Vanessa Rivera de La Fuente is Muslim, feminist, and a human rights activist
Photo: Personal archive
Background: Journal O ‘Globo, one of the most important newspapers in Brazil, belonging to the transnational media group of the same name, published this interview with Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente on Islamic Feminism. Given its relevance to the discussion on the subject, it was translated by prominent Islamic feminist and scholar Keci Ali to share it with English-speaking readers.
The Muslim women’s movement has different agendas in accordance with the reality of each country. In Latin America, the Muslim Vanessa Rivera fights against prejudice about Islam.
by Isabela Aleixo*
Vanessa Rivera de La Fuente is Chilean and Muslim. Besides being an academic researcher, she’s also an Islamic feminist engaged with questions of gender, human rights, and social development. Vanessa has wide experience in social projects in Latin American countries.
In an interview with CELINA, she discusses the prejudices that Muslim women face in Latin America, explains the movement’s demands, destroys stereotypes, and declares: “I’m a woman and I demand to be treated as a person.”
Do you consider yourself an Islamic feminist? Why?
I consider myself a feminist woman, who lives feminism in all the distinct facets of her life: I’m Muslim; I’m a single mother; I’m a professional woman, an academic; and I’m a women’s rights activist. I’m feminist with all my life experiences. I think being a woman in male-dominated society is itself a political fact, so everything that I am as a woman can be resignified by feminism, including being Muslim. Islam is integrated into my life and my political struggle, which is intersectional. It’s based on the radical idea that all women are people and we deserve equal rights and a world free of violence.
Did you grow up in a Muslim community?
No. I’m a Muslim by choice. I also didn’t convert to Islam to marry a Muslim man. The decision was mine alone. I grew up in a progressive Catholic family and was educated that way. I studied in a high school run by nuns who taught me about Liberation Theology. I decided to embrace Islam as my spiritual path after years of searching, reflection, and introspection about the transcendent. My family supported me. I am always learning and I greatly value the right we have to choose what we want to believe in—or if we don’t want to believe in anything. This is an essential freedom, the freedom of choice, especially in matters that allow us to design our life’s project: the body, ideas, feelings, beliefs. Choosing is a quality that makes us human.
What are the demands of the Muslim feminist movement?
Islamic feminisms are reform movements whose objective is ample social justice for women and for all oppressed people. The goal is the recuperation of the original liberation’s message of the Qur’an, by means of a feminist hermeneutic, and the development of a critical theology whose conclusions serve to support political activism for the equality and dignity of women and oppressed people everywhere. The demands and the forms of struggle depend on the context, the goals, and the perspectives of the people involved, so they will differ in each country, Muslim community, or women’s group.
In countries like Malaysia, for example, Islamic feminism seeks ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by a conservative religious government. In the United States, Islamic feminism fight against Islamophobia and religious fundamentalism and [for] egalitarian participation of women and marginalized groups in their communities.
How does this relate to the reality in Arab countries?
There is a stereotype which identifies Muslim women with Arab women. This stereotype is nourished by many feminists too, inside and outside of Islam, but I think this conflation is dangerous, reductionist, and violent because it only benefits those women who fit in that depiction, giving them the privilege of representation, leaving other Muslim women invisible. There is a presumption of Arab racial supremacy and representativeness in Islam which affects Black women and non-white convert women, but this is a topic for another time. What’s important is that an Arab woman and a Muslim woman aren’t the same thing.
Arab women have their own feminist movements. They may or may not center Islam in their feminism, even if they are Muslim. Islamic feminism relates to the reality of Arab countries to the extent that Arab women declare themselves Islamic feminists and develop an activism that takes Islam as part of their political discourse. In the Islamic world, there is a diversity of women and of feminisms.
What are the demands of Islamic feminists in Chile, where you live?
In Chile and in Latin America generally, the challenge is to be a Muslim woman in societies where there are many prejudices about women in Islam. The general idea is that we, Muslim women, are passive and ignorant, and that we spend the whole day thinking about religion. It’s very difficult to be taken seriously as a professional if people know you’re Muslim, because they presume you’re incompetent. Then, you have to work harder. Once, I applied for a job in a well-known university in my city and they told me that even if I were perfect for the role, they had a problem with me because I was ‘religious.’ That is, they assume that I, as a Muslim woman, am orthodox and a fanatic and that I’ll preach Islam at work. I didn’t have this problem in Mexico, in England, or in South Africa, where I worked normally in academic, governmental, and social settings. It’s been difficult for me to earn respect as a gender specialist in Chile because people say that “a Muslim can’t be a feminist, can’t teach us anything about gender equality, can’t facilitate our empowerment. To the contrary: she is the one who should be educated and saved by us.”
That’s why in 2016 I started a collective project for intercultural communication about gender which seeks to make visible the presence and contribution of Muslim women in different spheres of human activity, beyond stereotypes. In my country, prejudices are still very strong even if things have changed thanks to the activism of these same Islamic feminists.
What are the recent political victories of the Muslim women’s movement?
Islamic feminism is an in development project that uses diverse approaches and realities to intervene in favor of more social justice for women. One of the most notable recent achievements was Islamic feminists in India winning the abolition of unilateral, instantaneous divorce. This isn’t in the Qur’an but it is practiced by many Muslims and consists of the “triple talaq”: the man says “Talaq” (I repudiate you or I divorce you) three times to the woman, even by text message, and this suffices as divorce. With this “method,” the woman had no rights and was exposed to various sorts of violence. Now, doing this is a criminal offense.
How does religion relate to the feminist movement? Is there a contradiction?
Is there a contradiction in the fact of women being feminists? Is there a contradiction in finding feminism where there are women? When someone asks if I can be Muslim and feminist, at the root they are putting my humanity in doubt. If people can be feminists, then I can too, because I am a woman and I demand to be treated as a person. Religion is a product of history. It allows oppressive readings, as we’ve had up till now, but also liberatory readings. As a feminist I think all knowledge should be reinterpreted. Why not religion? Institutionalized religion is a political fact, as is women’s experience within it. There’s no reason to leave religion outside of feminism. Women’s emancipation is also spiritual. Islamic feminists are not only a possibility, we are a reality. We exist and in our spaces, we are pushing against the barriers that sustain the patriarchy so that they will fall. And I have faith that they will fall.
*Intern under the supervision of Renata Izaal
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Muslim feminist, activist, and writer.