ReviewIslamic Feminism: A Seat at the Table
Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East, by Isobel Coleman, Random House, 352 pages, $26
On its August 9 cover, Time magazine published the image of Aisha, a young Afghan girl whose face had been horrendously mutilated by a Taliban commander on the grounds that she had disrespected her in-laws. Around the same time, human rights organizations implored Americans to sign petitions and take action to prevent the execution of Sakineh Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to death for adultery (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements to the contrary notwithstanding). Meanwhile, a British newspaper reported the killing of a Saudi woman by her father in Riyadh for chatting on Facebook.
Such deplorable cases of mutilation and oppression, and the image they suggest of females as helpless apparitions swathed in yards of fabric, have unfortunately come to define Muslim women for many Western observers.
It is this problem that the author Isobel Coleman seeks to unravel in her book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East. In an exhaustive account, Coleman takes readers from porches in Lahore, Pakistan, to universities in Riyadh and conferences in Jakarta, introducing them to women, veiled and unveiled, young and old, political and apolitical. We meet divorcées who preside over financial empires, wives of Iranian clerics who lead initiatives for theological reform, single women who aim to be ambassadors and lawyers and who have never balked at being imprisoned for their progressive views. Through the sheer volume of the stories she presents, Coleman undertakes a demystification of Muslim women that can be accomplished only by an account as expansive and attentive to the varieties of contexts and discourses as hers is. In presenting scores of Muslim women who inhabit varying economic strata, differing opinions on the malleability of Islamic theology and even the applicability of terms like feminism to their own identities, Coleman painstakingly uproots the idea that resistance or reform is the anomaly among women in the Muslim world. From Nasreen, who lives on the outskirts of Lahore and operates a storefront out of her home to the founder of the longstanding feminist magazine Zanan in Iran (until the government of the aforementioned Ahmadinejad shut it down in 2008), Coleman presents a varied tapestry of Muslim women’s lived experiences of defiance and change.
Demonstrating the gradual emergence of a new norm, however, is markedly different from asserting the imminence of rapid change. Toward the end of her book, Coleman describes an encounter with Zainah Anwar, the founder of Sisters in Islam, a global movement for the reinterpretation of Islamic law.
She presents Anwar with a pointed claim that she herself hears with frequency: that Islamic feminism is largely a “fringe movement” that is “too small, too weak, too marginal to move mainstream” and that “for all their good intentions these women will never be able to overturn 1400 years of oppressive Islamic law.” Anwar responds, “We are not going to overturn fourteen hundred years of tradition overnight! These changes take time, but time is on our side.” This is a notable moment, as it represents optimism, not as a naive panacea but as a strategy for survival. Although admittedly focusing on what women are doing rather than what they are suffering, Coleman does not elide the enormity of the challenges the women she interviews face. She includes the stories of the brutal honor killing of Samia Sarwar and the village council–ordered gang rape of Mukhtar Mai, as well as many other lesser-known but equally brutal instances of gender violence. She thus presents the reality of Islamic feminism not as alternative that denies the existence of repression but rather as a project that pushes back against it with strategic creativity.
The variety of Muslim women’s encounters with projects of self-empowerment in diverse geographical and cultural contexts illustrates the diversity of the feminist project in Islam. However, Coleman’s inclusive scope also points to what might be a daunting challenge for Islamic feminism. An example of her inclusivity is the account of women like Massoumeh Ebtekar of Iran, who, as Coleman points out, even “gave a speech defending the gains women had made under the Islamic Republic.” As Coleman admits, Ebtekar might well “adopt the language of reform” as a politician, but her “reluctance to fight for equality—legal equality—for women for so many years discredited her in the eyes of many Iranian women.” The question is, What, if any, are the limits for inclusion in Islamic feminism? Are all Muslim women, even those challenging patriarchy by coincidence or accident, automatically Islamic feminists?
Consider an example not in Coleman’s book but illustrative of the dilemma at hand. In Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism among Urban Pakistani Women,