- The Depth and Weight of Feminist Studies in Islam:A Response to “The Evolution of Feminist Studies in Religion”
Gina Messina-Dysert’s “The Evolution of Feminist Studies in Religion” astutely chronicles developments in the field and the exciting ways technology is expanding its reach. While there is much in her article that applies to feminist studies in any religion, there are notable points of departure for feminist studies in Islam. Muslim feminists are making profound strides through academia and online platforms, but we face significant challenges of our own, including those surrounding the impact of technology. As we confront these challenges, ongoing goals for all feminists should include finding greater and more meaningful [End Page 149] ways of collaboration, and honoring principles of intersectionality and inclusiveness.
The extent of Muslim women’s exclusion from both religious and feminist spheres is profound. Muslim apologists emphasize the rights given to women in the Qur’an, but Muslim religious spaces, interpretive tradition, and jurisprudence have been decidedly the province of men. The dominant exegeses have all been produced by men, such that “men and men’s experience were included and women and women’s experiences were either excluded or interpreted through the male vision, perspective, desire or needs of women.”1 Prescribed prayers are led almost exclusively by male imams. When Amina Wadud became the first woman to lead a mixed-gender Muslim prayer in the United States, the organizers couldn’t find a single mosque willing to hold the event and faced threats of violence.2 The vast majority of prayer halls are gender separated, and both mosque and religious organizational boards remain largely male. Female Muslim speakers at religious conferences are so rare that lists of women scholars and speakers frequently circulate on Twitter, with pleas for inclusion. Women’s voices, especially Muslim feminist voices, in traditional Muslim spaces have been anything but amplified.
Similarly, Muslim women have often felt marginalized by Western feminists. Part of this exclusion may be informed by Western feminism’s tendency to embrace and elevate secularism. But of the patriarchal religions, Islam is often viewed as the worst offender, and its women as the most in need of saving. Muslim women are often seen as the target of Western feminism as opposed to equal participants in Western feminist movements. Even within religious-based feminist endeavors, Muslim women are often tokenized and “treated like native informants of a foreign religion rather than being stimulated and constructively challenged.”3
Additionally, Muslim feminists disproportionately suffer the weight of geopolitical forces compared to other feminists. Islam is practiced in large parts of the world impacted by Western foreign policy and hegemony. In ostensible defense of women’s rights, Western nations have used imagery of oppressed Muslim women to seek moral cover for military interventions in Muslim lands and taken efforts to ban traditional Muslim clothing. The fact that feminism is seen as a Western construct and that much Islamic feminist discourse takes place in English contributes to the conflation between Western feminism and [End Page 150] Western foreign policy.4 As a result, “many Muslims have come to associate feminism with imperialist violence.”5
The Internet magnifies this association. For example, viral images of FEMEN activists baring their breasts to “save” Muslim women reinforce the disconnect between Western feminism and the lived experience of many Muslim women. As Asma Barlas notes, “Islam is the only religion in the world . . . dominated to such an extent by those who don’t belong to it or believe in it.”6 The geopolitical environment in which feminism often arrives on the shores of Muslim-majority countries—either literally through military, diplomatic, or humanitarian missions, or figuratively through the media and the Internet—contributes to a backlash against feminism among many Muslims.
These challenges for Muslim feminists are complex and sometimes overwhelming. And yet they have been met by impressive and inspirational scholars. As Messina-Dysert notes, print continues to be relevant for the field of feminist studies in religion, and this is certainly true for Muslim feminists. Much of the first wave of Muslim feminism came in book-length work and scholarly articles and with such success that “feminist scholarship...