Choice Sends Message to American Feminists
Commentary, Fadwa El Guindi,
Pacific News Service, Oct 22, 2003
Note: Western notions of feminism can promote an interventionist,
aggressive stance toward the Muslim world. But Nobel Prize winner
Shirin Ebadi shows that feminism can grow from within Islam.
As the dust settles -- for the moment -- around the surprise Nobel
Peace Prize award to Shirin Ebadi, the Muslim Iranian woman judge, a
message should be arising clearly for many Western, especially
American, women: Stop imposing your version of feminism on Muslim
Many here in the United States assume there is a single, universal
feminism, emerging from this country. It is an arrogant,
unproductive and even alienating notion. It is a contradictory stand
as well: the notion that feminism is grounded in the culture from
which it grew is, in fact, an important contribution of feminist
studies. Feminism is not located in some universal spirit of
sisterhood -- a simple premise that has been largely overlooked by
some American feminist groups. Shirin Ebadi, feminist Nobel
Laureate, is homegrown through and through.
Ebadi's mission has been to defend human rights and women's rights
in Iran and within Islam. She neither left Iran to fight for her
homeland in exile, nor has she tried to win the support of American
feminists who effectively demonize her culture and religion with
their criticisms. She has endured punitive measures in the course of
her struggle, yet she has countered obstacles from within. When
Islam was used against her mission, she found the strongest source
of support in that same Islam.
Mastery of Islamic knowledge is fundamental to navigating Islamic
society and, in most cases, so is the mastery of Arabic, the
language of more than 1.2 billion people today. Ebadi showed pride
in being Iranian and Muslim and worked to preserve the integrity of
her country. She was critical, for example, of U.S. intervention in
her country's internal affairs. But she worked within the culture
and within the system.
One conception of gender activism gives priority to women's problems
over other issues. This tendency assumes universality, although it
originates in Western thought and is steeped in Euro-Christian
values, social relations and prejudices born of colonial encounters.
It gives rise to interventionist postures toward Muslim women,
resulting in distorted views of Islamic notions of gender and
By contrast, Islamic principles insist on the integration of
dualities instead of polarization. A different conception of gender
activism arises from this framework, one that recognizes local,
regional, cultural and historical contexts. Feminism and human
rights struggles carried out within Islam provide the only path to
empowerment and liberation without challenging the entire culture.
Shirin Ebadi knows this quite well.
When the Nobel Committee gave the world's most celebrated prize to a
Muslim Iranian woman living in an Islamic state, it sent a strong
message that an Islamic state can successfully produce a Muslim
feminist, a model for all Muslim women.
PNS contributor Fadwa El Guindi (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches
anthropology at the University of Southern California and is former
president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological
Association. She is author of "Veil: Modesty, Privacy and