During her scholarly career miriam cooke has explored a number of themes pertaining to Arab and Muslim women, among them the importance of complicating what she calls “the war story” (cooke 1997), by including the gender-specific experiences of women in war and conflict in the Middle East. I apply cooke’s insights in this and other works to the distinctive positioning and experiences of Muslim women in the current US culture war against Islam and its compatibility with citizenship and belonging. On this battlefront Muslim women carry a different burden than Muslim men do. Muslim women who consider themselves Islamic feminists carry an even heavier burden.
We know the challenges faced by hijab-wearing Muslim women in the United States. They are lightning rods for anti-Muslim sentiment. While many Americans consider Muslim men violent, fanatical, and misogynist, many also fear them, and this fear engenders a grudging respect. Muslim women who wear hijab, however, often face hostility and contempt because the dominant society sees them as complicit in a religion and community that oppresses them. This perception produces the kind of hate reserved for people who allow themselves to be victimized and refuse to be saved or show appropriate gratitude toward liberatory efforts.
The US culture war over Islam hits Islamic feminists—those who argue and work for gender equality within the framework of Islam—in particular ways. To construct new ways of understanding and practicing Islam, feminists must first conduct critiques of gendered aspects of the Islamic tradition. Herein lies the challenge and the risk: How can Islamic feminists engage in this first step without arming anti-Muslim ideologues, who use such criticisms to present Islam as barbaric, misogynist, and incompatible with modernity and who seek on that basis to eject Muslims and Islam from the nation? How should Islamic feminist scholars and activists proceed in such a hostile context, especially when social media enable rapid dissemination of information beyond its intended audiences?
The degree of Islamophobic activity and rhetoric in the United States is the highest in years, partly aligned with racist responses to the election of President Barack Obama. A spate of terrorist incidents perpetrated in the name of Islam in Europe and the United States in late 2015 and early 2016, including bombings and shootings at the Boston Marathon; in San Bernardino, California; in Paris; and at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, also augmented Islamophobia. Further intensifying popular hatred of Islam and Muslims has been the ascendancy of Donald Trump and his brand of populist incitement. Under President Trump, Islamophobic individuals have gained political clout while the commitment to uphold the civil rights of Muslims has weakened and does not seem equally reliable in all jurisdictions. Given the high degree of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment in US society, right-wing forces can easily use Islamic feminist critiques of the religious tradition as evidence of Islam’s threat to US culture and society. Thus Islamic feminists’ own discourses can contribute to the targeting of the US Muslim community.
Exacerbating this vulnerability to discursive misuse is the new social media landscape, which collapses boundaries between different speaking and writing situations and flattens distinctions between more and less credible sources. A feminist scholar speaking or writing frankly and critically in a particular setting about gender issues in Islam can no longer rely on a shared set of communicative norms with her audience. Anti-Muslim groups interested in rapid response can extract and distort passages to serve their ideological purposes. The speed at which misinformation and distortion is spread is unprecedented, facilitated by online organizations established for the specific purpose of undermining Muslim voices and impeding nuanced discussions about Islam.
These factors create a fraught communicative context for US Muslim women who seek to articulate a gender-just vision of Islam and conduct internal critique of Islamic doctrines and institutions that are detrimental to women. If one engages in meaningful and nuanced Islamic feminist critique in any public setting (which is the only setting), Islamophobes may co-opt that material as “proof” that “Islam” is always and permanently patriarchal and misogynist. Alternatively, if feminist scholars of Islam engage in work intended to accurately understand and fairly represent classical Islamic doctrines on women and gender, then they risk being seen as endorsing those doctrines.
So how might Islamic feminists proceed in these Islamophobic times? Should they be less critical and straightforward in addressing topics of Islam and women? Should they downplay the thorniness of women, gender, and sexuality issues in Islamic history, religious discourses, or contemporary societies? cooke’s work on Islamic feminism offers useful directions. During one of our many conversations about feminism and Islam when I was a graduate student, I asked cooke her perspective on a viewpoint I had encountered among some Muslim women, which was that Muslim women do not need the outside instrument of feminism—that Islam practiced authentically and properly is sufficient to garner justice for women. cooke responded in a way that has remained with me all these years. She said that if Muslim women do not feel that they need feminism, they do not have to use it. Feminism exists for women to use as needed. This was revelatory. I had been thinking of “feminism” as content and “feminist” as identity: “Feminism upholds x, y, or z,” or “So and so is or isn’t sufficiently feminist.” This formulation pits feminist against nonfeminist efforts and ideas and compels decisions about who should be included or excluded and which ideas should be accepted or rejected. cooke was positing that feminism is best conceived as an instrument in an intellectual and practical toolbox for improving women’s conditions, one that can be used when required and put away when not. It is neither an all-encompassing identity nor a specific set of ideas to which all must adhere. This understanding of feminism is consistent with cooke’s (2001, 113) idea of “multiple critique”:
Multiple critique is not a fixed authorizing mechanism but a fluid discursive strategy taken up from multiple speaking positions. It allows for conversations with many interlocutors on many different topics. Unlike identity politics, which depends on an essentialized identity, multiple critique allows for identitarian contradictions that respond to others’ silencing moves. The individual’s goal is to remain in the community out of which she is speaking, even when she criticizes its problems.
Within this framework, “Islamic feminism” captures doing feminism within a commitment to Islam. For cooke, it is “not an identity but rather one of many possible speaking positions” (xxvii). This fluidity and freedom in relation to a particular speaking position was remarkably liberating. It meant that Islamic feminism is not so much a fixed set of ideas as a sensibility adaptable to one’s communicative context. Like a language register, Islamic feminism may not always require activation and does not determine the content of a conversation. Given its flexibility, women can deploy it differently depending on the context. cooke’s ideas freed me from having to make a choice about whether or not to be a feminist or how much of a feminist to be. Nor did I need to decide whether being a feminist was or was not compatible with being Muslim. I could speak from a feminist position and raise feminist criticisms where and when it made sense to me, speak from multiple positions, and posit context-appropriate solutions without regarding this as inconsistent.
A dynamic engagement with feminism is particularly liberating in our current cultural, political, and media environment. Muslim women with a feminist sensibility must be able to speak multiply, critically, and defensively. In the context of US cultural and political wars focused on Islam, Muslims, and Muslim women, the Islamic feminist sensibility put forward by cooke empowers us to speak to the situation in which we find ourselves. We may criticize patriarchal aspects of Islamic discourse or practice in some settings and emphasize the tradition’s ideals of equality and justice in others. We may draw on US culture, history, and law to argue for gender equality in Islam in some instances while criticizing repressive aspects of US culture, history, and law in others.
We inhabit many identities and different spaces simultaneously. As cooke (2001, 54) writes, “If identity is the recognition of sameness with some and difference from others, then we have many identities. To retain a sense of wholeness, we usually assert only one of many possible identities, the one that gives authority at the moment of its assertion.” In an environment hostile to Islam, the Muslim feminist might express her shared Americanness in the now because her cultural similarity brings her audience closer to her. This move authorizes her to address issues of Islam and women in another setting. Similarly, in a religious environment hostile to gender equality, she might de-emphasize her feminist positioning to be more effective.
Such variability is not dishonest or inconsistent but takes seriously the preconceptions that may be at play in different settings. Here cooke’s idea of “images” and “imageness” is helpful. In any interaction, each person carries certain durable and slow-to-change images of the other as representative of some collectivity. The other must take these images into account to effectively communicate. cooke (2001, 128) describes “imageness” as “a visual reality that shapes consciousness,” “the cultural photographs that we bring to a first encounter,” a perception “ideally overcome” in the interaction. Given the weight of these images on any communicative encounter, it is reasonable that a Muslim woman would use the feminist “register” that can most effectively de-image herself as required by the specific encounter and by her objectives.
In light of my shifting understanding and implementation of Islamic feminism, I have actively sought to reimage myself to facilitate communication, through my use of hijab. When I began covering as a US college student, it was a feminist move as much as a religious one and remained so until September 11, 2001. This event dramatically changed US cultural discourses about Islam and Muslims. Afterward I experienced an increasing disjuncture between my own conception of hijab as empowering and a public perception of hijab both as oppressive and as signifying alignment with conservative or extreme forms of Islam. Other hijab-wearing women in the United States may have felt similar disjunctures. In any event, one of the long-term consequences of 9/11 was that many Muslim women who had long worn hijab stopped doing so in the years that followed. For me, that time came in 2006, when the hijab had come to feel overly determinative of my interpersonal positioning and image. Cultural apprehension about Islam and Muslims and the starkly identificational nature of hijab constricted my symbolic space of maneuver and ability to communicate authoritatively. I discontinued wearing hijab in part to open up more room for ambiguity. Since then, the discursive and symbolic space around Muslims and Muslim women has only narrowed. Not covering in particular contexts continues to enable me to slip out from imageness and more easily select the most effective identity in a particular situation, to freely and precisely deploy whichever register of Islamic feminism I prefer. My purpose in providing this example is not to advocate covering or uncovering, to imply that my experience is in some way special, or to exhaust the ways in which cooke’s concepts of multiple critique or imageness may be applicable. I mean simply to illustrate how cooke’s idea of Islamic feminism as a strategy rather than an identity has worked for me as a specific Muslim woman.