Monday 21 May 2012

The dignity of the feminine in Islam: Against Zizek's Orientalism

Just when we thought it had finally breathed its last, that it had been given its funeral rites and properly buried in the graveyard of yellowing history books, Orientalism - that Western imaginative construction of the East, which intellectually underwrote the colonialist projects of the great European powers - is resurrected once again to distort Islam into a mirror for the Western gaze.

Orientalism influenced great thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Jung, Nietzsche, Weber and Geertz - and yet the way they invoke Islam tells us much more about European angst than it reveals deeper truths about the youngest of the Semitic faiths.

One of the most glaring distortions of Orientalism, discussed by Meyda Yegenoglu in her Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, is how the Orient is itself feminised and penetrated by the Western observer. It is no coincidence that so many are affronted by Muslim women's veils: they symbolise the last refusal of Islamic cultures to be stripped bare and consumed.

It is precisely because Western Orientalists were refused access to the inner sanctum of the harem that they made up the most fanciful tales, and that the feminine in Islam is still the most poorly understood and misrepresented of all femininities.

For example, writing at a time when English women had very few legislated rights (including suffrage) and were largely reliant on men for financial support, and if they did have to support themselves they were mostly confined to working as domestic servants, teaching small children, or nursing, this Christian missionary seems almost disappointed that Muslim women were not suffering more in their oppression:

"The English-speaking race, accustomed to greater freedom for its women than any other on the face of the earth perhaps, would find it hard to be shut up in an Arab house, taking no long country walks, joining in no outdoor games, knowing nothing of the pleasures of shopping expeditions, having no literary pursuits, and meeting no men outside the circle of their relatives; and indeed it is a sadly narrow life. But we must remember that our Moslem sisters have never known anything better, and the majority are perfectly contented with things as they are."
But lest readers presume that this almost hilarious caricature of the Other's women belongs to a bygone era, one need only look to the United States where a number of states - Kansas being the most recent - are in the process of passing legislation to ban shari'a law from being legally recognised, partly under the pretext of protecting women's rights. Yet, at the same time, American law-makers are passing bills that force women to undergo invasive medical procedures, subjecting them to a twisted form of conservative Christian morality in what can only be described as a type of state-mandated rape.

This is not to say that feminism has no place in the Muslim world - far from it. From the earliest days of Islam, women and their supporters have been battling misogyny and oppression, from both within and without.

Despite this, it can feel like hard-won victories have to be fought again and again. While the Prophet Muhammad freed prisoners-of-war who agreed to teach women and children how to read, today the Taliban are shutting down girls' schools in Afghanistan.

Nor is modern feminism necessarily a Western "import" into the Muslim world. The brilliantly inspiring Nana Asma'u (d.1864), for example, initiated a massive campaign of education and female leadership in northern Nigeria. And while second-wave Western feminism only really captured the attention of secular elites in the Muslim world, there also exists a strong Muslim feminist movement that reclaims the right to draw inspiration from Islamic textual and historical sources, to challenge patriarchal strictures on their lives.

Powerful female archetypes have always existed in Islamic mythology and history, despite Slavoj Zizek's claim that Hagar, the founding matriarch of the Arab story, has been "erased from the official history." Western Orientalism doesn't recognise Islamic feminine archetypes and the "tao" of gender-relations, not because they are absent, but because Orientalism's "Islam" is the reflective pool into which the Western Narcissus gazes.

The number of times a human personality is named in the Qur'an does not indicate their level of importance and influence. If that were the case, Moses would come out tops with 136 references. Muhammad, by comparison, is specifically named four times (plus one reference to a variant on his name), while the obscure pre-Islamic Arabian prophet Hud has five times the number of Muhammad's references.

The reason for this is because, unlike many parts of the Bible, stories involving prophets, saints and sinners are not told as part of a historical narrative. Instead, the primary purpose of the scripture is to orient its audience towards God - all myths and stories are told to service this aim.

The tale of Hagar is told through Islamic traditions and her search for life-saving water is re-enacted and celebrated by every Muslim who completes their life-time's obligation of performing the hajj. It is perhaps the only example of a woman-initiated ritual from any of the world's great religions that is obligatory for both men and women.

According to Islamic belief, Hagar is buried within the precincts of the Ka'ba (Islam's most sacred site, and the direction towards which all Muslims turn when praying) and the gift of zam-zam water - which Hagar specifically bequeathed, not to a single tribe, but to all humanity - is treasured by Muslim pilgrims who drink it and bring containers of the blessed water back home for loved ones. Ali Shariati has described Hagar's position thus:

"Here was a woman who was not honored enough to become a second wife to Ibrahim yet Allah connected the symbol of Hajar's skirt to His symbol, Kaaba. The skirt of Hajar was the area in which Ismail was raised. The house of Hajar is there. Her grave is near the third column of Kaaba ... Those who believe in monotheism and those who have accepted Allah's invitation to go to Hajj must touch this skirt when circumambulating the Kaaba. The grave of a black African maid and a good mother is now a part of Kaaba; it will be circumambulated by man forever!"
Hagar is not the only female role-model to which all Muslims, men and women, look for inspiration. There is Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, who makes liars out of those who claim Muslim women cannot be leaders (Qur'an 27:23-44).

The Yemenis claim Bilqis as their own, along with the much-beloved Queen Arwa (d.1138). The latter, known as a wise and just ruler, is as fondly recalled today as ever before, something I discovered for myself when I visited Yemen in 2002.

There is Jochabed, the mother of Moses, who was given divine inspiration and strength from God (28:7-13).

There is Asiya, long-suffering wife of Pharaoh, who adopted and protected Moses. She was tortured and finally martyred by Pharaoh, but given a paradisiacal reward by God (66:11). Islamic tradition holds her as one of the most holy women in human history.

Then there is the pre-eminent Mary, mother of Jesus, after whom a whole chapter (19) of the Qur'an is named. She was brought up in the holy of holies, under the guardianship of Zechariah, and miraculously supplied with provisions (3:35-37).

In the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and female followers played extremely important roles. Not just Khadija who, as Zizek correctly noted became the first Muslim by affirming belief in his prophethood, but 'A'isha too. The latter's place in Islamic history - as a pivotal figure in the holy household, as a narrator of a sizeable proportion of prophetic traditions, as one of the earliest interpreters of sacred law, and indeed as one of the most famous women in human history - cannot be overestimated.

Then we have Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (d.801), one of the greatest Sufi teachers of all time, known for developing a theology of selfless love for God; Imam Shafi'i's teacher Nafisa (d.824), who was so highly respected and honoured, that the eponymous founder of Islam's second-largest school of law asked her to perform his funeral prayer; and the various women that inspired one of the greatest Islamic thinkers to have lived - Ibn 'Arabi (d.1240).

And these are just the beginning - I feel as though I have done a grave disservice to Muslim womanhood by limiting myself to just these few.

Despite the all-too real misogyny that exists in various parts of the Muslim world, in Islamic cosmology neither the masculine nor the feminine - neither the father nor the mother - are sublimated. Both play essential and complimentary roles as Sachiko Murata points out in The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought.

God is transcendent and without gender. But males and females are created partners and protectors of each other (9:71). Writes Ibn 'Arabi:

"Everything that exercises an effect [mu'aththir] is a father, and everything that receives an effect [mu'aththar fih] is a mother."
The goal of the pairing between fathers and mothers is the corporal and spiritual creation of new human life, as the ultimate goal of the cosmos. Thus, rather than being "orphanic" - as Zizek claims - Islam places respect for parents second only to monotheistic worship! Why is this? Because, as 'Abd al-Razzaq Kashani (d.1335) explains in his explanation of Qur'an 17:23-24:

"God places being good to parents next to tawhid [monotheistic worship] and considering Him alone as worthy of worship because parents correspond to the Divine Presence in the fact that they are the cause of your existence. And they correspond to the Presence of Lordship in the fact that they nurtured you when you were a helpless and weak infant, without power and motion. They were the first locus of manifestation within which such attributes of God as bringing into existence, lordship, mercy, and kindliness became manifest in relation to you. With all that, their rights need to be observed, while God is independent of that. Hence the most important obligatory duty after tawhid is being good to them and fulfilling their rights to the extent possible."
The ultimate father and mother archetypes are, of course, Adam and Eve. We are thus united, not just as believers (the ummah of Islam), but as brothers and sisters of one global family - the ummah of humanity.

Rachel Woodlock is a lecturer, researcher and doctoral candidate at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, studying the social attitudes of religious Muslims in Australia. Source.

Rachel Woodlock is a lecturer, researcher and doctoral candidate at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, studying the social attitudes of religious Muslims in Aus

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