Photo: Amanda Kerdahi Matt
Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship. Over the last two decades, scholars and activists have questioned the western credentials of feminism and claimed justice as a purpose and possibility that can be captured via religious routes. Religion provides women with an ethical framework and a moral foundation that recognizes their rights as individuals and as a collective, albeit redefining equality in the process. The mosque movement in Egypt has empowered women to find dignity, companionship and comfort through piety and conformity to a religious ideal and challenge the less-than-perfect world around them. Moreover by engaging with religion, Muslim women are able to redefine the tenets that have endowed Islam with an unnecessary bias for men; one which feminist scholars of Islam are certain is antithetical to the spirit and philosophy of our religion.
It is indeed timely to enrich the public debate on democracy, Islam, human rights, women’s empowerment and many other issues concerned with the social contract, and its reform. The social contract is continually in the making in any society, as much as democracy is itself a continuous process with no clear cut end. In my reflection, I would like to go beyond gender and feminism and address the issue of secularization of the public sphere and public debate.
Hania’s piece recalls the classic secularist stance that faith should not intervene in politics, and that it should be contained in private. This view is lately becoming widely contested. In this reply, I argue that in the context in which these debates are taking place the ‘national state’ is not a passive observer of the development of a hegemonic religion but, in its rivalry with strong political movements in opposition, is acting to use and instrumentalise religion to spread its hegemonic power, thus enforcing religion as the basis for political legitimacy.
I hear you saying two main things: First, feminists (in this case Egyptian) are making a mistake when they use religious terms of reference to advance their agenda of gender justice. You argue that when Egyptian feminism, as a political project, makes such instrumental use of religion, it can never win the contest of authenticity since different religious interpretations can make equally successful claims to truth, yet some of these interpretations may sanction the very same gendered forms of injustice that the feminist project is struggling against. Second, you seem to be saying that it is problematic when ‘standardized religious teachings’ become the public standards upon which people are expected to make their life decisions and are accordingly judged.
Hania Sholkamy begins: ‘Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship’, and goes on to warn us of the perils of faith-based feminism. While concurring with the essence of her critique of political Islam’s gender discourse, I suggest that the ‘troubled relationship’ has changed, and this change is actually due to the rise of political Islam, which has opened a dialogue between feminism and Islam.
The views expressed in this article are astutely insightful and courageous. They are badly needed to break the hegemonic discourse of celebrating the religious as the only participatory, emancipatory and indigenous path to realizing rights for women living in contexts where religion plays a salient role in their lives and the lives of their communities. These views are brave because of the particular political-historical conjuncture in which they are expressed: a post-9/11 world in which Islamophobia and reactionary religious forces simultaneously thrive. Feminists aware of the prevalence of orientalist and racist discourses on women living in the Muslim world are wary of writing critically on the negative dimensions of religion, out of fear of feeding into or being interpreted as Islamophobic.
I have read with interest Hania Sholkamy’s essay on Islam and Feminism and accompanying responses from scholars in different disciplines. I would like to enter the conversation as a historian.
Sholkamy starts her essay with the assertion that ‘Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship’. Let’s unpack this. The patriarchal representation of Islam, or as its advocates put it, “Islam” has indeed been troubled by feminism. And feminism has been troubled by patriarchal incursions into Islam. From the moment Muslim women began to articulate their feminism they drew inspiration from Islam - the Islam that challenged the patriarchy of the society into which it was introduced and societies into which it spread. With this version and vision of Islam it can be affirmed that that ‘Islam and feminism have had a positive relationship’.
I write to respond to some of the astute points made by commentators on my original essay. I thank them for taking the time to read and respond to what is basically a ‘cri de coeur’ from a Muslim middle class woman trying to explain why the homogenization and hegemony of religion as a framework for political choices is not as ‘safe’ and liberating as it is being projected.