I Used To Think Feminism & Islam Were Mutually Exclusive - Part I

Posted on Sep 13, 2017
Guest Contributor


Editor's Note: The following is Part I of a personal story about the author's journey to consolidate feminism with her Islamic identity, and the uncomfortable questions feminism forces her to ask. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon!  

Not wanting to identify as a feminist isn’t something unique to the Muslim community. In fact, the general American population has always had a problem with feminism.

In 2013, when YouGov and Huffington post conducted a study with 1000 participants, they found that only 20% of Americans (23% of women and 16% of men) identified as feminists. This number has changed significantly in the past few years. In 2016, the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll found that among a sample of approximately 1600 Americans, 60% of women and 33% of men identified as feminists.

There are a number of factors contributing to this increase, one being the campaigning that took place in the 2017 election, and the centrality of the dangerous sexism of Trump and the fact that Hillary Clinton is biologically female in that campaign.

In many bookstores I walk into now, there is almost always a feminist section - a place where sellers don’t just advertise books on the history of feminism or a collection of essays on the intersection of race and gender, but where they also take a stand against Trump and where they can get women hyped for pink “pussy cat” pins or totes with Ruth Ginsburg’s face on them, Rosie the Riveter magnets,“grrrl power” stickers, or "the future is female" t-shirts. Bookstores that want to come off as inclusive will have Malala’s biography, or a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

But this isn’t a new tactic for Western policy makers or for companies hoping to profit off new trends, in fact, as Mary Hawkesworth says in her book on globalization and feminist activism, colonizing countries have been using "the woman question" since their early interaction with the less civilized other to point out just how much they need them, and then to demonize and invade them.

If I sound sarcastic, it's because there has never been a time since my identifying as a feminist that I have less desired to be a feminist than the time when Hillary Clinton ran for president and her supporters played that women card till I felt sick in the stomach.

In high school, I was never gung-ho about feminism. In fact, I was the perfectly stereotypical anti-feminist: I believed all feminists were lesbian separatists, all white, and all just after having casual sex and abortions. I believed they all thought traditional women were less than, that motherhood was a burden, and all Muslim women were oppressed and needed to be saved.

I wasn't a feminist because feminism and Islam were always pinned against each other—and given the choice, I would always choose Islam.

I came of age always hearing and believing in the mantra "Islam is the solution"—a remnant of my parents' university activism and the Islamic Revival. In the 80s, when my parents were in university, this and, "the all-encompassing nature of Islam" meant that a lot of Muslims subscribed to the idea that Islam had something to say about every question that modernity posed: colonialism, music, politics, gender, and economics. The divide between private and public was a Western invention designed to divide and conquer the Muslim world and culture. In my Islamic high school, we were made to be wary of the mentality of the colonized—being proud and defiant was how we survived.

Photo Credit: White Feminsim; Diana Furukawa, 2017

Feminism then, was at best irrelevant, and at worst, threatening to strip me of the foremost part of my identity.

I went into university equipped with this—fortified and tense and subconsciously terrified.

The change was slow.

In my first year of university I was relatively comfortable, intellectually. I was still convinced that the feminist movement should've stopped at Seneca Falls, that, in principle, a woman’s obedience to her husband wasn’t problematic, that when a woman became a mother, everything else in her life had to become secondary, and that women were more emotional than men and weaker too. Believing these things meant I was still traditional, I was still a good Muslim, and I still hadn't become a sellout.

But I was preoccupied with my place as a woman in the world and what my religion had to say about it, so I read obsessively on Islam and “the woman question.”

I developed a crush on an older grad student who talked to me about a book that discussed different interpretations and controversial statements and rules in the Islamic tradition regarding women. He told me, one day after Friday prayers, that he would send me the details via email.

I had a feeling (or a hope) he would send his email soon, and, two days later, when I was sitting with one of my friends during her night shift in one of the cafes at our university, talking about our favorite Disney shows and our deeply entrenched Jane Austen-inspired anglophilia, he did. It was the first time I ever really spoke to a boy, and this boy had just suggested an encyclopedia where I could turn to for answers to questions I was too scared to acknowledge because I didn’t think Islam would have answers to. It must be love.

I remember taking that book with me everywhere, even though it was heavier than the longest Harry Potter book in hardcover (Order of the Phoenix, in case you wondered). I read it at my friend’s dentist appointment, on the train home, while eating dinner. I felt safe reading this book—here, I was allowed to push the tradition I grew up in, I was allowed to ask questions because god-fearing Muslims were asking the same questions, and they were men too!

But I still couldn’t call myself a feminist, because even though I knew Muslims had been asking these questions and writing about women’s involvement in society and politics, I still felt alienated by the feminist movement, still defined myself in opposition to what they represented.

In my second year of university, when Professor Daniel Rivers, in his first lecture in the course on the Introduction To The Study of Gender and Sexuality, identified as a feminist of working class origins, the son of two lesbian mothers, of Cherokee ancestry, bisexual himself, squarely opposed to militarization and the evils of capitalism, racism, and against the wars waged by the American government against Muslims, Hispanics, black people, and women who believed in the equal worth of men and women. With only the introduction to himself, this man had completely decimated my ideas of feminism as purely a pawn of the imperialism of the American government and that only promoted one way to be pro-women. His introduction told me there is space here for you too, come as you are.

Professor Rivers was also a very color and class conscious person. When I was in high school, I thought saying “black” instead of African American was disrespectful, and that white wasn’t even a color. I thought being color blind was real and a virtue. The fact is, only privileged people can afford to be blind to color, class, gender, and the history of oppression. He talked about Kimberle Crenshaw’s Theory of Intersectionality and how the intersections of our social identities across the spectrums of color, race, and gender contribute to unique resultant systems of oppression and discrimination; the idea is that a white upper-class man has a very different experience in society than a working class black woman, for example. Every time Professor Rivers said “white” or “black,” I felt more comfortable with the notion of complicated identities. I felt comfortable being a complicated identity.

This made room for my identity, and the challenges and privileges I faced as a middle class visibly Muslim American woman. The introduction to the writing of working class women of color and the writing of LGBTQA+ women and critiques of capitalism and militarization by women from "third world countries" opened up feminism for me. It meant that I wasn't only accepted in the movement, but that feminism helped me come up with arguments against the things I had always struggled against and gave me an imagined community to belong to where other people fought for the same things I did. I could still stick it to the man if I was a feminist.

So I became a feminist, and I bought the gear, patches that said "this is what a feminist looks like," and pinned them to my hijab, mostly for the shock value. You're a Muslim. And a feminist? How does that work? You wear hijab. So you're like a real Muslim...and a feminist?

For the most part, I rolled my eyes, and explained, over and over again that there was no contradiction, that Islam was a feminist religion, that God saw men and women as equals.

But that too, is a simplification...


Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon!

R.K. Almajali is the pen name of one caffeine-obsessed book hoarder who dreams of opening up a literary cafe where people can pay at least half their bill in flowers and art. She (almost consistently) writes about women, relationships, language, grief, and how the personal is always political. She can be reached at r.k.almajali@gmail.com 


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