by Ari Burton
(originally published in hoax zine)
The first book I ever bought on Islamic feminism sits on the shelf adjacent to the bed in my childhood room. Its maroon cover is subsumed by the mountain of books piled on top of it in order to maximize shelf space. I remember the amalgamation of tan lettering that forms the title without even having to pull it off the shelf; In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. It marks my adolescent forays into feminist theory, the excitement which bounced off the walls of my pubescent soul at having discovered women’s liberation. No longer did I feel like the overly-radical black outcast plopped smack dab in white quasi-Republican suburbia. Other people in the world wanted to talk about gender equality instead of occasionally yelling “girl power” because the Spice Girls made it trendy for little white girls to coyfully bite back at patriarchy all while still falling into the same fucked up mousetraps of beauty standards and sexist ideals. This book was one of many which helped me feel less alone, despite having never actually read it.
Now, two days away from marking a month of living as a Muslim woman, I want nothing more than to throw it away. I want to send it packing along with its literary compatriots whose pages embark on Christopher Columbus-eque missions, charting boats made of words and punctuation marks into this new, unfamiliar world called Islamic feminism. I want to stop the boots of these intellectual conquistadors from leaving their footprints on land they have very little business treading, because their manifest mission isn’t to understand how Muslim feminist movements fit into the frameworks of the societies they exist in, but to find reflections of white western feminist ideals transplanted in an unexpected geographic locale. They want to find a Rose the River with a “Middle Eastern” name who carries the banner of “Yes We Can” in her own native language. They want to delight in these “oppressed” women challenging the patriarchal conventions placed over their niqab covered heads by readings great works such as Lolita and The Feminine Mystique, books that theoretically demonstrate a liberated person in the same western imagination which still sees that part of the world as being backwards and behind. They want to see these women burn their burkas in place of bras, don power suits or pants, and blast Middle eastern reduxes of riot-grrl music in their eco-friendly compact cars to show the world that feminism has come to the war-torn, poverty-stricken, patriarchal sand dunes.
Essentially feminists like Fernea have no vested interest in actual Islamic feminism and its visibility in the global fight for gender egalitarianism. Their scholarship masquerades under the guise of expose journalism, purportedly shedding light on what is thought to be a great oxymoron. They hop international flights seeking to understand this great unknown, returning to the west with their own feminist ethnographies meant to aid others in the “holistic” study of women and gender in the academic sphere. In reality they merely want to look in a trans-planted mirror and see themselves.
For a genre which claims to bring about higher levels of visibility, the scholarship of white western feminists seeking to understand Islamic feminism does the complete opposite. This genre of scholarship is not about Islamic feminists and how they navigate the tensions of their world to their individual identities. Readers who pick up these books will be hard-pressed to find Islamic feminists speaking from their own voices. These are not edited anthologies where women are given the page space to discuss themselves in the context of their political movement, their personal lives and the global fight for gender egalitarianism. Instead they are regulated to the space inside the occasional set of quotation marks and the descriptions which are supposed to provide context to the commentary. Much like the book and movie The Help, the portrays of these women are about as dimensional as matzah bread and continually imposes their western feminist paradigm onto the lived experience while using these women’s voices as validation.
This type of scholarship has not only made a severe mockery of Islamic feminism by regulating its participants and their stories to side show status, but it has effectively succeeded in putting a distinct face on an entire movement of people. Islamic feminist in this purview does not mean a women-identified Muslim who believes in ideas of gender egalitarianism, but generally an Arab woman living in a Muslim country fighting that society’s patriarchal standards and working to be more liberated in line with her western sisters in the struggle. She is shucking away the husks of her backward, oppressive, religious society and stepping into the sunshine of modernity to warm and tan her kernels. She is the face of Islamic feminism, a cardboard cutout concocted by the chimerical imaginations of western feminists who refuse to believe global gender egalitarianism can come if women make different choices than those who identify with the feminist movement living in America. She plays into the notion that a monolithic global movement is the only way to progress, and people in the developing world would be wise to hop on the band-wagon before others have to come in and save them. She silences the voices of those who believe in gender egalitarianism but are not Arab and living in Middle Eastern Muslim societies. Her existence as a fantasy character for which western feminism gets to role-play signals to a larger problem about the relationship to academic scholarship and the Muslim world, that Muslim is automatically connotated with Arab Middle Easterners, and the analytic frameworks built around them is supposed to trickle down to the rest of the Muslim world.
I can honestly say as a queer Muslim womanist, the scholarship surrounding Arab Muslim feminists has fuck all to do with me. That cardboard cutout circulating as the face of global Islamic feminism doesn’t speak for me. She doesn’t speak for the African diasporic Muslim women who are forming their own relationships with gender egalitarianism in the worlds they live in and the Muslim spaces they navigate. She doesn’t speak for the ways in which gender egalitarian movements manifest themselves in predominately Muslim African countries which are non-Arab and the specific challenges they face. She only flushes our experiences out of existence and into a sea of other non-Arab Muslim folk who believe in the gender egalitarian movement but are not given the space to speak for themselves.
She’ll never speak for me as a Muslim womanist because in my mind the two geographic locals and their gender struggles hardly apply to each other. I don’t live under Shar’ia law, but instead a constitutional framework masquerading as secular but still taking its kickbacks from the Bible and the people who thump it. I do not engage with western institutions and notions of modernity because I think they are ideal, but because its what’s necessary to survive in the United States of America. I refuse to leave this country because in my mind colonization has pretty much wrecked the collective minds and memories of the global world to the point where the majority are all grindin to try and fit this framework which is finally crumbling in the western world. There really is nowhere else to go, and even if there was I refuse let this place fall to the descendants of dogs. My ancestors helped built this motherfucker, built a legacy of upward social mobility while still paying their dues to social justice, and I’ll be damned if I get run off simply because some foolish fucks wanna be a post-racial society that subsequently decimates its populations of color all over again.
Most importantly, I do not need the likes of white western feminism to have a fetishizing pity party on my behalf for simply being brown, modest, and religious. I made the choice to convert to Islam, made the choice to be modest and doing so didn’t invalidate my capability to make other choices. I didn’t loose the ability to speak for myself, which means I don’t need somebody who is unfamiliar with the intersections of my identities to take a Richard Burton voyage into the depths of my world and my soul only to come out with a more shallow understanding than they previously had in the first place.
I am just as verbose, crass, moderately unapologetic, cynical, and sarcastic as ever. I can speak for myself, yell for myself and rage for myself. I don’t need this body of scholarship to speak on my behalf and dissect my issues like an unsuspecting frog in a 6th grade science classroom. I need scholars like Fernea who think they are doing people like me a favor to take all of the seats. And if they need help finding one, maybe my poor little oppressed brown brain can muster up the mental faculties enough to line some up in an interesting formation so they feel as though they have a choice.
hoax is a feminist collaborative zine attempting to find the connections between us despite our differences. it is co-edited by sari & rachel and kept alive by numerous contributors and people like you! feminists of all backgrounds & genders are encouraged to submit to this zine!
To order hoax 7 (where this article was first published) or back issues please visit their Etsy shop.