Within A few minutes of arriving to pick up my professionally bound thesis, I found myself on the receiving end of a request, and impenetrable rant about genital mutilation.
“What is your role?” the shop owner asked.
“It’s about Muslim women and …,” I began, but before I could finish my sentence, had been launched in the topic.
The fact that I had not even mentioned the words “female genital mutilation” was irrelevant; the mere fact of saying “the Muslim woman”, was wide enough rabbit hole for him to dart down. My presence as a Muslim woman and my half-delivered issue were the only encouragement he needed.
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That felt authorized to deliver a lecture to me about your understanding of the putative treatment-sexist women in Islam, the object of my long years of Doctoral thesis, I was not surprised. This was not the first time that a stranger had felt the right to increase the potential of religious interference of my genitals with me.
It is amazing how often people try to demonstrate their concern about the alleged oppression of Muslim women by humiliating them. Even finding the details of my research findings does not seem to deter from nerve, of exchange of views.
I have been asked, challenged, harangued and abused on “Islam’s treatment of women” countless times
When I was neck-deep in my doctoral research, I attended a black tie journalism of the industry dinner on a windy Sydney night. Some of Australia’s most intelligent and perceptive thinkers were in the well-dressed crowd. I had become accustomed to answering questions about my topic. I, too, had grown quite used to the standard of the responses that I have received for my thesis, and habitually gave ambiguous answers to avoid them.
A well-known and popular journalist came up to me and asked me what I did for a living. His reaction, in spite of belonging to a group of people generally known for their cognitive skills, it was so representative that I have scribbled on a dinner napkin as soon as he left so that I will not forget a word:
Journalist: So what do we do?
I: I’m going to complete my Phd.
Me: (purposefully vague) Sociology and politics.
Reporter: But, what is your exact research question?
Me: (inward sigh at what was inevitably to follow, but bravely indifferent outside) I’m researching the way Muslim women fight sexism within the Muslim communities.
Reporter: (with widened, alarmed eyes) That the dangerous waters!
Me: (through gritted teeth) Not really. Has been happening for many hundreds of years, and I’ve been spoiled for choice with the number of women who have been willing to be participants of my research.
Journalist: do you want to know what they were doing? Or did they need to be kept in secret?
Me: (icy frustration descends into Arctic winter) Oh, many of them were happy to be identified in my research. In fact, some were angry when he suggested I give them a pseudonym, insisting that he wanted to be known for this work.
Reporter: (now quite surprised) But … but, do their husbands know of their apostasy?!
Me: (choosing to ignore the use of the “apostasy” as the eyes take in glaciers sheen) in Reality, many of the women listed their husbands, or to another Muslim, man – like his father or imam – as their biggest fans.
Reporter: (now, literally, without words) …
I’ve had similar exchanges — too many to count with the non-Muslims in the course of my research. Common is the firm conviction that the sexism against Muslim women is rife, most of the times, along with the absolute disbelief that the women who defy sexism could exist, let’s say that there are many of them, that they are not a new phenomenon, and that Muslim men often support them in their efforts. I often wonder how people can be so comfortable that exhibit these attitudes directly to me, clearly identifiable Muslim woman in a hijab. They do not appear at all uneasy in that it is clear how bad you think life is for any and all Muslim women, and how unengaged they believe that Muslim women are to be to confront the sexism, invariably face.
I have received similar, but different, reactions within some sections of the diverse Muslim communities when they discovered the focus of my research. I often like to be deliberately vague when talking about my issue with them, also. I would like to restrict the same to say that I was researching “the Muslim woman”, and not to emphasize the “fight against sexism” part, as it is not a complicated process, often suspicious attitude towards something that can be perceived as “feminism” within the Muslim communities. Or I would rush to reassure them that I was not framed in an anti-religious perspective.
Your skepticism is perhaps an understandable reaction from a minority community that often feels under siege, especially when it comes to the rights of women. I was hoping the fact that my research was conducted from within a common faith, and who pointed out explicitly and deeply on the theological meaning of the resources provided by this, said that I, unlike many others, was not to participate in an attack to the faith and to the communities that are maintained with loving care.
But still certain people within the Muslim community were scornful, rolling his eyes and calls me a feminist — not as a compliment, but a warning. They saw feminism and Islam as inherently at odds.
This is the terrain in which my research on Muslim women occurred. The theme is loaded on several fronts; the issue of “Muslim women and the sexism” is a minefield of unflappable certitude and outrage from all corners. However, for something about which so many people are firmly secure, I feel that there is very little information of the women actually involved. It seems to me that, in the argument that Muslim women are the battlefield, the war goes on, and the angry accusations zing past their heads on all sides. The main victim is, ironically, the women of the self-determination.
Islam is, arguably, the most discussed religion in the west today, in both the media and the society, and, after the terrorism, the situation of Muslim women is probably the most controversial topic of debate. I have been asked, challenged, harangued and abused on “Islam’s treatment of women” countless times in person and online. However, there is only a small amount of published work on the topic of Muslim women fight against the sexism within the Muslim communities, and much of it focuses on women who see Islam as an inherent part of the problem — if not the whole problem — that Muslim women face.
The assumption is that Muslim women should be off of religion completely before anything close to liberation or equality can be achieved.
There is limited sociological accounts of Muslim women who fight against sexism from the faith point of view positive, and only a handful of studies that investigate the theological works of some Muslim feminists. The responses and motivations of these women are treated with coincidentally, in contradistinction to mainly. This small group of available resources clashes with what I know anecdotally to be happening in many Muslim communities, as well as historical accounts of Muslim women who, since the early days of Islam, has been a challenge the sexism that they have experienced through the use of religious arguments.
For years I have been talking about issues related to Islam, Muslims and gender for the media, both in Australia and overseas. In a sense I choose this, but in another it has been chosen for me, moulded by the way in which others attempt to define and restrict me, more or less compels me to respond.
It is a common story. Jasmin Zine, a Canadian expert, once observed that not only our actions, but also our own identities are constantly in the form of a double, of the competence of the discourses that surround us. There is the fundamentalism, patriarchal narrative, persistently trying to limit the social and the public life of Muslim women in line with the type of narrow, gender parameters, which are by now so familiar. But there are also some western feminist discourses that seek to define our identity in ways that are very neocolonial: backward, oppressed, with no hope of release other than to emulate what the western notions of women that are on offer. This wedge chimes with my experience, and this is a problem because, as Zine argues, both arms to deny the Muslim women of the ability — indeed, the right to define our identity for ourselves, and especially to do so within the immense possibilities of Islam.
It is as if the male Muslim scholars and non-Muslim western feminists have been transmitted predetermined sequences of commands for us to live by. And it leaves those people who believe that there are no — Muslim women who fight against sexism — rewrite the scenarios and to recover our identity.
• This is an edited excerpt of the Fight Hislam: the Women, Faith and Sexism by Susan Carland, now through Melbourne University Press