First was a letter to the editor by Rabbi Howard Berman, published in the Boston Globe on April 21. The title (“Women’s Strides set Judaism apart”) was telling. According to Berman, strict religious hierarchy means that only in (his branch of) Judaism have women’s rights and roles advanced. Mormons and Catholics have no shot – never mind that Mormon women had recently raised the issue of women’s priesthood, or that lay and religious women among Catholics have long been fighting the good fight, sometimes with male allies. He then contradicts himself on the role of official hierarchy: Islam, where there is less centralization than in American or world Judaism, also gives women no chance of gaining authority.
I fumed and mentally composed a pithy refutation, which I never actually wrote.
A few days later, I was happily reading Bishop Gene Robinson’s book God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage. Though it does not seriously contend with critics who argue that same-sex marriage seeks to shore up dominant social hierarchies even as it expands them to include (elite) queer people, on its own terms it is a valuable book. But as the book nears its conclusion, Robinson makes a gratuitous reference to Islam which reminded me, again, that clarity of insight on one topic does not remove all blinders. In a passage where he objects to religious “meddl[ing] in the rightful business of the state” he gives a hypothetical scenario in which a Muslim majority population elects Muslim lawmakers who impose veiling on all women. His objective, I assume, was to pick something his readers would reject as repugnant, leading them to reject by analogy the right of conservative religious groups to oppose same-sex civil marriage. But in presuming that a) veiling is unambiguously required of Muslim women and that b) government in a majority Muslim country would dictate how women dress, he succumb to stereotypes of both Muslim conservatism and Muslim authoritarianism. The former identifies correct Muslim doctrine with that of its most restrictive interpreters and inadvertently affirms their authority. The latter draws on and reinforces hateful ideas about oppressive Muslim regimes. Of dozens of Muslim-majority countries on the planet, only Iran and Saudi Arabia enforce veiling. Such negative images, as with homophobia which he repeatedly abhors, have real-world consequences. They feed a climate of fear and hate.
I wrote a letter. Perhaps I will get a response.
The next Sunday, primed by both of these incidents as well as the general climate in Boston after the marathon bombings, including an attack on a woman wearing a headscarf in a neighboring town, I ran a local “Heroes and Villains”-themed 5K dressed as Dust, an X-men character with mutant powers who happens wear a face veil and abaya. And again, a negative comment seemed to demand a response. In an online essay, which it was mildly cathartic to write, I tried to connect my experience to bigger questions about stereotypes of Muslims, especially Muslim women, and about US policies and the feedback loop of resentment, hate, and more violence that they help create and sustain. I linked to sources that would substantiate my points about Iraqi civilian deaths, drone attacks in Pakistan, and so-called “”collateral damage” in the Afghan war, which nourish the perception among Muslims worldwide that the American government doesn’t care about Muslim lives. Extremists use these facts as a pretext for anti-American violence. And the resulting stigmatization and profiling of Muslims worldwide and in the U.S. – analogous to the stigmatization and persecution of mutants in the X-Men universe – strengthens only those who believe, like the X-Men villain Magneto, that peaceful coexistence is impossible.
Having written the blog entry, I was concerned that my assertions about U.S. policy would prove controversial, or my comic book references too obscure. Silly me; I needn’t have worried. The commenters, like the rabbi and the bishop, only want to talk about women and the the veil.
Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She lives in the Boston area with her family.