Learning and un-learning your own stereotype

When I was growing up, Islam colored almost every aspect of my life – from my clothes, to my social life, to the food I ate. It also motivated me to seek success, to get good grades, to focus on improving the world around me. When my parents taught me to pray five times a day, to fast, and to read the Quran, they did so not because of God-fearing dogma, but because they wanted their daughter to grow up to be a well-rounded, intelligent woman. They wanted me to strive for something bigger than myself. And my experience is not unique. Most Muslim women I know, living in the United States and abroad, can relate to it.

Why, then, does the world insist on seeing us as the exception and not the norm? Despite all the amazing and accomplished Muslim women throughout the world – from heads of state, to human rights leaders, to scholars, to athletes – the stereotype of the Muslim woman persists: voiceless, oppressed, and bereft of rights.

The stereotype is so far from my experience, that I actually had to learn about it. From Hollywood, in fact. Not Without My Daughter (1991) was my first introduction to the stifled, battered woman tyrannized by Islam. The effect of this film was so strong on me and my family (and, as it happens, on the entire Iranian-American community) that, to this day, we cannot bring ourselves to forgive Sally Field for her propagandist portrayal of Betty Mahmoody.

But before I ever knew Betty Mahmoody existed, I learned about Zaynab. She was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad and the daughter of Imam Ali and Fatemeh. The story of Zaynab’s courage, strength, and wisdom was told and re-told every Ashura when my family and I would go to masjid. After the Battle of Karbala, she and her family were taken captive and brought to the court of the ruling despot Yazid. Amid Zaynab’s protests, Yazid asked, “Who is this arrogant woman?” So began Zaynab’s renowned sermon, as she spoke against oppression, injustice, and bravely defended the rights of her family.

It took me years to realize that my feminism is rooted in Islam – that it is not at odds with, but nourished by my faith. In times of darkness or uncertainty, I will do my best to channel Zaynab. Especially now, when my identity as a Muslim woman has been twisted and bastardized, when I feel breathless explaining and apologizing for events outside of myself, when the hatred emanating from the highest levels of government hangs over me like a constant cloud, when my place in my own country is questioned.

Especially now, I will channel Zaynab.

Can Islamic Feminism Succeed?

Muslim. American. Iranian.

Ever since I was a young girl, I have sought to reconcile these seemingly conflicting identities. As I grew older, I realized that the hardest identity to reconcile was the one I had actually overlooked.

Woman. islamicfem

I have been reading a lot about Islamic feminism lately, mostly as research for my graduate capstone project, but also because I am fascinated by Muslim women’s efforts to have it both ways. Women like Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nayereh Tohidi and Ziba Mir-Hosseini have written extensively about the use of Islam – the essence of which is submission to God – as a tool for emancipation. They search for the theological basis for gender equality and freedom for women. They assert their right to engage in a major feature of Shia Islam known as ijtihad, which allows for the individual interpretation of Islamic law and the adaptation of faith to modern times. They negotiate and renegotiate what it means to be a Muslim woman in largely patriarchal societies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim woman living in Iran or the United States. Chances are, your life is dictated by rules set forth by men. Islamic feminists turn the tables, using the same tools that long justified their oppression to justify their liberation.

It’s an undertaking that, I suppose, many Muslim women (including myself) unconsciously perform on a daily basis. But to what end? I want to believe in the ability of Islamic feminism to transform the state of women throughout the Middle East. But as long as Islamic feminists pursue their goals within the confines of religion, specifically religious government, I’m afraid they are doomed to fail. For instance, Iran’s male-dominated clerical regime is not likely to accept the theological interpretations of women as the basis of law. The government prevents women from pursuing positions of authority. The Supreme Leader will always be male. No matter what, the efforts of Islamic feminists will only reproduce the same anti-democratic hierarchies.

The theories of Islamic feminists are just that – theories. This is not to say they lack significance. On the contrary, their endeavors to reinterpret Islam bring new, progressive and challenging ideas to the forefront. In so doing, they undoubtedly help countless Muslim women discover their personal sense of agency, which can be an important force for change. But, in Iran, the foundations are broken. Patriarchy inevitably wins. And women’s attempts at religious interpretation are destined to fall through the cracks.