On embracing choice and contraditions

No, I haven’t turned my back on feminism. But rather I want to invite discussion on the things we sometimes do to ourselves that appear contrary to the defining tenets of feminism. I couldn’t bring myself to write or blog about feminism lately because I found myself arriving at a state of crisis, both an internal one and a crisis that not many feminists have addressed. And it has to do with the mantra ‘Choice’ and the choices made that, not far beneath the surface of emancipation, lies agency that is inextricably linked with cultural limitations that we all cannot fully escape.

What do I mean by all of this? Well, firstly, I was afraid that Muslim feminists in the West are perhaps using the term ‘choice’ too loosely to defend the rights of women who the face veil. Yes, a Muslim woman has every right to choose what to wear, but simply arguing that it’s all about choice full stop may be not answering the questions many detractors of the hijab are interested.

Feminism is big about choice and emancipation, but what we’ve been accused of is the gradual decline in happiness since the women’s libbers in the West took centre stage. How many times have we heard about the rise of unhappiness in women and that maybe feminism has got to do with it? I think choice should be about happiness. But when we talk about emancipation and empowerment, I think feminism will be a losing battle if it concerns only individualist pursuits. I am strongly convinced that the fragmentation of feminism has plenty to with the idea that “It’s about MY choice and what empowers ME that matters”.

On the niqab: I think Muslim feminists need to have an honest discussion about what we feel uncomfortable about it. We all need to be honest about the gendered nature of women’s clothing in Islam and how that fits in with our feminism. Muslim feminists may be backing themselves into a corner if an argument of choice cannot explain for the sexualisation of women’s bodies and why certain societies cannot bear the sight of them.

How much is the choice of women in hijab influenced by these attitudes and cultural trends? I think it’s wonderful that women can have a choice to retreat from the world where women are judged by the way they look. But that choice is grounded on the basis that women are not respected enough as a complete person.

The crisis in Muslim feminism may be all in my overheated head from thinking too much. But I am nonetheless resigned to believe that sometimes choice can be irrational, just as happiness is. Choices can be contradictory and that should be okay as long as we’re honest about them. Empowerment can mean different things and can be just as contradictory as ‘free’ choice. As for emancipation, I don’t think there can be full emancipation of the self until emancipation of society as a whole is possible. I think feminist politics can do better by slowly moving away from pushing for simply ‘choice’ but an informed one. Just like in reproductive terms, an informed choice can genuinely empower women.

4 thoughts on “On embracing choice and contraditions

  1. You know, that’s a good point. Muslims need to ask these questions, and examine the unspoken assumptions we make. I mean, the existence of sumptuary rules that govern the dress of women, how we interpret the Qur’an and what role the Hadith holds in shaping Muslim thought…

    But that’s the thing; it needs to be Muslims who make these questions, explore these avenues, and re-evaluate what we do to ourselves. Not anyone else, and certainly not anyone else with the stated intention of “saving” Muslims.

    • Great post, great blog, Mashallah. Some random thoughts you inspired:

      I think a more nuanced definition of feminism would be useful. The valorization of “choice” (beyond the realm of reproductive rights) seems to have more to do with “fun feminism” or “new” feminism [http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2008/12/25/new-feminism-plump-luscious-and-kissable/]
      than with the liberal feminism and radical feminism that have been blamed for feminist’s unhappiness.

      Can the same be said of Muslim feminism? Is there some nuance there? I’ve been a feminist for a long time but only recently a Muslims (a year now) and still have a lot to read about Muslim feminism.

      There’s been a lot of feminist work on the sexualization of women’s bodies and on the patriarchal nature of women’s clothing (in Western culture). Femininity by Susan Brownmiller is a great start. If Muslim feminists are not engaging with this literature than I definitely agree with you that is sorely needed.

      I see “choice” used more by women who wear hijab than by Muslim feminists (not that the two are necessarily exclusive). They seem to want to emphasize that no man has made them do this. This ignores the fact that choices are not made in a vacuum — if there are social consequences within the Muslim community for women who choose not to wear hijab, then it’s not a free choice. http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2006/07/22/she-blames-the-spice-girls/%5D is a great post on “faux choices” available to women — the examples are from mainstream Western culture but I think they’re equally true of Muslim women.

      • Thank you Zuhura,

        I don’t think “popular” and “mainstream” Muslim feminism has much nuance. The more established Muslim feminism tends to be academic and theological in nature, and I think this isolates women and men who don’t belong in academic circles or “in the know”. Because Muslim feminism is traditionally theology-based, Islamic feminist scholars have a lot in their hands to tackle “non-traditional” Muslim women issues like objectification in the media, sexual harassment, equal pay and reproductive rights for instance. In the end, we don’t have all the Muslim feminist answers to these all these issues.

        One thing that American and British feminism is successful at is establishing a kind “mainstream” feminism that is based a lot on political manifestos that are in themselves inspired by a variety of disciplines – economics, religion, popular culture for example. If Islam is going to be a way of life, Muslim feminism can also be a way of life and it needs to take on board these broader issues rather than simply focusing on sharia laws. Of course sharia laws are incredibly important to many Muslim women and can play a huge role in our lives, but feminist interpretations of the Sharia law is not enough to explain the heterosexist culture in our society.

    • T-boy,
      The usual Muslims who would tackle these issues in a calm manner are liberal Muslims. When quoting the more positive verses in the Quran and hadith, liberal Muslims should also know how to tackle the more controversial and negative ones. Most times they don’t and what we have is no dialogue between (roughly) two major camps of Muslims (the conservative and the progressives) . Usually liberal scholars take on the challenge by taking into consideration the bitter and the sweet of Islamic texts and tradition, but they are either un-popular, unknown in popular media, or their reputation precedes their work (i.e. Amina Wadud).

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