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Reading “The Veil and The Male Élite: 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 veil. 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 attacks last month in the U.K. and Pres­i­dent Trump’s at-the-time dou­bling down yet once again on his trav­el ban, plus the fact that the ban is head­ed to the Supreme Court, 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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