Islamic Feminism, Body Autonomy and Spiritual Liberation by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Women and Body AutonomyWomen’s bodies are the preferred territory in which religious oppression becomes cruelly evident. Misogynist narratives in religions are always addressed to them: decency, honor, virtue, holiness, discretion, and shame are embodied in us, We pay for the absence of these patriarchal principles of control, on our bodies too: imprisonment, slut-shamming, bullying, rape, punishment, mutilation, and death.

Feminism makes sense in this world because women allow their struggles to push the boundaries that have been imposed on us by patriarchy, on our minds, spirits and bodies. The right to decide issues concerning our bodies is not only linked to reproductive rights and planning parenthood, but also to the experience of sexuality on the terms we freely decide and the way we interact with our body and relate to it. Freeing women from the traditions’ narratives of oppression accumulated over hundreds of years and designed to indoctrinate a hatred against our bodies is one of the purposes of feminism, including the work of feminists inside those religious traditions. If I have no right to my body, then I have no right to anything. A God who considers me free and worthy, but allows others to decide how I should embody that worth and that freedom is not a God of justice and equality at all.

On this point, I have some reflections about to what extent Islamic Feminism pushes the limits of patriarchy in regard to women’s autonomy over our bodies. I do not pretend to be conclusive about this, rather I am just raising a question that could open space for further discussions.

These reflections emerge any time I manifest my strong support for the Body Acceptance Movement (BAM), a type of activism which aims to return to women the love, connection and power over their bodies, originally taken away from them by, for example, the fascism of beauty imposed by capitalism, rape, fat-phobia, accidents, injuries, domestic violence, surgeries, and also religious narratives on virtue and shame.

A typical feature of BAM are photos of women posing nude or half nude showing their bodies or a part of them in relation to which patriarchy has told them they are not valuable. These photos contain pregnancy marks, fat, scars, sagging, traces of acid or images shared just because these women reclaim ownership of their bodies. As part of BAM, I made these kinds of photos because, as a survivor of sexual violence and years of bullying due of my curvy-busty body, I had accumulated many layers of non-acceptance against myself.  Struggling in a system where to be beautiful you have to be skinny and where we are guilty for the violence we suffer is incredibly damaging.

I was told by some Muslim feminists (men and women) that I am “out of the foundations of Islamic feminism,” and was accused of “promoting pornography” and “threatening the Hijab.” This made me wonder: Does Islamic Feminism set limitations to women’s bodily autonomy? Is Hijab an untouchable aspect of Islamic narrative? As Muslim feminists, should we gird our bodies to certain policies of embodiment?

Challenging religious narratives of oppression aimed at women’s bodies means going beyond the patriarchal dichotomy that makes our virtue tied to our clothing and equates nudity with sin. Not acknowledging our power to make choices about wardrobe and nudity with freedom – specifically for Muslim women- is another form of oppression.

Not all nudity aims to be sexually appealing. Yanomamis indigenous women in the Brazilian Amazon display their breasts in public without any particular intention. What counts – and if we are in the frame of Islam, counts a lot- is intention. Enclosing a-priori an expression of women’s autonomy on our bodies to the unique and exclusive purpose of arousing others sexually reproduces patriarchal expectations that objectify us over and over.

Regarding “Hijab,” I recognize the right of women to wear the headscarf, whatever their reasons. The point to challenge here is a policy of embodiment imposed on women on behalf of religion, not women and our choices.

I think we should take this concept to a new level and re-enforce the struggle by bringing it back to where it matters: the question of who possesses that inner locus control in each one of us. Let’s talk with the same passion about the right to not to wear hijab as we do about the right to wear it. I am in favor of a concept of Hijab away from fetishism, regardless if it comes from feminism or dogmatism. Representations that legitimize a piece of fabric as a “Muslim-Feministometer” have nothing to do with a discourse of liberation that advocates for the freedom to build identity.

Debate over total ownership of our bodies concerns not only our flesh but also our souls. Our bodies are the vehicle of our experiences. Everything passes through them to reach our inner being. If our bodies don’t belong to us, neither do our spiritual lives. Any claim in this regard is not only political, but also spiritual and therefore, a worthy claim to be taken from religious feminism or feminist theologies. The theological is political.

Our freedom does not depend on clothing or the lack of it, but in the radical and definitive decolonization of our bodies as territory of intervention for Patriarchy or any external agent. This means to break ourselves free from the burden of embodiment of sin, beauty, purity, motherhood, virginity, sensuality, etc., etc. and dissociating our bodies from dichotomies of virtue and shame that have their origin in religious patriarchy.

How virtue, beauty, sin or feminism manifest in our bodies is only for each of us to decide. Anything that helps us to regain power, connection and have a healthy, loving and open relationship with our bodies is good, fair and necessary. “Our body, our choices” is a statement to be taken for all feminists without conditions. No need for further arguments. If you have a problem with this, lower your gaze. Period.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.

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Categories: Body, Feminism and Religion, Sexism

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17 replies

  1. Thanks Vanessa. You write powerfully. Hoping you will be heard widely today.

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  2. The decolonization idea is right on, brilliant, and helpful — “to break ourselves free from the burden of embodiment of sin, beauty, purity, motherhood, virginity, sensuality, etc., etc.” Thanks, Vanessa!

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  3. Right On! Strength, clarity and acknowledgment. An inspiring read. Thank you.

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  4. Several decades ago I was wearing niqab (face veil) by choice in the city of Philadelphia. I had a friend who used to go off to a secluded spot in the mountains where she could wear nothing. I liked that we both recognized how the FREEDOM to dress anyway we choose is actually lost as a consequence of others not rising to the depth of that freedom.

    It is a struggle to express and experience full body integrity while still a part of the human race including those who do not know how to respect that integrity.

    I satisfy myself with this imagination: in the not so distant future, our precious planet may NOT uphold the wearing of any of the fabrics human made or “natural” that we now “choose” from amongst Humans will no longer then be able to galvanize so much identity crisis based on what we wear.

    I will not be here for that but I for one already LOOK forward to it.

    Thanks for always speaking from a deep place of self inspection and human reflection as a Muslim feminist!

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  5. Great post, Vanessa! It reminds me of an early feminist song that I used to perform in the 1970s:

    “Don’t Shut My Sister Out” by Cathy Winter and Betsy Rose

    Chorus: Don’t shut my sister out
    Trust her choices
    Her woman’s wisdom
    And her will to grow
    Don’t shut my sister out
    Trust her vision
    Her intuition of her own way to go.

    Verses: Well, a woman’s rhythm is an ebb and a flow
    It’s a coming together and a-letting go
    Like the tides of the moon and the seasons of earth
    We sing our cycle of death and rebirth.

    Sometimes I find myself taking a stand
    It’s like finding rocks among the shifting sand.
    And sisters gather round holding hand in hand
    Saying this is our story, this is our land.

    Sometimes I find I have to walk away
    There are inner voices that I have to obey
    And they leave me lonely and they leave my cold
    And they lead me away from the sisterfold.

    One thing I’ve learned is never to assume
    That every woman I meet is gonna sing my tune
    i want respect, I wanna give you the same
    This is a struggle for survival, not a party game.

    I see pointing finger, I hear calling names
    I see our strength being shattered by fear and pain
    Can’t you see the writing on the wall
    If we don’t join together, well, we’re all gonna fall.

    You are a special woman, shouldn’t have to hide
    I wanna know you, grow with you right by my side
    Won’t you come as you are, won’t you do what you must
    Won’t you help build a sisterhood we all can trust.

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  6. This is so powerful. I think it would work very well in the classroom.

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  7. Vanessa, thank for this. You bring up great points. I am also usually excluded from Islamic feminism by other Muslims. I think it (not questioning Islamic sartorial practices for women) definitely has its place within feminism as a whole,though I disagree with it. I have known femininst Muslim women who will not allow the problematizing of hijab because it is seen as Allah’s untouchable territory. These same women, however, have also been able to capture the positive attention of many potential male and female allies within Muslim communities. It reminds me of the many ways in which people work within a system to change it, while others do the same hard work but from the outside of the system.
    Jameelah

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  8. fantastic post. really resonate with the free-ing of the female sexuality. i’m currently researching the effects of porn and the roles that women feel they have to play even in that mainstream

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  9. Also in Africa until not long ago it was your behavior not your clothing that showed your worth and value as a human being, as person. Women displayed their breasts without shame until missionaries told them to. Your behavior was far more important than your appearance. Sin starts in the sick mind.

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