North American Muslim Women Voice their Concerns

by Sherine Hamdy

Gisela Webb, ed. WINDOWS OF FAITH: MUSLIM WOMEN SCHOLAR-ACTIVISTS IN NORTH AMERICA. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000. 295p. bibl. index. $39.95, ISBN 0-8156-2851-X; pap., $19.95, ISBN 0-8156-2852-8.

Shahnaz Khan, MUSLIM WOMEN: CRAFTING A NORTH AMERICAN IDENTITY. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000. 151p. bibl. index. $49.95, ISBN 0-8130-1749.

Western scholarship and the popular imagination have long been fascinated with the status of women in Islam. Early nineteenth-century Orientalist travel literature portrayed Muslim women as sexually exotic others in "harems" at the height of colonial exploits and sex tourism. More recently, scholarly and popular mass-mediated Western images of the Muslim woman include distorted stereotypes of oppressed, muted, veiled or even shrouded women living in what is often described as a misogynist and violent religious culture. Unfortunately, Islam as a religion and Muslim culture remain grossly misunderstood by the West.

Although popular media in North America often conflate "Muslim" with "Arab," the Islamic world extends far beyond Arab nations, across Asia and Africa and into Europe. Through immigration and conversions, Islam is steadily increasing in North America as well, where it is today the fastest-growing religion. As Islamic communities increase on this continent, it becomes more urgent for Islam as a religion to be understood, and for dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim North Americans to increase.

Gisela Webb's edited collection, Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, and Shahnaz Khan's sociological study, Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity, are steps in that direction.

Both books point out two main problems Muslim women face: Orientalism (of which colonialism, Western exploitation, media misrepresentations, Western feminism, and universalizing human rights discourse are a part) and patriarchy (both within and outside of Islam). Muslim women thus find themselves between a rock and a hard place: having to defend Islam to a world (one that includes well-intentioned but often patronizing Western feminists) that reduces their faith and culture to misogyny, while simultaneously confronting sexism from within the larger Islamic community.

Windows of Faith presents the perspectives and work of ten scholar-activists who creatively and strategically combat both Orientalism and patriarchy by uncovering Islam's egalitarian spirit. Muslim Women is a sociological analysis of fourteen women in Canada who have internalized Orientalist and patriarchal views of Islam, causing many to feel conflicted and to reject identification as Muslims. Both books attempt to challenge contemporary discourse that categorizes "Muslim" and "progressive" as mutually exclusive. Yet they do this in different and even opposing ways: the Windows of Faith contributors call for women's equal rights fromwithin religion, by appealing to Islamic sacred texts that state that women and men are equal before God. In contrast, Khan's Muslim Women attempts to move outside of religion to show that "Muslim" is a larger category of identity that should not be confined to belief and practice of the Islamic faith.

Windows of Faith provides a welcome and sorely needed perspective in Islamic, feminist, legal, and post-colonial studies. The authors strategically and creatively contest both Orientalism and patriarchy by practicing ijtihad, or the Islamic tradition of ongoing interpretation of the sacred texts. This is an important move, because Islam is a religion based on its holy text, the Qur'an. The Windows of Faith authors argue that an informed understanding of the Islamic texts is necessary for women to ascertain their equal rights. Islam, they point out, is based on equality of all believers before God, regardless of social distinctions such as race, class, or gender.

The collection includes alternative interpretations and approaches to the Qur'an and some of the ahadith, or sayings of the Prophet, that highlight Islam's protection of women's equality. The authors argue that text and tradition have been misinterpreted for centuries by male jurists who did not have women's interests--or, for that matter, particularly Islamic interests--in mind. Thus, as Maysam al-Faruqi argues in her chapter "Women's Self-Identity in the Qur'an and Islamic Law," uncovering the spirit of equality in Islam is not a feminist project, but the correct Islamic one. The problem of women's status in Muslim communities is not in Islam itself, but in Islamic interpretations (which al-Faruqi would argue are misinterpretations) and the applications of Islamic laws. Al-Faruqi argues that the goal of Muslims is to properly understand divine guidance, and that this includes redressing incorrect understandings of the Qur'an that have been used to oppress women (p.100).

In addition to al-Faruqi's contribution, chapters by Amina Wadud, Azizah al-Hibri, Asifa Quraishi, and Riffat Hassan seek to interpret the sacred and legal Qur'anic text in its gender-egalitarian spirit. Other strategies for asserting gender equality in Islam include involvement and education of the community (Nimat Barazangi, Rabia Harris, Aminah McCloud, Gwendolyn Simmons), participation in grassroots organizing (Gwendolyn Simmons), and documenting women's active engagement with religion in early Islamic history (Mohja Kahf). There are two practical and useful appendices in the book: one, by Riffat Hassan, details the citations for human rights guarantees in the Qur'an, and the other, by Kareema Altomare, is a partial list of organizations for Muslim women's rights, advocacy, and higher Islamic education in the U.S.

The most compelling and persuasive work is in the section on "Law," particularly the chapter by Islamic legal scholar Asifa Quraishi, who, through a well-researched analysis of the Qur'an and other Islamic legal texts, harshly critiques the grossly misogynist rape laws in contemporary Pakistan. Quraishi investigates these laws, which have been used to disastrous effect on women--most notably, these laws have been used to convict rape victims on charges of adultery.

Quraishi points out the Qur'an's clear stipulation that those who accuse chaste women of adultery and do not bring four witnesses should themselves be punished for slander, and "their testimony should not be accepted afterwards" (p.108). She argues that the requirement of quadruple testimony for what is usually a private act (adultery) suggests that charges of adultery should be brought only in cases of public indecency, not in those of private sexual conduct. As for private sexual misconduct, Quraishi refers to the statement in verses 24:11-17 of the Qur'an that "it is not for us to speak of it" (p.111); rather, God is the ultimate judge.

Furthermore, Quraishi argues, rape is not even considered to be in the domain of adultery in Islamic law. Rape is a separate and serious criminal offense in the category of assault (p.129). Quraishi notes that in addition to criminal prosecution for rape, Islamic jurisprudence provides a means for civil redress for a rape survivor, in the form of financial compensation for the loss of his or her sexual autonomy (pp.131 134).

The results of this type of Qur'anic analysis are quite different from interpretations that allow abuses of women in the name of Islam, as is currently happening with the rape laws of Pakistan. In fact, if Islamic law were properly followed, it is these men who accuse rape victims of adultery who would be punished. As Quraishi concedes, there is still much work ahead in post-colonial Muslim nations in changing not only the laws, but also the cultural attitudes that foster such laws to begin with (p. 135). As Azizah al-Hibri also argues, the most important element of Islam is piety, which is anathema to domination: "Consequently, all laws that attempt to dominate women by denying them equal rights must be revised to reflect the fundamental Qur'anic principle of human equality" (p.71).

Shahnaz Khan's sociological study, Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity, presents conflicted and pained testimonies of fourteen immigrant women in Canada. Khan bases her study on one- to two-hour interviews with each of her informants, whose transcripts she reproduces in part.

The book begins with three case studies of women who, having internalized Orientalist depictions of Islam and Muslims, reject this category of identification and do not consider themselves Muslim (this seemed strange for a book entitled "Muslim Women"). Khan theorizes Islam as a constructed category and draws on theoretical work done on the construct of "ethnic identity." She writes that she accepts the category Muslim "as a starting point" and that she wishes to "problematize it in an attempt to understand the fluidity of cultural expressions, particularly those within diasporic communities" (p.xii).

Khan's study offers several important insights. She highlights tensions in these women's relationships to Islam and attributes this problem partly to the long-standing effects of colonialism and current stereotypes about Muslims. She also successfully seeks to undermine essentialist notions of a "Muslim" identity. One reason for the interviewed women's identification as Muslims is that they are defined as such by the wider, non-Muslim Canadian community to which they immigrated. Khan insightfully argues, "At this intersection, women find themselves thrust into predetermined discourses and practices that help shape their agency and determine their strategies of resistance, often to the extent that progressive politics do not appear possible within the category Muslim" (p.ix).

There are several major problems in this book. First, although the author rightfully seeks to problematize the category "Islam" as a cohesive entity and recognizes that Islam means different things to different people, she does not distinguish between Islam as a sacred and textual tradition and Islam as practiced in everyday life. This leads her to argue that "progressive politics cannot emerge from either Islam or Orientalism but in the in-between hybridized third space" (p. x).

But arguing that progressive politics cannot emerge from Islam would deny the work being done by Azizah al-Hibri, Asifa Quraishi, Maysam al-Faruqi, Amina Wadud, and others presented in Windows of Faith. Throughout her work, Khan's very definition of Islam remains elusive. I think she is right to suggest that the category "Muslim" is broader in people's identities than religious practices. In this vein, it is interesting to hear the voices of people who consider themselves secular Muslims and of non-religious people who identify or are identified as Muslims. But Islam as a textual religious tradition should not be confused with Islam as anything people who call themselves (or are called) Muslims say and do. Asifa Quraishi's excellent critique of Pakistan's misogynist rape laws relies wholly on this distinction. That is to say, Quraishi does not concede that the Pakistani rape laws' blatant abuse of Islamic law represents Islam merely because the Pakistani government says it does.

The other major problem in Khan's work is that her analysis of "Muslim women" in North America is based on interviews with fourteen women who "are the result of a chain reaction in which [she] asked one person to recommend another who wanted to talk about Muslim identity" (p.24). Thus, Khan admits, the commonalities among the women are "not necessarily incidental" (p.24). She tries to explain that "representation is not an issue" because any study would necessarily be subjective (p.25). This is certainly true, but that does not mean that one can address as large a category as "Muslim Women in North America" based on fourteen interviews. I am not even sure one could write about these fourteen women's "identities" based on one- to two-hour interviews.

Furthermore, these women's voices are extracted from their social and familial contexts. Thus, even as Khan seems to imply that the women have specific gendered problems with forging their Muslim identities, there is no basis of comparison for how their husbands, brothers, or fathers experience Muslim identity. These women come from the diverse regions and backgrounds of Iran, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Egypt, Turkey, and Malta. It is certainly interesting that they are all identified as Muslims by the wider Canadian community to which they immigrated. But how can analysis of their diverse experiences of migration, war in their homeland, discrimination, racism, unemployment, domestic abuse, reproduction, child rearing, and political (dis)engagement be reduced to their identification as Muslims? At some points, the interviewed women and Khan herself seem to critique the notion that they are seen as "merely" Muslims by the wider Canadian community, but the structure of the book only reinforces this reduction.

Khan's presentation of these women's voices, however incomplete, does raise some important issues about the difficulties of forging a Muslim identity in an anti-Muslim environment. She suggests that despite her informants' dis-identification as Muslims and the discrimination they endure on the basis of their religion, these women still desire to be Muslim. On this note, I hope that Khan's interviewees (as well as anyone who reads her book) will read the important essays in Windows of Faith by women who successfully find strategies in an Islamic framework with which to combat anti-Muslim and anti-woman bias. I also hope, in turn, that the Windows of Faith scholar-activists will be attentive to the issues Khan raises about the problems faced by North American Muslim women.

I would recommend that Khan's analysis be read in the context of multiculturalism, racism, immigration, or diaspora studies, but I did not find it illuminating for the study of Islam in North America. I recommend the Windows of Faith collection (especially the essays by al-Faruqi, al-Hibri, Quraishi and Wadud) for women's studies, American studies, Middle East studies, religious studies, scholar-activist work, and any class that wishes to deal with gender and Islam. Its broad range of issues makes it suitable for undergraduate, graduate, women's center, Middle East center, and law school libraries. Because of its useful appendices and outreach-oriented material, I also highly recommend it for public libraries.

[Sherine Hamdy is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. Her work critically investigates the boundaries between male and female bodies cross-culturally; her dissertation research focuses on medicine, gender, and Islam in contemporary Egypt.]


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Mounted November 20, 2001.