Monday, August 29, 2016

Islamic Feminism

Dr. Huma Ghosh
Written by Hafsa Badsha

I’m painfully early to meet Dr. Huma Ghosh, and it shows. Our meeting is scheduled for noon, and at 11:57 a.m, I shuffle outside her office awkwardly until she sees me. She catches sight of me, and with a surprised, “Oh, you’re already here!” waves me in with her tea flask.

If I’m overeager, it’s for good reason. Dr. Ghosh is the head of the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, and has spent publishing dedicated research that centres on the relationship and collaboration between two topics that most consider on the very ends of the spectrum of ideologies; Islam and Feminism. With fierce debate about the validity of the label Islamic Feminist, and a growing tribe of women coming to embrace it, Dr. Ghosh contributed her own voice to the dialogue in her paper Dilemmas of Islamic and Secular Feminists and Feminisms. It’s a hefty, detailed piece of work that argues how a comprehensive understanding of Islamic feminism could create positive dialogue regarding the future of Muslim women in both secular and Islamic states.
To Dr. Ghosh, feminism and strong female figures were never contained to academia, they were always a consistent presence in her life. “I grew up in New Delhi, India,” she tells me, “It was a feminist household where my mother was one of the earlier feminists, and her family background was also very liberal. I grew up with many aunts who were encouraged to pursue a higher education. Even my grandmother, I remember, did not cover her hair. Growing up, we had a sense of freedom and rights, and we saw our family fight for those rights.”

In the world that exists today, identity is a confusing avenue for many Muslim women to navigate through. Call yourself an Islamic feminist on top of all of it, and you’ll be marked a paradox, accused of either co-opting your stance as a Muslim, or a feminist.  In Dr. Ghosh’s experience, identity is often an image constructed for an individual by those around them, a series of constructs that ultimately lead her to her research. “Identity is how others perceive you, and not necessarily who you think you are.”

Both Islam and Feminism have their own bones to pick with other; Western feminists write off Islam as too primitive and held captive to the patriarchy, and Muslim women claim that mainstream feminism is too tinged with a saviour complex and underlying racism. The Islamic feminist is then left to try and tie two worlds together and find a place in both, and bridge building in something Dr. Ghosh finds essential. “We cannot underestimate the power of indigenous movements,” she says, “They exist. The tension between these two ideologies comes from male politicians, both in Muslim majority countries and in the west.” Dr. Ghosh believes in the existence of a hybrid feminism, a feminism that branches out from the mainstream to encompass other ideas and cultures, “If you go into women’s groups into these countries, you’ll see that their ideas are mushrooming and expanding. There is also a myth that women were not fighting for their rights until Western feminism came along. Women’s groups all over are digging back into their history and finding that women’s rights in India and Islamic states preceded the ones in the West. Feminism has to be culture specific, and it has to be based on mutual understanding and respect.”

The politics of a region is also what defines the presence of Islamic feminism. While Islamic
feminism may be growing in secular states, Dr. Ghosh brings light to the fact that in Muslim majority countries, the causes that women fight for are what she terms “issue-based” and still yet to counter or address gender hierarchies and norms. “In countries like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, they come about to challenge certain issues, not the patriarchy as a whole. In Pakistan, there was a political women’s caucus in the Parliament. Women across different parties came together to work on the domestic violence bill. They were able to work on that issue, but they were unable to take things a step further, where they could talk about the gender hierarchies, or even about the power relationships between gender.”

So how do women in these countries take that step, I ask, when do they begin to question the rigidity of gender norms and inculcate feminism into their spaces? Dr. Ghosh carefully considers her answer for a moment.

“It has to be through education,” she says. “I think it has to do with working towards a high representation of women in politics and in decision making bodies. You have to take chances for change to happen. Keep at it.”

While Dr. Ghosh doesn’t personally identify as an Islamic feminist, she believes they’re on the right path, by going back to the Quran and deconstructing it, using the concept of ijthihad to apply religion within the context of its time. “There are many people who have both feminism and their faith within them, and I respect that. Change is happening in countries like Iran and even here in the West; there are many believers who quote the Quran and engage in deconstruction to claim their rights. While they may conform to certain roles as wives and mothers, they challenge the men in terms of their patriarchal roles.”

With the understanding of more hybrid forms of feminism growing, Dr. Ghosh sees a warmer reception for Islamic feminism in the Muslim community. “While there’s been more writing about gender and Islam, there’s also more visibility about being Muslim, especially amongst the women, and also a deeper engagement with women’s roles in Islam.” And with Muslim women going back to reclaim symbols that were considered oppressive, like the hijab, I ask Dr. Ghosh if this is also a mark of liberation. She responds in the affirmative.

There’s a long way to go for Islamic feminism, but a comprehensive understanding of it could impact a community significantly. “It’s the first step,” Dr. Ghosh says firmly, “You have to start somewhere. Secularism is ultimately what ensures women’s rights through a human right’s discourse.”