One of the topics that has captured my deep interest during the last year is Epistemic Justice – and its absence, epistemic injustice – a concept which I reflect on often, since it has become a backbone idea in the approach of my work, my activism, my diagnosis of the situation of women in the global south and my vision of the world in which I would like to live. These reflections that I share with you do not intend to articulate a strictly academic presentation. They are my “thinking aloud” and don´t pretend to be completely right nor to establish a truth; rather they express the progress of a personal searching.
I speak as a Muslim feminist who loves to read and write about Feminism and Islam, but is not an academic nor aspires to be recognized as such in this field, although she writes papers and offers lectures in her own capacity on that matters. I speak as a community educator and social entrepreneur, who believes in feminism and spirituality as liberation tools. Since I accepted Islam, I took the experience gained in my work for the political empowerment of grass roots women to nourish an activism in the field of religion and gender justice.
My concept of epistemic injustice is influenced by the perspectives of Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Miranda Fricker. I understand it as a dynamic, hegemonic and cumulative process of denial of women as subjects-people expressed in oppressive relationships based on the naturalization of inferiority for biological, ethnic, cultural or social reasons by different means (Santos, 2006). This affect some aspect of their sociocultural existence, which puts into question their quality as subjects of knowledge. An epistemic injustice occurs when the capacity of people to transmit knowledge and their ability to make sense of their social experiences is nullified. (Fricker, 2017)
Epistemic justice would be, then, a liberation project formed by a set of processes, methods, practices and framework to challenge, question, answer and dismantle injustice and counteract that hegemonic dynamic of oppressive relations to facilitate their individual and collective emancipation, their recognition as knowledge producers and the intensification of the will to fight against oppression and disorientation.
The current system of education and production of religious knowledge fosters epistemic injustice in, at least, two ways. On one hand, it centers on the formal academy and the authority of androcentrism, hijacking the agency of ordinary people, “the commons” – women mainly, to explain religion for themselves and the very notion of their existence as knowledge producer. On the other hand, although women are majority members of religious communities, our presence is not consistent with the limited access to knowledge, leadership roles or authority. Still, women are consumers of religious products, including among them, religious narratives about them that damages their experience as religious subjects.
These stories about women in religion promote stereotypes that dehumanize women’s lives by classifying them as mothers, saints and whores or by exacerbating passivity, sacrifice and modesty as typically female virtues and confining what it means to be a woman to the reproductive tasks at the private world, as a natural space for women “because God ordains it.” Either through the narratives of Catholic Marianism or religious motherism in Latin America or those islamic tales that reduce the spiritual experience of Muslim women to the presence of the Islamic veil or hijab, religious narratives are responsible for a profound epistemic injustice against women, with violent consequences throughout history.
Islam is not exempt from patriarchal hegemonic narratives and practices that deprive women of their status as people and producers of knowledge, which are normalized and considered the know-how due to cumulative repetition throughout history and maintenance of androcentric authority as legitimate. This even in so-called “inclusive” or “progressive” spaces.
In 2017 I was invited by the administration of The Open Mosque in Cape Town- a so identified inclusive and gender equal space- to a session of study and conversation about some passages of the Qur’an. Soon after the meeting began, I realized that opinions were free … as long as they were those opinions that agreed with those of the male scholar and manager. Otherwise, it was better to shut up. When I mentioned that I had a background in feminist hermeneutics of the Qur’an, the male scholar told me that he “was not interested in feminist nonsense.” I said that if that was the case, then why was there a sign in the entrance declaring the belief on gender equality in Islam? The male scholar told me that “it was not necessary to get hysterical” and he asked me if I was with my menstruation.
All this happened in front of a group of “brave” Muslim men, those who “defend the basic principles of Islam” like respect and dignity of people. I left that “Open Mosque” very annoyed, because I had been disrespected and humiliated. My ability and opinion had been disqualified, just because my vision bothered the male scholar in charge and my femininity had been used to demeaning me. The matter did not end there. The next day, one of those same men, asked me not to talk about what had happened because “The mosque could be criticized and that would not be good.” When I answered that I had no fuck in my wallet to give about that and even if they did not care about the injustice they witnessed, I did care, he said that then, I was not a true Muslim.
Epistemic injustice is the denial of women as producers of knowledge and is based on the original injustice inflicted on all women: The denial of our quality of people. If women are not people, then women can not produce knowledge, can not speak for ourselves, have rights, participate in society. When a girl is born, she is “bestowed” the foundational denial that will allow the normalization of this violence and belittling during all her life: The denial that she is a human being. Women in patriarchal societies are not people: we are bodies, objects, “pussies” but not individuals. The society not only allows this, endorses it and benefits from, by keeping women in the denial of our personhood and humanity making sure we accept this situation through the process of socialization. Women have been taught to live in denial to support a narrative that oppresses us. We learn to accept the denial of our humanity and to sustain the denial of the humanity of other women.
All the violences a female will live along her life, both in the personal and public sphere are expressions of the denial of her humanhood as a political mechanism of control on her. Religions are devices for epistemic injustice, of course, but considering that there is a large presence of women in them and where there are women you have to try to make feminism, the question is: Can religions be spaces to develop epistemic justice? If this is possible, how? If there are feminisms in religions, what should these be? Can women transform religion by becoming knowledge producers? If the answer to this is yes, then how and to what extent? All injustice is epistemic injustice so, in this regard, exploring the ways in which we can achieve this is a discussion to have.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a specialist in training and community outreach in Gender, Communication and Interculturality. She’s also a learning and social projects designer and a qualitative researcher; an awarded activist for women’s rights who too does independent scholarship in Religion, Gender and Social Discourses. Nomadic writer. A woman with stories and geographies, lover of books, cats and spicy Chai.