by Alicia Izharuddin
Situating Muslim feminism in the bigger picture
Let’s face it, times are bad. Full-time and secure paid work are drying up, and real wages are not catching up with the rising prices of basic essentials. More adults in their 20s and 30s continue to live with their parents because it is too expensive to live on their own. Millennials have inherited a post-2008 global recession that never really recovered and an overpowering culture of debt. And now we welcome 2017 on a low note. We watch a car crash in slow motion as global superpowers and their leaders prove themselves to be devastatingly anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-peace. It will take a long time to offset the damage of their politics.
So what is the role of Muslim feminism during this period of cruelty and despair? Feminist-identified Muslim women of all ages are faced with challenges that crisscross faith and the secular arenas of their lives. It is time to connect the dots between different types of gender-based oppressions with those of male-dominated interpretations of religion. But being female and Muslim is not isolated from the economic and political reality either. In fact, the poor economic situation and political corruption have an impact on feminist and faith-based belief. The spiritual meaning of patience (sabar as being a component of one’s iman) and moral right or haqq are not used and reclaimed in the public discourse to alleviate the daily humiliations of Muslim women and non-normative people. Instead, sabar is distorted to justify domestic and national suffering. What is morally right becomes manipulated to condone the discrimination of women and people of non-normative genders and sexualities from attaining their full potential in the public sphere.
What does it mean to be young, Muslim and feminist today? For many young women, it means a whole new life; a commitment that transforms their way of thinking about the world, a new set of friends, and re-orientation of priorities manifested in their ambitions and daily practices. This commitment is synonymous with what is understood as ‘feminist consciousness’, a process of seeing the world from a gendered perspective and about being re-born as a feminist. However, the backlash that awaits them for articulating their feminist commitment is often hostile and violent. Rather than an apparatus and ideological framework for social justice, the iconoclastic demands of feminism are frequently judged as un-Islamic and inimical to local culture. Muslim feminism is not the default feminism for people who identify as feminist women and Muslim. When I conducted a focus group last September on what it means to be a Muslim feminist today, the responses I got were eye-opening: Muslim feminists are not entirely enamoured by the limits of ‘Muslim feminism’. Perhaps there is an assumption that being a Muslim feminist means looking at every feminist issue from a religiously-informed lens when not everything that is important to being a person is religious or Islamic.
Muslim feminism and Islamic feminism are not identical twins with inter-changeable names. Islamic feminism is concerned with the interpretation of Islam’s sacred text from an inclusive and feminist perspective. It involves a re-reading of texts that have justified domestic violence and the discrimination of women. It is about the reclaiming and rediscovery of women’s contributions to the sacred texts of Islam. It emphasises the lives of women in early Islam and how they may act as role models of Muslim women today. Ultimately, Islamic feminism becomes the framework to make Shariah laws better for women. If Islamic feminism places the sacred texts as its central concern, Muslim feminism considers the lived experiences of Muslim women and how they deal with issues that may not be enunciated in the sacred texts. And after many, many centuries and the speed of modernisation, the concerns of Muslims in 7th century Arabia will be very different from that of Muslim women in the 21st century. This is not say that the sacred texts are not important to Muslim feminists. They are and may in fact be the guiding light, but Muslim feminists take inspiration and develop their feminist identities from other sources which are either Islamic, secular, or from other faiths.
We are familiar with the idea that feminism is about gender equality and the push for more women and girls to be involved in public life, and that requires better opportunities in education and employment. Though in a reversal of fortune, young Muslim women in Malaysia today outnumber their male counterparts in higher education compared to their small numbers in the years preceding national independence and the early years of nationalist struggle and postcolonialism. A similar trend is found in parts of the Middle East. However, this is not a happy picture of female empowerment through education. Women in Malaysia still lag behind men as waged workers and are in several sectors, paid less than men. Short of a moral panic, the flood of university-educated Muslim women has caused some anxiety in the ‘marriage market’ as many women struggle to meet and marry men of commensurable qualifications and economic worth. Muslim women must walk on a tightrope of gender imbalances through the emphasis on modesty, hyperfemininity, and non-threatening behaviour to minimise resentment and fear of female economic and intellectual dominance.
There are, however, thinking spaces for young Muslim women to cultivate and nourish alternative femininities. Websites catered to progressive Muslim women (e.g. muslimgirl.com; altmuslimah.org; muslimahmediawatch.com), various Tumblr blogs and Youtube channels have become the primary sites not just for community-building but also for forging a sense of a Muslim feminist authentic self. These new spaces for creating Muslim feminist identities are occurring when more social pressures are created by creeping Islamisation in Malaysia. The creeping Islamisation coincides with multiple crises in Malaysia; the grand corruption of global proportions, the usurpation of the country’s constitution by Shariah law (with more damage to the racial and interfaith divide), and the re-inscription of iconic public spaces with masculine Islamic meaning.
Muslim feminism for Muslim masculinity
When Mohammad Shukri Saad jumped off the Penang Bridge in October 2016, he left behind a Facebook note that went viral. In the note, he explained the reason behind his suicide. Mohd Shukri had been a small-time trader of illegal cigarettes and was facing a court sentence that cost him thousands of ringgit that he did not have. He also had a young family that he struggled to support and had asked for his family and God’s forgiveness for taking his own life. Unlike the self-immolation of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohammad Bouazizi, Mohd Shukri’s death did not spark a revolution. It was not widely reported in the state-controlled media perhaps with the tacit purpose of silencing the discontent of the working poor. Through feminist analysis, we need to recognise that there are actually competing masculinities that vie for power, privilege, and hegemony in this tragedy. Mohd Shukri may have been a Malay Muslim man who belonged to the most privileged group in Malaysia but he was held down by other, more powerful, masculinities that exert their authority and domination through legislation, law enforcement, corporate leadership, and religious institutions. The masculinised inequality is laid bare behind the very reason he took his life: he was slapped with thousands of ringgit in bail for selling RM316 worth of black market cigarettes.
Muslim feminism has been largely silent on the role of men in dismantling patriarchy. Few Muslim men, too few in fact, have been vocal about renouncing their patriarchal privilege in the name of Islam. The reproduction of toxic masculinity and its effect on men lower down the social hierarchy can be devastating for both women and men. Women are the easiest targets of men’s frustrations created by an unattainable ideal masculinity during a time of political and economic crisis. When the Islamic faith appears to be one of the most important elements that define their identity, it makes sense to develop a Muslim feminism framework for the reconstruction of Muslim masculinity. It should involve the reassessment of Muslim men’s privilege and authority in Islam to reduce them (because in practice, men’s domineering ‘guardianship’ over their wives and female family members can be excessive).
But it is easier said than done. It isn’t always so easy to reconcile contemporary feminism’s ideals with an enlightened and anti-patriarchal reading of the Quran and hadith. For decades, feminist theorists have rejected the hierarchical gender binary and ‘sexual difference’ that are seen to be the root of women’s oppression. In a feminist utopia, there would be no traditional gender roles and gender would be an obsolete way of organising society. While feminists and queers today are moving away from binaries, binaries still remain the approach to gender relations in the Quran. From a theological perspective, equality is expressed in women and men’s spirituality; both are equal before God (for example, Surah 33, verse 35). However, in a Quranic passage that enjoins sexual discipline during Ramadan, God is actually speaking to men: ‘Lawful for you on the nights of the fasts is the approach to your wives. They are garments for you and you are garments for them’ (Surah 2, verse 187). Thus the Quran is not always consistent on equality as there are passages that direct men to allow women certain freedoms and refer to women as ‘they’ or ‘them’.
It is one thing to re-examine Islamic scripture to expose the patriarchal biases of privileged interpretations and quite another to introduce change in the social and political narratives that create inequalities in Muslim societies. Saudi Arabia has shown itself to be an oppressive state and exploits its status as the cradle of Islam and defender of the Sunni cause to detrimental effect on Shia Muslims and Yemen. As a nation with a ‘very high human development’ index, it has the lowest rates of women in waged labour participation and restrictions against women to drive, travel or appear anywhere solo, among many other things. In other words, Saudi women’s abilities and potential are curtailed and wasted.
There are many in Malaysia who’d argue that we are aping Saudi Arabia in its hardline and intolerant approach to religion and see no contradiction in rampant consumption and Islamic values. For better or worse, cultural exchange and transnational influences have occurred over centuries. This speaks to the extraordinarily global quality of Islam itself, its ability to adapt and be acculturated into diverse societies and cultures. The same goes for the transnationality of Muslim feminism and its power to develop solidarities while recognising privilege and degradations on the ground unique to particular Muslim societies. We need to be careful, as Saudi journalist Farah Abdulaziz Al-Sweel says, of the ‘sisterhood of traveling, one-size-fits-all, Anglophone McFeminism’, a decontexualised form of feminism that conceals its privileged, Western, Eurocentric, and imperialistic orientations. This means that Islamic practice and symbols have different meanings for women in different parts of the world; in places where the hijab is vilified, veiling becomes an act of resistance. In places, where veiling is strictly imposed, non-veiling is an expression of liberation.
If there is one thing that all feminists anywhere embrace, it is our emotions. Anger is a familiar emotion for many feminists. But anger is seen as a negative, unproductive emotion that constructs the feminist as a rabid and irrational character who cannot be taken seriously. When anger is exhausted and burnt out, feelings of hopelessness and despair may take over. But despair can become a source of radical flourishing. As the main targets of misogyny, transphobia, and heterosexism, women will feel inordinately feel much more despair during a time when sexism has won. When faced with so many forms of oppressions – found in the varieties of gender-based, economic, racialised, and faith-based oppressions – the struggle can seem lonely. It is easy to revert inwards when the going gets rough and internalise the struggle. However, personalising one’s feminist struggle without situating it within the wider structures of sexism, racism, and class-based oppression that underpin the history of our society makes a person’s despair seem unique when it actually isn’t.
It is therefore so important to put Muslim feminism back into the bigger picture and shine the light on how we are connected to other communities and to the global flow of people and ideas. Nearly every mundane thing will find its origins in a form of oppression, from buying fast but modest fashion and its direct links to poor working conditions of its female manufacturers to buying non-alcohol consumer products and cosmetics with palm oil that relies on the rapid deforestation in Malaysian and Indonesia resulting in a decline in biodiversity. Being a Muslim woman is an environmental, geopolitical and economic question that is beyond what is halal. Thus, looking at the bigger picture is not just a consideration of the present situation for Muslim feminism right now, but looking at how it has developed or not developed over time and why, and who it benefits.
Alicia Izharuddin is an academic at a public university in Kuala Lumpur where she teaches Gender Studies.