Feminism and Islam

The Larger Picture

by Leila Ahmed

THE TWO INTERTWINED THEMES this film explores, of women’s place in the mosque in Morgantown (and implicitly of course of women’s place in Islam) and of Asra Nomani’s activism, raise a host of interesting and important questions.

Ostensibly, of course, the principle issues the film raises relate to the topic of “Islam and feminism.”  In fact, though, the most interesting and important issues it invites us to reflect on I believe are those regarding the conditions in which we ourselves all live today in America, whatever our faith or no-faith, and the norms and assumptions that surround our lives.

Asra Nomani outside the Morgantown mosque

It is these particular conditions, conditions deeply marked by the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath, that form the foundational context of the story which this film narrates, and it is these conditions, along with the story the film recounts, that are most worthy of reflection.

As Nomani tells us in her book (as well as in the film) her work as a committed Muslim and feminist began in 2002 when, in the wake of the murder of her friend Daniel Pearl in January 2002, and feeling “very much at odds with my religion” she set out to “sort out” its “contradictions” as regards its apparent endorsement of violence and its tolerance and indeed even endorsement, as Nomani believed, of grave injustices towards women.

IN THE LAST MONTHS OF 2001 the issue of the plight of women in Islam and Islam’s appalling “oppression” of women — along with Islam’s apparent proclivity for violence — were subjects that were on the minds of many in America.  For a good many months as we went to war with Afghanistan the subject of women in Islam was a topic repeatedly featured in the media.  Films and documentaries showing the sufferings of Afghan women under the Taliban were played and replayed on television.  Our war against the Taliban was often portrayed as a war that was in part being fought for the cause of liberating Muslim women from the Taliban and their abusive treatment of women, treatment meted out in the name of Islam.

For many Muslims across the world today, in this era when women in many Muslim-majority countries have had the right to vote for nearly half a century or more (longer in some places such as Turkey, where women got the vote only a few years after American women got it) the Taliban’s claim that the crimes they were perpetrating represented correct Islam was not only ludicrous but also offensive.  Here in America, however, where the majority of people are naturally unfamiliar with the broad history of Islam and women, the recurring media stories of Taliban oppression of women for the most part simply confirmed earlier notions — notions inherited from old imperial Europe — about Islam’s particularly appalling treatment of women.

Throughout those first months of war, images of women throwing off their burkas as American troops liberated their towns from the Taliban became emblematic in the media of American victories and of our liberation of Afghan women.  Saving women from the Taliban and from “Islamic” oppression gave many people a sense of the deeply ethical groundings of this war.  The theme of liberating the women of Islam through our wars continued to figure into the media coverage even of the Iraq war, despite the fact that Iraqi women — although indeed suffering under Saddam Husain’s regime along with Iraqi men — had been for decades now among the most highly educated, liberated and professionally active women in the Middle East.

SUCH WAS THE CONTEXT and this was the time, as images of women’s “oppression” in Islam were inundating our society, that Nomani committed herself to the work of struggling to reform her faith and her local mosque.  Within just a couple of years of Nomani publishing her story a slew of other books appeared whose central themes similarly confirmed, even more forcefully than Nomani, the widespread belief in America of Islam’s particularly appalling “oppression” of women.  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi appeared in 2003 as did also Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam, and Ayan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin appeared in 2006.  All offered a starkly bleak view of Islam and women, and all became instant best-sellers: perhaps in part because they helped assuage people’s uneasiness with the wars that we Americans were now so deeply enmeshed in and seemed implicitly to offer confirmation that these wars were indeed necessary and fought for a good cause.

Such was the environment in which Nomani and other American Muslims found themselves.  For the young in particular, coming of age in a time when the daily news consistently cast so dark a light on key aspects of their religious heritage and identity could not have been easy.  For many in Nomani’s cohort of young professionals, these surrounding conditions caused tremendous angst and sparked intense debate and discussion as well as a variety of creative responses.  It was in these times for example that, in addition to the publication of the books I already mentioned, the Web site Muslim Wake Up! was launched, dedicated to providing a venue for the younger generation of American Muslims to freely air their concerns and grievances and to critique Islam however they saw fit.  A young filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, made a film in 2005 called Me and the Mosque (2005) exploring much the same issues as Nomani explored of women’s marginalization in mosques.  Similarly intent on changing the status quo, Nawaz used a line of gentle persuasion in pursuit of her goal, in contrast to Nomani’s forthrightly critical and confrontational approach.  There are many ways of pursuing women’s rights.

These are just some of the underlying factors shaping the nature of the discussion of women in Islam that has been underway in our society through the last few years.  This film, too, of course, as well as Nomani’s activism, are themselves shaped by and part of this broader discussion.  It is important, as we view the film and turn over in our minds the people and situations it presents us with, that we are aware of this larger web of events and meanings that critically affect the ways in which the subject of women and Islam is being discussed in America today.  Included naturally in this wider web of shaping events are inevitably the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath and our ongoing wars in Muslim-majority countries.

And finally, yes, of course Nomani’s activism — and generally the way in which the subject of women and Islam figures today in the American public and media conversation — marks another and quite new chapter in the already long and evolving story of Muslim women and feminism, just as it is part too of the long and evolving story of American feminism.

In terms of Muslim feminism, Nomani is heir to a long history of activists and writers going back to Halide Edib Adivar of Turkey and Huda Sharawi of Egypt, who worked for women’s rights in the early 20th century.  The pursuit of rights for women among Muslims, men as well as women, goes back to the late 19th century.  Thus the history of feminism among Muslims does not stretch quite as far back as American feminism, which emerged about half a century earlier.  Still, Muslim feminism too by now has a long and venerable as well as a richly varied history, a history well worth exploring.

In relation to American feminism, Nomani’s work is most reminiscent perhaps of Mary Daly in her struggles with the Catholic Church in the 1960s and Judith Plaskow’s feminist work in relation Judaism in the 70s and 80s.  At the same time, the fact that Islamic “oppression” of women has been such a prominent theme in the public discourse of our wars in Muslim majority countries, as well as the fact that Muslims in America in these years have been a minority distinctly under a cloud, makes Nomani’s often clearly media-conscious activism very different from theirs.  Such factors will be part in the end of how people will view and analyze Nomani’s work and they do impart a certain ambiguity to it compared to her predecessors.  For instance, Nomani tells us that her goal is to make equal space for women in the mosque and generally to reclaim Islam for women, goals with which I am naturally deeply sympathetic, and yet watching the film and the interactions and language we are presented with, I found myself uncertain by the end as to what exactly her objectives were.

One final thought.  Among the most interesting figures in the film, although they appear only briefly, are Nomani’s parents.  Growing up in India, and both now devout Muslims albeit in very different ways, they were raised within the ethos of the old-world Islam of their era, arriving and settling in America as young adults.  As Nomani’s book details, they unhesitatingly welcomed home their daughter, unmarried and pregnant, and have in every possible way ever since stood by her and supported her and her son.  This little vignette alone invites reflection as to the varieties of ways in which devout Muslims can practice their faith and understand their ethical responsibilities.

BONUS FOOTAGE: Asra and her parents


Leila Ahmed holds the Victor S. Thomas chair at the Divinity School, Harvard University. Appointed the first professor of women studies in religion at the Divinity School, she is the author of several books including Women and Gender in Islam. She is currently completing her book The Quiet Revolution exploring themes in women and Islam in America in our time and following out international connections.

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