Our interviewee today is anjum rahman, who writes at stargazer. anjum lives in New Zealand, adheres to Islam, and also writes at New Zealand feminist group blog The Hand Mirror. She asked me to link White women and the privilege of solidarity by Houria Bouteldja as also articulating some of the ideas explored in the interview. Check out the Feminists of Faith tag for the rest of this series.
Tell us about the formation and constitution of your feminist identity, and your faith one.
My faith identity comes first and pretty much always will. I was born to Muslim parents, who brought me up as a Muslim. They gave me a pretty decent Islamic education, given that we were the first Muslim family in this city, and there were very few other Muslims around during my childhood.
I know that most people grow up with a faith, absorb it so that it becomes a part of their identity, without ever thinking very much about it. Especially if you belong to a faith that is followed by the majority of the people in the country. That means that everything is designed around your religious requirements. Faith, culture, and institutions all meld together, and you accept this as how life generally is supposed to be and never question it.
But when you grow up with a faith that few other people around you believe in, and when you grow up in a society that is often hostile to your faith and any outward expression of that faith, a society where there is considerable pressure to conform to other norms just so that the people around you can feel more comfortable, well, then you tend to question everything. And it seems to me that you are forced to make a conscious choice about whether or not you believe in this thing that your parents have given you as your identity.
I did make that choice, I remember the day and the moment very clearly, though I couldn’t give you a date or the day of the week it was, nor exactly how old I was. I think I was around 20. It was a day when I decided that I did want to be Muslim; that I wanted to take on this set of beliefs and this identity, own it and practice it because I couldn’t see any other way to make sense of life, and the world around me.
My feminist identity was well developed by the time I was 20. I can’t remember exactly when it did develop, but it was definitely there by the time I was 12. Because I don’t blog anonymously, I’m not prepared to divulge particular incidents that involve other people. But I can say what I felt: which was a real outrage at the injustices I could see before me, based on gender. There was no logical other reason for the disparities I saw, other that fate had caused someone to be born a woman and another to be born a man.
In the early 1980s, there was a push at high schools in New Zealand to challenge sexism. There was a programme which I believe was called “Girls can do anything”, and we had spaces where we could talk about the impacts of sexism, the opportunities denied to women. The boys would groan when this happened, but it still happened. I have no doubt that this helped to form my feminist identity, as well as the fact that my female friends were assertive and we would be actively discussing the way sexism impacted women’s lives, even at age 16 &17.
How is your feminism tied to your faith? Perhaps aspects of your faith inspire your feminism?
To me, the two are very much intertwined. Faith, for me, includes notions of justice and fairness. One of the attributes of God is the Just; we are called on to be just and to be blind in our justice (ie to not let the fact that a person is related to you, or rich or any other factor change the way you would mete out justice).
I read the thesis written by Amina Wudud some time in my university years or soon after, and this was something she wrote very eloquently about. She showed how religious texts were open to interpretation, and that the meaning one took from them was very much determined by the values one had prior to the reading. So if, for example, you firmly believed that God was Just, then you would know that he wouldn’t place on women a burden higher than that placed on men. He wouldn’t value women less than the value given to men. With those values at the forefront of your mind, the interpretations you make of the text would be significantly different to someone who did firmly believe that women were created inferior to men.
So I guess this is why faith and feminism are so intermixed for me. I can’t have one without the other, because they both inform each other.
Have you experienced conflicts between your faith and your feminism? Have you had to make compromises? If so, from where did the pressure come, and was one aspect more difficult to compromise on than another?
I don’t know that I have conflicts between faith and my feminism. But I do have a lot of conflict with the way feminism is used to attack women who belong to my faith community. I have huge problem with the fact that feminist arguments were used to justify the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, of Iraq, and now similar arguments are being used regarding Iran. I’m not saying there weren’t and aren’t huge problems for women in these countries, but it is beyond belief that the response to these problems is to bomb these very women, to destroy the infrastructure of their countries, to reduce their already poor standard of living. That many Western feminists were complicit in the arguments that allowed a populace to accept war and destruction in these countries? It sickens me and it hurts.
I also hate the kind of feminism that allows white women to see themselves as liberated and liberators of women of colour who are portrayed as uniformly oppressed and vulnerable. The arrogance and the ignorance combine to damage the lives of women of colour much more than any kind of “emancipation” they might hope to achieve. As an example, many French feminists lined up to support the government’s banning of the burqa in France, thereby denying agency to Muslim women, forcing a law on these burqa-wearing women without the slightest need to consult with them or to see if this is indeed what they wanted. It is a colonial feminism that says “I will free you from your bondage, dammit, whether or not you agree”, without even pausing to reflect that what appears to be bondage to one person might appear to be something quite different to another. It centres the experiences of the coloniser, invalidates the experiences of the marginalised, and improves the lives of nobody at all.
In terms of compromise with this stuff, I simply don’t. I don’t accept that someone outside of my faith knows more than me or better than me about what is good for me. That is what being an empowered woman is about isn’t it? And I don’t feel the need to justify myself to anyone else, or to try to prove to them that I’m not some kind of brainwashed victim of the patriarchy – not anymore than they are at any rate.
I’ve found also that this means that I don’t react to experiences of other women of colour who don’t belong to my faith or my ethnicity as many white feminists do. I found that really came to the fore when we had an incident in New Zealand where a Maori exhibit in our national museum was displayed with the condition that menstruating women should refrain from viewing it. I couldn’t feel the same level of outrage that I saw from other feminists, I couldn’t bring myself to be immediately and vigorously outraged at the injustice of it all. I wanted to listen to voices of Maori women, I wanted to be guided by what they were saying and respect the way they wanted to deal with the whole issue – even though the rules around the exhibit affected all women. Mostly, because the national reaction to this exhibit was so hugely tarred with racism and racial hatred, from a majority that saw themselves as the liberated and civilised, outraged that such injustice could possibly be allowed to happen. In that context, I found the initial feminist responses to be lacking, but more than that, to be exacerbating the racism – in fact, to become a seemingly valid excuse for that racism.
What are the challenges you encounter as a feminist in your faith community and/or tradition, and vice versa?
I think the challenges as feminists are pretty constant. Our views are misrepresented – we are all man-haters out to destroy the family, or some such. I suspect there are some in my faith community who see me as a threat, but since they never have the courage to say anything to my face, I happily ignore them. And because as humans we have a tendency to gravitate towards people who share similar values (I think the word is propinquity), I either manage to avoid people who don’t believe in basic feminist values or I just don’t engage with them on those issues.
I’m also helped by the fact that the Muslim community is targeted by bigots and Islamophobes largely around issues related to women. Many leaders are quite conscious of this fact, and conscious also of the fact that there are injustices within the community, so are happy to work with women in changing both the reality and the perception. Sometimes it’s just lip service, but other times they are truly supportive and that makes my work as a feminist a lot easier, when I’m advocating for the rights of women.
In terms of the feminist community dealing with my being a person of faith, again, I tend to gravitate towards those who can deal with it and avoid those who would be judgemental or negative towards me. Most of my interaction with the feminist community is online – while I belong to a few women’s organisations, they aren’t specifically feminist organisations even though the women in them hold some strongly feminist values. But I don’t belong to a real-world organisation that is solely about feminism, I’ve never actually studied feminism in any formal way (other than the stuff in high school I mentioned above), and I haven’t met many feminist bloggers either. I haven’t actually met most of the women who write or have written at the Hand Mirror, and others I’ve only met once or twice. So in a sense, I feel myself to be physically outside of the feminist community, and online, I stick to those blogs that won’t be nasty about my faith or religion in general. Which is not to say that I’m opposed to any criticism or critiques of religion – I’m all for discussing the abuse of children and how religious leadership has totally failed to deal with it; or have a discussion about women not being allowed to vote or even drive in particular countries. But when those discussions descend to “aren’t people of faith stupid, believing in fairy tales” or “aren’t [insert faith group here] complete a**holes”, then I’m leaving that space pretty fast and won’t be returning in a hurry.
How can feminism and faith usefully work together?
This is a really difficult question. For Muslim women, justice and empowerment can only come from working within the paradigm of their faith. And many Muslim women have been making huge advances, while using the religious scriptures and religious traditions as the basis for those advances. One thing we know is that education, and particularly religious education, is the single biggest factor in achieving women’s rights. However, a religious education is not seen as a thing of value in our many of our societies. This ties into a wider discussion about the values of education, and how education under the neo-liberal paradigm is focussed solely on a direct economic endproduct: getting a job. With the increasing privatisation of education, reducing it to a commodity that is a means to an end, the actual value of education is lost. But it is in religious education that the emancipation of Muslim women lies.
But back to the wider question of how feminism and faith can work together, so much depends on changes in perspective. So often feminists and women of faith are talking past each other, with many in the former group not seeing that many women of faith are strong feminists, that we belong in the same group. Faith is so often defined as the enemy of feminist ideals, in large and small ways, and evangelical atheists have a lot to do with developing that perspective (yeah Richard Dawkins, I’m looking at you, and particularly your gratuitous use of Muslim women to put down an atheist woman – we don’t need a**holes like you pretending to be on our side by the way, because you clearly aren’t).
And on the other side many religious leaders, and some of the practices promoted by religious groups set up this dichotomy between faith and feminism as if the two could never be compatible. I don’t know, I don’t have any answers to this. Other than that we keep trying to have a dialogue, keep trying to find common ground and ways to understand each other; keep trying to see other ways of looking at the world and make spaces for all of us just to be. But I don’t know who is going to do that, because I don’t have much energy to try to patiently explain to people who just can’t seem to get it, or who are dismissive of a view that is clearly to different from their own. It’s hard work, this bridge-building stuff and so fraught with stress and the potential for major hurt and anger.