Response from Hania Sholkamy

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.

My essay is a critique of western development discourses and analysts, who think they have found the key to hearts and minds in the region, and that this key is ensconced in a religious box. With this key we can open shortcuts to development destinations, such as educating girls, or stopping FGM, or smoking and also promoting democracy. I am in no way doubting the ability of religion to “renew religion”. I am just not sure that it is a good idea for social and gender development to take this short route through the world of faith, to the exclusion of other alternatives.

Analysts have tried to salvage the right to religious identity from the fall-out of colonialisms and the mutations to agency and identity that have resulted from invasion and imperialism (Assad, Al Naim, Mahmoud, Said). They have un-masked orientalism’s ability to create fictitious oppositions of the religious and the secular, the eastern and the western, the old and the new, the conservative and the liberal, the free and the oppressed and myriad other polarities that have cast Islam as a force that is antithetical to change and progress. Thanks to these writers, we can now transcend this unfortunate state of analytical confusion and move our thinking ahead. It would be a shame to linger on the travesty of western vandalization of Islam’s heritage, followers and tenets. Unfortunately we seem not to be able to move our thinking beyond historical mistakes.

My essay is not about faith-based feminism, but is a commentary on faith-based populism and its allure and attraction to activists and analysts. It is difficult to resist this particular temptation, for who can afford to lose the crowd or resist popularity? The nuanced argument made by Mir-Hosseini notes that both feminism and Islam need to be un-packed and understood in terms of their contexts and actions. Feminism is prone to ‘un-packing’, as it remains, as she notes, an epistemological project that inspires critique and contemplation. Islam as faith is also a profound ontological and epistemological framework and frame of being. But when used as an instrument to affect political change it is ‘packed’ and bundled into a simple common and homogenized package that does not invite reflection or review. It is this rendition of institutionalized religion that I urge feminists and gender activists to avoid.

This article is, then, not about secular versus religious feminism. It is about the dangers of instrumentalization and its consequences. I wholly agree that ‘din’ meaning faith and religion meaning the institutionalization of faith are different domains and have tried to assert this distinction in the original essay. Scholars criticize the ‘internalization’ of faith that has happened in western contexts and call for collective actions and identities inspired by faith in a religion. This is not the stance that I critique. I am questioning the sanctity of religious institutions and the placement of holy aura on human interests and projects.

I am referring to the elision between the sanctity of faith and the historical and social construction of policy based on ‘fiqh’ (interpretation). Islamic feminism or the opposition within is a very important and powerful project for its proponents and participants but it is not the only project that addresses gender justice, nor should it be. My essay suggests a distinction between the importance of this authentic and authoritative project and its potential to become a hegemonic one. Orientalism has pushed us into this corner whereby we are either religious or secular. It has forced upon us a mentality of ‘consequences’, whereby we have to live with many consequences and derivatives of a primary identification with religion or its supposed opposite – that is, secularism.

Women need to reject these appositions in which faith is defined as a particular set of codes and choices. Hierarchies of gender can operate in both religious and secular spaces. And patriarchy can operate in either domain. I am defeated as Mir-Hosseini noted but not by the pressure of choosing between religions or secular feminism. I am disheartened by the persistent need to package, simplify and deliver development at any cost. I am worried by the ability of ‘mushy’ and mistaken ideas and ideals to crowd out critical thinking.

I note that enlightenment is not ‘western’ and justice is not the preserve of a culture. I state that patriarchy can adjust to the power of the sacred, or the push of the profane. I believe that faith can inspire us collectively, and not just condition us as individuals, but that faith offers broad outlines that are distinct from their specific, historical, and political interpretations. Finally I think that peoples and cultures are socially and historically constituted but that any ideology that aims to magnify differences between sexes, locations, ethnicities or histories so as to exercise power or privilege and precipitate a sense of specificity or distinction is a mistaken one and is certainly not friendly to feminism, the moral project with which I identify.

Hania Sholkamy
Social Research Center, American University Cairo

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