some monolithic West (especially if you’re giving it grammatical agency). One might say the mainstream Western media presents Islam as oppressive of women, but the mainstream Western media is not exactly a bastion of feminism itself.

          • Nahida says:

            I was saying “the West” when I meant “Western feminists.” Apologies.

          • Nahida says:

            I’ve had non-Muslim Western feminists blatantly come out and tell me that I can be a feminist (thanks, I didn’t need your permission) but that Islam isn’t supportive of my feminism, and they would insist this even after I explained that my interpretation was very different from the one backed up by privileged men.

  6. Metis says:

    Nahida, I agree with you that feminist ideas have always existed but I think that the word and the movement is more Western. The word feminism was coined by Hubertine Auclert in France in the 1880s. It took more than a hundred years for someone to use the word Islamic Feminism in the 1990s. But what I find very interesting is that “Islamic Feminism” began to be used almost simultaneously in various parts of the world mostly in Muslim countries. Badran says it was used in Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Iran in the 1990s. However, because it is an English term I think what happened is that it was used in the English writings of these Saudi, Turkish and Iranian scholars. Thus it was the privileged and educated Muslim women who read, understood and adopted the word which is why perhaps like Amena said many Muslim women wouldn’t know about it. I can tell you from my experience that whenever I discuss my study with my Arab students they have no idea about IF, not even a single woman I have spoken to here knows about IF. But when I talk about polygamy with them they are against it. They are against concubinage. They desire and demand equality with men – in short they *are* feminists by our definition, just they don’t know it 🙂

  7. almostclever says:

    I read many people’s perceptions of feminism as a consequence of globalization, therefore a white western concept. I notice people tend to think in stereotypes, so “feminism” in a non westerners eyes may be seen as promiscuity and all those wonderful images shot across the world through Hollywood and western media depictions of who western women are (loose, scantily clad and one dimensional – lacking personality).

    The image of the western woman to many non western men is that of the whore. The girl you sleep with but not the girl you marry. All of this gets lumped into the idea of what feminism is.

    When I see immigrant and non western Muslims rejecting Islamic feminism, what I really see is them not wanting anything to do with this caricature that feminism has come to represent (no family values, man-hating, selfish and self involved)…

    Sometimes I think to myself, why have to label the feelings and emotions of young girls and women who are clearly calling for equality – feminist?

    Maybe the term is more harmful to women’s autonomy and self-determination than a simple “we just need to educate them.”

    • Metis says:

      I can’t agree with you more. Very well said!

      “Sometimes I think to myself, why have to label the feelings and emotions of young girls and women who are clearly calling for equality – feminist?”

      That is also true. I think most of us are always labeling people in our heads at least. Sometimes it’s useful but sometimes it’s not. And you are right that perhaps the label doesn’t suit everyone and may be harmful.

  8. Sumera says:

    The term Islamic feminism has been coined quite recently, so people maynot know what it is. Your friend is an inspiration!

  9. susanne430 says:

    Your friend is awesome. I love how she doesn’t just talk about stuff, but does stuff. I want to be like her.

  10. Lat says:

    Your friend is incredible and may God bless her efforts very much! I think maybe some people do think like what almostclever said about feminism. Eventhough early muslim women did ask for their rights,they didn’t actually start a womens’ group to identify as such.Furthermore i think it may only have existed in early Islam but not later as we see womens’ rights were not that splendidly taken care of in later generations.

    But now Muslims are aware like the case of the Obedients’ Wives Club.They are writing to the forum pages and debating about it,bringing the taboo topic of sex and polygamy out in the public.Thought that was good as it showcased that there were muslim feminists,male and female in my community 🙂

  11. Metis says:

    I see IF being recognised even if not completely understood in many Muslim countries and I hope that other countries would follow suit. Today a friend was telling me how her Arab female students treat feminism like a “disease” – they curl up their noses and say with disdain that Egyptians and Lebanese women are “feminists” which is not seen as a positive or desirable quality.

  12. Lat says:

    Why is it not seen as positive or desirable? Is it like how almostclever said,about western stereotypes? what and how do these Arab female students see when a woman of their own try to bring justice to a fellow Arab woman/man? Just good muslim women?

    Btw,I seem to constantly need to fill in my details when commenting.the new format is not so user-friendly! 🙂

    • Metis says:

      Lat, from the Arabs with whom I have interacted at least, the people in the West are seen as a race that are misguided and those who have rejected the truth. They are intelligent and hence have developed but they are still blind to the truth and so are moving towards destruction. Therefore any movement, especially one that calls for equality, is not desirable. To young Arab women, equality is important and necessary but they do sometimes accept loudly that Islam is for equity and not equality and so they are not always sure if they should be asking for it.

      PS: I know it is very annoying if you are not signed into Google or WordPress 😦

  13. almostclever says:

    I think looking at what women in Saudi are doing with their driving campaign would be helpful.. Although they are clearly creating a “feminist” movement in the most basic terms (wanting women’s rights) I wonder if they call themselves feminist? Would be interesting to see if they do, and why or why not. I’m off to see if I can find any articles!!

    • Metis says:

      Good point, AC! But perhaps they’d ruin their efforts if they claimed to be feminists. Feminism is not seen favourably in the Arab world like you said too.

      • almostclever says:

        That has become my conclusion (that they would ruin their efforts), and I haven’t found anything that talks about it… so who knows…

    • susanne430 says:

      Good observation. So maybe they are feminist who don’t know it, don’t like that name so they won’t adopt it or know it carries a lot of baggage in their culture or whatever, but they still are feminist by definition. So if the term is what keeps people away, have a different one.

      It’s kind of like people I know who don’t like the term Christian any more. It’s got too much cultural baggage because of all the atrocities committed by “Christians.” So they call themselves followers of Jesus because they want to separate the fact that Jesus did not treat people the way most Christians do. Not that feminism has had the same history of atrocities, but for Arabs perhaps they see it that way. So they want to call themselves by a new name or just have a ‘movement’ without a name. Maybe they know calling it by a western name will only make it more difficult for others to accept it. (Others who may see this as western intervention/infiltration.)

      • Metis says:

        I have also heard women say that they have all the rights given by God so why should they follow a human-made movement that is obviously not as flawless as God’s design.

        • susanne430 says:

          I would totally agree, however, it seems God’s design has been misinterpreted often so maybe these movements are just people righting wrongs others created when they flawed God’s design. I wonder if those women would agree that God’s way is flawless, but humans have messed it up by misinterpreting* in order to get control and keep people down. These movement are just reestablishing what God meant.

          * Writing that reminded me of a lesson from the Garden of Eden when the serpent appeared to Eve and questioned “has God said…?” and then twisted it. So symbolically perhaps this has happened from the beginning of time and we – with God’s help – should right these wrongs. In that regard we are actually doing God’s work by helping regain God-given rights stripped from us by power-hungry people.

  14. Lat says:

    “They are intelligent and hence have developed but they are still blind to the truth and so are moving towards destruction”

    I’ve heard that before.Arabs there practice a lot of double standards.They need these intelligent people (westerners) to make life convenient for them in many ways but they are doomed in the end as a people.Making use,taking all that from them is all okay afterall they get paid for it.That’s all that matters to them.Money,economics….But no interference into social life..

    I don’t tolerate these sentiments at all.I understand and know how racial affinity works but everyone is born with a race and they are proud of it,rightly it should be.No one can really predict or control the forces of change when one allows them into their fold even just for economy.Unless one is living like the Amish people.Very traditional and not even modern technology has a place there.Living in seclusion from the world is tough but these Arabs are not anywhere near that.They want it all and yet be pure.

    Like you said,

    “..she is surprised how many women need help but have no means of asking for it.”

    why? although there are charity organizations but these are not women friendly enough.They need a womens’ movement to understand their issues and bring some sort of salvation for them.I think no matter how muslim their movement is named,it will still be considered a western product because many wrongs are being made by religious people who claim to do the right thing for them and for others.When one goes against that esp women,they’ll still be branded as rebels and maybe as feminists.But I think it also depends upon how open the society is for womens’ improvement there.Education is a mammoth task!

    • Metis says:

      Do you think, Lat, that some communities mix or confuse ethnicity/race/national affinity with religion? I know it is a little off-topic but I found it interesting that you said “They want it all and yet be pure.” I think this is what is happening – Arabs are confusing their race with their religion. What do you think?

      Education is definitely key. I have been saying that for six years. Women will develop if you educate them and they will figure out whether they want to be called feminist or not and how they should reach out to help and ask for help.

  15. Lat says:

    When my sister went shopping at a Japanese dept store and bought a toothbrush,the salesgirl assumed that my sister was Malay and told her that the toothbrush was made out of swine skin.My sister corrected her that she is an Indian Muslim and not a Malay.This assumption that Malay means Muslim regardless one dorns the hijab or not, is always there no matter how many times we correct others.We are just as proud to be an Indian and a Muslim.

    The Malays have a language that is a mixture of several languages including Indian and Arab.For the Arabs,I think,the mixture is at a more deeper level between race and religion,afterall Islam was born there.So it’s natural based on the people’s way of lifeJust like how it’ll be if Islam was born into Indian or Chinese land,I guess.I think it’s difficult to separate perhaps that’s why in those days religion(Islam,Christinaity etc) and state meant the same thing.

  16. womble says:

    I found this today as well and I thought more people should see it. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to watch.

    Saudi Women & Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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