Transnational Feminism, Islam, and the Other Woman: How to Teach

Article excerpt

Let's admit it: feminism is always confronted by the other woman. No, not the "Other" woman, not the women of color, poor women, women of the Third World: to those, even the most traditional liberal feminist gives a sympathetic nod, a phenomenon Audre Lorde described as "the special Third Wodd Women's Issue." (1) The other woman is the individual who seems to come out of the woodwork and to whom The Man suddenly begins to pay attention. If she is a Muslim woman, she denounces Islam with indignation. If she is a woman of color, she denounces her "culture" as a thoroughly patriarchal, oppressive, and static entity. Making a name for herself as the voice of freedom and feminism in the process, the other woman finds a willing and widespread audience in the United States, from Midwestern housewives in book clubs to men in policy think tanks.

All the complex and contextualized discourses transnational feminists have built around women and Islam seem to crumble when an aunt asks us during Thanksgiving dinner, with quasi-feminist indignation, whether we have read The Infidel or The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Here is what we want to say: "Yes, I did, and I was amazed that Ali ignores the work of Leila Ahmad, Fatima Mernissi, Lila Abu-Lughod, or anyone who has done extensive research on Muslim women, and writes as if nuanced criticisms of political Islam by Muslim women do not exist." For my part, I only said "Yes, I did" last Thanksgiving, and let Aunt Sally give me the glowing look of a comrade-in-arms against "Islamofascism." This was a delicate moment, and one in which I believe I failed as a teacher.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty criticized the construction of "The Third World Woman" as a victim of her culture years ago. (2) More recently, Inderpal Grewal revealed how U. S. refugee practices require women of color to represent themselves as victims and their cultures as pathological. (3) Yet, as transnational feminists, we still feel uncomfortable criticizing vocal, politically active women of color, whose monolithic denigrations of Islam and un-nuanced adoration of Western liberal feminism go against everything our movement and work represents. Like Ali, I am of Muslim extraction and I live in the West. As an academic feminist, I do not really want to silence an intelligent woman from a marginalized background who is denouncing practices I also criticize in my work. I cannot, in good faith, say that a woman who serves neo-cons has "false consciousness." To me, such moments reveal that transnational feminism is still an offshoot of Western feminism, and that modern western feminism was built upon the activism fault line between busting structures and aiding individuals. According to Nancy Cott, the successes of the American "woman movement" by the 1920s and the dissolution of gender-segregated "separate spheres" brought to the fore contradictions inherent in a movement that called for women's unity while trying to recognize the diversity among women. (4) Of course women of color and working class women had long before questioned what it meant to base a politics exclusively on sex. (5) The "globalization" of feminism, beginning officially with the 1975-1985 UN Decade of Women, made these fault lines even more acute. So how do we teach about women and Islam to our Azar Nafisi-reading students and our Ayaan Hirsi Ali-reading Aunt Sallys, given this complex grounding of modern and, yes, transnational, feminism?

Here are a few preliminary suggestions, based on my experience co-teaching an upper-level/graduate seminar called "Women, Religion, and Representation in an Age of Globalization" with two influential feminist scholars, Laura Wexler and Sally Promey, in the spring of 2009. (6) Regardless of other pedagogical aims, I believe the progressive scholar engaging women's issues in the Muslim world must strive to do three things: historicize feminism, historicize Islam, and highlight the complexities of representation. …