As readers of this blog may know I have been collecting data for my research. I’m triangulating my research data so part of them is interviews conducted online with Muslim Feminists and readers of blogs by Muslim Feminists. Initially my supervisor had suggested that I do a case study on two Islamic Feminists of my choice but frankly I don’t see them getting as far as I hope Muslim Feminists can go. There is too much written on them already and there was nothing new I could offer. Muslim Feminists on the other hand need to be publicised more and more.
I’m part of a women’s association where I live and work. And I teach young Muslim women as well from various Middle Eastern backgrounds. So I have been talking to them about my research and telling them about the group I’m studying so as to publicise Muslim Feminists as much as I can.
Not anymore, but it used to shock me initially that not a single Muslim and Arab woman I have talked to about my research knows anything about Islamic Feminism. I have now rote learned what I must say to introduce my research because they have absolutely no background knowledge about the concept of feminism in the practice of modern day Islam. Some women have heard of women like Nawal Saadawi and Fatima Mernissi, but they don’t call them feminists – they call them “activists” and interestingly some of the websites on these women are blocked in the GCC countries because they are considered unIslamic and blasphemous!
I had to revise my initial research plan and at the spur of the moment devised new interview questions for Arab Muslim women who call themselves “activists” and refuse the label of Muslim/Islamic Feminism. I have been talking to quite a few Arab and Muslim women who have never lived in the West and I have come to confirm my hypothesis that Islam becomes how it is practiced and so for every Muslim it is different from another. We may share values and beliefs but we can’t pinpoint a monolithic faith.
Last week I talked to a group of young women about Muslim feminists and to explain what you all do I gave the example that many MFs may feel that it is unfair that men are allowed to marry up to four times while women aren’t allowed and so men should also be banned from marrying more than once at a time. I explained that many MFs who are against polygamy use different types of arguments to make their point. The whole room was nodding and then they began talking to each other and finally with me. There was a commotion for a moment. They all agreed that polygamy should be banned. They all said it was very harmful and they have suffered from its effects in their respective families. But what they didn’t understand was why do Muslims need feminism to make that observation?!
I get the feeling that there is a realization amongst Arab Muslim women that there are certain aspects of their religious culture that are not letting them progress in life but they don’t know how to ask for help or whom to approach. Islamic and Muslim Feminism is still in its infancy and it doesn’t help much that there is little that links it to countries which are heavily populated by Muslims. Muslim countries are poor, undereducated and politically volatile all of which affects women the most. We don’t have the time, money or education to worry about our women.
No revolution has ever started with a group that didn’t know its rights. In the Middle East the women who know what rights they should have (but are denied) are the ones who are educated and who can compare their situation with other societies. That is a small number.
I have nothing against these women calling them activists or advocates for women’s rights especially because Islamic Feminism is not a term they are happy with since most of their struggles are against their culture and also sometimes against Islamic teachings. This is something that I wasn’t aware of when I began my studies because I refrained from discussing religion with Arab Muslims.
Yesterday a blogger friend who is Arab and Muslim said something about the niqaab that reminded me of a discussion I recently had with a few young women about hijab. She also said something that made me notice that most of the feminist interpretations of the Quran have been done by women and men who did not have Arabic as their first language. Of course they studied Classical Arabic and have years of knowledge of the language but they do not share the linguistic culture of the language of the Quran. These women who call themselves advocates/activists have knowledge of the Arabic language and share the linguistic culture of the Quran as well. They are absolutely sure that Quran requires women to cover their heads – at least. However, from my discussions with them I learned that they think that if Quran prescribes hijab (or niqaab) then a woman is automatically pressured (and I refuse to use the word “oppressed”) to cover her head (or face). “Personal choice” is a redundant term in their opinion; yet they think that they shouldn’t be forced by Islam to wear what they don’t like. I would think globalization has given them the awareness about other cultures who have slowly given up on head-coverings and so it isn’t shocking or blasphemous for them anymore to want the same.
Thus while many MFs will argue that Quran doesn’t really prescribe head-coverings and only demands modest clothing, there are also Muslim women who believe Quran prescribes head-coverings and that it leaves a woman with no choice then. While many MFs may argue that polygyny has strict conditions in the Quran, there are also Muslim women who want it banned because they can quote examples from Islamic history of men having many wives and not being able to show fairness. While MFs are against the male unequivocal right to divorce, there are also women who are elated at being allowed to apply for Khulu. The battles of the two groups seem to be clearly different but it is still premature for me to make that observation with conviction. I need some more interview responses.
I don’t know if I’m making much sense here. This is a rough draft of a few of my observations. They are not absolute but they are interesting. I welcome ideas/comments/suggestions that readers may have for me.