Notes on Islam and feminism in science fiction

I’ve been reading a lot about feminist science fiction lately, mostly of out fascination for its philosophical what-ifs and fantastic plots and situations. And as a casual reader of the genre rather than a fan, I am intrigued by the questions raised by feminist science fiction writers about culture and heteronormativity (guest contributor Gareth shares my views on these issues in his excellent review of the feminist SF classic, The Left Hand of Darkness).

The philosophical potential in science fiction got me interested in the depiction of Islam and Muslim women in science fiction writing – I wanted to know whether science fiction has some clues as to how different cultures and religions can live peacefully in utopic bliss, or not.

With popular media culture and media already full of negative portrayals of Muslims, it’s perhaps a little unsurprising then that science fiction has its fair share of ‘Arab baddies’. A number of novels depict a world taken over by extremist Muslims either far in the distant future or a world where Islam is presented in the seat of global power following a near extinction of the Europeans in the Black Death. Either way, the formula is the same: what if the anti-thesis of Western hegemony came into power?

The eponymous eye in Philip K. Dick’s novel, Eye in the Sky, directly refers to the all-seeing eye of God in a world where Muslim extremists rule and plagues are instantly willed by a divine presence. It’s interesting that Islamic extremism in the novel is made a convenient stand in for all that was bad about the United States in the 1950’s: from the paranoia of the McCarthy era to the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianity – perhaps Muslims in 50’s America were as little understood as extra-terrestrials that often constituted The Other in SF. The cover I thought, was pretty offensive as well – the ominous eye of God is illustrated as fearsome, tyrannical, malevolent. Allah = bad.

While searching on the new and absolutely fascinating Islam and Science Fiction website, I found a much earlier example of oppressive Muslims in G.K. Chesterton’s 1914 novel, The Flying Inn. Again, in a world conquered by mean Muslims where alcohol is strictly forbidden by Shariah law, the central protagonist heroically smuggles alcoholic drinks from village to village in England, hence the ‘flying inn’. Like Eye in the Sky, the Muslims in The Flying Inn are presented as a threat to personal freedoms and the European way of life. Remember, this was written at the turn of the last century. So arguably, nothing much as changed.

In only less than ten years before Chesterton’s racist romp emerged Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s famous short story, The Sultana’s Dream in 1905. Wikipedia provides a succinct synopsis:

[The Sultana’s Dream] depicts a feminist utopia of role reversal, in which men are locked away in seclusion, in a manner corresponding to the traditional Muslim practice of purdah for women. As a result, women run everything, aided by science fiction-esque “electrical” technology which enables labourless farming and flying cars. Crime is eliminated, since men were responsible for it all. The workday is only two hours long, since men used to waste six hours of each day in smoking. The religion is one of love and truth, rather than any traditional faith with a history of denying the rights of women.

Role reversal was the final resort during an invasion by a neighbouring kingdom. When the military strength of the men proved futile, the women scientists of the land put their heads together to develop a parabolic mirror to cast away the enemy. The mirror, “ directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy”. After successfully winning the battle, the men voluntarily, perhaps out of shame, remain secluded in the zenana running the household chores and looking after the children while the women ruled the land. The concept of a non-hierarchical/classless society is also suggested here; the Queen welcomes visitors into her home without the need for protocol, security, pomp and circumstance.

Having a soft spot for unconventional love stories, Maureen McHugh’s novel, Nekropolis and Stephen Dedman’s story Transit instantly caught my attention. Both stories play with the idea of love that crosses the boundaries of biological construct – a human/cyborg and hermaphrodite/woman romance. These ideas push even further questions about what defines love and who deserves and is capable to love.

A search online came up with a pretty good write-up of Nekropolis:

Nekropolis tells the story of Hariba, a simple Moroccan girl who has been cast into the world of institutionalized slavery. Hariba has been “jessed”, techno-biologically altered to be subservient to whoever has purchased her. Hariba is essentially a housekeeper to her owner, Mbarek, a wealthy merchant who is a good man and a good provider. Mbarek also owns a male “harni”, [an] artificial human construct, whose name is Akhmim. He looks and acts human, but the reader is constantly reminded that, in this near futuristic society at least, he is considered less than human. Although Hariba initially feels disdain towards him, she eventually comes to care for him very much. When Hariba is sold to a new owner, her longing for Akhmim causes her to challenge her programming and run away with him – actions which defy both society and God; actions that could lead to severe punishment and death.

Transit is a kind of Romeo and Juliet teen romance between the narrator, a human hermaphrodite and a Muslim woman on an intergalactic pilgrimage. Although set in a futuristic utopian society where material comfort is assured by robotic factories and many planets are made possible for human settlement, xenophobic prejudices that conspire to keep the couple apart have yet to be overcome. Advanced infrastructure and materialism, backward bigotry. Sounds familiar?

Science fiction can act as an entertaining and thought-provoking device to facilitate discussions about contemporary politics and the state of society. I see a lot of potential in SF in engaging with the many pertinent issues that Muslim women face today – particularly regarding tradition, prejudices, the law, sexuality, multiculturalism, the whole lot. It’s been more than a hundred years since the publication of The Sultana’s Dream, and yet the prospect of education for girls in some parts of the world is still a distant dream. Could science fiction be just a sad reminder of a reality that never was and never will be?

2 thoughts on “Notes on Islam and feminism in science fiction

  1. Pingback: Weekend round-up of favourite online reads 11/1 « Cycads

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