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In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's…

In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey

by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

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An American scholar who has long studied Muslim women returned to the Islamic world in the 1990s to interview women about their activities as and for women and their understanding of “Islamic Feminism.”

Elizabeth Fernea first came to the Middle East in the 1950s as the young bride of an anthropologist doing research in a small village in southern Iraq. As a result of living there for two years, she wrote a very insightful account of her experiences with the village women, women who were strictly segregated from the men. After returning she and her husband both taught at the University of Texas and continued to spend time in various Arab countries. She continued to write and create films about Muslim women. In the 1990s she decided to explore the issue of feminism for Muslims. Returning to Muslim regions, she interviewed a variety of women and a few men about the conditions for women in their countries. Often these were women with whom she was already friends. She visited Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. She founded the women of the Iraq village in which she had lived still valued her friendship and that gender segregation had weakened over the years. Returning to the United States, she also interviewed American Muslim women.

What is most clear in the book is that conditions for women in Muslim communities vary enormously. For those of us who tend to lump Muslims and/or feminists together, we need to absorb this critical fact. In some places women have rights and benefits that we are still struggling for in the United States. For example, while most of us assume that feminism is linked to democracy, Iraqi women in the 1990s were grateful to Sadam Hessian for the benefits he established for them by acting as a dictator.

Here and there Fernea found women who strongly identified themselves as feminists. More generally, however, she found women deeply engaged in efforts to improve women’s lives in ways we might consider feminist in the United States. But these women often refused to identify as feminists. Women find themselves fighting against the misogyny of both traditional and colonial leaders. Globally, an easy way for opponents to attack women is to label them as feminists and therefore as American or foreign. Feminism is said to be a luxury for outsiders.

Yet Muslim women are working with Christian and Jewish women to resolve these specific problems rather than attacking particular men. They struggle with poverty, lack of education or economic independence, oppressive family and marriage laws, and other issues that affect them as wives and mothers. Fernea’s book is full of descriptions of the variety of ways that Muslim women working to improve their own lives and those of other women within their families and religion.

More basically, women in other parts of the world remain grounded in family and religion, in ways that many western feminists do not. They view western feminists as too secular and too individualistic. They often lump all western feminists together and fail to understand the variety within western feminism. Muslim women, like other post-colonel ones, do make an important point. For better or worse, the “Western Civilization” differs from other cultures in its emphasis on progress through secular, individualistic efforts for both men and women. Muslim women want better lives, but they do not define them as most of us do. They particularly resent western assumptions of what they need.

Fernea does not provide us with a neat picture of Islamic feminism. In fact she remains ambivalent over whether such a thing exists. Instead she ends her book with useful comments about feminism in general and how her project showed her the need to reconsider how we define it. In her travels, she observed the limitations of mainstream western feminism and our need to listen respectfully to others. The novels I have been reading have convinced me of the same point.

I gladly recommend Searching for Islamic Feminism to readers interested in the lives and projects of Muslim women. Its information was collected twenty years ago and may be somewhat dated, but much of what Fernea observed continues to be valuable. ( )
  mdbrady | May 18, 2016 |
This book is very informative and descriptive as her work always is. Of special interest is a section on her return to her hometown of Portland and the new insights she gained.
  psumesc | Jul 26, 2011 |
Fernea doesn't seem to know what exactly she means by 'Islam,' or what exactly she means by 'feminism,' but she has some very interesting experiences going she knows not whither in search of she knows not what. In particular, a large part of the book is concerned with Central Asia -- Uzbekistan, especially -- and the conditions of women there, in a world of nomadic Turkic peoples swept over by the Mongol wave, the Muslim one, and finally the Soviet. We hear little enough about this region, but it's a deeply interesting one; seeing more about it is well worth the trouble.

As for the condition of women in the Islamic world? You probably already know: bad among the Arabs, varying in Lebanon (where either the good guys or Hezbollah will win sooner or later -- and I do not use the term "good guys" lightly), terrible among the Pashtuns, the opposite of what the authorities want in Persia, Euro-y in Albania and Kurdistan... and it would be outright good in Bosnia and the Turkic states were it not for how the Saudis can generally claim to be the better Muslims. But, as in Shakespeare's plays, the interest is much more in the details than in the big picture. ( )
  ex_ottoyuhr | Nov 8, 2010 |
Interestingly, this book frequently reads less like feminist theory and more like an evocatively descriptive travel narrative, which will certainly be enjoyed by fans of that genre. Indeed, this book is at its best when describing the people and places; and when the Muslim women in the chapters speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, though, I sometimes found the pacing a bit clunky, and the author's own viewpoints and/or insertion of herself into the proceedings, to be irritating. Some of her attitudes seemed surprising, as she is supposed to be a longtime professor of Middle East studies.

The glimpse into the lives and viewpoints of women abroad, though, was very interesting, and I found the chapter on Iraq to be fascinating. The book was written in the 1990s, but I read it in 2006, after the second Gulf War, so it was like looking back in time to an Iraq that, to judge by media reports, no longer exists. ( )
  Essa | Mar 21, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385488580, Paperback)

To the West, the Islamic world often appears homogeneous and monolithic; the Islam practiced in Iran or Saudi Arabia is our model for Islam everywhere: heavily veiled women, strictly segregated schools and workplaces, the harsh law of sharia demanding a thief's hand cut off or an adulterous woman stoned to death. In reality, the practice of Islam varies widely from place to place and culture to culture; in Turkey, for example, Islam may be the religion of the majority, but the political and legal systems are strictly secular. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, politics and religion are one, represented by the power of the mullahs and the ruling family. Uzbeki Muslims are different from Senegalese Muslims, and North African Islam has more than a little sub-Saharan influence to thank for its pantheon of djinns, afrites, and holy saints. Just as religious practices differ from country to country, so does the impact of Islam on women. Muslim women in Morocco, for example, have the legal right to drive a car, while women in Saudi Arabia do not. This being the case, is it even possible to define an Islamic brand of feminism? Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, Austin, certainly tries and, in many cases, succeeds. Her book, In Search of Islamic Feminism, is both an account of her many years spent living and traveling in the Middle East and an attempt to define the issues facing Islamic women today. Though Fernea occasionally comes off as naive, she also makes valuable points about the many faces of Islam and feminism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:14 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Islamic feminism" would seem a contradiction in terms to most Americans. We are taught to think of Islam as a culture wherein social code and religious law alike force women to accept male authority and surrender to the veil. How could feminism emerge under such a code, let alone flourish? Now, traveling throughout Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as Islamic communities in the United States, acclaimed Arab Studies scholar and bestselling author Elizabeth Fernea sets out to answer that question.Fernea's dialogue with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances prompts a range of diverse and unpredictable responses, but in every country she visits, women demonstrate they are anything but passive. In Iraq, we see an 85 percent literacy rate among women; in Egypt, we see women owning their own farms; and in Jerusalem, we see women at the very forefront of peacemaking efforts. Poor or rich, educated or illiterate, these women define their own needs, solve their own problems, and determine the boundaries of their own very real, very viable feminisms.… (more)

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