Nobel Choice Sends Message to American Feminists
Commentary, Fadwa El Guindi,
Pacific News Service, Oct 22, 2003

Editor's 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 women.

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 sexuality.

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 (elguindi@usc.edu) 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 Resistance."