This is a guest post written by Ikhlas Saleem. She is a Masters of Theological Studies student at Harvard Divinity School concentrating in women, gender sexuality and religion, specializing in Islamic Studies and holds a BA from Wellesley College in Religious Studies. She is currently working as a Graduate Research Assistant with Hauwa Ibrahim, a Visiting Scholar and Researcher in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard. Ikhlas is most interested in the intersections of women, culture and development and the role of religion and policy in determining the lives of women. Ikhlas enjoys traveling to warm climates, long dinners with friends and riding her bike through Cambridge and Boston.
In reading Sasha Brookner’s essay, “Muhammad’s Mistresses,” I was initially furious with Brookner’s outlined attack against Muslim feminists. But upon reading further my anger was exchanged for a mere, “oh.” Brookner’s essay unfolds in a controversial manner but in reality espouses or rather mimics the deeply familiar “western,” offensively liberal, patriarchal nature that she intends to deflect.
Brookner begins the essay enlightening the reader to her knowledge of Muslim women, both historical and contemporary. Albeit through her “praise,” she manages to simultaneously dismiss their entire being declaring, “as I am humbled by your struggles and legacies, my inextricable love and concern for my gender trumps religious tolerance.” Here, Brookner employs the false dichotomy, infused by some secular feminists, that feminism and religion are mutually exclusive.
This intellectual deception fails to mention the countless Mujeristas (Latina), Womanist, Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish feminist theologians that have responded to secular feminists for years on this very issue. It also fails to include Muslim women that may not label themselves as feminist in their belief that the term “Muslim feminist” inherently discounts Islam’s commitment to justice and human rights for all.
She argues further, “Feminism is relinquishing Jehovah for Oshun, Leviticus for Audre Lorde, Allah for Allat, foster care for abortion, and beauty cult for academia.” Feminism, in my understanding, isn’t about choosing at all. It is, in fact, a very patriarchal notion that one (i.e. woman) must choose one or the other—work or mother; virgin or whore; beautiful or ugly, and the list of “choices” goes on. If we are to embrace a wholistic approach to feminism then it must be inclusive and allow for a spectrum of women that are committed to justice whether or not they read Leviticus, choose to mother, or even model.
I encourage Brookner to express her belief, as all women and men should have the freedom to do so. But in doing we must not discount the voices of women theologians and religious women that adhere to their traditions and work fiercely in reclaiming their faith traditions that have been stolen by patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, neoliberalism and now the disgustingly misused and misunderstood secularism.
Throughout her essay, Brookner makes frequent mention of “Muslim women in the third world” and “these women, living in the margins of existence.” She appears to be calling us to a neocolonialist world order masked in the disguise of time and progress. Her use of “Muslim women in third world countries” falsely imagines that Muslim women exist “somewhere over there.” Thus, making “them” the unfamiliar along with those “backward values.” We’ve heard this rhetoric before in the works of colonial explorations and orientalist such as Bernard Lewis and we watch it now in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the assaults on French Muslim women.
There is no “third world” or “Muslim world.” To fashion a multiplicity of “worlds” within the context of development, both economic and ideological, allows for a paradigm of “us” vs./and “them” in which we fail to acknowledge the existence of shared values. Our refusal to coexist in one world will continue to serve as a hindrance ensuring the human rights of all.
As a student of theological studies, I will refrain from commenting on Brookner’s cursory “interpretation” of surah an- Nisa (The Women), knowing that any selective listing is not only insulting to the discipline but also counteracts the works of women in religious studies such as Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, Nimat Barazangi, Asma Barlas and Jamillah Karim. I encourage us all to continue to read and discuss the works and initiatives of scriptural re-interpretation.
Though I found this article deeply concerning and highly problematic in many ways, I must close reminding us again of the patriarchy that has yet to be removed from our conscious and subconscious. Brookner says, “…I’m thoroughly insulted by Muslim women appropriating my beloved “F word,” as if their prophet’s vision even remotely parallels with that of Matilda Joslyn Gage, Angela Davis, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Sojourner Truth, Gloria Steinem, Emma Goldman, and bell hooks.” The idea that feminism can be “my” is an oxymoron in itself. The competition of visions parallels not feminism but a capitalist vision that entails a winner and a loser, a right and a wrong, and a dangerous assumption of the monolithic. All of which sends us back to 19th century colonialism or better yet, keeps us in a 21st century “first-world.”