Friday, October 24, 2008

Islamic Feminism

In all this wet and cold non-dreariness, I got up at 7 AM yesterday morning to go to a conference at Mohammed V University with a few other women from the NIMAR. Entitled “La Feminisme Face aux Défis du Multiculturalisme”, it was organized primarily by AFARD (Association des Femmes Africaines pour la Recherche et le Développement),* to offer a full week of panel sessions on issues of feminism as it relates to the modern and globalized Muslim world: to religion, to migration, education, development, and so on.** We went only to Thursday morning’s program; a single plenary session on feminism and religion.

The conference was held entirely in French, and unfortunately proved to lie just above my level of comprehension. I could generally follow what topics were being discussed, but persistently missed the subtlety of the arguments that were being made. Despite my eagerness to learn what is being said about these issues in this part of the world, I am unable to report right now what points were made by the women I heard speak. I was relieved, I must confess, when one of the other women I was with told me she wasn’t able to follow everything, either.

Nevertheless, it was interesting. The panel topic was feminism and religion, and at issue was mainly the basic question: can you be Muslim and feminist at the same time? Is it possible to be an Islamic feminist? This is a question that often comes up in anthropological literature about women in the Muslim world (obviously), and in those cases authors usually discuss how these women are able to exercise agency (as in, make their own choices and lead a life that is meaningful to them) within an Islamic society. At this conference, the approach was different: under discussion was mostly the issue of Scriptural interpretation, and with that, the issue of how context and written text go together. In Islam, I think this issue is more difficult than it is for, let’s say, Christianity. This is because according to Islamic theology, the Qur’an is the literal word of God. It is not someone’s interpretation or account of history; it is the direct recording, by a number of people, of Mohammed’s recitation of God’s word. That makes the question of interpretation tricky – because if this text is precisely what God said, shouldn’t we take it literally? A lot of people, and most Islamic feminists among them, say no, not necessarily. God made these revelations to a particular people in a particular period of time, and this context needs to be taken into account. What we should extract from the Qur’an are the principles it conveys, not the concrete ways in which they are formulated. After all, the Qur’an is not a book of law, as one of the speakers today said; it is a book of visions.

As I mentioned, I am not exactly sure what these speakers were arguing, and so cannot say what new viewpoints they contributed to this discussion. But it is a larger, ongoing one that has been written about a lot, and I am curious to see how much further this debate can go, and how it will affect Islamic practice worldwide. Morocco’s family law was actually completely overhauled in 2004, after years of feminist activism and much controversy. It is now no longer based on the Shari’a – an Islamic book of law based on a quite literal interpretation of the Qur’an – and has equalized men and women to a large extent.*** The only remaining issue, as one of the women I was with informed me, is inheritance – women can still only inherit half of what men do. This is more difficult to change than most other issues, because it is one of the few things that is actually mentioned concretely and explicitly in the Qur’an. My companion was curious to see if it would be brought up, because it is quite the explosive issue, apparently. It was indeed mentioned, though I – once again – do not know what precisely was said about it.

As I sat, a little too easily distracted with my inability to completely follow what was being said, I looked around the room and noticed a lot of pictures being taken – both by members of the audience and by an official photography team. I began to get the impression that as much as this conference was about sharing ideas and coming up with new ones, it was also simply about ‘being’ there – about stepping up onto a stage and being seen and heard. Feminism is still at that stage in Morocco, perhaps, that such a conference is in itself already an act of claiming something, regardless of what, precisely, is being said.

But then I noticed something else – that there were hardly any men. If this is about being heard, it’s sad that the only audience is that of the proverbial choir. A self-selected audience of women who already share the ideas being promulgated. Of course, these women were granted a room at a prestigious national university. They were given a stage, and if just taking a stage is already an act of claiming something, then being given a stage is perhaps already in itself an act of being heard. But as long as no ‘outsiders’ actually listen to what is being said, how much will really change for women?

* AFARD is a pan-African NGO based in Senegal, according to its flyer. It was created in 1977 to tackle issues such as Africa’s socio-economic conditions, gender relations, human rights, and the encouragement of women’s contribution to Africa’s development and democratization. For more info, go to
** Apparently there is no word for ‘feminism’ in darija. And so I explained the topic of this conference to Ilyas and to my host family as being about ‘women, religion, culture and equality.’
*** I don’t know to what extent this new ‘equality’ can be termed a form of Islamic feminism; I’m not sure whether or not religion has factored into outlining the new rights and responsibilities for each gender. But the issue of defining ‘feminism’ is tricky in the first place, let alone ‘religious feminism’… and I’m sure religion was by no means completely absent.

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