Academic journal article Ahfad Journal

"Gendered Resistance, Feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism"

Academic journal article Ahfad Journal

"Gendered Resistance, Feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism"

Article excerpt

Prelude

The strand of feminism that assumes a universality of womanhood, often expressed in activists' phraseology by terms such as 'global sisterhood', has been irreversibly challenged by anthropology on systematic ethnographic and theoretical grounds (see Moore 1988: 7; 10-11; 186-195). Moore convincingly demonstrated that "[A]nthropology is in a position to provide a critique of feminism based on the deconstruction of the category 'woman'" (11). Moore goes on to say that cross-cultural data demonstrate a Western bias in much mainstream feminist theorizing. She describes how black feminists, for example, regarded the focus of 'women as women' in politics and writing which assumes a necessary unity and solidarity among all women "privileges one particular discourse about women or 'womanhood' over others" (190). This assumption and privileging have been also critiqued by Arab and Muslim feminists.

Despite the evidence against the "universality claim", some advocates of universality and a few feminist scholars continue to adopt it, overlooking the obvious and significant fact that feminism itself is grounded in culture and that feminists from any society or any particular cultural tradition hold and internalize premises and assumptions stemming out of their culture that shape their orientation to feminist issues. It is contended here that any feminist model, paradigm or framework is largely informed by the framer's culture (or even subculture). The American-based feminist agenda is assumed to speak to issues of concern by, in the case of our focus here, Arab and Muslim women just as it does to issues of some American women. By accepting this assumption the notion which was already convincingly refuted--that of 'the universal woman'--is propagated further as a legitimate notion. In addition to the convincing anthropological challenges to the efficacy of this notion, some feminists are perhaps unaware of the hegemonic character of imposing their agenda upon women from different cultural traditions. If aware, then it becomes a situation not only of hegemony, but one of a false consciousness of dominance with a subtext of racist arrogance. Consider this quote by Miriam Schneir (1972), an American feminist editing and writing in a collection of essays on feminism: "No feminist works emerged ... out of the Moslem harems; centuries of slavery do not provide a fertile soil for intellectual development or expression" (xiv, emphasis added). I call this hegemonic feminism. First, Schneir has no expertise on Arab culture, on harems, or on Islam, nor is she versed in any ethnographic knowledge. She represents the nonimpirical armchair feminist par excellence--fanatically ideological. Second, Schneir in the early 1970s writes that Muslim women who grew in "harems" are stunted in intellectual development and therefore are unable to produce feminist works (a claim easily refuted if Schneir had any rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and was versed in the most sophisticated feminist discourse coming out of the Arab world). Third, equating "harems" with "slavery" shows how Schneir neither knows about harems nor slavery as historical institutions (on a more educated analysis of the Arabic notion of harim, of which harem is English distortion, see El Guindi 1999a: 23-46).

When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 2003 to Shirin Ebadi, a Muslim woman judge from Iran, it was a surprise to many. But to Western, especially American, feminists it must have been a big blow to their condescending posture vis-a-vis Muslim women in general. The message was clear from the award--that there can be a different feminism and that it can be born out of an Islamic State. When the Nobel Committee gave the world's most celebrated prize to a Muslim Iranian woman living in an Islamic state, it sent a strong message that an Islamic state can successfully produce a Muslim feminist. It also made Shirin Ebadi exemplary--a model for other Muslim women (see El Guindi 2003). …

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