Reading The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam,” by Fatima Mernissi

I read Mernissi’s book some years ago, and it was an instructive journey into my own ignorance about Islam, particularly about an aspect of that religion that, to put it mildly, sticks in the craw of many, many people in the west: the veil. Mernissi’s argument is subtle and complex and relies not only on a textual analysis of passages in the Quran, which I have never read but also on a body of religious and historical research and commentary with which I am completely unfamiliar. One thing reading her book did affirm for me is the importance of distinguishing between critiquing and acting in opposition to oppression and violence perpetrated by Muslims—whether they are acting as individuals, as part of an organization like Al-Qaeda or Isis, or as a government—and essentializing as inherently Muslim the motivation for that oppression and violence, which is what Donald Trump did when, during his presidential campaign, he said, I think Islam hates us.”

These are some of the passages from the introduction to The Veil and The Male Elite the resonated with me in this regard:

From page vi:

Is Islam opposed to women’s rights?….Is it not odd that in this extraordinary decade, the 1990s, when the whole world is swept by the irresistible chant for human rights, sung by men and women, by children and grandparents, from all kinds of religious backgrounds and beliefs, in every language and dialect from Beijing to America, one finds only one religion identified as a stumbling block on the road to true democracy? Islam alone is condemned by many Westerners as blocking the way to women’s rights. And yet, though neither Christianity nor Judaism played an important role in promoting the equality of the sexes, millions of Jewish and Christian women today enjoy a dual privilege–full human rights on the one hand and access to an inspirational religious tradition on the other.

Those initial framing questions are important. She is not denying that there are Muslim governments which actively deny rights to women; she is asserting that if nothing inherent in being practicing Jews or Christians prevents Jewish and Christian women in the West from accessing their full rights as citizens and then asking why we should assume the same can’t be true of islam.

From pages vi-vii:

Westerners make unconscious religious references constantly in their daily activities, their creative thinking, and their approach to the world around them. When Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, they read to the millions watching them, including us Muslims, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: In the Beginning God created the Heaves and the Earth…” They did not sound so very modern…Here is a clear message for those who doubt Islam’s capacity to survive modernity, calling it unfit to accompany the age of higher technology: why should Islam fail where Judaism and Christianity so clearly succeed?

From pages vii-viii:

Any [Muslim] man who believes that a Muslim woman who fights for her dignity and right to citizenship excludes herself necessarily from the umma and is a brainwashed victim of Western propaganda is a man who misunderstands his own religious heritage, his own cultural identity. The vast and inspiring records of Muslim history[.] We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition…Women fled aristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Medina, the Prophet’s city in the seventh century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women, masters and servants. Every woman who came to Medina when the Prophet was the political leader of Muslims could gain access to full citizenship…

From page ix:

[That Mohammad’s] egalitarian message today sounds so foreign to many in our Muslim societies that they claim it to be imported is indeed one of the great enigmas of our times […] For those first Muslims democracy was nothing unusual; it was their meat and drink and their wonderful dream, waking or sleeping.

These last two quotes made the most impression on me, not because I am sure Mernissi is correct–I find her book persuasive, but I don’t know enough to say more than that–but because her assertion that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country…is a true part of the Muslim tradition” so thoroughly undermines the framing used by so many people in positions of policy-making power and influence, who claim to be fighting radical Islam.” Mernissi is a serious scholar of Islam in ways that the overwhelming majority of those people are not. On that count alone, her assertion deserves to be taken at least as seriously as anything they have to say on the matter.

Finally, I’d like to say this. In writing this post, I am not trying to defend Islam as a religious practice, a body of law, or a way of life. Rather, I am interested in making visible the often very biased framing that we use to understand and critique Islam here in the West–which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean that I think we have no right to call out the oppressive behavior of Muslim governments, organizations, or people. To acknowledge the validity of Mernissi’s perspective is merely to acknowledge that the most useful, constructive, and effective answer to that oppression may not lie with us and that perhaps we ought to stop behaving as if it did.

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