Feminism and Islam

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In the June 19th issue of the Nation, Laila Lalami has published a review essay entitled “The Missionary Position” in which she considers Irshad Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.

Lalami’s position is that “Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women’s lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire.” She writes:

…the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about “our plight”–reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

She is critical of both books for failing to adequately take account of this, and for being “riddled with inaccuracies and generalizations.” Lalami asserts that, “In their persistent conflating of religion, civilization, geographical region and very distinct cultures, these books are more likely to obfuscate than educate.” Her recommendations for Western feminists are articulated in the following:

Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women–and men–in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women’s rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women’s organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn’t this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?

Read the entire essay here.

–Ann Bartow

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