My Views On Feminism and Islam

How am I able to reconcile my feminism with my religion? Some people might think that I’ve reshaped Islam to fit into a feminist framework. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the opposite is true. There are a lot of elements in my version of feminism that are compatible with Islam. They include:

  1. Being an advocate for women.
  2. Viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is.
  3. Believing that men and women are equally accountable to God.
  4. Recognizing that there are some inherent differences between the sexes.
  5. Refusing to generalize about men and women based on gender roles.

The first one, being an advocate for women, is what I’m all about as a feminist. A feminist is worthless if she doesn’t support the choices and address  the concerns of all women. Feminism, especially Second-wave feminism, has been criticized for having too narrow a focus, specifically one that is white and middle-class (and, one could add, Western). This leads to all kinds of preconceived notions about what makes a woman liberated. Working women look down on stay-at-home moms. White women think that black women should put feminism before race. Westerners judge other cultures on how closely they conform to Western ideals.

I believe that feminists should consider the context in which each woman lives her life. That means, for instance, that we shouldn’t expect Muslim women to uncover just because as Westerners we can’t imagine choosing to cover. Nor should we begrudge a welfare or low-income mother her right to have the same support systems as middle- and upper-class mothers do (health care for their children, quality and affordable child care, access to education and job-training, food security). It even means that we should allow women to choose what kind of birth control they want to use or to support them if they don’t use any birth control at all. (This also means that we should respect each woman’s stance on abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to take away other women’s rights to their own opinion.)

The second one, viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is, comes out of my experiences as a Christian. I was brainwashed into thinking that Eve caused evil to come into the world, that all women were punished for her transgression by having to endure the pain of childbirth, that women were either saints or seductresses (they couldn’t be a little of both), and that men were meant to be in leadership positions over women. (I was even told by my first husband, a minister, that I shouldn’t speak in our Sunday School class.)

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A Saudi Woman Speaks Out

Non-Muslims see Muslim women as oppressed, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, where grown women have male guardians, are not allowed to drive and are required to cover themselves totally whenever they leave the house. That’s why it’s particularly surprising to run across a Saudi woman like Buthayna Nasser. She wears the full abaya (although not the niqab, or face veil) in her job as a television newscaster.

It’s a misconception that Saudi women don’t work, let alone have careers. Apparently, they have voices, too, judging by this video:

Phyllis Chesler, Feminist and Islamophobe?

Phyllis Chesler

I hate sentences that start with “most” and end with some ridiculous pronouncement about what “most” are doing.  Phyllis Chesler appears to be a prime offender, judging by her article on Muslim women and the veil. She writes: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.” She also writes that “Most Muslim girls and women are impoverished and wear rags.”

These statements are typical of a person who cares more about justifying her own prejudice than in adding something constructive to the debate. Not only that, but they’re just plain ignorant. Chesler cites examples coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as being typical of the entire Muslim world. She also equates Muslims with Arabs, when in fact this only applies to 20% of all Muslims.

I especially love this statement of Chesler’s: “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves–they are very involved in the global trafficking in girls and women and frequent prostitutes on every continent.” Where does she get her ideas??

But of course Chesler doesn’t care about being objective—or even factual; she has a career to think of. Dr. Chesler (she has a Ph.D in psychology) is primarily a writer and is the author of thirteen books and numerous articles. (Check out her web site for examples of her writing.) She is also a psychotherapist and an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). By her own account, she was “held captive” in Afghanistan when she went to visit her then-husband’s family, an experience that she says made her an ardent feminist. It also appears to have made her into a rabid Islamophobe.

In a 2003 review of one of her books, Publishers Weekly concluded that “Chesler’s tone and lack of intellectual rigor will not help her ideas to be heard by those who do not already agree with her.” (Source: Wikipedia.) From the samples of her writings, particularly those about Islam and anti-Semitism, I concur.

But what about Chesler’s feminism? Is she really a feminist or a neo-con masquerading as one?

From what I can gather, Chesler is the kind of feminist who blames the victim. One of her books, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, more or less says that women are just naturally competitive with other women, resulting in back-stabbing and general meanness. There is no recognition that women are socialized to be competitive by a patriarchal society that encourages them to stake their identities on the men they can “catch.”  (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, just this USA Today interview with Chesler about it, so I realize I may be misrepresenting her views.)

Yes, I know I’m dangerously close to saying that there is only one way to be a feminist or that there is a set platform all feminists have to espouse (pro-abortion, anti-pornography, pro-gay rights, etc.). Although, like all people, I am more comfortable with people who have the same views I do, I recognize that we all have our own versions of feminism, just as we all have our own versions of religion. For instance, Sarah Palin calls herself a pro-life feminist. Some feminists are supportive of pornography and sex work. Many women who hold feminist views don’t identify with the feminist movement because they feel that it is too upper-class and white.

Me? I’m just a feminist who believes that feminism is—or should be—incompatible with any kind of racism, prejudice or hatred. For this reason alone, I find it hard to believe that Chesler is a true feminist.

Muslim Women: Ambassadors For Islam (For Better or Worse)

I was asked yesterday what subject really needs to be addressed when it comes to Muslim women in North America. I’d like to say that the most important issue is how to communicate our faith. Or inspire respect. Or dispel negative stereotypes. What I did say was something that ties into all three: the way that a Muslim woman dresses.

That seems superficial in the broad scheme of things. But the reality is, it’s a huge problem for Muslims. Not that all Muslim women dress “Islamically.”  But for women who do “cover,” even walking down the street can be a challenge.

First I should explain what I mean by dressing Islamically and covering. There are a lot of opinions about what exactly a Muslim woman should wear but the general consensus is that she should be modest. That means no midriff-baring tops and jeans, no miniskirts, low necklines or skin-tight clothes. The most traditional Muslim believes that everything should be covered but the hands and feet. Some even interpret that to mean that the entire face should be covered as well, but they are definitely in the minority.

Continue reading “Muslim Women: Ambassadors For Islam (For Better or Worse)”

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project was conceived by Masha Hamilton after her last trip to Afghanistan in 2008. She became concerned that we were losing the voices of Afghan women and came up with the Project as a way to have access to their hopes, fears and dreams not filtered through men or the media. All of the women write at least partially in secret and often go through a lot to gain access to a computer.

The Afghan women work with women writers from the U.S., who teach and encourage them in online workshops. Women writers are used because of cultural inhibitions about working with men. Submissions are edited in a back-and-forth process for grammar and clarity, but remain the works of the original authors. All the work done on behalf of the Project is done pro-bono.

Here is a particularly poignant excerpt from one of the pieces:

“Afghan women have wings for flying. Afghan women want to be free like other birds that fly into the blue sky. But ancient cultures and old thoughts have clipped their wings and, like birds alone in cages, they remain looking out, waiting to fly to the highest point in the sky.

“Afghan women quickly become old, their wishes carried with them to the grave. Still, their children remain, becoming brave women and men. Afghan women want their children to complete their wishes. Then the souls of Afghan women are happy.”

In addition to letting the voices of Afghan women be heard and instilling a sense of pride in them, the hope is that readers will gain a broader and deeper understanding of what life is like in Afghanistan for all its inhabitants.

Please take the time to leave a comment for the writers. They work in such isolation and under such difficult conditions that any feedback or commentary helps them know they are being heard and is greatly appreciated.

Donations are also welcomed for the purchasing of laptops and thumb drives for each of the Afghan women writers. They can then write in private where they will not attract undue attention and a sympathetic male can take the thumb drive to an Internet cafe and email their writings.

Here is a Fox news story about readings of these women’s writings done by professional actresses at the Museum of Tolerance.

Thursday Thoughts: Women In the Mosque

Last Thursday I wrote a post called “Muslim Feminism: Women at Prayer.” It was about a group of Muslim women who dared to pray in the men’s section (which is really the main hall of the mosque and should be open to every Muslim) as a sort of protest. Today I found an insightful article on altmuslimah which gives more background on the “pray-in.” I’ve recently had the privilege of getting to know Fatima Thompson, one of the women who participated in and who is interviewed about the protest. She is quoted as saying:

The Greensboro Four broke established, non-constitutional, yet explicit rules to break down the barrier of the implicit idea that blacks weren’t as privileged as whites…. and this is what we are doing with women’s rights in the mosque,” Thompson explained. “It’s implicit in the space available to women that they aren’t deserving of the same privileges as men in the mosque. It’s in the mindset.”

She added: ”Women need to be communicated with when designing mosques. Women are clearly cut off from being part of that community when they are corralled into areas that cut them off from congregational prayer.”

In the first woman-designed mosque in the world (in Istanbul), women are still separated from the men on a balustrade above the main hall (which is still reserved for the men), but the leading architect, Zeynep Fadillioglu, vows to make their area every bit as beautiful as the men’s. Too often, the women’s section is a dingy, neglected room behind a partition from which the women can’t even see and often can’t hear what is going on in the main hall. So, although there is still a separate space for women, it is integrated more fully into the mosque’s design. (For pictures of and more information about this mosque, go here.)

I was talking to a Muslim man last night to whom I confessed that I’ve only been to a mosque twice. He teased me, “Once women find out that they are not obligated to go to the mosque for jumaa (Friday) prayer, they stop going at all.” I couldn’t help but think that it might be because they dislike the experience they have when they do go. If Muslim men truly cared about the spiritual lives of Muslim women, you would think that they would want to do anything possible to make their mosque experience as uplifting as it is for the men.

Insha’allah.  (God willing.)

Read this article by the religion reporter for the Statesman, Joshunda Sanders, about her visit to a mosque.