On a road trip with an old friend of mine—another formerly conservative convert—we were listening to the radio as we were driving along. And, lo and behold, the issue of the day that the radio host was discussing with several invited guests was the burning question of… (drum roll…) whether or not “we still need feminism.” As soon as he announced the topic, my eyes started rolling. I guess that’s part of getting old—because as far back as I can remember the media has been dredging up this non-issue at least every few years, with wearying regularity. And these discussions never seem to resolve anything.
This particular discussion was no exception. One of the guests was a rightwing woman who spent most of the time repeating well-worn Tea Party-ish talking points: Yes, feminism sort of did a bit of good for women way waaaay back in the day, by getting women the right to own property and attend universities and vote… but then it went right off the rails, because it turned into a movement that is all about putting men down and demonizing them, while trying to make women superior instead of equal. Feminism (she said) denies the innate differences between men and women, and promotes women neglecting their husbands and children, while stigmatizing women who want to stay home instead of having a career. Women are weaker than men, and women should celebrate and embrace this rather than deny it. Oh, and feminism is also bad because it promotes abortions.
“Abortion is the sacrament of the feminist movement,” she declared firmly. The host seemed rather taken aback, and responded weakly that maybe perhaps feminism was still useful to women in other parts of the world who still lack equal rights, such as Saudi Arabia. Rightwing Woman answered that yes, feminists should really be working on issues such as honor killings, and she’d seen this film called Honor Diaries and she didn’t know why feminists won’t talk about things like that….
The other two guests got in a few good points, but also seemed to be taken aback by Rightwing Woman. They were mostly on the defensive, saying that she wasn’t fairly representing feminism or that they didn’t know any feminists who hate men or want to be superior to them, but they didn’t manage to say much about what feminism actually is. Part of the problem was in the way that the debate was set up, what with Rightwing Woman getting to speak first, and therefore to set the terms of what came after. Another issue at play was probably that the other two guests felt that they were in a no-win situation: If they forcefully countered her claims, they would be playing into the stereotypical image of bullying, intolerant feminists that she was presenting. If they didn’t, then they would come across as unable to refute them. So, they settled for relatively mild (and mostly ineffectual) efforts to reroute the conversation.
After the debate (such as it was) was done, my friend and I dissected it. Just so much about it had triggered us.
“Feminist” was a label that we had resisted having put on us by other Muslims, for years.
Conservative Muslim male leaders and opinion-makers never seemed to tire of telling us, and Muslim women in general, that feminism isn’t necessary.
We also hadn’t thought that feminism could have any room for us, even if we had wanted to identify as feminists.
Yet, once we finally came to the realization that not only we but our children were being harmed by the hyperconservative patriarchal religious lifestyle that we were then immersed in, it was social changes and institutions originating with feminism that made it possible for us to rebuild our lives.
When we converted back in the ’80’s, we had entered a conservative Muslim community that either ignored feminism as irrelevant, or used the word “feminist” as a synonym for “misled” or “troublemaker you’d best steer clear of.” Muslims (both born and convert) sometimes tried to pin the label “feminist” on us for doing things such as wanting to study fiqh or taking part in political activism. Such labelling was a way of othering and dismissing us as inauthentically Muslim, and so we vigorously resisted such attempts.
Because “feminism” and “feminist” were either dirty words in those circles, or a ridiculous joke. According to those people, feminism was about “women trying to be men” (and making themselves look ridiculous in the process…). It was rebellion against divine guidance. So, Muslim women couldn’t be feminists by definition. Those few (very few) Egyptian or Iranian or Turkish or Pakistani women with Muslim names who claimed to be feminists were just a few highly privileged taghootis who had been brainwashed by “the West” and whose aspirations bore no relation at all to any “authentic” Muslim woman in those countries… or even in North America.
Any feminist activism in Muslim communities must have been sponsored by “the West” as part of a “western” plot to undermine Islam. Nothing that any feminist had to say about Islam could possibly have any validity. Good Muslim women should definitely avoid reading anything by the likes of Nawaal Saadawi or Fatima Mernissi, because they would only be led astray. And why should Muslim women care about what feminists had to say anyway, when even in “the West” many women didn’t agree with them, and to the extent that feminist ideas had made any headway it was destroying the family and society?
These anti-feminist ideas were sometimes put into practice. I remember when Nawaal Saadawi came to a university near us to give a talk, and a bunch of Arab (though oddly enough, not Egyptian) Muslims came with the intention of disrupting it. A group of bearded men and hijabi women came in and sat near the back. As soon as it was question time, a bearded man stood up and jeered at her, saying, “You think you’re some kind of what, a leader? What Arab woman listens to you?” (The room was full of secular Arab women, who undoubtedly didn’t appreciate that.) Things deteriorated quickly after that, with Saadawi trying to make a point about the threat posed to Egyptian society by conservative religious opposition to women’s legal equality, and one of the hijabis yelling that she was wrong. Question period was quickly brought to a close. The conservative Muslims marched out triumphantly, apparently unaware that they had just lived up (down?) to the stereotypes about them that many in the audience already had.
(Years later, bearded dude would marry off his teenage daughters at the ripe old age of fifteen to men who were at least ten years older—and in North America, no less. His adamant opposition to Saadawi’s feminism was not just words. His conservative hijabi (born Muslim) wife left him some time after that, however, and one of the daughters managed to get a divorce, so there’s that.)
Behind Rightwing Woman’s sloganeering, I could hear two things: (1) “Feminists” (presumably, certain white middle class feminists who received a lot of media attention back in the day, such as Gloria Steinem or Germaine Greer?) don’t represent me and can’t speak for me, and (2) most “feminist” causes don’t have any connection to my life. And I can relate.
Many if not most of the self-identified feminists that we used to encounter back when we had been hyper-conservative, hijab-wearing Muslimas had been middle class urban white woman who apparently had little or no use for religion (except possibly for goddess spirituality or Wicca or maybe for radical feminist reinterpretations of Christianity or Judaism). Although they typically didn’t know much about Islam, they were prone to using references to Islam and Muslims as a convenient shorthand for “brutally patriarchal and oppressive.” So, they were either puzzled by us, or frankly dismissive. And we didn’t feel that they inhabited the same planet as we did, much less that they represented us.
Most ’80’s feminist debates didn’t seem to have much if any relevance to our lives, either. Pay equity? We aspired to being stay-at-home wives and mothers, not career women, and when we did work outside the home it was usually for Islamic organizations that could barely afford to pay their staff. Abortion rights? We were part of a strongly pronatalist community that didn’t usually talk about sex, and that promoted early marriage (especially for women) and idealized motherhood… and rarely acknowledged the existence of rape or incest or even medical reasons why abortion might be necessary.
Even the gains of first wave feminism back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries didn’t seem to have much to say to us. The right to vote? Of course we didn’t vote in kafir elections—no right-thinking Muslim man or woman should. Married women’s property rights? Islam gave those to women fourteen centuries ago, and anyway, we were always so poor that any money that we might earn or receive through gift or inheritance had to go straight to paying the rent, buying food, or providing other necessities for our families.
As long as our lives seemed to be holding together, as long as we could continue to believe that our sufferings made some sort of theological sense (aka that this is God’s will, and we will be rewarded for our patience in the hereafter), then we could believe the trite Muslim slogans that we sometimes heard bandied about: “Islam liberated women 1400 years ago.” “Hijab protects women from being treated as sex objects.” “Prophet Muhammad was the first feminist.”
We could delude ourselves into believing that even though women don’t have equal rights within marriage or equal access to divorce, that somehow everything works out equitably… until we came up against men who were determined to “get their Islamic rights” and community networks who supported them and not us. We looked to Islam and the conservative Muslims around us for support (as we had been taught to do…) but found little of it. My friend tried to get help from a Muslim women’s group that had been set up to aid Muslim women victims of domestic abuse, but when she called them she was told that her (abusive) situation was not really all that bad and that she just needed to try harder and be patient (!). A conservative sister who was employed by a secular feminist group counselled her (off the record) to return to her abusive husband and work things out with him. It was only when my friend called a secular women’s shelter that she was able to get the practical help that she needed.
Not that I would say that all is awesome with secular laws or feminist institutions, either. When I left my abusive marriage, in many ways I found myself caught between two systems, neither of which was going to help me, and both of which might be used to make my life very difficult.
The conservative Muslims around me mostly blamed me after I left him, and took his side. My Islamic marriage contract turned out to be worth less than the paper it was written on. Meanwhile, there was the risk that my ex might invoke secular law to prevent me from keeping the kids when I moved out of the jurisdiction due to having gotten a job (which had enabled me to leave him in the first place…), and to lay claim to part of my earnings, since he was barely working at that time. I was left with a mountain of debt in my name, that I had incurred to keep the whole family alive for the previous six years, that he absolutely refused to help repay even a penny of. My ex refused to divorce me either “Islamically” or civilly for several years after I left him. Once he did decide to divorce me (“Islamically,” as well as civilly), he threatened that if I tried to get any money out of him (whether for the debts, or child support), he would demand half my earnings and win. I couldn’t afford a lawyer, and really wanted a civil divorce so that I would no longer be tied to him or have to worry about him getting hold of my money, so I was pretty much compelled to agree to his terms. He sort of half-promised then to pay my mahr (which sure would have helped with paying the debt), but he now refuses, because I was “disobedient” (aka I walked out on him, when a Muslim woman is forbidden to leave the house without her husband’s consent). And yeah, his family as well as his conservative Muslim friends think that he is quite justified in refusing to pay my mahr.
So all in all, I’m rather ambivalent about some of the legal reforms that feminist legal activism has brought about in family law. What good are laws meant to protect you if you can’t afford a lawyer (while your ex has sympathetic lawyer friends who will help him)? What is the point of laws that appear on paper to be equal (such as those governing custody of children and division of assets), when deadbeat and vengeful ex-husbands can use them to punish their ex-wives and prevent them from moving on? (while meanwhile, vengeful ex-husband remarries and rebuilds a life for himself). Are these laws really only for the benefit of women of privilege—upper or upper-middle class, urban, mostly white, professional women who have supportive family networks or significant assets, who can afford lawyers and have the resources to navigate the legal system and make it work for them?
But still: we owe to feminism the very idea that we are entitled to a life that is about more than patiently enduring unhappy or abusive marriages “for the sake of Allah” and because “that’s our fate” (and so that we wouldn’t lose custody of our kids). That we exist for more than either living out some man’s fantasy of “the ideal Muslima” or being some man’s doormat (or both at the same time). That we are entitled to human rights, with no ifs and buts. That those heterosexist, cissexist pre-cut categories that people like me were raised with are cultural constructions, and those of us who don’t fit them are human beings who possess equal human rights too.
Yet, this promise of feminism is unfulfilled for a very large number of women right here in North America, to say nothing of elsewhere. Rightwing Woman (and the show’s host’s) notion that feminism is passe is an illusion that is only possible for a highly privileged subset of the population. But then, this sort of “feminism is so over” discourse is part of a wider set of rightwing discourses, which claim that not only do we no longer need feminism (if indeed we ever did), but that we also no longer need a whole long list of other things: discussions about racism much less antiracist activism, affirmative action, laws against racial discrimination, trade unions, welfare, the environmental movement… and so on and on.