In October 2006, Taj El-Din Hilaly, the Imam (spiritual leader) of the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, made the following statement in his Ramadan sermon:
“If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
At the time, the statement – and sentiment behind it – was widely criticised by the larger Australian community. Many, including Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, called for Hilaly to not just apologise, but to leave his post as a leader within the Australian-Lebanese community.
The uproar was not limited to the non-Muslim community – Muslims also responded to the comments, with many agreeing that Hilaly had been out of line in his sermon. The then New South Wales Young Australian of the Year nominee, Iktimal Hage-Ali, declared ‘I am no one’s meat’ and proceeded to make her point by appearing as she would normally appear in public – with her hair uncovered, sipping a celebratory glass of champagne in recognition of winning her award.
As a young Muslim woman, I felt sick. Confused. Betrayed. Strong emotions and reactions to a bunch of silly words from people I didn’t know, but these were the people who were supposed to be representative of me, and I did not identify with any of them.
Hilaly’s misogynistic statements were an echo of the conservative clerics I could never accept. The victim-shaming stance, coming from anyone, was deplorable. Coming from a so-called spiritual leader, however, made it even worse. Even though he was not a leader of my community, he stood for the faith I was a part of, and he made me uncomfortable to be a part of that faith. I was conscious of every movement I made, every rustle of cloth as I moved, every strand of hair as it escaped from under my headscarf in case it might become a cause for objection or objectification.
Hage-Ali’s reaction was also difficult to identify with, as much as I agreed with her statements. I agreed with her right to choose what to wear, how to present herself, her strong stance to not let herself be labelled as meat. But she was not representative of me either. I wasn’t quite convinced that the way to be a strong Muslim feminist was to abandon religion altogether, even if I would be the first one to admit that the deeply religious societies I had been exposed to had left many things to be desired in their treatment of women. It wasn’t just that Hage-Ali didn’t wear a headscarf, or that she drank, or that she was later arrested, but not charged, on suspicions of possessing drugs.
It was that she posed the idea that faith and feminism were incompatible: something I struggled with, and sometimes, still do.
This stance of victim-shaming is something that is deeply ingrained in society, in many different cultures. It is not peculiar to Muslim communities, but exists almost everywhere. It is in the snide comments I hear at university when a student comes in with a short skirt; it is in the self-deprecating way a friend refers to herself as a slut; it is in the tone of disapproval I get when I complain about being hassled by the boys who smoke outside the prayer room on campus.
It is of particular interest to me, however, because an aspect of victim-shaming that I am deeply familiar with is the idea that the way a woman dresses affects how people will interact with her. As a woman who wears a headscarf and relatively modest clothing, I keep being told that there is a certain level of respect accorded to me due to the way I dress. It makes me uncomfortable because what is not being said seems ominously loud: that if I were to change just what I wear, I would not be granted the same respect, therefore I would be the only one to blame if something untoward was to happen.
This is not the reason I wear the headscarf, though. I make a conscious decision to cover myself when I am out in public, and I feel that in doing so, I am asserting my identity as a woman. I am making a choice to cover, just as I made a choice years ago not to. In doing so, I am asserting my right to wear what I wish, a notion that is not unlike that of western feminists who repeatedly point out that a woman who is topless is still not ‘asking for it.’
However, I find myself in an uncomfortable position, precisely because of this intersection of faith and feminism – there seem to be more elements that conflict with each other, jarring in their incompatibility, than those that could weave together. I heard of clerics talking of feminism distastefully, arguing that the values espoused by the movement are incompatible with Islam. I have watched as FEMEN takes an almost militant anti-religion response, with women stripping themselves bare in a way that makes many uncomfortable no matter what their religious background (or lack thereof).
So, is there a middle ground?
I argue that it is possible, that there are many places where faith and feminism might intersect, but that it would be strongly linked to the individual.
There are different interpretations of faith. Hilaly’s view isn’t mine.
There are different kinds of feminism. FEMEN’s kind isn’t my kind.
If I were to break down the individual parts of me, it would seem impossible to find a range of experiences within established notions of feminist discourse that would be perfectly matched with my own. How does one navigate the maze of labels and experiences: the woman of colour, ascribing to a minority interpretation of a monotheistic faith system, cis-gendered, middle-class, university-educated, continent-hopping migrant? Those are just a few of the points that come up. In acknowledging these points, and the barriers and privileges that come with them, I also acknowledge how they affect my identity formation. Of course there are areas that address one or more of these points, but I find the personal discourse to be more frayed, patchworked together and often difficult to connect with.
Are there multiple feminisms, then? Are they mutually exclusive, like certain faiths? I would argue that there are different factors that shape a feminist identity, and it is important to acknowledge that race, gender and yes, even faith, would contribute to a more definitive type of feminism.
The general argument that I speak about is that Islam is inherently feminist, however, the general consensus is that Islamic countries are where some of the worst oppressions of women occur. This is not something that I can, or will argue against. It is true that some of the worst human rights abuses in general happen in countries that declare they are following rulings of Islam.
However, a deeper examination reveals that the religion arose in a time when women were undoubtedly suffering, in an extremely patriarchal society. Female infanticide was common, there was little to no participation of women in the social, economic and political spheres. There was marginalisation of several populations, Arab women being one of the key groups who were oppressed.
This scenario may have contributed to the popularity of Islam amongst the marginalised groups, including women. Away from the religious doctrine, the appeal of Islam to women may be explained in that they found it guaranteed them the rights they so desperately lacked, including the very basic right to live, as Islam explicitly forbade the practice of burying infant daughters. Other rights that were afforded to them included the right to pursue education, inherit, own property, and be active in the public sphere. It also acknowledged that women were sexual beings and although cultural interpretations would have us believe otherwise, there exist rules about the sexual rights a woman has over her husband.
On the other hand, there were – and still are, in Islam today – areas that are of concern, particularly rulings on polygyny, custody of children, and domestic violence against women. It is not possible to discuss the faith’s contributions to women’s rights without at least a basic acknowledgement of these factors. It is precisely these elements that are seen as indicators of how Islam is incompatible with empowering women and are a favourite of detractors.
However, there are often arguments on interpretation, for example, the infamous ‘wife-beating verse’ in the Qur’an which states: “… As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, then refuse to share their beds, then beat them lightly…” (Qur’an, 4:34). Prominent scholars have either focused on the word ‘lightly’ to mean ‘as if with a feather’, or have pointed out the word ‘beat’ may have been mistranslated from the classical Arabic as the word used may also translate to ‘leave’. In either case, the discussion is an indication that people are aware of, and are working to address, areas where there are perceived to be difficulties in reconciling faith and women’s rights.
In this context, then, it becomes possible to see another kind of feminism emerging, one that draws from a very different background to the existing ‘white’ feminism today. It is a feminism that takes root in religious values, but is amplified by the existence of those values in large patriarchal spheres of influence, hence it is shaped by cultural struggles as well. Women turn to religion for support of their arguments against cultural traditions, particularly where there is explicit evidence given of what a woman is entitled to that contrasts with the socio-cultural situation she might exist in. This is the philosophy behind movements to empower women, such as the steps being taken in the Kyber-Pakthunkwa region of Pakistan where Malala Yousoufzai was attacked by a Taliban gunman for her outspoken criticism of the extreme religious group’s ban on girls in schools. Where the Taliban seeks to control female education, their views are contrasted with the very explicit indication from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that ‘Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim.’ Not Muslim man – on every Muslim, male or female.
What then, of the notion of covering? Where does that sit in the arguments between faith and feminist discourses?
The argument over mandatory veiling stems from the following verse: “… and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their head coverings over their bosoms…” (Qur’an, 24:31). This part of the verse is preceded by commandments for both Muslim men and women to lower their gaze, which is in itself an interesting thing to note – the acknowledgment of the gaze as a source of power, and the onus being placed on the person who is looking, not just the person who is being looked at, is often ignored or considered as secondary to the commandment to veil.
Veiling itself is subject to debate. The confusion stems from the question of whether the khimar (head covering) stated in the verse is itself mandatory, or if it is a reflection of what the women were expected to be wearing at the time. The fact that the head covering is explicitly mentioned is often the basis for the common interpretation that the covering of one’s head, as well as the neck, ears and bosom, is compulsory. However, if the idea of relative modesty is followed, then the part of the verse stating that women should ‘not display their beauty except what is apparent’ may indicate that it is fine for a woman to dress in what is common for the time and place she is in, but that she does not need to cover her hair as the khimar is no longer a common item of clothing in many cultures and societies.
The veil itself does not seem to be as problematic as the myriad of systems that seem to exist to enforce it. Saudi Arabia and Iran are two theocracies that mandate veiling as a compulsory act for women living in those countries and are frequently criticised for these, and other laws, pertaining to women. On a more local level, veiling is pushed by religious scholars and leaders in communities, such as Hilaly, with the same verse being cited as inconvertible proof that it is required. What is common with most of these approaches is that they approach the veil from a male perspective, where the argument is focused on a woman being protected, cloaked in anonymity – someone who is not seen or heard. Add in the usual fire and brimstone rhetoric, and you have many who immediately disassociate themselves from the veil and from the faith because it is incomprehensible that a faith that did award many rights to women who did not have them, would also focus on completely denying the identities of those same women.
Being able to identify everything that was wrong, however, was also what brought me to accepting the idea of covering. A chance talk with a female scholar meant that I was finally able to view the veil through a very basic notion of it actually being a mark of Muslim, female identity. Having the veil interpreted from a woman’s standpoint, and presented as a way to emphasise my womanhood and individuality, was what finally made it attractive. Being presented with the veil as a way to mark who I am, and as a symbol of empowerment, not oppression – all ideas that are embodied in traditional feminist discourse – and not incompatible at all with faith.
While I argue that my decision to cover is truly my decision, I am also cognisant that what constitutes covering is dictated by patriarchal systems. My ability to conform to those systems will influence the perception people have of me, particularly if I happen to be the recipient of unwanted (sexual) attention. At this point, though, I have settled on a way that is representative of both discourses that I identify with.
So where does this leave me?
As a practicing Muslim, I cannot divorce myself from my faith. I believe, sometimes strongly, sometimes with doubt, but I still believe. As a woman, I cannot remove from myself the elements that define my womanhood and how they are influenced by, and interact with, the range of experiences I have.
Fast forward to December 2013. In a mosque in Nairobi, a woman from India sits, imparting spiritual lessons to the gathering. At one point, she starts to define what constitutes the hijab, the term relating to modesty that is mandated for both Muslim men and women. As with any spiritual leader, she wants to encourage those who are sitting with her, particularly the young women in her audience. To appeal to them, she brings up the example of Hilaly, detailing the incident.
I sit, waiting to hear what she thinks of his words. So far, I have been quite impressed with her points – she seems to be more in touch with the reality of life beyond the mosque’s walls, fusing religious instruction with philosophy, acknowledging the truths of being a woman. It was in this same mosque that I was convinced to adopt the sartorial headscarf, and I am hoping for a revelation.
I am crushed when she proudly says that she supports his viewpoint, trying to impress on the women present the importance of covering up. I clench my fists, so tight that the nails dig into my palms. My mother, having already heard this story from me several times over, glances over. She knows what I am thinking. She gives me a not-so-subtle look of warning, but I can see the frown lines on her face going deeper, her head moving slightly as she shakes it sceptically.
After the lecture, I engage with the woman, trying to converse with her in an attempt to bring attention to the fact that no, a woman’s dressing is not, and should not ever be used as a reason when it comes to sexual violence. She is patient, hears me out, tells me that she is proud to know that I still practice in a society that she perceives as hostile to any outward expression of faith.
But I know that my arguments are not being heard. I talk about the sexual politics of Egypt, where women are covering in an attempt to ward off attacks but find it difficult to do so, no matter what they might be wearing. I talk about the impossibly high rate of prostitution in a country like Iran where covering is mandated by law. I talk about how many victims of sexual violence know their attacker, sometimes intimately so.
In everything, she listens, nods, but then rebuffs my argument with the one that if a woman is appropriately covered, she has nothing to fear.
I am left feeling confused, worried, and out-of-sorts. It is something I have come to know intimately, this state of anxiety as I try to weave something stable from the complicated, tangled threads of my beliefs and my convictions about women and their roles, statuses, and rights.
However, I am still afloat, still convinced that despite the confusion, there is space for the conversation between faith and feminist ideals, that I can be both Muslim and feminist.
Marziya Mohammedali is a writer, photographer and designer. She has a particular interest in creative narratives of dissent, identity, migration and transition. She lives in Perth, Western Australia. Follow her on Twitter @kikei