Before coming to the U.S., I felt disconnected from feminist theory. I thought this framework labels women as haters of men and seekers of obscure rights. I was not sure who could identify with it or belong to it. For me, it was just a scholarly concept women used to justify their rights. I could not perceive it as an empowering tool, even if it is being so popular. While there is no problem having the concept to be loud and popular, this loud voice did not speak for me. I could not let it represent me or speak on my behalf. Every time I google it, I see angry faces, naked women, people yelling, women in chains, and much more. Instead of accepting it, I resisted it.
At that time, my understanding of feminism was associated with women’s liberation outside the circle of culture and religion. It scared me since I am who I am because of my culture, my community, and my religion. This feminism has my respect, but it is alien and does not call for my needs. For a long time, I resisted feminist discourse or, to be clear, white western feminism. Its discussion about equality, oppression, and marginalization is different from mine. I knew that as a Muslim woman, I had no room in this discourse.
Until one day, things started to change.
I had a conversation with my dissertation chair about the theoretical framework of my dissertation. He started the conversation by saying: Go and read about feminism, since you are writing about Muslim Libyan women’s experiences. My immediate answer was, no. I do not think this theory is for Muslim women. It represents non-Muslim ideologies that I do not see welcomed in my country. Not because they are bad, it is just because they are alien.
My advisor looked at me and said: who told you to use a western non-Muslim lens when studying a Muslim population? Go and find your own feminism. Feminism is not monolithic or rigid. Go to your culture, your holy book – call this feminism whatever you want to call it, but next time when we meet, I will ask you about your definition and understanding of your own feminism.
This was not easy homework to do, yet my journey began.
To search for my feminism, I had to first find out whether there is such a thing called Islamic or Muslim feminism. I was very happy to see that the name Islamic feminism is widely used and is researched by Muslim women from around the globe. This feminism uses words I am used to hearing and speaks the language I understand. Nevertheless, Islamic feminists do not speak in one voice. Under this theory, are sectors that represent disparate ideologies. There is secular feminism, Islamic feminism, western Muslim feminism, and Muslim women activists. Within these varieties, there is a clear inconsistency in the definition. I started feeling lost again.
There was a common belief among some activists that ‘Islam’ and ‘feminism’ are contradictory and disconnected (Blore, 2010; Badran, 2005, 2009; 2011; Cervantes-Altamirano, 2010; Fernea, 1998; Moghissi, 1999). In other words, one cannot be Muslim and feminist at the same time (Bahlul, 2000). I went back to my readings and problematize them. I underlined the hurdle and analyze it. Through extensive analysis, what I learned is that the discrepancy in Islamic feminism is a strength, not a weakness. Through the variation of the overlapping ideologies, I found room to thrive and develop. I was still educating myself, but day after day, I felt confident enough to finish my homework and discuss this theory in my dissertation. This time, I did not study it in relation to a non-Muslim context, but in relation to the religion, culture, identity, and community in Libya. This theory offered me a lens that helped me judge my surroundings through Quran and Hadith.
Because part of the theory is influenced by the religious texts and its interpretations, my study sent me directly to the Quran to understand my own standing as a Muslim woman. It was an exciting journey through which I was equipped with knowledge and a better comprehension of my agency. I realized that Islam is a feminist religion. I know such a perception could be confusing, especially for non-Muslims. However, I acknowledge that I could not find a better place representing equity, rights, and social justice for me as a Muslim woman more than the Quran. I found that my identity is very well respected and that my voice matters.
In the Quran, Allah told me that I am equal to men and men are not more superior; it is only our good deeds that make us superiors. Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward (Al Quran; 33:35).
In the Quran, Allah does not force me to marry someone I do not want, but forces my dad to take my permission before marriage. “O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may Take away part of the dower ye have given them, except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” (Al Quran; 4:19).
In the Quran, I could not find any verse that asks me to serve men, to cook or to clean the house. Instead, the prophet (PBUH) requests that men to help with housework and to treat women with care, humility, and virtue. In Islam, Muslim women are never meant to be oppressed or marginalized.
My feminism, which blossoms through those readings of the theory and the Quran, argued that Muslim countries have their own feminism that is shaped by our understanding of the religion and culture. In my research, I found that there are as many Islamic feminism definitions as there are Muslim countries and communities in the world. It is from this standing and from the ample of data I collected about and from Libyan women, that my Libyan feminism was born.
Libyan feminism empowers me and helps me embrace my identity. It helps me understand other forms of feminism and accept them for what they are, the way they are. It allows me to explore my religion with open-mindedness and make appropriate decisions accordingly. It explains the culture and how Libyan women position themselves within their community. My Libyan feminism is not necessarily every Libyan women’s feminism; however, it provides tools for all women to find their feminism, to understand perspectives of oppression, marginality, equality, liberation, and power. In my dissertation, I defined this feminism as an empowering tool that facilitates women’s voice through understanding their experiences in relation to their community, culture. and religion.
Dr. Samah Elbelazi is a Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University. She holds a PhD. in Composition and TESOL from Indiana University of Pennsylvania; an MA in Literature from the University of Tripoli, Libya. Her research interests include arts-based research, FYC studies, Islamic feminism and creative writing. Her dissertation, Theorizing Libyan Feminism: Poetic Representation of 12 Muslim Libyan Women’s Experiences explores the lived histories of 12 Libyan women by using poetic ethnography as a research method to voice these experiences.
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