Beyond the monolith

graphic by Shelby Redman YH Staff

Last week, around twenty Yalies gathered to engage in a discussion with resident Rice Fellow Meriem El Haitami. The topic of conversation was “Gender in Islam.” Islam Awareness Week at Yale framed Professor El Haitami’s with six days full of cultural events and discussions hosted by Yale’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). The scene was casual and inclusive. Some of us came with an outsider’s curiosity, while others were familiar with the night’s topic due to lived personal experience.

Meriem El Haitami began with a bit of an apology: she confessed that she doesn’t really like the title “Gender in Islam.” The phrase, she explained, already evokes the tired Western perception that Islam has an issue with women. She would prefer to call the event, “Equality in Islam.” Immediately, Ms. El Haitami debunked the notion that Islam is a monolithic religion comprised of one culture and a unified mindset. She suggested that this misconception stems from the Orientalist perspective that every culture outside of “The West” is a simple, homogeneous entity. Islam is complicated, and its followers’ attitudes towards gender are diverse.

After addressing Western misconceptions of Islam, El Haitami discussed the modern Islamic feminist movement. She dismissed the common stereotype that Muslim women must be “liberated”, and that the veil is anything other than a personal religious decision. El Haitami subsequently spoke about the burgeoning feminist movement in the Islamic world. As a scholar and writer, she often uses her native Morocco as a point of reference to discuss the challenges of Islamic feminism. In Morocco, as in many parts of the Islamic world, women are underrepresented in religious and government positions. A type of cultural conservatism prevails, and women’s roles in society are often constricted to family duties.

Imams and religious scholars are traditionally male. But El Haitami makes clear that this is a social development, and not an intrinsically Islamic one. Any reader of the Qur’an knows that God created men and women from the same soul; that the only way in which one human can be superior to another is through superior piety; that God addressed men before women when ordering modesty. In short, Islam is well-suited to feminism. In her talk, Ms. El Haitami described a feminism that is not merely a Western import, but inherently Islamic. As part of this, she advocates the introduction of female imams, and greater participation by women as religious and cultural authorities.

A question-and-answer session followed El Haitami’s speech. Many members of the audience asked about the feasibility of Ms. El Haitami’s goals. How long will it take for Islamic feminism to become widely implemented? Isn’t feminism largely inaccessible to impoverished women? El Haitami responded with a keen understanding of the challenges faced by the Islamic feminist movement, and the sacrifices and compromises necessary. To make true progress, El Haitami considers it necessary for Islamic feminists to work in conjunction with male religious authorities. Though some governments in predominantly Muslim countries have made official steps to expand women’s roles in politics and religion, El Haitami believes that an Islamic feminist movement should ultimately be a grassroots endeavor. Above all, El Haitami emphasized the necessity of an open dialogue.

As Muslim Student Association board member Lina Goelzer explained to me via email, Muslim women in the U.S. confront many paradoxes and challenges as they seek to engage with feminism. “Although women who decide not to wear hijab are often lauded as ‘liberated’ or ‘independent’, assumptions are made about their levels of faith,” she told me in an email. “Society often labels one decision as ‘oppressed’ and the other as ‘liberated’, which is counterproductive because it creates oppression where it does not exist.” This mindset considers Islam as a religion to be a prison. Goelzer implicates a greater “social script” that Muslim women in the West are expected to follow.

Even at Yale, such misconceptions about Islam run rampant.“[At Yale,] Muslim countries are almost exclusively addressed in the context of being in turmoil, warfare, or disarray,” Goelzer reflected. “The way that Islam is addressed at Yale is very limited and also largely negative. Not only does this continuously make Muslim students uncomfortable in the classroom, but it is also alarming because Yale produces so many…leaders that graduate with a limited perspective.”

As I enjoyed dinner and conversation alongside my fellow Yalies last week, I was saddened to remember that so many non-Muslim Americans harbor misconceptions about Islam. It would be difficult to imagine a classroom setting, even at Yale, in which a discussion of gender in Islam could be so thought-provoking and respectful, with no mention of terrorism, war, or other issues stereotypically associated with the faith.  There should have been nothing innovative about a discussion of gender and religion on a college campus. But the rareness of such a discussion, especially facilitated from a Muslim feminist perspective, made it vitally important.

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