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.