Third Time’s the Charm by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionIn the space of a week, three obtuse remarks by non-Muslim men about Muslim women ticked me off.

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.

Categories: General, Islam, Judaism, LGBTQ, Media, Women's Ordination


16 replies

  1. siggghhhh… thanks for writing that.


  2. “clarity of insight on one topic does not remove all blinders” Ahh, what a lovely metaphor. Lots of us are blind regarding lots of topics we think we understand. Thanks for writing this blog.


    • Thank you for your kind words, Barbara. My original imagery referred not to blinders but to some people being blind. Then I recalled that a colleague who works in disability studies pointed out to me that using “blindness” to stand in for obtuseness was offensive. I changed it before posting – but the irony holds. I certainly found it a good reminder of my own shortcomings.


  3. Is it possible that the Rabbi was trying to point out that just because women in all three religious traditions wear religious clothing(for example, head scarfs for women, the cross, for Catholics, Garments for Mormons) that he is trying to convey the message that just because one wears these things does not mean they will be any more religious or obedient than had they not worn the clothing. Just because a government, or religious order forces people to submit to this kind of behavior modification and thinking, does not mean that they really believe it?


  4. Only three obtuse remarks in a week? I can’t get away with 15 minutes of web surfing without coming across three obtuse remarks by men about women that set me off. Thanks for taking on these three.


  5. “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…” nice point Kecia. I get very suspicious of western men talking about how evil Islam is for women. Rabbis, Episcopal priests…. I had to dress down Robinson at an event where a man controlled the mic, and no women were getting questions from the floor. It was blatant and male in clerical hats with rings typical. Robinson is not a feminist, he’s just a mouther of liberal lines. It’s all about power and hierachy with these guys. And he used a woman as a cover. These guys marry women, rise in the hierachy and then come out when convenient, not buying their song and dance routine Mr. Bojangles.

    Islam has many branches, lesbian muslims have written brilliant books about their faith, and I’ve been to excellent panel discussions with lesbian muslims talking about their faith, coming out to grandparents and life in Turkey, for example. White men like to talk about Islamic women as if it is some sort of veiled (pun intended) threat and that atta-boyism of the left, ain’t we the most special liberal men you ever did see, we’re so much more special and better than those Islamic evil men. Not buying it. So good work on this post. I really liked the nuance and sophistication of your arguments Kecia.

    Can’t leftist men just shut up; they bore me!


  6. Kecia —

    Thanks for this post. I agree that remarks about Muslim use of the veil are attempts to sidetrack American attention from “Iraqi civilian deaths, drone attacks in Pakistan, and so-called ‘collateral damage’ in the Afghan war.” Focusing on the “veil” makes Americans feel better about themselves when it comes to women, something that’s bad in two ways: a) Americans’ needs to address women’s issues in this country are blunted, and b) subconsciously many Americans feel that “those Muslims” who are purportedly our “enemies,” deserve what they get, because they treat women badly. Bad news!


  7. Well *I* get your comic book reference, and I think it’s awesome!


  8. Hi Kecia. You said that only in Saudi Arabia an Iran women are forced tu use veil. And what do you think about Afganistan and the mandatory use of burka? Does the expression “only in…” really satisfy you?


    • Artediosa, I was referring to formal laws requiring veiling which, as far as I know, are not currently in place in Afghanistan. That is not to say, though that the situation is good for Afghan women’s legal rights; far from it if demonstrations against proposed legislation to formalize presidentially decreed protections are anything to go by.


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