Post-liberal jihad: Muslim feminism during a time of cruelty and despair

I’ve written a commissioned article for The G-Blog on the present challenges of Muslim feminism in Malaysia and globally, linking it to wider structures of war, (post)-neoliberal economics, and the rise of alt-right political narratives.


Situating Muslim feminism in the bigger picture

Let’s face it, times are bad. Full-time and secure paid work are drying up, and real wages are not catching up with the rising prices of basic essentials. More adults in their 20s and 30s continue to live with their parents because it is too expensive to live on their own. Millennials have inherited a post-2008 global recession that never really recovered and an overpowering culture of debt. And now we welcome 2017 on a low note. We watch a car crash in slow motion as global superpowers and their leaders prove themselves to be devastatingly anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-peace. It will take a long time to offset the damage of their politics.

So what is the role of Muslim feminism during this period of cruelty and despair? Feminist-identified Muslim women of all ages are faced with challenges that crisscross faith and the secular arenas of their lives. It is time to connect the dots between different types of gender-based oppressions with those of male-dominated interpretations of religion. But being female and Muslim is not isolated from the economic and political reality either. In fact, the poor economic situation and political corruption have an impact on feminist and faith-based belief. The spiritual meaning of patience (sabar as being a component of one’s iman) and moral right or haqq are not used and reclaimed in the public discourse to alleviate the daily humiliations of Muslim women and non-normative people. Instead, sabar is distorted to justify domestic and national suffering. What is morally right becomes manipulated to condone the discrimination of women and people of non-normative genders and sexualities from attaining their full potential in the public sphere.

What does it mean to be young, Muslim and feminist today? For many young women, it means a whole new life; a commitment that transforms their way of thinking about the world, a new set of friends, and re-orientation of priorities manifested in their ambitions and daily practices. This commitment is synonymous with what is understood as ‘feminist consciousness’, a process of seeing the world from a gendered perspective and about being re-born as a feminist. However, the backlash that awaits them for articulating their feminist commitment is often hostile and violent. Rather than an apparatus and ideological framework for social justice, the iconoclastic demands of feminism are frequently judged as un-Islamic and inimical to local culture. Muslim feminism is not the default feminism for people who identify as feminist women and Muslim. When I conducted a focus group last September on what it means to be a Muslim feminist today, the responses I got were eye-opening: Muslim feminists are not entirely enamoured by the limits of ‘Muslim feminism’. Perhaps there is an assumption that being a Muslim feminist means looking at every feminist issue from a religiously-informed lens when not everything that is important to being a person is religious or Islamic.

Read the rest here and the Malay version translated by Sarahaida Khairuddin.

Is Muslim feminism more than just a hijab defense?

There may be 1,001 Muslim feminist critiques on the European burqa ban and its attendant jokes and jibes, insults, and ridiculousness. But what should remain clear is that we Muslim feminists are not just about the hijab. The recent discussion on LGBT acceptance on MMW revealed the cracks in the Muslim “sisterhood” and it began with a post on gay Muslim women in Indonesia.

Homosexuality and Islam has always been a divisive topic, a topic that leaves many in breathless contempt for the LGBT community, Muslim or not. Is this a discursive space Muslim feminism should step in? I’m not advocating for a single stand on homosexuality that Muslim feminists should take, but I am simply suggesting that we broaden our horizons.

If we take a minute to consider the current trajectory of contemporary feminism, yes, the one that’s dominated by mostly White, middle-class, straight women; we find that their activism has moved beyond Woman-centric navel-gazing and has taken into account other intersecting elements that define a woman’s identity: race, sexuality, class. Other than gender, a woman may be a mother, disabled, transgender, Asian, and yes, Muslim. Is Muslim feminism really inclusive of the concerns of a Muslim woman who may also be White, lesbian, or working class?

This question may be a little far removed from what is expected of Muslim feminism. As Muslim feminists, we are concerned about what empowers us as Muslim women. The obvious place where many of us find strength is in our faith, and many more turn to sacred scripture for self-affirmation. This is perhaps where the lines between Muslim feminism and Islamic feminism blur.

Islamic feminism is often regarded the preserve of the scholarly elite who analyze scripture in microscopic detail. There is much to be learned from Islamic feminists and at many points Muslim feminists will find their activism converging with academics on matters that need to be certified “halal.” There are difficult issues that many Muslims do not see eye-to-eye with in which knee-jerk unchecked prejudices often bring discussions into a standstill (because on a moderated Muslim feminist website, offensive comments are deleted). A lot of religious people are afraid of being critical about certain things that are taught to them by those deemed more knowledgeable, pious, and respected in their communities.

Being critical may be akin to being anti-Islam, challenging the very core of the faith. Systems of oppression rely on unchecked prejudices, rumors, and assumptions. Without statistical data, there would be little proof that women are under-represented in government and in the boardroom for example, and hence proof that women still have little power in decision-making public roles. This enough debunks the assumption that women are already equal to men in society. When it comes to Muslim feminism, we are left with scripture, data, and the voices of Muslim women themselves.

I feel incredibly blessed to be part of MMW, which is one of the most recognizable Muslim feminist groups on the web, cited by “mainstream” feminists in their books—albeit as a fleeting, “oh, by the way” reference to the diversity of the global feminist movement. At the moment, the Muslim feminist agenda (even if there was a hazy idea of one) is limited both by the media’s obsessive preoccupation with the hijab and small scope of issues we can tackle from a Muslim feminist perspective. Do we take our Muslim feminist hat off to put another one on when we talk about reproductive justice? How would a Muslim feminist feel about capitalism and unethical consumerism? These may be issues that may be beyond the remit of Islamic feminists who turn to strictly theological sources for answers, but is definitely within the purview of Muslim feminism.

There may be Muslim women who would prefer to distance themselves from identifying with “Western” White feminism, but take on the keywords that are cornerstone of the same feminism they reject. “Choice” and “empowerment” can easily be appropriated like empty semantic vessels to fill according to one woman’s liking. But as Muslim feminists, must we take “choice” and “empowerment” so trivially? Choice and empowerment should not be about individualism; it’s not just about you, but also about other women who are like us in many ways. All of this wraps up the reason why this article wanted to be written. Besides dispelling myths about what goes on “under the veil,” issues that capture the political/personal concerns of Muslim women should be on the agenda.