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On Muslim feminism – and indigenous science

Two recent articles, in quite different contexts, take issue with the idea that certain ideas might have a universal application. The first, ‘British Muslim women don’t need the West’s version of feminism, ok?’, is written by a Muslim woman, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed , who rejects what she calls ‘the West’s version of feminism’.  She opens with a dubious premise – that feminism doesn’t accept religion.

Everyone loves Malala Yousufzai, right? Fearless, inspiring and courageous, she is the kind of female icon that asserts the need for women to have justice and rights – arguably a ‘feminist’ viewpoint – and which has won the admiration of western feminists.

Whatever your opinions of Yousufzai, one part of her core identity rarely discussed in feminist circles is that: she’s a proud Muslim and sees her faith as a driver for the change she preaches. Yet the feminist movement as we know it today, born in the West, asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door.

Feminism is in fact anything but monolithic – radical and liberal feminists disagree on much.  Some feminists are pretty hostile to organised religion, but others are not. If the author had framed her point in more personal terms – described how her own experiences had made her feel excluded by non-Muslim feminists – one could less easily argue with that.  But, as the article stands, her claim that the feminist movement demands a rejection of faith is just an unproven assertion.

One of the problems with this article is that it treats Islam as though its relationship with feminism was unique.  Janmohamed complains that Muslims don’t need sites such as Islamandfeminism.org, an initiative of the Muslim feminist Maslaha project, because Muslim communities already have a tradition of encouraging women.

My great grandfather would never have called himself a feminist, but he was in some ways. In a society where male babies were consistently privileged over female babies, who some considered a disappointment of birth, he only ever gave celebratory gifts when girls were born. My grandfather sent his daughters to school on bicycles to ensure they were safe, but for a girl to be on a bike was considered shameful. He rejected that.

But this is a common pattern, not a specifically Muslim one. The details and time scales might be a bit different, but British girls (I’m assuming Janmohamed is describing her family’s history before moving to the UK) were also once seen as ‘fast’ if they rode a bicycle, and many successful women in previous centuries benefited from supportive fathers or husbands. But feminism tries to ensure that no woman, whatever her cultural or religious background, is dependent on the good will of male relatives.

She goes on to explain more about her beef with Maslaha:

I’m pleased that there is an additional resource to talk about Muslim women’s work in the global justice movement. But its impact is less about engaging Muslim women in an internal community discourse that can fuel the discussion around the realities of Muslim women’s lives, in a way that is meaningfully rooted in the faith that they wish to uphold. It is more an opportunity for the wider feminist movement to push its own priorities and in-built biases.

Again, she seems to see Muslim women and feminists as two distinct groups with different goals.  But Muslim women, like other women, seem to have a complex range of relationships with feminism.  Some of course don’t identify as feminist at all, some focus on equality with specific reference to religious issues (like Hind Makki and Amina Wadud), whereas others, perhaps including Raquel Saraswati,  are feminist in ways which don’t seem so obviously inflected by their faith or culture.  Still others, like Huma Munshi, campaign against cultural issues associated (though not exclusively) with Muslim communities.

I’m not sure why the writer thinks Islamandfeminism.org is ‘an opportunity for the wider feminist movement to push its own priorities and inbuilt biases’.  Judging by the women interviewed in the Guardian, it is supported by Muslim women who have the same views as she does – that feminism has excluded them because ‘Muslim feminist’ seems like an oxymoron.  There’s a real disjuncture between her initial complaint that Muslims are excluded from feminism and her suspicion of an organisation apparently set up, in part, to counter precisely that problem.  In fact it is she, with her distrust of this vague ‘wider feminist perspective’, who seems to be trying to keep Muslim and non-Muslim feminists in separate boxes.

The other article, by Dawn Casey, was titled ‘Warren Mundine, of course science needs an Indigenous perspective’. Mundine, former National President of the Australian Labour Party, offers a sensible perspective on this issue:

Last week, Warren Mundine, head of the prime minister’s Indigenous council, was quoted in the Australian as saying that it is ridiculous to include an Indigenous culture perspective in the teaching of science and maths. Mundine said: “I agree with Christopher Pyne, I think in some areas we have got ridiculous. What is Indigenous physics? Physics is physics. If we are to compete in the job market we must learn technology and engineering, we need to be taught subjects properly.

The same cannot be said of Casey.

Just a couple of examples of how Indigenous people used science include the development of the boomerang and other sophisticated weapons; traversing this great continent without compasses; managing country through controlled burning and ethno-botanical knowledge linked to specific places and environments.

To go back to a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture was put into an ethnographic box, as some sort of anthropological curiosity, and excluded from the breadth of mainstream knowledge, including maths and science, is to disadvantage all Australians.

Rather as Janmohamed seems to see Islam as having a unique relationship with feminism, Casey suggests that her culture has been treated exceptionally badly by science education.  But British children don’t (as far as I know) learn about Stonehenge or the Spinning Jenny in science but in history.  This comment was typical of readers’ responses.

With articles like this, The Guardian is becoming like an antimatter version of the Daily Mail. You know how the Mail run all those articles based around a question to which the answer is ‘no’? You know, like ‘Could bogus asylum-seekers cause cancer?’ Well, the Guardian do a nice line in that sort of thing but from an anguished middle-class lefty perspective. And everyone disagrees with them below the line, but the articles keep on coming nevertheless. And this one is a particularly fine specimen. Should we teach Aboriginal maths? Er…do you want an honest answer to that one?

Although I’ve suggested that Muslim feminism should not be seen as sharply distinct from the wider feminist movement, the topic seems worth discussing, if only because conservative Muslims and Islamosceptics will be united in agreeing that it is not even a valid category.  And there are, of course, many issues relevant to feminism, such as the veil, which are Muslim-specific.  But indigenous maths – or English maths for that matter (perhaps Hindu-Arabic numerals are oppressive in some way) – really doesn’t seem worth pursuing further.