Talking Gender and Islam at the Grassroots by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

In my current trajectory linked to community development —  via both activism and my professional field —  I’ve learned that popular education is a very useful practice and methodology to decentralize all types of knowledge. Since I embraced Islam, part of my activity has focused on creating spaces for the production, discussion, and appropriation of religious knowledge for women at the grassroots. Religion is not separated from the daily life of believers, therefore, each of them carries knowledge that has been deliberately obliterated by hegemony.

The feminist hermeneutic of Islam is a paradigm that aims to provide Muslim women with skills and concepts that allow them to boost their agencies in their respective contexts, encouraging a transformation in the understanding of religious phenomena and its trajectory towards gender justice.  For this transformation to be possible, knowledge must be accessible in language, methodology and location.

Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of liberation is a tool I consider to be critical and necessary for feminism, including Islamic feminism, at a time when debates about decolonization are very fashionable in academia. Freire’s methodology is democratizing because it allows, on one hand, to transfer knowledge from privileged circles to the margins and, on the other, to make visible the experiential knowledge produced in the periphery — to include them in the spectrum of what we understand and as such subvert, in this way, the dynamics of power, representation and discourses.

During my time in South Africa, I have engaged with popular education on topics related to Islam and Gender with Muslim women from the Cape Flats. These women have different backgrounds, races, life trajectories, and religious journeys. They exist in the geographic, cultural and epistemological margins of the social reality of Cape Town. Their experiences as Muslims do not appear in academic journals, nor are they even “noticed” by their highly androcentric communities of belonging.

For the past 7 months, I have met with them on a regular basis to talk about Gender and Islam. “Talk” is a methodological definition that means that we are placed in equal and interchangeable positions of teacher-student during our dialog — assuming than rather than learning something new, we are facilitating for each other a way to communicate things we already know. Muslim women of the Cape Flats know, indeed. But they have been told that they do not know by a system of privilege formed for the ulemas, for academia, or for the Islamic institutions.

This system has hijacked their agency to explain religion for themselves and the very notion of the existence of their inherent knowledge.This system strives to endorse the status quo and keep knowledge away from those who can benefit from it, from those who may use it to articulate a narrative of liberation in actual terms.

The themes and perspectives addressed by these women are diverse. Often, they have nothing to do with the intellectual concerns we are used to among Muslim feminist scholars, but have much more to do with daily resistance to a patriarchy that oppress them with total impunity and their need to come together in order to tackle it. Sisterhood, in their context, means more than corporate reactions or strategies of competition between feminists — it means the difference between life and death.

The idea of leading a prayer is something remote to them. Instead, one recurring subject has to do with their sexual agency and basic control over their bodies. Cape Town has a very high rate of rape and sexual abuse. Many of these crimes affect Muslim women or girls and are perpetrated by husbands or relatives. Realities like marital rape or molestation intersect with a critique of religious narratives about sex as duty, the blind-eye of some clerics, and the slut-shaming from a religious community that is supposed to be based on mercy.

The critical reflections of these women, even though they do not identify as Islamic feminists, reveal a radical attempt — although still visceral and wholly legitimate — to describe in their own words the problems that affect them and the role that religious narratives have in aggravating or solving such problems. They make an actual exercise of religious hermeneutics based in their realities. Even if they don’t have a diploma that supposedly enables them to do so. Even as they have never been invited to give a workshop about it. They have a clear standpoint about what Gender Justice and Gender Jihad are and how these concepts work for or against them.

Sometimes there is a juxtaposition between what Islamic feminism says is the concern of these women and what actually concerns them — and how. Polygamy, for example, is a controversial topic. But it is also the way in which some participants have organized their lives, a way in which there is even room to negotiate power with a “male authority”. I am not taking a position in favor or against, just noting that by sharing experiences on how Gender and Islam intersect in the real life of Muslim women in the Cape Flats, more complex and colorful realities emerge.

This makes me wonder: What else do we need to establish a dialogue of knowledge in order to overcome the tendency towards abjection in feminist practices? Experience suggests that it is an epic failure to alienate certain groups of women, just because we do not find them in our immediate reality or because they are not progressive / feminist / liberal enough — because the are not “like us” enough to be welcome in our struggles. Islamic feminism, like all feminism, works based on the radical idea that women are people. Therefore, it is a valuable fact that women are beings with nuances, diversities, and contradictions.

Popular pedagogy applied to religious knowledge is a concrete strategy of decolonization and empowerment that can equip Muslim women with awareness of the value of their own resources, subjectivities, and talents for explaining their realities. It can encourage them to produce knowledge, defy power and craft strategies of resistance. Also, this methodology holds a space where academia, activism, and community can potentially meet to find common ground. And why this is important? Because all feminists are promoters and facilitators of democracy — in the broadest sense — protecting the underprivileged. One way to boost that democracy is via access to knowledge and knowledge production. There still remains the task of systematizing this experience in a way that can be accessible, owned, and replicable in other communities and groups. We are working on it.


Picture: An image of the Cape Flats. Cape Town. South Africa

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente works in community development, gender equality, and communication for social change. She has led initiatives for women’s empowerment in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Morocco, and South Africa. As a Gender Justice advocate with a broad scope of interests, she is a social and digital entrepreneur committed to the strengthening of grass roots organizations and the development of an independent pathway of thinking, research, and academic writing around Gender, Politics, and Religion. Loyal lover of books, cats and spicy chai.

Categories: Activism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Islam

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. Beautiful. And bless your work! Sexual violence, that is what always came up first when I was teaching Women’s Studies–women’s shared experience in very different cultures. Siggghhh


  2. Carol, as a Women’s Studies Professor I too was dealing with sexual violence on a regular basis and brought in someone from the agency I had previously worked for, (what used to be called “The Abused Women’s Advocacy Project” and is now downgraded to “Safe Voices”) to speak on behalf of the organization so that women had some concrete resources at their finger tips… the students also came to me. Creating safe space seems to be the key that opens that floodgate… heartrending.


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