7. In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

The Burka Avenger – a new cartoon from Pakistan that promotes women’s rights and education for all.

Islamic feminism is a pretty loaded term. Whatever your opinion on the matter, it’s a topic that has drawn a lot of criticism from many angles: conservative, liberal, religious, secular, communist, Marxist, and the like. Fernea’s book investigates the concept of Islamic feminism throughout several countries in the Arab and Islamic world. Fernea was a filmmaker and ethnographer who studied the lives of women in the Middle East and North Africa. This book comes after many years spent living and working in the region, and in a narrative fashion, Fernea explores different ideas about women.

Each chapter focuses on a different country and tells a completely different story. Fernea has many contacts in each location, and is taken around by women and men who wish to share their ideas of women’s roles in their country. At the time of research, Fernea was well into her 60s, I believe, and this perspective is evident in the writing and questions she asks. The book is set up to dispel stereotypes of Muslim women and is written for a mainly uninformed audience, despite Fernea’s academic background. Fernea inserts herself into the dialogue, into the stories, sharing her stream of consciousness, the details of each meal she eats with interviewees and the like. Although I understand her goal of writing a more accessible, conversational book on the topic of women’s roles in the Middle East, it frequently comes off as overplayed, and the stream of consciousness writing serves to undermine her credentials.

It doesn’t help that the way we write about women in the Middle East has simultaneously completely changed and remained exactly the same in the past 15 years. Fernea’s mistaken ideas about women’s roles and involvement are still visible in media coverage, in the way that we think about women in Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, in the stereotypes that are omnipresent in our culture and society. As much as the status of women in the Middle East has changed, many of our perceptions have remained the same.

Nonetheless, this book raises great questions for people who aren’t as well informed on women’s roles in the Middle East, and still contains interesting points for those who are. I particularly liked the chapter on Uzbekistan – a country that is frequently ignored in coverage on Islam, and one I know little about. Many of Fernea’s observations about the changing status of women should be repeated and shared everywhere, but as someone who studies the topic, much of the book comes off as stale – and it should, since it’s almost 20 years old. If it weren’t stale by now, there’d be much bigger problems. The chapter on the US and the role of Muslim women is still highly relevant, perhaps more so now than it may have been at the time of publishing.

I think my favorite part, and one of the most refreshing parts of the book, is from the section on Saudi Arabia. Talking to a Saudi newspaperman, Fernea asks a bold question that startles the members of her group, but that the Saudi gentleman handles in a fascinating way. Fernea asks which part of the Qur’an mandates the sexual segregation, the complete covering of men and women, and the restrictive sexual mores and morality police that are predominant in Saudi society. Her interviewee responds, “Nothing.” He goes on to explain that he sees current Saudi society as in the midst of transition, a phase that will pass slowly as their society develops and adapts to the world. The host goes on to further explain, but I loved the simplicity of the response – not something you’d expect, not from a man, not from a Saudi. I liked being surprised by that statement, particularly in a book where I felt like I knew a lot of the answers to Fernea’s questions through common sense.

This book is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in women in the Middle East. But I’m sure that there’s something a little more up to  date that’s worth your time, and doesn’t trade so heavily in stereotypes and is accessible, but more in line with current scholarship.


Pages: 422/2259


~ by lefaquin on August 28, 2013.

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