KNOCKING ON THE GATE On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era Edited by Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone; Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam By Amina Wadud Reviewed by Amy Zalman
In the midst of the putative but constantly reported-upon clash between Islam and the West, Islamic feminism holds a unique place, since it is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that these two new books on women, Islam, and globalization have spatial coordinates in their titles. While the possibilities of a globalized, feminized Islam are exhilarating, they are also dislocating. The global, after all, is every territory and none, and the writers in these two volumes are situated at the crossroads where religious revival meets communication revolution.
The writers here return repeatedly to the possibilities that a globalized communications sphere, more than any other globalizing trend, may hold out for Muslim women. Access to the Internet, especially, appears to promise women the chance to challenge authority and establish their own voices, in several registers: as women in male-dominated societies, as Muslims in male-dominated religious traditions, as citizens in authoritarian regimes, and as members of a global citizenry for whom the benefits of economic and cultural globalization are often questionable. The potential, although exciting, is also viewed critically: technology alone will not solve the complex economic, social, and political issues that influence Muslim women's lives.
The fourteen prominent theorists of Islam and feminism represented in On Shifting Ground say that Muslim women, often presumed by Western and otherwise distant observers to operate only within a cloistered sphere, are actually well-positioned to help shape the outside world. Similarly, Amina Wadud, writing from within the metaphorical and real space of the mosque, crosses an allegedly sacrosanct border to declare her rightful place in Islam, calling for reforms that will help her religion better reflect its original, egalitarian intentions. Wadud gained some notoriety when she delivered Friday sermons in a mosque, which no woman had ever done before and which women do not conventionally do now. Indeed, as Mai Yamani, one of the contributors to On Shifting Ground, observes, women are not even allowed to pray in most of Saudi Arabia's 71,000 mosques.
The double silencing of Muslim women—as Muslims in Western- and Christian-dominated modern history and as women in male-dominated Islamic history—is by now a well-worn theoretical trope in postcolonial studies. Nevertheless, it is a useful backdrop to these ruminations on the dramatic implications of amplifying Muslim women's voices. Both books open a necessary new chapter in both modern Islamic practice and Islamic history by describing how current interactions among gender, Islam, and politics are rooted in the global religious revival that began in the 1970s. This revival found particular expression in the Islamic Middle East, but not only there, as Wadud, an African American, attests.
On Shifting Ground explores how Muslim women's use of communication technologies affects local, national, and cyber communities. Historically, communication involved both the human body and the mass media. Sherifa Zuhur, in "Singing a New Song: Breaking and Bonding with the Past," examines women singers from the 1930s through the present. In Egypt and elsewhere, Islamists clashed with women singers whom the Islamists believed were risking their virtue by being heard and seen onstage, since it so violated the conventional public modesty prescribed for women in Islamic societies. Zuhur reminds that as late as 1870, women in Egypt and elsewhere in the Ottoman empire were prohibited by edict from performing in public streets. The renewed interest in conventional morality among Islamists in the 1970s similarly renewed the desire to legislate women's public demeanor.
Lila Abu-Lughod, in "On- and Off-Camera in Egyptian Soap Operas," her study of women TV actors and consumers, concludes that the messages and roles television offers women are not necessarily emancipatory. The soap operas often confirm a narrow, liberal secular agenda that the mass of female viewers either can’t or don’t want to attain. Meanwhile, the soap stars rationalize their public daring by making shows of piety in their private lives.
Women's bodies and how they do or don’t demonstrate religious piety have traditionally been a topic of obsessive interest, if differently so, among both Muslim men and Westerners. Two essays in On Shifting Ground provide provocative although inconclusive evidence of the choices Muslim women are making about their bodies' symbolism. Leila Ahmad, who has written at length about the history of veiling, discusses her observations of young Muslim women in the United States and Europe, which are "fast becoming the centers of the production of the meaning of the hijab." Ahmad points out that in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where veiling is compulsory, it has different meanings from those it has in Western capitals, where veiling is a choice. Young women in the West imbue veiling with multiple symbolic meanings related to "clashing values, … struggles between the powers of empire and those resisting imperial powers, and … clashing classes." These are, of course, radically different from the victimization that many Western observers read into the practice. Indeed, veiling in the West appears, in this collection, to be an unexpected declaration of choice. Islah Jad provides a fascinating essay on the istishhadeyyat (female martyrs) of Hamas, who claim a right to participate in military actions, including self-detonation, and in fact "aim to supersede men to activate their lost role as their women's protectors."
These thoughtful essays set the stage for inquiries into the Internet, which enables some Middle Eastern Muslim women to transcend both their own bodily boundaries and those of the state. They are using the Internet to connect with each other, express themselves, and subvert authority. Female Iranian journalists, for example, used the Internet to expand their influence after actively helping shape a reformist press in late 1990s. While newspaper publishing remains male dominated, women now use the Internet to network and document abuses before a global audience, as Mehrangiz Kar records in "Standing on Shifting Ground," her article on women and civil society in Iran. Intriguingly, there is no agreement whatsoever among the contributors to Shifting Ground about what it all means.
Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone offers an extravagant celebration of cyberspace in her essay on Iranian women and identity, "Wings of Freedom": "For the generation of Iranians born after the revolution of 1979, and particularly for women, the Internet provides an unfettered, direct connection to the outside world, opening a new horizon for dialogue, self-expression and dissident voices." Nouraie-Simone explains that Internet usage has grown more quickly in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East. While the theocratic government keeps young women secluded and sequestered by law, even inside their own clothing, the Internet enables young women bloggers to "[transgress] borders without crossing them," says Nouraie-Simone. The bloggers “challenge the validity and universality of religious decisions that limit individual rights and civil liberties—questioning the very integrity and legitimacy of those in power." Nouraie-Simone’s thesis is powerful, and powerfully hopeful: young women, she says, with little of their parents' revolutionary idealism, may be able to blog their way out of the strangling nexus of masculine state and church power.
Asma Barlas disagrees. For Barlas, writing on "Globalizing Equality: Muslim Women, Theology and Feminism," transformed gender relations must come from within Islam, and only then can they make their way to expression. "Communications technologies will only be able to transform Muslim women's (and men's) lives in a meaningful way if they accompany or, better yet, enable a fundamental epistemic shift in how Muslims interpret and practice Islam," she says. She grants that Iran appears to be a special case, but usefully reminds us that 99 percent of the Middle East is simply too poor and too uneducated to make good use of the Internet.
Thus, women must appropriate theology itself, an issue Wadud discusses in depth. Raised as a Christian, Wadud converted to Islam in 1972, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. "To a young, black, poor female," a member of "an oppressed people struggling for collective survival," Islam appeared uniquely to offer "masculine honor [for men] and the protection of the raised pedestal" for women, says Wadud. Three decades later, however, after considerable scholarship and many years of living in different Islamic societies, Wadud concludes that the pedestal does not exist. Women in Islamic societies, more often than not, have a second-class status that is frequently justified by "neo-traditional concepts about women's roles—no matter how abusive—as integral to Islam."
Wadud realizes she must take the bold step of developing a "female inclusive" exegesis of the Qur'an, Islam's primary divine text. She bases her theological inquiry on the claim that, as Islamic history has revealed, "neither justice nor Islam is static"—although in mainstream Islamic convention, what is called the "gate of interpretation" closed long ago, to both men and women. Wadud's willingness to reinterpret the Qur’an locates her within a growing group of Islamic feminists (including the contributors to On Shifting Ground), both Western and Eastern. Rather than depart from religion for secular notions of equality, these feminists take religion as their starting point, finding a basis for pluralism and equality in Islam's founding texts and concepts. Wadud describes three decades of "gender jihad," which she defines as the "struggle to establish gender equality in Muslim thought and praxis." (In contrast to the word’s solely militaristic connotations in the West, the term jihad also refers to the personal, internal struggle to live in accordance with God's will. The definition we’re likely to encounter in the morning newspaper—the struggle to defend the Islamic community from outsiders—is a secondary one.)
For Wadud, the gender jihad has involved deep study of Islamic theological concepts, such as khilafa (moral agency); re-envisioning those concepts within an egalitarian framework; teaching Islam on its own terms (instead of in relation to christianity) to university students; working with other Muslim women on theological, as well as social and political issues such as HIV/AIDS, in global forums; and taking on the contoversial role of imam (prayer leader) in New York in March 2005.
Wadud walks readers through her own mental processes of trying to make sense of difficult Qur’anic injunctions, such as one permitting wife beating. She makes every effort to approach the divine text before concluding that in this case she must say “ 'no' outright to the literal interpretation of this passage." But she does not abandon the Qur’anic injunction either. Instead, she seeks alternate interpretations of the word "daraba" (to beat) and reminds us that the ethical standards of our era differ from those in the time of the Prophet's. She also spends considerable time making the more complex case that individuals' relationships with God's meaning don’t come from a static understanding of the Qur'an: it does not exist to be “applied,” but to be wrestled with anew by every Muslim. Indeed, she makes the heretical sounding claim that "we are the makers of meaning." This does not mean the Qur'an's divinity is in any way malleable: for Wadud it is absolute. Rather, she wants readers to understand that that God's intentions are only available through the active process of interpretation. To be a Muslim, in other words, is to be in a perpetual state of active "striving," just as the word “jihad” indicates.
Wadud’s voice is full of passion and urgency, and the story of her intellectual and personal journey reveals her as someone with special integrity and courage. This makes the disservice her editors have done her by failing to edit her book all the more unfortunate. The concepts and arguments of the book are themselves complex, and not easily communicated to those with no grounding in Islamic theology or sociology. They are made impenetrable by Wadud's writing, which often sounds like this:
I continue to see the qur'anic text as a central means for …transformation provided the hermeneutical implications are accepted to the extent that both the historical intellectual tradition and the current intellectual considerations are seen as integral to that centrality and prerequisites to actual social reforms.
The topics covered in these books are varied and multiple, and the writers speak in different idioms. Nevertheless, their voices join harmoniously to claim space in public discourse for women and femininity. They insist on participating in debates traditionally restricted to men, about Islam and its formulations of divine justice, and about public life and its formulations of human parity. Above all, these writers say something entirely new about the what Meena Sharify-Funk provisionally suggests is the "emergent, transnational hermeneutic field" of Islamic feminism. Long silenced, Muslim women may now be leading the way to a humane, progressive understanding of the globalized future.
Amy Zalman writes the terrorism issues guide for New York Times online division About.com (http://terrorism.about.com). She teaches modern Middle Eastern history at the New School University in New York.