Repost: Reading The Veil and The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, by Fatima Mernissi

About two-and-a-half years ago, I posted about Mernissi’s book because reading it was an instructive journey into my own ignorance about Islam, particularly about an aspect of that religion that, to put it mildly, sticks in the craw of many, many people in the west: the hejab. My plan at the time was to read her book and post a kind of reading journal as I went, but a host of circumstances intervened, making my reading a far more disjointed experience than such a project would have required. Even if I’d been able to devote the time to the book that I’d wanted, however, a single reading would not have been enough for me to post in the way I originally had in mind. Mernissi’s argument is subtle and complex and relies not only on a textual analysis of passages in the Quran, which I have never read, not even in English, but also on a body of religious and historical research and commentary with which I am completely unfamiliar. I simply did not know enough to do what I originally wanted to do in the way that I wanted to do it.

Instead, I posted some passages from Mernissi’s “Preface to the English Edition,” which is clearly intended to frame her book for a Western audience, because I thought then that encountering the very different framing that she, as a Muslim woman, brought to the issue would be instructive. Now, in light of the recent attacks in England and President Trump’s subsequent doubling down on his travel ban, I think it’s worth encountering that framing again. There is a difference between confronting oppression and violence perpetrated by Muslims who justify their actions within Islam and essentializing as inherently Muslim the hatred motivating that oppression and violence, which is what Donald Trump did when he said, “I think Islam hates us.”

From page vi:

Is Islam opposed to women’s rights?….Is it not odd that in this extraordinary decade, the 1990s, when the whole world is swept by the irresistible chant for human rights, sung by men and women, by children and grandparents, from all kinds of religious backgrounds and beliefs, in every language and dialect from Beijing to America, one finds only one religion identified as a stumbling block on the road to true democracy? Islam alone is condemned by many Westerners as blocking the way to women’s rights. And yet, though neither Christianity nor Judaism played an important role in promoting the equality of the sexes, millions of Jewish and Christian women today enjoy a dual privilege–full human rights on the one hand and access to an inspirational religious tradition on the other.

That initial framing question is important. She is not denying that there are Muslim governments which actively deny rights to women; she is asking if Islam itself is opposed to women’s rights, asserting that if nothing inherent in being practicing Jews or Christians prevents Jewish and Christian women in the West from accessing their full rights as citizens and asking why we should assume the same can’t be true of islam.

From pages vi-vii:

Westerners make unconscious religious references constantly in their daily activities, their creative thinking, and their approach to the world around them. When Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, they read to the millions watching them, including us Muslims, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the Beginning God created the Heaves and the Earth…” They did not sound so very modern….Here is a clear message for those who doubt Islam’s capacity to survive modernity, calling it unfit to accompany the age of higher technology: why should Islam fail where Judaism and Christianity so clearly succeed?

Again from page vii:

[H]ow and where can a businessman who profitably exploits [Muslim] women…find a source in which he can dip his spurious rationale to give it a glow of authenticity? Surely not in the present. To defend the violation of women’s rights it is necessary to go back into the shadows of the past. This is what those people, East or West, who would deny Muslim women’s claim to democracy [as practicing or at least consciously self-identified Muslim women] are trying to do. They camouflage their self-interest by proclaiming that we can have either Islam or democracy, but never both together.

From pages vii-viii:

Any man who believes that a Muslim woman who fights for her dignity and right to citizenship excludes herself necessarily from the umma and is a brainwashed victim of Western propagand is a man who misunderstands his own religious heritage, his own cultural identity. The vast and inspiring records of Muslim history…speak to the contrary. We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition….Women fled atristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Medina, the Prophet’s city in the seventh century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women, masters and servants. Every woman who came to Medina when the Prophet was the political leader of Muslims could gain access to full citizenship….

From page ix:

[That Mohammad’s] egalitarian message today sounds so foreign to many in our Muslim societies that they claim it to be imported is indeed one of the great enigmas of our times […] For those first Muslims democracy was nothing unusual; it was their meat and drink and their wonderful dream, waking or sleeping.

These last two quotes made the most impression on me, not because I am sure Mernissi is right–I find her book persuasive, but I don’t know enough to say more than that–but because her assertion that “the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country…is a true part of the Muslim tradition” so thoroughly undermines the Western-centric framing used by so many people—too many of them in positions of policy-making power and influence, who claim to be fighting “radical Islam.” Mernissi is a serious scholar of Islam in ways that the overwhelming majority of those people are not. On that count alone, her assertion deserves to be taken at least as seriously as anything they have to say on the matter.

Finally, I’d like to say this. In writing this post, I am not trying to defend Islam as a religious practice, a body of law, or a way of life. Rather, I am interested in making visible the often very biased framing that we use to understand and critique Islam here in the West–which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean that I think we have no right to call out the oppressive behavior of Muslim governments, organizations, or people, or to call oppressive Islam as it is practiced and/or enforced by those entities. To acknowledge the existence of Mernissi’s perspective, much less its validity, is merely to acknowledge that the most useful, constructive, and effective answer to that oppression may not lie with us and that perhaps we ought to stop behaving as if it did.

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