Feminism and Islam: The problems with applying Western feminist values to Non-Western cultures

Many of us feminists who’ve been brought up in Western countries have been guilty at one time or another for finding the practices of other cultures despicable because of the perceived harm they cause to women – typical examples include female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killing, and the hijab (Islamic headscarf).

Although feminists should speak out against practices that infringe on the rights of women, when we criticise other cultures and speak on behalf of the women who reside within those cultures, we are also assuming that those women have no will of their own; and ironically, we run the risk of denying them agency (one of very things we fight for!).

Political theorist, Bhikkhu Parekh suggests that, “we should avoid the mistaken conclusion that those who do not share our beliefs about their well-being are all misguided victims of indoctrination”.

Although it may well and truly be in good faith – that is, acting on behalf of women who we believe need to be “rescued” from the unjust practices of their culture – we’re also assuming a position of authority over those women, and implying that their culture is inferior to ours.

To fellow feminists out there – doesn’t it make you cringe when in Hollywood movies, the man sweeps in to rescue the poor, passive, weak woman who can’t fend for herself? Isn’t that what we hate? The idea that we, as women, are passive, incompetent and in desperate need of saving? If so, aren’t we applying the same standard when it comes to minority women?

You may be thinking, ‘women saving women is different to men saving women.’ It’s not all that different because, in this case, it’s the ‘superior Western’ trying to save the ‘inferior non-Western’. Either way, there is an inherent power dynamic. But this time, it’s about race, culture and religion.

So why is this matter so pertinent? Minority women, particularly Islamic women have been the centre of the feminism and multiculturalism debate – an ongoing one. While multiculturalism values tolerance and cultural diversity, many (including feminists) argue that this tolerance has gone too far.

When you consider the story of Afghani woman, Mah Gulwas, who was beheaded on the instruction of her family because she refused prostitution; and Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Pakistani Taliban gunmen because she campaigned for women’s right to education, it’s hard not to find any of this outrageous. It’s hard to accept this as the reality of a culture. It’s hard not to want to intervene.

Those who believe feminism is over say that this isn’t an issue of women’s rights, but an issue of human rights. I say a women’s rights issue is a human rights issue. What part of woman is not human? (Yes, I will talk semantics).

Feminists have also routinely condemned the donning of the hijab, saying it’s a symbol of patriarchy. One such example is ABC reporter Virginia Haussegger’s statement that “this shroud of cloth thrown over women defies freedom. It is a symbol of control.”

Like Haussegger, many believe that Islamic women either wear hijabs against their will or only choose to wear them because of cultural influence. Whether or not they are explicit in their protests, feminists are basically saying that Islamic women do not have the intellect or gumption to make decisions about their bodies.

Another example is scientist Babette Francis’ submission to News Weekly stating that women who wear the burqa are imprisoned and cannot enjoy the freedoms of playing sports or enjoying sunlight.

“Contrary to the views of our multicultural and diversity devotees, the burqa is not merely a cultural artefact: it involves the imprisonment of women, not behind bars, but in a “tent” made of cloth.

Actually, women imprisoned in a conventional jail may enjoy more freedom than women imprisoned in burqas. The former, when let out of their cells for exercise, can enjoy a breeze on their faces and hair, and the sun on their faces, arms and legs. Women in burqas frequently suffer from vitamin D deficiency – and all the associated bone ill-health – because they experience little or no sunlight.

Women in burqas cannot play sport and are impeded in running, cycling and driving. Swimming, except in exclusive baths and at very restricted times, is impossible.”

Here, Francis’ argument is flawed as there are hundreds of Islamic women around the world who have proven that the hijab does not hinder their ability to play sports. For instance, Assmaah Helal, a centre-back with the UNSW Eastern Lions Women’s Super League team who wears the burqa, has overcome cultural barriers and expectations to reach football’s elite.

Like Helal, who spent years speaking out against discrimination, it has taken nine years of campaigning for Sydney sisters Hiba and Hala Ayache, to win acceptance of their all-female “Lakembaroos” soccer club.

In regards to Islamic women’s inability to experience sunlight, and their supposed vitamin D deficiency and all associated bone health problems…well, I bet they enjoy the health benefit of no skin cancer that comes with wearing a burqa. A pretty good one, if you’re living in Australia – Skin Cancer Central.

Some feminists have even gone to the extreme of denying Islamic women who wear headscarves the opportunity to work in their companies or organisations. For instance, in an interview held on behalf of the International Women’s Day, Ciska Dresselhuys, chief editor of the Dutch feminist magazine Opzij, said that she would never hire a woman who wears a hijab as an editor. She further explained:

“The headscarf is a symbol of a way of thinking that assumes that the woman is subservient to the man. [I] as a feminist want to offer help to those Muslim women who in their hearts very much would take off the symbol of their inequality—the headscarf—but who (as yet) do not dare that. That is the least that these women may expect from me”.

Dr. Kiran Grewal, lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies at the University of Sydney, said that to condemn a religious or cultural tradition because it goes against your own culture’s moral code also reinforces the inequality between men and women in non-Western countries.

“To either automatically condemn or accept a tradition or religious practice is to my mind two sides of the same coin. Both rely on a superficial engagement with the issues, reinforce the power of certain positions within the community and do little to support those who are seeking change from within.

A universal recognition of what constitutes women’s rights is detrimental because these Western feminists become unwitting advocates of the [misguided] view that feminism is a Western phenomenon and trap non-Western women into the position of having to make the impossible choice between their cultures and feminism.”

Many Islamic feminists have come out in defence of their religious beliefs, saying that they do not feel oppressed; rather, the burqa has been an outlet for self-expression just as baggy shirts and pants were for feminists in the 1960s, angular shoulder pads were in the 1980s, and a makeup-free face is today.

In her qualitative research, “A Woman Is Precious”: Constructions of Islamic Sexuality and Femininity of Turkish-Australian Women, Australian sociologist Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos examines the relationship between religion, gender and sexuality for young Turkish-Australian women. She comes to the conclusion that the hijab symbolises an idealised Muslim femininity because it signifies a high level of personal religious commitment and embodies the Islamic values of modesty and self-respect regarding their sexuality.

In her interviews with Turkish-Australian women, participants Sahiba and Huriye state that the hijab is a liberating tool, that it frees them from the overt sexualness of Western culture:

Sahiba: …I think that physically we’re just different from the Western women.  We might seem oppressed because we’re dressed like this, but personally I think that they’re more oppressed than what we are.  Exposing yourself doesn’t mean you’re free.  …I don’t understand why we’re called oppressed or why we don’t have an identity because we’re covered like this.  I’m free because I don’t have to show my body to anyone.

Huriye: …I’d say it’s sort of like a rebellion against society and their beliefs.  Clothes today are more about showing the female form and revealing the female form, I should say.  And it’s based on a male society.  It’s so a man can actually look at you and sit there and think about you in certain ways, maybe sexually or fantasising.  To me covering up is about “listen to what I say rather than what I look like”.

While Islamic women have been the subjects of heated debates in Western media for decades, today they are contributing to the debate through the megaphone of modern day media. Through articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, online campaigns, tweets and Facebook updates, Islamic women are helping to shape the public discourse. They can no longer be seen as passive victims, but as agents who are actively engaged in efforts to reshape their individual selves, their cultures, and their societies.

For instance, in her opinion article Feminists should back off the burqa bashing, Australian-Iranian Islamic feminist, Sara Haghdoosti fights back against feminists and the general Australian public who have scrutinised the hijab and burqa, stating that women who wear the headscarf are aware of their choices and have proven themselves to be creative with the religious garment, for instance, through switching patterns and designs, adding in clips, chains and folds and even wearing their hair in different styles underneath to create contour and style:

“As feminists we need to respect the fact that women have the ability and the right to make decisions and be in control of their own bodies – this includes a woman’s decision to wear the hijab.  Anything less is pure, unadulterated sexism – and yes female feminists are just as capable of this as anyone else.

Women who wear the veil by choice are innovative, creative and able to tailor the hijab to suit their individual lifestyles.  The invention of the ‘berkini’ is a clear testament to this.  This subtle reform is what we should be supporting and encouraging so that Muslim women don’t face discrimination and are able to do all that they desire.”

With the ever-expanding Islamic feminist webspace, in its humble attempt to bring together Islamic feminists in all their diversity, Islamic feminism is progressively being recognised as an organised movement that actively seeks to build a culture of peace and acceptance.

Blogs such as Musfem and Muslim Feminists, and interactive sites such as World Pulse and Muslim Feminist are examples of how online media have allowed women across cultures to connect with each other, share their ideas and experiences, and contribute to debates around feminism and multiculturalism.

Because each woman’s specific needs, desires and problems are shaped by her race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, educational experience, religion, and nationality, it is apparent that there is no one feminism and no universal method of dealing with the ways in which women face oppression and discrimination across the globe.

As such, we also need to discredit stereotypical views of widely condemned cultural practices and devote our time to listening to the women who are going out of their way to get their voices heard, their experiences told and their beliefs accepted.

If we open up our minds and accept that feminism exists in many forms – even if they conflict with our indoctrinated beliefs and understandings of equality – then we, as feminists, can use our fighting spirit to defend ”the right of all women to be treated as worthy of love, respect and dignity no matter where they are, what they do and how they choose to live their lives”.