For a Muslim Feminism


I don’t have many Moroccan friends, which makes it all the more noteworthy that three of the 10 most beautiful women I know are Moroccan. Beyond the gifts bestowed by the mixture of African and Mediterranean genes the luscious dark eyes, the jet-black ringlets, the statuesque profile all these women have a physical grace and confidence that I can only envy.

Although she is no longer young, the eminent Moroccan sociologist and writer Fatema Mernissi shares the imposing beauty of her compatriots. Mernissi has written about the pleasures of perfume, bathing, and female adornment. So it must have come as a shock to her to discover (as she relates in her travel memoir Scheherazade Goes West) that she was unable to find attractive clothes in American department stores, because her body was too large to fit the fashion industry’s notion of female beauty.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Mernissi reflected that it was just as well no one had told the mullahs of such an effective way to control women forcing them to starve themselves if they want to wear pretty clothes is even more efficient than forcing them to veil!

I thought of Mernissi’s attempts to buy clothes in America when I read the headline to Pamela Bone’s recent column in The Australian ‘Muslim Sisters Need Our Help.’ I am a passionate advocate of transnational feminism and do not argue with Bone’s belief that ‘the least we can do is let the brave Muslim women who are pushing for reforms know that they have our support when they want it.’

However, I don’t believe that the relationship between Muslim and Western women need only be a case of ‘White women rescuing Brown women from Brown men’ (to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak. As Mernissi shows, Muslim women may have some pertinent observations on Western gender relations, too.

Transnational feminism is often assumed to hold greater potential benefits for Muslim than for Western women. In part, this reflects a recognition that at present, ‘the West’ has a much more powerful impact on ‘the Islamic world’ than vice versa, so that campaigns located in Muslim societies for the empowerment of women in the West are likely to have little impact indeed, are likely to be regarded as ridiculous.

But it also strongly reflects the unspoken assumption that Muslim women are ‘oppressed’ while Western women are ‘free’ that Muslim women should aspire to the liberation already enjoyed by their Western sisters.

In general, of course, women living in the West do enjoy greater personal autonomy than do those living in most Muslim societies. But of course, not all Muslim women suffer significant gender oppression, and not all Western women are free of it. Western women confronting issues such as inequality in the workforce or domestic violence may benefit from the experience and expertise of Muslim women. Muslim women activists have acquired hard won skills in community health, education, social work and advocacy, often performed in highly adverse circumstances. It would be arrogant to think that Muslim women have no support to offer their Western sisters.

The type of support that Bone envisages in her article is highly visible street marches, public gestures of solidarity. There are certainly instances where this type of support is necessary. The rise to power of the Taliban is one such case. When it first gained control of Kabul, the Taliban sought international legitimacy and recognition as the Government of Afghanistan. At one stage, it seemed possible that Western governments and business interests might be prepared to bestow it. A transnational campaign by Afghan and Western women helped to deny them this.

But one of the thorniest problems facing Muslim women is the perception that feminism is a ‘Western’ ideology, and that Muslim women campaigning for gender equity are being controlled by ‘Western’ cultural imperialists. We invest a lot of time and energy into putting out the message that those agitating for Muslim women’s rights are themselves Muslim women, not interfering Westerners and a few obedient Muslim dupes.

There are times when television footage of American or Australian women marching for the rights of Muslim women is the last thing that is needed. It is vital for Muslim women to be in charge of their own struggle for emancipation, and it is just as vital for them to be seen to be in charge.

Those Western feminists most closely involved with the Muslim world understand this. They do not offer their solidarity covertly, but they chose not to take the most visible role. They offer support in the form of funding, training, assistance with networking and contacts. There is always room for more such support, but just because Bone and others are not aware of it, does not mean that it does not exist.

Bone cites the claim by Fay Weldon that Western women remain silent on Islamic misogyny because ‘these days, racism is a much greater sin than sexism.’ But when did the struggle against racism become incompatible with the struggle against sexism?

Racism damages women perhaps more than it damages men, even when (as with the current racist stereotypes of Arab and Muslim men as sexual predators) it is specifically directed at men. Sexism thrives in communities that are marginalised, that have been left feeling besieged. Racial harassment makes families women as well as men reluctant to allow women and girls to go out in public, for safety reasons alone. And powerless men have a habit of establishing their status against the only people they can exert power over the women and children of their own community.

Bone also seems to believe that while it is okay to oppose war, the peace movement is somehow at odds with women’s rights, because Islamists, too, oppose Bush’s war on terror. But war, like racism, is disastrous for women’s rights.

I would not defend Saddam Hussein’s regime on gender equity grounds, given that it used rape as a means of State coercion. Yet, we cannot evade the fact that as Iraq has descended into civil war, women have less access to education and are now vulnerable to religious fanatics who demand that they veil something previously unheard of in Iraq.

If Bone and other Western women want to offer support to their Muslim sisters, we are happy to accept it but please understand that we do not intend to be silent partners. We may have things to say that run counter to their own beliefs. But feminism, Western or Muslim, is a heterogeneous movement. There is room for all of us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.