As woodturtle observed recently, there’s been a lot of discussion on the internets recently of Islam and feminism, fueled by the Arab spring and new discussions of Islamic practice. I’m not equipped to discuss the role feminism should or shouldn’t play in Islam, since I’m not a Muslim, but some of the criticisms of feminist Islam I think display a misapprehension of what feminist criticism is and what it does, and as an academic, that is something I’m comfortable discussing.
Feminism is a lot of things. It can be a type of political action, a medium for discussing social interactions, or an academic methodology used to re-evaluate existing scholarship. Again, I’m not equipped to argue for the role feminism should or shouldn’t play in Islam as a political device or as an aspect of social expression – although I do have some good evidence that such roles are possible, cuz I know other people on the internets that engage in them. What I can talk about is what feminist criticism is as a tool for academia, and why it’s important for everyone to engage in, not just Westerners, not just women, and not just people who do lit-crit.
The problem with scholarship, in particular the humanities, is that we process information within the parameters we have available to us at the time. Even something as simple as reading a word can be affected by our current time, region, environment and background. All post-structuralist criticism (of which feminist criticism is a branch) argues that we at least need to be aware of how our current outlook might be affecting our assumptions, and we need to revisit other people’s work to consider if they were led astray by their assumptions.
The best illustration I’ve ever heard of this came from a former Oxford lecturer in Ecclesiastical History, Dr Charlotte Methuen. I had the pleasure of having Charlotte as a tutor when I was doing my Masters, and she illustrated a lecture on feminist theory by noting that in the mid-nineteenth century, a German scholar had uncovered a Greek inscription that dated from the early Christian period that contained the word ‘diakena’ as the title for a female patron. In his edition of the inscription, he had translated the word as ‘wife of the deacon’, which, from his point of view, made perfect sense – in German, it’s perfectly acceptable to use the feminine of a professional noun as a title for a wife (eg. ‘Aertzin So-and-So’ meaning ‘Mrs Doctor So-and-So’), and that occurred to him as a more likely translation than that this was a female deacon (what we would today call a deaconess). The problem was that, after his work, scholars argued that women played a limited role in the early church, and used, as evidence, the fact that we have no inscriptions listing women in church offices.
The reality is that we do have inscriptions that might list women as holding a church office, or might not. It sort of depends on how you read them, and how you read them is shaped not just by the word on the page (or wall, or floor, as in the case of inscriptions), but also how you want to interpret that word based on your outlook and perspective.
This is what feminist (and all post-structuralist) criticism does – it’s not a set of assumptions that scholars are trying to force onto the situation, it is meant to be a new (and hopefully) better way of evaluating sources.
So there’s a reason why post-structuralist criticism often gets hung up on questions of gender and race and sexual identity (what I, on my cynical days, refer to as ‘insert-abstract-noun-here studies’). It’s because one of the assumptions that crops up time and time again in writing, and in reading other people’s writing, is that we have a tendency to take ‘a person’ to mean ‘an able, heterosexual man of the majority-racial-group.’ Which is pretty dumb, when you stop to think about it. Having all of those characteristics in one person is actually going to be pretty rare. There are loads of historical reasons why this false definition of ‘person’ developed (and for why, even in regions of the world where whites are not in the majority, ‘a person’ ends up being white).
But knowing that all of those historical circumstances exist isn’t enough. We need to be constantly aware of this false definition because it bubbles to the surface of our perspective on the world all of the time, often in weird ways – it makes us divide kids into ‘normal’ and ‘girls’, it makes us think it’s okay to shame fat people for having the audacity of taking up more space than other people, and until very recently, it made us think that ‘rape’ was something that only happened to women. And in scholarship, it makes us assume that everyone in history was an able, heterosexual, white man, unless well-testified otherwise.
Again, the purpose of all forms of post-structuralist criticism is to engage in conversations to help us understand that ‘person’ is not a standard model, but rather a general term, same as ‘car’ and ‘tree’ and ‘dog’. I admit, this isn’t how it’s always used – loads of scholars have tried to use post-structuralist theory to argue that everyone but them is dumb – but when it’s done well, it’s all kinds of useful. When we question the underlying outlook that lurks behind our natural assumptions, we open up new ways of reading and analyzing sources, which often give us whole new ranges of study and new answers to questions that we didn’t think we had before.
It also complicates things, no question about it – the fact is that post-structuralism pretty much renders the concept of universal agreement impossible. We won’t ever all see things the same way. But that’s only a problem if we decide to make it a problem – see Nahida’s post over on the fatal feminist on why interpretation is not a bad thing – there’s really no reason to expect universal agreement, and that doesn’t mean that we can’t still judge the accuracy or usefulness of arguments and theories. In my experience, the lack of absolute certainty that goes hand-in-hand with post-structuralism is what causes a lot of the discomfort with these theories – we all miss being in elementary school and knowing the right answers to questions. But also, in my experience, the benefits that can be reaped from accepting this uncertainty makes it well worth it.
And I’ve just written a post defending feminist theory. My pure history 19-year-old self *hates* me right now. Aw, well, such is life.
 Although it was the question I got asked most often when I told people I was majoring in Islamic studies – ‘have you converted?’ It got to the point where my standard answer was, ‘No, it wasn’t a pre-rec, I checked.’
 You know what they say, that when you make assumptions, you make an ass out of you and mptions. And mptions hate being made asses of.
 Edited to add: DingoSaar has helpfully clarified my very mediocre German: “One thing: “Ärtztin” is a bad example (you don’t say “Frau Ärtztin”). The practice was indeed to say “Frau Pfarrerin” (Madam Priest) etc. for the wife of a priest; however, please note, this has fallen into disuse long ago. (AFAIK it is still used for titles in Austria: There, you are becoming “Frau Doktor Name” without promotion just by marrying a doctor).”