Searching for Islamic Feminism. Elizabeth Fernea.
Searching for Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey. Elizabeth Fernea. Anchor (1998), 464 pages.
An American scholar who has long studied Muslim women returned to the Islamic world in the 1990s to interview women about their activities as and for women and their understanding of “Islamic Feminism.”
Elizabeth Fernea first came to the Middle East in the 1950s as the young bride of an anthropologist doing research in a small village in southern Iraq. As a result of living there for two years, she wrote a very insightful account of her experiences with the village women, women who were strictly segregated from the men. After returning she and her husband both taught at the University of Texas and continued to spend time in various Arab countries. She continued to write and create films about Muslim women. In the 1990s she decided to explore the issue of feminism for Muslims. Returning to Muslim regions, she interviewed a variety of women and a few men about the conditions for women in their countries. Often these were women with whom she was already friends. She visited Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. She founded the women of the Iraq village in which she had lived still valued her friendship and that gender segregation had weakened over the years. Returning to the United States, she also interviewed American Muslim women.
What is most clear in the book is that conditions for women in Muslim communities vary enormously. For those of us who tend to lump Muslims and/or feminists together, we need to absorb this critical fact. In some places women have rights and benefits that we are still struggling for in the United States. For example, while most of us assume that feminism is linked to democracy, Iraqi women in the 1990s were grateful to Sadam Hessian for the benefits he established for them by acting as a dictator.
Here and there Fernea found women who strongly identified themselves as feminists. More generally, however, she found women deeply engaged in efforts to improve women’s lives in ways we might consider feminist in the United States. But these women often refused to identify as feminists. Women find themselves fighting against the misogyny of both traditional and colonial leaders. Globally, an easy way for opponents to attack women is to label them as feminists and therefore as American or foreign. Feminism is said to be a luxury for outsiders.
Yet Muslim women are working with Christian and Jewish women to resolve these specific problems rather than attacking particular men. They struggle with poverty, lack of education or economic independence, oppressive family and marriage laws, and other issues that affect them as wives and mothers. Fernea’s book is full of descriptions of the variety of ways that Muslim women working to improve their own lives and those of other women within their families and religion.
More basically, women in other parts of the world remain grounded in family and religion, in ways that many western feminists do not. They view western feminists as too secular and too individualistic. They often lump all western feminists together and fail to understand the variety within western feminism. Muslim women, like other post-colonel ones, do make an important point. For better or worse, the “Western Civilization” differs from other cultures in its emphasis on progress through secular, individualistic efforts for both men and women. Muslim women want better lives, but they do not define them as most of us do. They particularly resent western assumptions of what they need.
Fernea does not provide us with a neat picture of Islamic feminism. In fact she remains ambivalent over whether such a thing exists. Instead she ends her book with useful comments about feminism in general and how her project showed her the need to reconsider how we define it. In her travels, she observed the limitations of mainstream western feminism and our need to listen respectfully to others. The novels I have been reading have convinced me of the same point.
I gladly recommend Searching for Islamic Feminism to readers interested in the lives and projects of Muslim women. Its information was collected twenty years ago and may be somewhat dated, but much of what Fernea observed continues to be valuable.