Feminists Vs ‘Advocates’

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.

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23 thoughts on “Feminists Vs ‘Advocates’

  1. wafa says:

    Loved what you wrote 🙂 and here is what I think,

    Unless we are angels-since angels have always been described to be with no intentions or desires but to worship Allah in the Islamic sense- our battles in this life will always be affected by what we have been through in our lives and no matter how much we keep saying that we are objective. For example, those people behind the committee that encouraged the ban of burqa in France where mostly Muslims and in their testimonies they keep referring to those who have grown in the suburb-where mostly inhabited by Muslims- and were forced to wear hijab and niqab.But what about those who aren’t, what about those who believe it to be part of their religion. The idea that Muslims in France are faced with a lot of prejudices and to only help them by banning hijab is a scary matter. that’s just one example.

    With all due respect, when some MF who are not from the middle east try to stir a case, they ignored the most important ones and goes directly to issues that aren’t so much matter to people around here. Not that they have no rights to speak, but they are mostly live in the west where no women’s right is denied . So if you are looking for the well being of your sisters in the ME then don’t focus on issues that you think is troubling to you only. Don’t patronize the rest of us.

    Here in the ME we don’t like labeling, you can say whatever you want and then finish with a verse or a hadith and people will think highly of you, If you want change there are two ways, either work hardly and from within,but don’t forget to tarnish the people, their traditions and religion and that wont take you nowhere, which is what Nawal Saadawi was and is doing.
    Or you can work nicely by showing the beauty of women’s rights from the Quran, hadith and tradition itself and that will take you to higher places and the changes will happen like what the work of Fatima Mernissi’s is based upon.
    I know a lot of women who wish and pray for a change but to hear you it from Nawal makes them refuse it. Again, we aren’t angels and so anyone against their religion will fail even if she is with them heart and soul.

    We are in a hurry, but we should remember that changes takes time. Re-reading the Islamic history in its own language, understanding the traditions and cultures of the Muslims you are talking to is very important and with time things will change, not necessarily now but soon. Unless we are not working for the people and want to see the changes we are calling for before our death ,then that’s not real change.

    • Metis says:

      Shukran ya Wafa ala *commentik* 😀

      Something I wanted to clarify – are you against the niqaab ban or are you in favour of it? Sorry, I didn’t understand that bit. I know what you mean by different issues in different countries. When I became actively involved with Islam I had already moved to the ME and it was the state of Muslim women here that caused me to restudy Islam from a different perspective – namely feminist. But my concerns were different. I didn’t worry about mosque space because that is NOT an issue here for women. I didn’t worry about hijab because while I don’t cover my head I’m not really ever judged. No one doubts my religiosity because I *choose* not to cover my head. I was more concerned with women not being allowed to drive in KSA or being treated like children needing male supervision sometimes by sons. I didn’t like the fact that local women were stripped off their rights for marrying foreigners even if they were Muslim men. I was worried about how non-Muslim domestic workers were treated like sex slaves. It troubled me that young girls were given into marriage and their silence was accepted as consent (no one wondered that silence also means extreme fear or subordination). Rampant polygamy bothered me which is supported and encouraged by the states to increase local population. These are not the concerns of Western MFs.

      “Unless we are not working for the people and want to see the changes we are calling for before our death ,then that’s not real change.”

      Well said!

      • wafa says:

        I am against the ban on the burqa or any religious symbol. Who has the right to say what’s in a religion or what’s not ? beside how is that going to distinguish France from communist countries from the past ??

        I agree all the issues you mentioned are very troubling ones, but you have to know the tradition of a country before we can jump in a situation. For example, the issues of child marriage, it’s very troubling, but if you want to go against it, you have to convince people against three things. First, when a child is a considered a child by age?,due to poverty people here always make their children help in and sometimes the age of working children can go down to 6- forget the extremes of below that ages for now-so after a while people will think that this 6 or 8 years old is not a child anymore and is allowed other things including marriage. Then you have the idea that scares almost anyone here which is what will happen if that girl was raped or got fooled by love and got pregnant and since most of the people here are poor and they need the help of their children then this possibility is presented in their minds, so they think it’s better if we accept that old man’s proposal and let her marry him and stop a scandal. Third, explain to people why did the prophet marry a 6 years old who was his wife by the age of 9. Because some thinks that this is proves that Allah is OK with it since He allowed His prophet to marry a girl this age. So you either prove that these stories are false by one of their respected leaders or gain the trust of a respected one who can talk about it. People will only take advice from people who belong to them, who look like them, who respect their traditions and don’t come yelling “barbaric, barbaric” . I hope i made this point clear.
        ( i am not defending but again if you are fighting for the sake of fighting then go ahead but if we need change we need to understand the situations we need to change)

        • Metis says:

          ” i am not defending but again if you are fighting for the sake of fighting then go ahead but if we need change we need to understand the situations we need to change”

          That is true! Do you think that MFs like for example the more fiery ones who are in favour of the ban like Mona Eltahawy are “fighting for the sake of fighting”?

          I find your perspective of great value because you are from the Khaleej and your battles are different from the battles of the Western MFs so I hope you don’t mind me asking you so many questions 😀

          • Zuhura says:

            I got to hear Mona Eltahawy speak a couple of weeks ago and she briefly talked about her view on the niqab ban. Although she didn’t directly speak to her reasons for wanting to ban it, she made a very good comment against those who support women’s “choice” to wear the niqab—that many who make that argument support women’s “right to choice” to wear the niqab but not the same “right to choice” to abortion or other women’s rights. I.e. they hijack the language of feminism by talking about choice but don’t take the argument to its logical feminist conclusion.

          • wafa says:

            No, i don’t mind the questions at all. I am learning a great deal in here myself as I told you before.

            I wonder and i may be right or wrong about it. But can our battles, the ones we choose while deciding to ignore others,be separated from our own personal experiences and agenda!!.
            when voices were loud about women driving in Saudi Arabia, lots of women says that we need to focus on the rights of so and so but not driving, driving is not important…most of them turn out to be of rich families who have no problems with a driver to take them wherever and whenever they want, they don’t need this right and so is not important to fight for. Also, some were against the battle of the male guardian, turn out that they have no problems moving anywhere, doing anything cuz their male guardian don’t object any thing.
            So does our own experiences cloud our own judgments ? For example, Mona Eltahawy used to wear hijab when she lived in Saudi Arabia-her own words-and then moved to Egypt, still wore it, then remove it.Do you think her experiences with that affect her judgment?.
            Mona doesn’t aspire change, she screams it. And that why very few people will care about her. Right now, she is only speaking to the west, in the ME, very few cares about what she believes and calls for.
            I know lots of women around here who hate niqab and hijab because they are forced to wear it. I don’t blame them but to fight against it means I am taking the rights of the others who loved it and believed in it. Personally, I don’t believe in niqab, I wear it most times because it’s tradition and family matters. But that doesn’t mean that my colleagues who believes in it shouldn’t be allowed to wear it. I can not let my own experiences affects my judgments.
            I do it a lot of time, mostly with the poor. We were poor and now we are in a better situation so I go extreme when I ask people to donate for others, to help others.And I still judge those who do nothing, but I am in a long process of fighting it, of stop judging people based on my own experiences.

            • wafa says:

              Zuhura,
              I hope you don’t mind me answering your comment, because I am one of ” those who support women’s “choice” to wear the niqab”. cuz I do believe in women’s right to do whatever she wants including abortion, so not everyone is against it.
              Beside, two wrongs don’t make it right. If they are against any other rights, we shouldn’t fight them by supporting banning of the more rights.

              • Zuhura says:

                I thought it was an interesting argument because prior to hearing that I felt like “it’s a woman’s right to choose” so we shouldn’t ban it. I think I still would fall on that side, but I also see that for most women it probably isn’t a real choice (though more research is needed on that). In fact, for most women in most places most of our “choices” are not real choices at all. And we should be suspicious when the discourse of choice is used to support “choices” that serve the patriarchy more than they serve women. I think this comic illustrates this well: http://abstrusegoose.com/strips/illusion.PNG

                • wafagal says:

                  We are not free “that much” to choose. Believe me Zuhura, it’s a choice for a great deal of women here and not forced despite what the outside world say. And they believe in it with their hearts and minds, that’s speaking of “hijab and burqa” only.
                  But being suspicious about that is what made the banning and stripping of many choices, and the victims will always be women. so i think it’s unfair to support such banning only cuz it’s serve the patriarchy while lots of women believed in that right.
                  And yes, the comic illustrate it will.

  2. almostclever says:

    What is your sample size?

  3. Zuhura says:

    Linguistic culture can not easily be separated from other aspects of culture. The culture of the Qur’an (if by that you mean the culture in which it was revealed) is a patriarchal culture that demanded wear hijab. So it makes sense that women who identify with that culture will interpret the language used in the Qur’an in that way. Those of us who are “foreign” to that “linguistic culture” may be able to escape that particular bias (though not everyone does and we also bring other biases).

  4. Lat says:

    If some websites are blocked then obviously what it meands is that they are bad for the population,as determined by those in power.So feminism,the label by which some Muslim women go by is bad.That’s the message given to the people.But as you said globalization has made them aware of their own positions.

    “But what they didn’t understand was why do Muslims need feminism to make that observation?!”

    If they are repeatedly told that the Quran already gave women their rights 14 centuries ago,then they wouldn’t need a label to ask for their rights,would they? Unless they believed their rights are not met by Quranic standards or whatever else.How do they go about asking for these rights? the fact that they didn’t know shows that feminism is needed.Maybe the elite class women don’t need it because they had what they needed but surely the others would so that they can ask for their rights.Without asking,we will not receive and I believe feminism allows that path.
    Interesting abservation on hijab there.No “personal choice” but “still shouldn’t be forced by Islam to wear what they don’t like” They don’t feel so taboo anymore but who are they telling it to? Do they tell this to men as well to womenl? How do they say it? Or they just confiding this to you because you are a feminist 🙂

    • Metis says:

      Lat, I loved, loved, loved your comment. There is a lot in here that I have to think about and comment on. It has given me new ideas.

      I have about 80 essays to mark so I’ll return soon and chat with you here about what you said.

    • Metis says:

      No they don’t tell this to men. And the only reason they tell me these things is because I’m Muslim but still look *different.* I know their beliefs and I understand their concerns and made the *choice* not to wear hijab so they are more comfortable telling me they don’t like it.

      Funny thing is that the women from the elite class are also not always free to do what they want. They’d kill even their elite in the name of honour, for example.

  5. Metis says:

    @Wafa, thanks for explaining it further. I understand what you mean. I used to force my understanding and opinions on others but I didn’t know I was doing it. I thought I was only making personal observations. I can understand how that may seem like force. I think you are right – for the Arab people one has to be either VERY strong to force their will upon others, otherwise s/he must work slowly and from within by understanding the people.

    @Zuhura, I have to say that is an interesting comment from Mona and the cartoon really explains it well. Basically what she is saying is advocating for choice is also an opinion. It is not free of biases. Makes sense.

  6. susanne430 says:

    interesting post and comments – thanks for sharing!

  7. Tom Earl says:

    Sorry for the late comment. I have not gotten a chance to read every response so I apologize if my comment is redundant.

    I really appreciate and benefited from your post. I feel you covered a lot of different areas. One theme I am hearing is that there are different cultural responses within Muslim feminism. As your article addresses, whether it “feminism” or activism is even an area of difference. I believe this is to be expected when we are talking about a global religion such as Islam. Therefore the way I frame feminism and Islam in the U.S and engage in discourse, will effect Muslims in all other countries due to our religious connection. I appreciate and value bridges such as yourself that are helping to connect the different Muslims in our beautiful diaspora.

    I suggest that due to the different possibilities of miscommunication and misinterpretation we find a common assumption we can agree upon, that can stretch beyond our different cultures. Can we move forward with the assumption that all individuals no matter their gender (and of course race and etc.) have the right to be treated with dignity, respect, and equal rights? For me, this is an important starting place. Are we agreeing upon this foundational assumption, or do we need to retrace our steps?

    • Metis says:

      Tom, thank you for commenting here and welcome to Metis 🙂

      “Can we move forward with the assumption that all individuals no matter their gender (and of course race and etc.) have the right to be treated with dignity, respect, and equal rights? ”

      Yes, yes, yes! I think that is all Muslim Feminists really want – to be treated with dignity and respect, and have equal rights. I don’t want to lift boulders and operate cranes. I just don’t want to be treated as a precious pearl and be trusted enough that IF I have to or want to lift boulders and operate cranes that I will be *allowed* to and will be able to do it. Whether it is feminists or advocates this struggle is basic.

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