Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo. She is currently completing a graduate degree at Oxford University. In Aljazeera, she comments on the reasons why Eastern European Muslim women have not responded well to the efforts of a “western” feminist group to bring attention to feminism.
Because she is from Bulgaria, she knows the recent history of women in the region. Communists had forced them to abandon their religion and their traditional clothing and promised them “liberation” in return. What happened was that women lost the security of family and village and got nothing but poorly paying jobs in return. Now they see little reason to support a movement that derides their religion and its traditions. Petkov is particularly critical of a group of Ukrainiain women who bared their breasts to publicize feminist concerns.
Her article is perseptive, if hardly new. Even though the women she describes are not women of color, she addresses the problems that many Muslim women around the global have with feminism. And why feminist have a particular need to read books by Muslim women and other women of color.
Some quotes from her article
Eastern European and Western female and male self-professed “feminists” have taken up onto themselves to define what women’s liberation means and expect the rest of the world to agree. For them one of the first priorities is to have women wear whatever they want… as long as it is not a burqa or niqab (or even hijab) because these are so denigrating…
So do you see, Maryna, why when you extend your hand in solidarity with Muslim women, while mocking their values, there is no response from the other side? If you show no respect to the beliefs and cultural heritage of these women and their ideas of womanhood, why should they show any respect to yours?…
I think it is not difficult to decide which is more effective as an example of [Egyptian Muslim] women’s strength, fighting off stereotypes – women facing off with armed police, military and thugs who beat, torture, rape and kill – or a bunch of women who decide to take off their clothes for the media in a European capital.
Read her whole piece at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/profile/mariya-petkova.html
Bibliograph has posted fine review of Unity Dow’s Far and Beyon’ that includes a 20 minute video of Dow speaking on “Rethinking Africa.” Her ideas matter for those of us reading books by Global Women of Color. Check it out. It is so good, I want to include in my upcoming review of that book. See the video and her review at http://biblioglobal.wordpress.com/
In addition, I just posted a review of Drawing the Global Color Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. It’s not by or directly about global women of color, but very relevant to all who care about them. The book describes the specific ways that around 1900 white men around the world worked together to exclude define people of color as inferior and thus to exclude them form their governments and their countries.
I am not a Muslim woman nor an expert on their lives and religion. I am simply excited about what I have been reading and learning, and I want to share it with others.
Muslims feminists complain that US feminists, and those in other western countries, do not accept them as women with the right to retain their own religion and loyalties. They say that western women do not treat them as equals and expect them to blame their religion for all their woes. They also claim that we treat them all as if they were terrorists.
What can the rest of us do to correct this situation? For those of us who are not Muslims, we can start out by learning about their lives, histories, and beliefs. We can learn to tolerate and appreciate their religion and political loyalties even when they differ from our own.
First of all, we need to realize that today there are Muslim women everywhere. Historically they have clustered in the Middle East, along North Africa, and in Indonesia, but like so many people today large numbers have emigrated beyond their countries of origin. Some of the women of color living and writing in Europe and the USA, for example, are Muslims.
Next, Islam is not a single tradition, defined by its male leaders, despite those leaders’ attempts to claim the alligence of all Muslims. Since its beginning, Islam, like Christianity, has had a number of competing traditions. The Shite/Sunni division is only the latest to force itself into global attention. Different beliefs and practices are all claimed to be the authoritative one, but in reality none can speak for all.
Islam, as it is known and practiced by women has often been traditionally differed from that practiced by men. Traditionally, women have been excluded from leadership and from Friday prayers. Often devote, they have practiced their religion in their homes among themselves. Reading and hearing the Koran, they find evidence for the belief that they are essentially equal to the men even though they must obey them. Wearing the veil does not make women subservient, as some Westerners claim, but it can help them define themselves as separate from both the male world and outside world.
Suggested readings (with links to my reviews.)
Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed.
Ahmed is a fine scholar, born in Egypt and educated at Oxford. Her history of women and gender in Islam is definitive, readable, and fascinating. The sheer quality of her research convinces me that she is to be trusted. Not only is her book full of documentation and clear thinking, she put each period in the context of what other groups were doing that affected the Muslims. She points out, for example, that Christianity emerged from the same cultural mix as Islam and, at times, was more restrictive of women than Islam. She discusses how the British demonized the veil as repressive to women at the same time they closed schools for women. In response, the veil has become a popular symbol of rebellion against colonialism.
Border Crossing; From Cairo to America, by Leila Ahmed.
This memoir is a brief, thoughtful account of Ahmed’s life, including her own religious heritage and that of her family. It is memoir-writing at its best. In it she deliberately sets out to re-examine her own committments. Starting with her childhood in tolerant, cosmopolitan Cairo, she describes the different versions of Islam practiced by her scholarly father and her mother and sisters. She tell of being a dark-skinned woman in England in the 1960s, trying to ignore the racial and gender discrimination she faced. Then she writes about the importance of feminism in helping her identify the sources of obstacles in her life.
Arab & Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, & Belonging, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany and Nadine Naber.
An important, radical anthology of articles, poems, and stories in which Arab and Arab American feminists challenge the assumptions and practices of mainstream feminism and accuse them of not listening to or respecting outsiders. They proclaim their right to oppose US intervention in the Middle East and still be accepted as feminists.
Beyond the Veil, by Fatima Mernissi.
I have not read this book, but others I trust have found it useful in understanding Muslim women. I did read and review an earlier book of hers, Scheherazade Goes West, and was annoyed at how male-directed the author seemed to be.
Minaret, by Leila Abloulela. The best fictional narrative about how and why Islam is fullfilling for many women today, especially those away from their homelands. Other fiction I have read either presents Islam as a background for women’s lives or makes Islam as a totally negative force in their lives. Even Aboulela’s fine Lyrics Alley does not highlight religion as much Minaret.
Recently I have discovered several new sources for additional books by and about Global Women of Color that I would like to share.
International Women of Color Fiction, an older, but very extensive list of books, posted by Browngirlspeaks.
Women’s Fiction, a new email “A newspaper about fiction by and for women, featuring some of the best recent stories from the web.
Books by women, reviews and information about about women writers around the world.
The Ten Best Contemporary African Books, as chosen by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, deputy editor of Granta Magazine. Published by The Guardian/Observer, Saturday 25 August 2012. (You may not agree these are the very best, but the list has a good selection of books by women that you may want to check, including one I just loved and reviewed, Lyrics Alley, by
Sorry that I dropped from sight again. I developed problems after my recent eye surgery, and visits to specialists four hours away left me absolutely exhausted. All is well now. I am glorying in my improved sight, and my energy is gradually returning.