Muslim Women, Activism, and Embodiment of Religiosity – A Pedagogical Reflection

by Aisha K. Nasser

I teach a 300-level course—with no prerequisite—on Muslim women. This course introduces issues about Muslim women’s roles in various societies. From a feminist perspective, it is relevant that the majority of the student population on campus is white and middle class. As noted by my colleague who used to teach this class, students who enroll tend to fall into two categories: those who would like to know more about “exotic” cultures and those who can see themselves reflected in the material (i.e., Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Arab students). I frame the course concepts with a feminist lens, which pushes both sets of students to confront some preconceptions that they will eventually need to leave behind in order to appreciate the texts they read and discuss throughout the course. The challenges with these two sets of students are different and I tackle both early in the term. The students with some background in the region feel that they are already familiar with the material and I have difficulty inducing them to do the readings, so I use weekly quizzes to assess students’ knowledge acquisition and understanding of the material. The majority of the students, however, come with stereotypical ideas about the subalternity of Muslim women, while lacking knowledge about how these women negotiate identity politics on a daily basis. Therefore, my main challenge is to unsettle such notions, which are derived mainly from media, by grounding the students in transnational feminist thought.

To furnish students with a theoretical background, I require one main reading: Lila Abu-Lughod’s classic article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” written at the onset of the US-led coalition to invade Iraq in 2003.1 She challenges Laura Bush’s charge that Muslim women need to be saved and argues that, instead, Westerners need to make sense of Muslim cultures in specific locales and support women’s organizations that work on the ground. Abu-Lughod highlights the importance of refraining from imposing Western notions of liberation on countries from the global South.2 This, I believe, is a rich theoretical framework for the term’s themes.

Throughout the term we deal with the topics like violence against women, women creating culture, and women’s engagement in religious reform and political activism. One of the major issues we discuss is veiling. I raise it early, usually by week three, and we explore it from a variety of perspectives. Students explore the history of the veil, which predates Islam. I offer them the words of an Italian minister, Roberto Maroni, who opposed a ban on the hijab, arguing “If the Virgin Mary appears wearing a veil in all her pictures, how can you ask me to sign onto a hijab ban law?” I show students an image that has his words surrounded by various pictures of Virgin Mary in different forms of the veil. A student invariably compares the attire of Catholic nuns to that of Muslim women, and an interesting discussion ensues. To further illuminate the associations between Islam and Western Christianity, I point out that the cradle of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the region that we now call the Middle East. We also complicate Islam as a religion by investigating the various ways in which Muslim women have initiated religious reform. Scholarship by Professor Leila Ahmed of Harvard Divinity School usefully demonstrates that Muslim women are increasingly accessing the public sphere through religious reform and political activism.3 In gaining a greater understanding of these historical and contemporary contexts, students grasp similarities across different religious traditions and across space and time and thus start to view Islam and Muslim women in a different light.

As the semester continues we discuss political activism by Muslim women, which is particularly interesting because it highlights their agency as political leaders, thus providing students with an opportunity to engage preconceptions in this area. I mention Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007) of Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri (1947–) of Indonesia, and Tansu Ҫiller (1946–) of Turkey. These are all Muslim women who assumed the highest political positions in their predominantly Muslim countries, in spite of the well-known controversy surrounding Muslim women ascending to power.4 There is a Hadith (prophetic saying) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that goes, “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.” Exploring Muslim women political leaders is a great teaching moment, as the students’ learning evolves to realize that some Muslim women have risen to the leading political role—an interesting discussion given the upcoming US Presidential election in which a woman is in serious contention. I count on some students to refer to the United States, and a vibrant discussion about female leadership within the Muslim context often ensues.

Another subject we often discuss is the so-called Arab Spring, as most of the students have some familiarity with those events. I offer images showing that women had been involved in the revolution since day one. I also assign my review of the mini-documentary series Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution, after which we watch an episode in class.5 This series, as indicated in its title, is designed to provide a voice for Egyptian women who participated in the revolution. Since the stories of women activists deserve to be preserved, director Leil-Zahra Mortada embarked on a documentary to record the uprising’s “Herstory.” He collected a number of diverse voices that include women from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, religious and political affiliations, and age groups. While his funds lasted he recorded twelve astounding testimonies, among them that of Madeeha Anwar.6

Madeeha Anwar is an Egyptian activist whose embodiment of religiosity and views unsettle common Western perceptions of Muslim women. She is a political and social activist and is a member of a left-wing organization called the Revolutionary Socialists. In her view, a religious state is paramount to a theocratic state, thus potent with dictatorship, so she reasons that a secular state will ensure equal representation for various voices. Anwar’s views are unsettling because she fully covers her face. Her activism combined with her embodiment of religiosity opens conversations about how Muslim women who wear the veil are usually perceived as ultraconservative, passive, and subaltern.7 A disturbing similarity can surface between colonial discourse and that of current Western culture, both of which presume that the veil has only negative and oppressive connotations and, thus, that the only path for emancipating Muslim women involves adopting a Western model. Anwar’s interview can problematize these issues by allowing students to challenge the normative views of Muslim women. Her activism also offers students a glimpse into how, for some women, the veil is just a social convention they use in negotiating their daily lives. Their attire doesn’t prevent them from working and living life to the fullest. These women even go beyond societal limits, as is evident from Anwar’s social and political activism.

Given media representation of the Muslim world and its women, it is necessary for the students to recognize that the Western view of veiling inaccurately represents the lives of Muslim women around the world.8 While embodying religiosity, Muslim women adhere to an array of political and religious views. To interpret the veil as simply a symbol of dependence and anticolonial struggle undermines Muslim women’s agency, which is more properly viewed within the context of the region and its history. Anwar is a particularly clear example, in that she is a leftist and stands for democracy and social justice against the idea of a religiously based state. Her voice in particular, and the overall course more generally, allows students to emerge with healthily problematized perceptions of Muslim women through a critical feminist lens.

1 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783–90. We also watch parts of an interview with Edward Said in class: “Edward Said on Orientalism,” YouTube video, 40:31, posted by Palestine Diary, October 28, 2012. I have previously assigned the introduction of his book, but his dense style has deterred students from reading and appreciating his arguments (Orientalism [New York: Random House, 1979]).

2 These are concepts that Abu-Lughod later expounded on in her book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

3 See, e.g., Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) and A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

4 Intersecting factors, including tribal affiliations, have led to the acceptability of these leaders.

5 Episodes of Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution are available through director Leil-Zahra Mortada’s YouTube site.

6 “Madeeha Anwar,” Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution, YouTube video, 10:55, posted by LeilZahra, May 6, 2012.

7 Muslim women negotiate their socio-cultural parameters throughout the world in contexts that vary from one society to another; therefore, it can be counter-productive to compare the global South to global North. Abu-Lughod’s intervention on the need to refrain from imposing Western ideals on women around the word is recalled here.

8 In exploring the veil during week three, students engage in discussion that examines and critiques the veil in a more nuanced manner, revealing some of the varied and complex reasons why Muslim women wear the veil.

Aisha Khalil Nasser is an Egyptian feminist. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and an MA in women, gender, and sexuality studies from Oregon State University. Her research interests lie in the intersection between politics and gender in the Middle East. She has published articles in Jadaliyya, al-Jadid, and Arabic Literature (in English) on gender issues pertaining to Arabic literature, culture, and media.