Islamophobia and Islamic feminism

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For the Old Mole Variety Hour May 2, 2011.  Despite women's active participation in the popular revolutions of this "Arab spring," US media often continue to present women in the middle east as uniquely and homogenously oppressed by patriarchal culture. But these alignments of Islam with sexism and of western cultures with secular feminist egalitarianism are misleading, at best. Not only might such views foster unwarranted complacency about gender relations in the US, and rationalizations about military intervention in the interests of what Gayatri Spivak described as "white men saving brown women from brown men," but those views may also obscure the developments of feminist theories and movements that take forms particular to the Islamic world, and allow a purported division between feminism and Islam to be used against women's interests.

A few weeks ago, the conservative LA Times columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote an op-ed claiming that feminism’s work in the United States is “mostly done” and that’s it’s time to take feminism “overseas” to Muslim women. Asserting that Islamist extremism and oppression of women go hand in hand, Goldberg's piece was picked up by the right wing blogosphere, but was also subjected to a serious takedown by the women at Muslimah Media Watch, who point out that feminism is hardly a completed project in the United States, and that the myth that "Muslim women needed to be saved from the specter of sex-crazed, violent Muslim men" is a way to "overlook social inequalities American women face here at home."

Moreover, such myths can fit with a project of blaming women for the violence they suffer, as Maya Mikdashi points out in the e-zine Jadaliyya. In a critique of the media coverage of the sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir square, Mikdashi notes that "right wing commentators gleefully used it as evidence of how they had been right about Islam, about the dangers posed to the “free world” by the Egyptian uprising, and how somehow, this female reporter got what she deserved and /or should have known better."

As Mikdashi notes, this coverage reveals "the ways in which female bodies are a site that marries Islamophobia to Sexism. This marriage, in turn, reproduces one of the most enduring colonial tropes; the . . . woman who needs to be rescued from uncivilized and misogynist men. . . . In addition to being a discourse that is used to legitimate war, this use of female bodies (and increasingly, gay bodies) as a mark of civilizational status has also been cynically mobilized to continue colonial projects."

Therefore, while the sexual assault of Logan can be attributed to the “misogynist culture of Islam,” the sexual assault of 1 out of 3 women wearing the US military uniform is [seen as] the result of deviant behavior by deviant individuals. While rampant domestic violence in the Arab world is [understood as ] due to the devaluation of female life within Arab and Muslim “culture”, the fact that there are approximately 4.8 million instances of domestic violence a year in the United States [is not seen as saying anything] about that society. While the vicious sexual assault on a female reporter can be used to discredit a popular and democratic uprising, the 600 rapes and/or sexual assaults that occur on average every day in the United States [somehow do not prompt] us to critically rethink the state of our union. This is not the logic of feminism or justice or human rights. It is the logic of racism, sexism, power, and war.

The fantasy of the white savior no doubt contributed to the plausibility of Greg Mortensen's account in Three Cups of Tea of the "journey that led him to want to build schools, especially for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Recent revelations have shown that Mortensen distorted or fabricated much of his account, and that his organization has funded fewer schools than claimed and instead has been devoted to supporting Mortensen's comfortable lifestyle. As Lucinda Marshall notes on the feminist peace network, his story offered a "romanticized way that the white colonizer could convince the dark heathens that we would save them."

That Mortensen's organization was supported by the US military is perhaps no more surprising than recent reports that US taxpayers have been funding Islamophobic trainings of law enforcement personnel, conducted by self-appointed "experts" who perpetuate similar myths about Islam as uniformly militant, violent, and sexist. But we've heard much less about the involvement of women in the protests sweeping the Arab world.

As Shahin Cole and Juan Cole point out, women have been "at the forefront of those protests":

As a start, women had a significant place in the Tunisian demonstrations that kicked off the Arab Spring . .. Then, the spark for the Egyptian uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office was a …demonstration … called by an impassioned young woman via a video posted on Facebook. In Yemen, columns of veiled women have come out … to force that country’s autocrat from office, while in Syria, facing armed secret police, women have blockaded roads…

That this female element in the Arab Spring has drawn so little comment in the West suggests that our own narratives of… the Arab world -- … have blinded us to the big social forces that are altering the lives of 300 million people.

Women have been aided by this generation's advances in education and the professions, by the prominence of articulate women anchors on satellite television networks like Aljazeera, and by the rise of the Internet and social media. … Even the trend toward wearing a headscarf among women in Egypt during the past two decades has been seen by some social scientists as a step forward. It has been a way for women to enter the public sphere and work outside the home in greater numbers than ever before while maintaining a claim on conservative ideals of chastity and piety.

As Isobel Coleman notes in the journal Solutions,

Although Western media often portray Muslim women as oppressed and impoverished, women from Saudi Arabia to Iran are making advancements in education, politics, and business.

Historically, women’s empowerment efforts have suffered due to their long association with colonialism and secularism. Western advocacy for women’s rights is often perceived as cultural meddling, especially by political Islamists, who portray women’s rights as corrupting and “un-Islamic.”

[But ] Islamic feminists insist that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for men and women alike. By arguing for women’s rights within an Islamic discourse, Islamic feminists offer a culturally acceptable and sustainable way to expand opportunities for women, even within culturally and religiously conservative Muslim [communities].

Moreover, Muslim women in the west have also been speaking and acting on their own behalf. May 2nd marks the official release of I Speak for Myself, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.

As Catherine Sameh has noted, "instead of a boundary, Islam is the very condition of … many … Muslim women’s feminist agency."

 

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