Labels of Death and other things

An interesting review by Shakira Hussein of Waleed Aly’s new book in the Australian.

Hussein’s review got me thinking about two important issues- men speaking on behalf of women, and the meaninglessness of the labels of death we throw around.

Men speaking for women
The reason why I resist critiques is because it is so rare to find pro-female Muslim male commentators in the media that when they do appear you can all but restrain yourself to make a mad dash and hug them.

Certainly it is only through these mainstream voices of power and authority- heavyweights such as Tariq Ramadan, Khaled Abou El Fadl and to a lesser extent authoritative figures such as Waleed Aly that change is going to occur.

This however should not preclude a critique of their argument and their positioning in making that argument. The fact that it is the muslim male dissident voices that are listened to and commanded respect, those who have the pristine credentials from Al-Azhar and Ivy League schools says precisely a lot about the male privilege and power status quo they are embedded in.

Whilst male feminist voices should not be precluded from speaking of course (their counterparts certainly aren’t) a sensitive understanding is needed of how the exercise of their power and the very vocalization of it robs those of whom they are speaking on behalf of (if even positively) of agency- which is precisely the problem we are complaining of.

It is only with deep self-reflexivity and humility that those in power can help those without.

East/West/Secular/Religious (or labels of death)

This continuous attempt to represent muslim and “western” feminists essentially at odds with each other seems to play into convenient hands. It seems convenient to project this mirage of an overblown hostility or incompatibility to make the claims of secular feminists completely irrelevant to issues of gender reform in muslim societies and insist a reform can only be made in purely islamic terms or paradigms.

To assert that all secular feminist voices in muslim contexts are alien to the concerns of women within these contexts merely re-affirms the stereotype of the out-of touch, pro-colonial shrill western puppet whose ideas are to be rejected out of hand because she does not fit a stereotype of piety

What if you are like famous feminist dissidents- Pakistani lawyer and activist Asma Jehangir or former Iranian judge and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, professed muslims, but who accept ‘western’ concepts of human rights and feminism- and are being essentially being politically pragmatic by arguing within the islamic paradigm to formulate gender reform in their societies?

Whilst these women might have been influenced by the “western” ideas of their colonisers this did not make them ‘traitors’. In the complex and contradictory relationship between colonizers and colonized- this training was often used against the colonial powers.

This stereotyping also ignores the fact that often the lines between secular and religious, western and eastern are easily blurred in our globalised society. How is “western” defined- by geography or your ideas? Precisely what are western ideas or “western feminism” which we repeatedly hear is incompatible with any kind of Islamic outlook? We realise that identities and philosophies are not so neatly bound but spill over from centuries of cross-civilisational dialogue (and conflict).

With the emergence of new categories of post-feminist, post-modern categories which understand the individual as a space for many concurrent identities- whether gender, racial, religious or even personality-wise these kind of neat demarcations no longer make sense.

6 thoughts on “Labels of Death and other things

  1. ‘With the emergence of new categories of post-feminist, post-modern categories which understand the individual as a space for many concurrent identities- whether gender, racial, religious or even personality-wise these kind of neat demarcations no longer make sense.’

    These type of arguments are always used by postmodern historians, much to my distaste. They will blather on about the reductive nature of ‘knowledge’ ‘power’ all the while when they are using those very paradigm to contstruct their arguments.

    If we go down this road what is the point of deriving meaning from anything, since everything is positioned, constructed etc?

    Self-reflexivity is important. I will acknowledge that. But these days i’m more impressed with people who actually come out with opinions and proposals or attempt to even delve into the horrible world of ‘constructing and positioning knowledge from our points of power’ as postmodernists would say.

    It seems people are no longer actually discoursing about the actual discourse but discoursing about the nature of discourse itself and throwing words like globalisation and identity for good measure. It’s the type of argument you can’t loose with because of course are all in-genered, enculturated etc. Our very existance is a form of positioning. Surely however we can move past this polemic and actually talking about the issues? (and yes I realise I just did the opposite of what I just said. Call me a postmodernist- I can drive my rangerover and protest global-warming at the sametme.

  2. But our power and our positioning is part of our message- to understand this is not to engage in ‘postmodern quakery’ but actually absolutely necessary in understanding the ways in which our writings can form a kind of cultural assault if they aren’t self-reflexive. Writing itself is an act of power – from colonialist literature to contemporary writing about Islam, to western journalists understanding the “orient”- the arrogance of those trying to speak “for” rather than “with” or “to” is staggering. I agree it is harder to create than critique but that shouldn’t preclude critique of others and even yourself.

  3. p.s- i was actually critiquing the idea proposed in the book that secular/islamic feminism are esssntially at odds with each other by arguing that in our globalised society where one can have multiple identities these neat demarcations no longer apply.

  4. Sarah, I think if you read my post you will see that I do not begrudge that or even undermine the power and positioning that comes with any form of writing. As I said it’s the type of argument you can’t loose with.

    I agreed with other aspects of your post. I havn’t read the book tshough and the review didn’t really catch my eye thats why I didn’t really comment on other aspects. And honestly just in general I feel like I don’t know or even care that much about the hijab or the politics of the hijab (you’re probably thinking-um what are you doing here then). I make the requiste defense when chatting with people but thats about it. I think people should worry more about what is in their head then on it.

    Although I guess lack of understanding doesn’t stop othe commentators *cough* Miranda Devine *cough*

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