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Nepantla: Views from South 1.1 (2000) 91-110

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Multiple Critique:
Islamic Feminist Rhetorical Strategies

miriam cooke

The authors of the 1998 Sisterhood Is Global Institute manual for the elimination of violence against women and girls in Muslim societies declare: “The most important feature of contemporary Muslim women’s struggle for rights is that they reject the proposition that they cannot be both free and equal with men and good Muslims at the same time. This they deny. On the contrary, they insist that a woman becomes an authentic Muslim only when she has achieved freedom and equality as an individual and citizen” (Afkhami, Nemiroff, and Vazir 1998, 7). Some Muslim women today are claiming the right to freedom and equality with men at a time when they seem to the outsider to be so far from both. In this essay, I shall identify who these women are and how they are constructing new identities and negotiating a new presence in places where before they had been invisible.

Social, economic, military, and political failures in postcolonial Arab countries have galvanized reactionary religious responses to Western domination and globalization and the corrupt values they are thought to spread. Islamist groups from Morocco to Bahrain are calling for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by Islamically sanctioned gender norms and values. How and why are women dealing with the growing conservatism in their communities? How do Islamic feminists adapt their convictions that women have certain rights with the perceived need to subsume them to the community interest? How will the ways in which they [End Page 91] position themselves to assert responsibility for the construction of their own new religious identity change the face of Islam?

Why do I use the word feminism when many object to its Western, activist, and even separatist associations? I do so because I believe that feminism is much more than an ideology driving organized political movements. It is above all an attitude, a frame of mind that highlights the role of gender in understanding the organization of society. Feminism provides the analytical tools for assessing how expectations for men’s and women’s behavior have led to unjust situations, particularly but not necessarily only for women. Feminism provides a crosscultural prism through which to identify moments of awareness that something is wrong in the expectations for women’s treatment or behavior, of rejection of such expectations, and of activism to effect some kind of change.

None of these three terms is teleological. They are not progressive stages that culminate in their totality. Put otherwise, the activist has not necessarily first understood how the situation she is working to change has been damaging to women. She may never have said no to anyone before she joined a movement. Activism might precede awareness. So might rejection. Awareness might never develop beyond itself; rejection might never be informed by a specific agenda. Activism might never pass through the negativity of rejection and remain positive and focused on constructing new systems.

If feminism can be many changing states of consciousness, each reflecting women’s understanding of themselves and their situations as related to their social and biological conditions, then it is not bound to one culture. It is no more Arab than it is American, no more Mediterranean than it is Northern European. Feminism seeks justice wherever it can find it. It is this definition of feminism that I am using.

Islamic Feminist Rhetoric

Most Muslim women would reject the term feminist as Western and neoimperialist. Some Western feminists, on the other hand, will reject outright the possibility of women working subversively within a deeply patriarchal institution. However, the separatist option they advocate would likely change little while they create their alternative, segregated, and probably irrelevant worlds. Separatism is not an option for Islamic feminists who believe in the possibility of creating the conditions in which multiple identities, including the religious, can coexist in safety and with dignity. [End Page 92]

Islamic feminists are choosing to work within the systems that are trying to marginalize them. Is it not more...