Who Does Islamic(s) Feminism(s) Belong To? by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Who does Islamic(s) feminism(s) belong to?

The answer to this question seems obvious: Islamic feminism belongs to all Muslim women who wish to adhere to it, and feminism is for everybody, as bell hooks said.

In reality however, it is not so easy. Even the most well crafted theories must be implemented by human beings who have been socialized under the Patriarchy’s rules and practices. Lived experience reminds us that feminisms of all kinds are marked by dynamics of power, internalized misogyny, lack of intersectionality, egos, and personal interests.

In this situation I wonder: Are feminisms, and Islamic Feminisms in particular, truly for everyone?

White feminism and patriarchy have treated Muslim women as lesser, as other. This otherness is legitimized through mechanisms of power linked to classism, racism, anti-black sentiment, education level, belonging to cliques, systemic violence, invisibilization, or simply by not following mainstream expectations.

Feminisms in religious spaces are not only necessary, but mandatory. Feminisms “on the margins”- like Islamic feminism, with respect to white feminism- are spaces for criticism of such marginalization and otherness as well as a re-creation of new ways of thinking about what it means to be a woman and how we relate to each other.  For example, this space offers women a chance to identify with one another rather than to compete as we have been educated to do by the the heteronormative regime.

It is sad to witness or experience feminists who are more concerned with endorsing the status quo than they are with challenging it. It is disappointing to realize that some women could never be heard in Islamic Feminism because “we only want the most progressives ones.” It’s a pity that the myth of an unbridgeable gap between activism and academia is validated as an unavoidable truth. It is violent to see scholars censoring criticisms by belittling and isolating dissenting voices.

Let me share a personal experience: Since I started working on a book to honor the life and activism of a South African Islamic Feminist, I’ve received a lot of support. But I have also been told that some peers were upset that a non-South African “dared” to lead this project, so they rejected the invitation to write for the anthology, based in national/ethnic reasoning. I am not offended by this but I think that it would have been better, and more in line with feminism, to engage in a face to face dialogue to discuss the controversy, rather than conveying those hurtful remarks through a third party.

If I mention this it is simply because my personal is my political… and my political, my spiritual. My views may be lacking academic background, but there is one thing I am sure about: Any reproduction of patriarchy and its tenets among feminists is “friendly fire” and therefore not friendly: it is oppression and it is anti-woman.

Naming ourselves as feminists or Islamic feminists or obtaining a PhD in Gender Studies does not automatically make anyone a feminist. Feminism is a practice, an ETHIC of intersectionality, lived out in everyday life, a verb. We BECOME feminists, not because of the label, but by consciously engaging  in decision making that uplifts women instead of destroying them, taking action that broadens the room of representation instead of gatekeeping and forming cliques, and finally endorsing practices and dynamics that result in strategic alliances, collaborative resolution of conflicts, and development of a sense of belonging.

So… to whom does Islamic Feminism belong? To Arab women? To academics who present during AAR? To activists on the frontlines? To those who wear headscarves? Is it about races and countries? About Who knows Whom? Is it a Women’s Liberation Movement or a VIP Ladies’s Club?

TO NOBODY and TO EVERYONE. There is no single Islamic Feminism, rather there are Islamic Feminisms that are in need of intentional dialogue with one another. I firmly believe these feminisms belong to all the women of the world. We say that Islam contains a message of social justice for all humankind, right? Then, the Gender Jihad of Islamic feminism that we advocate for, is on behalf of Gender Justice for all women;  not only Muslim women, but all who feel related with these foundations.

Given the diversity of identities, languages, struggles and opinions, the existence of controversy and contradiction within feminisms in Islam or elsewhere, are evidence of the undeniable and diverse humanity of women. Objects do not have a voice of their own, but women have diverse voices.

If, as Islamic feminists, we reject the idea of a monolithic Islam controlled by male voices, why would we want a monolithic Islamic Feminism that excludes some women’s voices?

The main idea of embracing feminism as a cause, whether your activism is intellectual or street-wise, is to make room for all women to be part of it, so that we can all join the struggle with our skills and talents, so we can create new knowledge through lucid criticism and debate, so we can see ourselves as people and recognize in others the right to be people, equally different as individuals. Being a feminist necessitates accountability in this regard. In Islamic Feminisms there is room for everyone by living the Tawheedic Paradigm we claim to believe in.

Feature Image By The Feminist Museum 

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is an international journalist and writer, community educator and awarded women’s rights activist. Independent scholar and lecturer in Religion,Gender and Politics.

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Categories: Activism, Feminism, General, Islam, Islamic feminism

Tags: , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. In my career I too have experienced “feminist” gate-keeping in the academy, with Christian feminists in many cases not feeling comfortable including voices outside their religion in the dialogue or including one Jewish voice or today restricting the dialogue to those professing one of the “Abrahamic” faiths. Siggggghhhhhhh There are of course other issues as well in the inclusion/exclusion dynamic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes. Similar experiences happen in all women’s movements or feminists spaces at some point and I think that keeping quiet about is not helpful. I know many feminists who are dissapointed of feminism due to the reproduction of patriarchy and oppression in spaces where people should be struggling to be free of. However, this doesn’t make feminisms unworthy rather is an evidence of how much is needed and how critical is to live by the notion that the personal is political. Like Gloria Anzaldúa said: The change we imagine starts within.

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      • I agree, I am a feminist, whether others like my brand of feminism or not. I never understand women who say… because feminists criticize x which I subscribe to, I am not a feminist. No, I am a feminist and if someone wants to exclude me, let them try. Nothing more to say.

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    • Thanks for echoing that point on gat-keeping; I feel it is a pregnant topic! This topic remind me of a related experience:

      A few years ago I had submitted a paper on ecofeminism and feminist theology to a journal; it was examining the ecofeminist role of a male Buddhist patriarch. One of the reviewers sent a positive response, with a few helpful clarifying suggestions. The other reviewer pooh-poohed the whole paper concept, saying that “everything interesting and original that could be said about feminism and religion had been all been said by the end of the 1980s or so.”

      At first I was a bit shocked, but then I starting looking for data on feminist views held by religious non-white ethnic groups, and the only one I could find (in English) that focused on a non-white, non-American cohort had data from Mexico, and in that case the findings didn’t hold up so clearly in the culturally-varying case!

      So ultimately, it was a jujitsu move to use the perceived weakness as a strength; to address directly in the paper what data was existing from credible research, and how no empirical research at all could be found on the feminist views of the cultural group (Himalayan) that I was writing about!

      I find it is easy to become discouraged and throw in the towel, when considering academia, which seems to consistently reward hubris and punish original or unique thinking!

      I take comfort in Mary Daly’s example of persistence and her term “academentia!” (no offense intended toward those suffering ill effects of dementia directly or indirectly)

      Liked by 2 people

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