Liam Arne reviews the panel discussion “Feminism in Islam” hosted collaboratively by the Feminist Society and the Islamic Society on November 10th, 2015 in Buchanan in St. Andrews.
On November 10, several hundred students showed up in Buchanan to learn about feminism in Islam. While many entered with preconceived notions, everyone in attendance challenged themselves and their understandings of both topics. If “Feminism in Islam” sought to produce a safe space for learning about intersectional feminism (or the fight for the needs of women of all ethnic, cultural, social, and economic backgrounds) and the global faith, it more than succeeded.
The event, hosted in conjunction by Khadeeja Khalid of the Islamic Society and Jo Boon of the Feminist Society, provided a diverse representation on its panel. It consisted of two academics, an activist, a charity representative, and a student representative. Four of the five panelists identified as Muslim, and all of them were women with different backgrounds. Khalid and Boon provided opening remarks, including Khalid sharing her personal relationship with Islam and feminism.
The academics approached the topic from history and bled into the present. Dr. Jasmine Gani drew parallels between Islam’s call for justice and emancipation and feminism’s intention to dismantle oppressive structures, providing Qur’anic contexts for women’s empowerment through the Prophet’s wives Khadija, Hafsa, and Aisha. In addition, she explained the tenuous relationship between feminism and many Muslim people who experienced feminism as a European man’s “Trojan horse for imperialism”- a process ranging from justification for British imperialism in 19th century Egypt to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In contrast, Dr. Maryam Ghorbankarimi discussed women’s different roles, representations, and perspectives in Iranian politics from the 1936 unveiling act (a law to forcibly unveil all Iranian women) to the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the 1980s war with Iraq. She concluded by questioning why so many people believed that women’s rights could not ameliorate under Iran’s theocratic government, which puts Islam and feminism at opposing ends of intellect and strangles opportunities for female empowerment in the present.
The latter three speakers touched more on the personal, rather than academic, side of the discussion. Zara Mohammed is a relatable young woman who, as former President and current Vice President of the Federation of Student Islamic Socities (FOSIS), is responsible for 120 Muslim societies with 115,000 Muslim students in the UK and Ireland. She spoke primarily upon her own experience as a Muslim student who made the personal decision to wear a hijab in her second year of uni, her parents’ support of her academic aspirations and independence, and how many British Muslim students feel uncomfortable being themselves amidst a constant battle with social “othering.” Maggie Chapman is a non-Muslim representative of Amina, a Muslim women’s resource centre for Scotland started by Muslim women in 1997. She discussed Amina’s current projects and shared the stories of three women who came from contrasting contexts and perspectives within Islam. Her conclusion called for community support for women in need, especially noting the high rates of employment discrimination Muslim women face in Scotland.
The final speaker, Julie Siddiqi, humorously reflected upon her grassroots religious coexistence activism in Britain and her complicated relationship with Islam and feminism. She discussed the gap between the theory of Islamic feminism and its reality in the UK relating to women’s unequal treatment and facing the physical brunt of British Islamophobia. In addition, she critiqued the possibly well-intentioned actions of liberal organizations like the Daily Mail and Femen who quickly blame Islam and act for Muslim women rather than allowing these women to speak and create change for themselves. Siddiqi provided several takeaway points: the first, aimed at Muslims, implored for learning and celebrating the stories of important women in Islam while creating environments where women can become the “future Khadijas and Aishas;” the second, inclusivity in feminist dialogue that does not assume victimhood in Muslim womenhood; and the third, seeking commonality as community building, citing Malala Yousafzai and Emma Watson’s mutual inspiration, the book Faithfully Feminist, a collection of stories from American Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women who identified as feminists.
It may seem niche, but the importance of this panel for the St. Andrews community cannot be understated. Khalid claimed similar events have been organized at other universities- but almost always by either the Islamic or Feminist Society and never a combination. She believes that it is “important to have collaborations between different groups and communities to foster dialogue and be more effective in tackling complex issues” like intersectional feminism and Islam. Boon claims that Tuesday’s summit is not the end of the discussion at St. Andrews. She says that the two societies are considering another partnership for more events, and they are looking to take up Siddiqi’s suggestion of a reading group for Faithfully Feminist and convene next semester to further discussion.
Featured Images from “Feminism in Islam” event.