In recent years, Islamic countries have been a hot topic for various disciplines including politics and religion. One such discipline which has taken a particular interest in the region is Gender and Women’s Studies. Associated with this discipline is a movement, called feminism, which has also heightened their interest into the lives of those in the Middle East. However, unlike the discipline it is associated with, feminism tends to be bias towards the culture from which it comes. These biases can be clearly seen in Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s book In Search of Islamic Feminism.
Fernea’s book documents her experiences in Islamic countries ranging from Morocco to Iraq. During the course of her stay in these countries, Fernea investigates the role of Islam in women’s lives and their views towards women’s rights. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that despite the western view of the oppressed Muslim woman, the women’s rights movement is very much alive in Islamic nations. Women in these countries strive for female political leaders, women’s studies programs, and education for girls and young women.
The most striking feature of the book is Muslim womens’ discussion of the western feminists’ misconception of the veil. Sometimes called a hijab, as in Morocco, traditional Islamic dress for women under the rules of the Qur’an is to be “modest”, including either a full-length robe, head scarf, and in some traditions a veil covering the face (Fernea, 98). Contrary to western thought, the veil is not intended to oppress or subordinate women but to in essence liberate them from the unwanted stares of unfamiliar men and defend their honor as respectable women (Fernea, 244).
However, the western feminist’s misconception of the veil is only one way in which the Islamic women’s rights movement is misunderstood. In fact, the two movements have taken such different paths that Muslim women have a disliking for the term feminism to describe their women’s rights movements (Fernea, 246). Western feminism differs from the Islamic women’s rights movement in two ways, goals and accomplishments.
The goals of the Islamic women’s rights movement are much different then the goals of western feminists. Examples can be found in two areas; their collectivist cultural roots and their deeply held religious beliefs. First, Western feminism emphasizes a woman’s individual rights whiles Muslim women see the women’s right movement as a collective effort with collective rewards (Fernea, 246). It is through years of practices such as polygyny, where co-wives create bonds, and raising children and working together, that Muslim women have become a cohesive group, more concerned with the rights of the group, than that of themselves.
Secondly, religion is not only a belief in a higher being to Muslim women, but a lifestyle choice that governs every aspect of everyday life. Therefore, the Islamic women’s rights movement will only fight for issues and causes that fall within the realm of what is acceptable behavior for Muslim women. This can be seen in the use of the veil in accordance with the Islamic principle of modest dress (Fernea, 98). In addition, contrary to popular belief, Islam provides more rights for women than the widespread religion of the Western world, Christianity (Fernea, 78).
Furthermore, the Islamic women’s rights movement’s goals vary from western feminists’ goals in two areas; economics and politics. In the area of economics, Muslim women have made greater strides than western women. “…our demands are different from yours in the West. We don’t need economic equality like you do – we’ve had that for a thousand years.” (Fernea, 247) For example, women in Morocco inherit land from their fathers. Only recently in the history of western women have property and inheritance rights been won.
In addition, Muslim women have made greater strides in the world of politics than women of the western world. For example, the Islamic world has seen female cabinet ministers and judges (Fernea, 240). In fact, a woman was appointed to revise Moroccan family law, or mudawana, by the King; a very important, and politically oriented task (Fernea, 80). “…what the quadis will do with the new mudawana, would have reverberations in everyone’s life for years to come – men, women, children.” (Fernea, 81) Moreover, twenty percent of judges in Morocco are women; more than the U.S. (Fernea, 85).
“Islamic feminism…What does that mean exactly? Feminists who are also Muslims, or a special brand focused on Islamic revival?” (Fernea, 249) What is “Islamic feminism”? One can see that the goals and accomplishments of “Islamic feminism” are very different from that of Western feminism. It is not appropriate for Fernea to use the term “Islamic Feminism” when she is repeatedly told throughout the book that Muslim women dislike the term as applied to their movement.
Perhaps what Fernea outlines in her book is not per say feminism but a movement towards equality. However one defines it, Muslim women are more than the oppressed and subordinated individuals that the western world makes them out to be. The veil is simply a sign of their religion and culture, and in turn, empowering.