x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The caged and the saved: finding feminism in the Islamic world

The word itself is controversial, with some damning it as the force that destroyed the family and others defending it as the movement that freed a gender.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Like most ideas, this one did not have a single genesis. I've been thinking, and to some extent writing, about feminism for many years and in many guises. The word itself is controversial, with some damning it as the force that destroyed the family and others defending it as the movement that freed a gender. It is one of those terms that starts simply and rapidly gets tangled: if you look around the world and think there are inequalities between the genders, and that those inequalities are not biological and are unfair, you are probably a feminist. And that's where the arguments begin.

But definitions are only useful for what they illuminate, and the language of feminism, like the languages of democracy or freedom, has often been used to obscure. So much of the discourse around the West's relationship with the Muslim world has been framed through the language of women. It was around women that early Christian Europe framed its opposition to the pleasure palaces of the "Mohammedans", the barely disguised yearning for the exoticism of the Orient. The role of women in Egyptian society was cited by Napoleon as a wedge through which to enter the country; was cited again as a justification for the Anglo-American invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and is regularly cited as apparent evidence of a lack of commitment to equal rights in Muslim communities. Within the Muslim world, discourse around women's roles and rights remains highly charged. As much as some point to the treatment of women in Europe as evidence of the vanishing of the West's moral compass, it is also the case that, across much of the Muslim world, women's dress has become a way to impose a religious vision upon the society, even as Muslim women use the veil to reclaim their own identities. And, still, in too many countries, internal social and cultural wars are fought on the battleground of women's bodies. So the question of what counts as feminism, as liberation, in the Arab and Islamic worlds is complicated and intricate. To try and answer it, I am leaving London next week for Beirut, the first stop on a journey that will take me thousands of kilometres across Arab and Islamic lands, through Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and to the very edges of Indonesia. Through interviews, experiences and research, I hope to come close to an answer, and I've been immensely privileged to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship, the living memorial to Britain's wartime leader, to fund this exploration. What do I hope to find? Not easy answers, for sure. Even the idea of what counts as liberation is mixed. I have called the introductory chapter of the book I am writing about this journey "The caged and the saved", reflecting the two ways people think of what the Muslim veil does. In it, I tell an anecdote of encountering these contrasting attitudes in real life, when, walking around London with a friend, she asked me, of a woman wearing a Saudi abaya, "How can she think she is liberated when she dresses like that?" It occurred to me another woman might ask the same question about the women around her displaying acres of flesh. Nor is there a clear dividing line between political and religious perspectives. Earlier this year in Morocco I interviewed Nadia Yassine, of the banned Islamist group Al Adl wal Ihsane. As much as she spoke the language of women's rights and of female liberation, she was reluctant to be pigeonholed as a feminist in the western understanding of the term. Her perspective, she said, stemmed from her faith. The imam and the activist can sometimes reach the same conclusions. Within the Muslim world, as within the West, the idea of what feminism is, where it comes from, how relevant it is, what form equality ought to take are real, live debates. They come to us in snatches: harassment of women on the streets of Cairo, the wearing of trousers in Sudan, unsegregated university campuses in Saudi Arabia, the burning of girls' schools in Pakistan. And threaded through these snatches are less-regular glimpses of clear successes: the leadership of women such as Queen Rania, Benazir Bhutto and Lubna Olayan. And there is the immense lived experience of millions of women, who assert their own independence daily through their work, relationships, devotion to their family and faith. The Arab and Islamic worlds are going through a period of immense change and the ideology that holds nations and regions together is altering. The big -isms of the world - nationalism, capitalism, Islamism - affect women in each country differently. The outward symbols of faith are obvious illustrations of this, but the framework of the society is equally important. The professor in Tehran and the village-woman in Indonesia will not only dress differently, they may also have different conceptions of the relationship between men and women. I expect to meet those who espouse feminism from a purely secular perspective, and those who say that Islam has provided a clear manifesto for women's rights. So I am not setting out with preconceived notions. I don't begin from the assumption that one way of living is better than another, nor do I go in with the assumption that what occurs to one person in one country is indicative of a nation or a faith. But I do think it is possible to delineate between ways of organising a society: that if you look closely enough at a society's history and people, it is possible to make fine, sensitive judgements. Though I expect differences, I also hope for some common ground. The Arab world is a complex place; nations of Arabic speakers who think they are one but act like they are many. It is a place that defies easy categorisation. I have lived, travelled and reported across many Arab countries over many years, but there are still times when I come across something - an event, a conversation - that makes me think I have barely scratched the surface. Such has been the case with my conversations about feminism: I've often understood the word in terms of equality of laws, education and employment. But it is astonishing how varied people's perceptions are around the Middle East. If that is the case with the Arab world, with all its many commonalities, imagine the complexity of the Islamic worlds that stretch across Asia and Africa. That's the reason I have broadened the journey out to encompass the vast non-Arab Islamic world: the Shia customs of Iran, the South Asian experience in Pakistan and the newer Asian traditions in Indonesia. The exploration of these places will be a key theme, because no idea lives in isolation; all are shaped by the experience of their societies. I want to go beyond a purely intellectual discussion to understand the lived experiences of women in these societies. I admit there have been times these last few weeks, as I prepare to leave London and skim through old books on the subject, that I have wondered if it is perhaps an overwhelming one. I have been incredibly lucky so far to have friends and colleagues who have helped me get started - I know I will meet many more over the next few months. What I don't know is if I will find any answers, or even if there are any: that's why I am going. Follow Faisal al Yafai's journey at faisalalyafai.com. His book will be published by IB Tauris in 2011.