The push for, and preservation of, women’s rights in the Muslim world is not as simple as some may think.
Nadia Guessous, Mellon Fellow at Rutgers University’s women’s and gender studies department, explained to an eager audience on Monday, Feb. 4 that the modern feminist movement is actually quite disjointed. As Guessous illustrated with insightful anecdotes, the general secular, or non-religious, perspective is that Middle Eastern women’s rights are at risk because of the additional power Islamist governments have obtained.
However, in her lecture entitled “Feminist Politics in the Wake of the Islamic Revival,” she highlighted the stark reality that religious Muslim women have been overwhelmingly excluded from the feminist movement, primarily for their traditional garb.
“The average Middle Eastern woman is presumed to stand against the return of religion in government,” Gusseous said in reference to the generalized view of many liberal feminists.“But what about the women who vote for these parties? Are we sure their rights are going backwards?”
In order to shed light on the suppression of these Muslim women’s political voices, she spoke directly to the notion that the Muslim hijab, which is a head scarf worn by women out of modesty and traditional beliefs, has been stigmatized as “a threat to feminism.” This concept points out that Middle Eastern liberal feminism usually is opposed to religion, which reflects ideology that is also very Western in nature. According to the information presented at the forum, feminists in the Middle East presume that religious governments are oppressive toward women.
The general assumption by liberal feminists, according to Guessous, is that a religious government, and by extension a religious woman, will obstruct Middle Eastern women in achieving certain freedoms they are currently lacking.
“Her discussion of a particular feminist community shows how narrow in their perception of women and how exclusive they are for superficial reasons,”said Miriam Lowi, professor of political science at the College, in reference to the leftist feminists that Guessous featured.
Monica Salama, sophomore international business major and Arabic studies minor at the College, explained that this unfair exclusion reflects the irony that she feels in her own home country, Egypt.
“I didn’t think that general Middle Eastern women were viewed in that way,” Salama said regarding the liberal perspective on muhajaba women. A Coptic Christian herself, Salama explained that her faith requires of her a certain physical modesty that is parallel to that of Muslim women, but that hijabs are not necessary.
Despite the religious and cultural differences she has observed, Salama professes a human philosophy that could bring about change for women of all backgrounds and demographics: “You do your own, and that is perfect by me.”