Making visible gender inequities in the accessibility, acquisition, and transmission of knowledge is essential to breaking ceilings and barriers that prevent women from full participation. This is especially critical in religion, an area in which Patriarchy has bashed women in a systematic, deliberate and cumulative way throughout history.
The current dominant discourses about Muslim women: idealization (sustained by religious patriarchy) and demonization (which corresponds to a Western vision) universalize their own particular way of seeing reality through privilege and representation of female otherness and don´t give women a voice or the chance to declare an epistemic space, meaning a symbolic place of discussion where our experiences with knowledge are relevant.
This is why initiatives like “Not More All Male Panels” and other similar are important. Who dominates knowledge, manages explanations and represents reality is important. If women are excluded, then it is as if women do not exist. The inclusion of women in knowledge serves two purposes: one is simply our presence in instances where knowledge is produced; the other, which my reflection is about, concerns appropriation of knowledge and spaces via movement building.
Panels, Ceilings and Walls
A few weeks ago I participated in a panel to discuss women and feminism in religion. One of my peers spoke to me about the perception of Islamic Feminism. To paraphrase my fellow panelist:
In Islamic Feminism, your voice is ignored and disposable, because you lack all of what gives one authority in that field– You are a Latina, living in the South, with no formal education in Islam. You have no Arab/Asian name and you speaks Spanish. In a Feminist world that should be Intersectional and Decolonial by definition, you’re a woman racialized in contrast with you peers. If not, tell me in how many lists of Muslims Feminist your name is written.
That was hard to hear, but led me to think that the struggle against our lack of presence in matters of knowledge has not only to do with visibility, but also with access and representation. In this sense, I wonder: who is in charge of knowledge in Islamic Feminism? What are the possibilities for any Muslim woman to become a scholar? This is still something only privileged women seem to be able to do.
There are mechanisms of exclusion that operate against us like a crystal ceiling. Most Mosques or Islamic Centers don’t teach women “complicated stuff” like Islamic Theology or Science of Hadith. If they have any programs for women, they are focused on helping us to be good wives and mothers. Nothing like leadership skills or critical thought is offered. Even the way these programs are organized are not friendly to us, with schedules and methodologies that do not facilitate our presence. If you want Gender Studies in Religion, this is only available at Universities at a high cost of time and money. If you want Islamic studies too, obstacles like language or distance also present themselves.
But there are other obstacles coming from the greater Feminist world itself. To the crystal ceiling we have to add the crystal wall; the competition that exists among women including feminists due to negative socialization. Elitism, racism, classism and assumed representations about what a Muslim woman/feminist looks and speaks like become obstacles for some women in our field, creating alienation and make network building very difficult.
Movement Building and Democratizing Knowledge
We have to be radical in our efforts to create conditions that will materialize the Islamic principle of “Iqraa”- pursuit of knowledge- for all the sisters who want to claim their authority in religious matters. Many Muslim communities are not only misogynistic, but anti-intellectual. There’s internal work to do that runs parallel to filling all those panels. Islamic feminism cannot afford to be an activity solely for an elite. We have to find a way to democratize knowledge and opportunities.
In my case, I would have never made any progress without the support of people like Natalia Andujar, who gave me my first chance to talk about Islamic Feminism in a public forum. I am also grateful to Ani Zonneveld, Adis Duderija, Shaista Gohir, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, Amina Wadud, Muhsin Hendricks, this Feminism and Religion blog community. They shared with me resources and experience that gave me access to the opportunities and the knowledge I needed to develop my skills.
My way of giving back started three years ago with IMAAN, an educational project whose main objective is to facilitate knowledge and debate on gender, religion and sexuality, grounded in networking with people of different background, from PhD academics to grassroots female leaders. Above all, my goal is to provide easy access to training in these matters. The next step will be an online platform where Muslim women and women interested in the field can acquire an education in Islam, Sexuality and Gender Issues that they can’t pay for at universities.
Feminism is not merely a theory or a diploma. It is an ethic of life and everyday practice that engages epistemic justice and equal access to representation. Broad access to the appropriation of knowledge is as important as the opportunity to articulate this knowledge. Campaigns as Iman For She or No More All Male Panels and others in our future will need women to cover, get involved and maintain the results of our advocacy.
We must break the crystal ceiling to move up towards areas of power and decision–like knowledge. At the same time, breaking the crystal wall is also essential. Struggling for a place in knowledge must not be reduced to merely getting a panel, but expanded into an expression of movement building. This will be the eventual result of the systematic work of identifying, training and promoting women activists and scholars, with a sense of diversity and a policy of sisterhood based on potential, not sympathy. The new generation of Muslim Feminist change-makers can’t depend on money, status or social class and must be expected to take more than a chair in a panel, but a wide place in the world.
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.