Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020
Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020

DAY 2: Can You Be A Good Muslim and a Good Feminist? – Dalkey Book Fest

There is no growth in universal agreement.

Without challenge to our perceptions of the world and the prism through which we view our experiences, nothing changes. We don’t evolve. Progress withers on the vine.

So it was wonderful to find a panel that, by it’s very title “Can you be a good muslim and a feminist?” was guaranteed to be a good discussion, elevated by the fact that the panelists were not in universal agreement with each other.

Only fitting for a topic that is nuanced and complex that the panelists were equally matched to subject. And what a panel it was.

Chaired by Ayisha Malik, with contributions from Elif Shafak, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Mehreen Khan, guests enjoyed a lively, challenging and illuminating hour.

Ayisha began by asking if they considered themselves good musilms. Yassmin replied “That’s so rough ; asking me am I good muslim makes me think of every dodgy thing I’ve ever done” she tells the audience as they laugh.

“And we [muslims] don’t have confession.!”

But she explains that as a muslim, she’s trying to be as good as possible. In terms of feminism, it’s a term she’s only adopted in the last few years.

“As an engineer, [feminism] was something arts students talked about and wasn’t relevant to me… then I got to workforce and was like ‘Oh I really need this!'”

For Mehreen, “Feminism is something I’ve been very complement about as a result of being a muslim… so I was never conscious of the fact I was a woman, because I was a muslim… a member of man kind.”

“For me, in a way this feminism issue is secondary because the primary for me as someone as faith is how to live the best life possible.”

In saying that, Mehreen points out that Islam is fundamentally feminist.

“The biggest difference with Christianity and is Islam is that Islam gives lots of examples of powerful woman… Islamic faith came from the story of one woman who gave birth in very difficult conditions. As a woman, I’ve always read those stories… now I’m having to confront different issues about feminism and islam feminism.”

For Elif, her experience has been quite different to Mehreen’s.

“I’m a very good feminist” she tells the packed Town Hall.”I was raised by a single mother working mother which was quite unusual at the time in the late 70s early 80s and I was raised by two women, completely opposite. My mum is very modern, westernised, educated. My maternal grandmother is very eastern, less educated. Some how, I have seen a sisterhood and solidarity between them.”

She goes on to say “I do not like how organised religions divide humanity” and the intrinsic assumption that one religion is somehow closer to the truth than the other. What does interest her, is “faith and love… the duality… in a nutshell I’m more interested in spiritual individual paths.”

In terms of the intersection of feminism and islam, Elif says “All across the Middle East, woman are having these conversations, but in private spaces.”

“We women have much more to lose, it is much more urgent to ask these questions and have these debate.” She explains this importance, given current climates.

Because of the world we’re living in, it became very difficult to have a nuanced conversation and you must defend nuances… we have so called debates with one xenophobic scholar and one side defending Islam and nobody listening and everybody defending… we need to get out of this vicious circle.”

“I have great respect for faith but there are things we need to be able to question without getting offended” she says, the audience murmuring in agreement in response.

“It’s important not to fall in trap of identity politics, it really is a trap… they want to reduce us to one single thread of identity… this is against human nature. We need to always accentuate those difference”, Elif believes.

Yassmin is not in agreement.  “I hear a lot of people saying to step away from identity politics… but concept of identity politics has been able to talk about my identities… I’m a woman, born in Sudan, with a family who has Egyptian heritage… being able to talk bout all those things about my identity is legitimate.” 

It’s a well made point.

Yassmin adds “We have lost the ability to have conversations… they are binary… even this conversation is ‘good muslim’ or ‘feminist’ and doesn’t allow for grey.”

“I’m now in my mid 20s I realise everything is grey!”

“However, what you do see is the idea of being a good muslim or a good feminist… things that can be used as boundaries to force people to behave in certain ways. So many things can be justified or punished because somebody’s interpretation is different to mine.” 

What the panelists do seem to agree on is a need for faith to be reclaimed from patriarchal cultures.

Mehreen tells the audience that “It confounds my parents that I would choose to want to wear the hijab”, highlighting that even within Islam, there is struggle. “Generational struggle, political struggle…  we are not black and white people… but it’s thrust upon us” she adds.

Elif references how feminist movements very much questioned identity politics at the time. She references Audre Lorde. “I am many more things that you might not see when you look at me. I inhabit it all.” It’s a powerful statement that will resonate with many women.

“But do you not think there’s a responsibility?” Aiysha asks. ” In order to reclaim multiple identities we all have to push against this and talk about it?”

Mehreen jumps in with her perspective. “I vowed never to become a spokesperson for my faith, but here I am.”

“I’ve come to a place where I don’t hear people saying the right things.” She speaks about how innovation has allowed muslim women to claim a place in the world, referencing the Burkini as an example – an invention that allowed muslim women to adapt in a modern world.

Ayisha then brings up an incident in recent months where 500 muslim scholars gathered in Indonesia to reinterpret the Quran as it had been interpreted by men. By doing so, they were calling for a reformation of Islam in order for it to make sense for a time we live in now. She asks the panels thoughts on this.

Elif says “Secularism is incredibly important for women… it’s important to have a secular open public space and secular education.”

She then talks about something she has noticed. “I have been travelling throughout my life, I was always very nomadic. When you travel, you hear lots of people… [some] saying Thank God I wasn’t born over there [in a muslim country] because they think they would’ve been subjugated… but when you travel in muslim countries, you find women who say Thank god I wasn’t born over there – I wouldn’t have family values.”

“The less knowledge we have the more generalised it becomes. In order to fight the battles we need to fight… we need to to introduce nuances.”

“If you go to a democratic society and go to the library, you can  find books that challenge official history… there will always be an official mainstream official interpretation of religion. But are other interpretations allowed? That is what matters” Elif tells the audience.

But for Mehreen, white western feminism is problematic.

“It doesn’t allow for spaces for woman who follow religious beliefs… the headscarf is seen as symbol of oppression. It’s not a debate I’ve ever felt part of. The iteration of western feminism were seeing now is about I think women adopting male characteristics to belong in the male world… the idea that woman get on in a mans world this way.” There are a number of audible agreements from the audience. 

“The essence of islam, god has giving women innate qualities – empathy compassion – fundamentally valuable in themselves. Western feminism could do with a bit of that…male and female characteristics are complimentary” Mehreen says. 

It’s clear that there’s a truth that for many, western feminism can be isolating. When voices don’t fit the dominant narrative, it can be hard to see a place for yourself in it. It’s a point that could be applied to the Repeal the Eight campaign here in Ireland.

religions are patriarchal but they’re different… islam hasn’t achieved that reformation yet. 

But Elif doesn’t believe there’s a division. “There’s no such things as western feminism v eastern feminism. There is global feminism. We need that. The term feminism doesn’t travel that far and I think about other words that can accompany it. For example, sisterhood… there is a longing for embracing diversity… the core of [our] problem is the same.”

“When we are divided, only one who benefits is patriarchy” Elif says. “In turkey, Feminism is almost a swear word. The President himself says there is no room for gender equality – we have gender justice.. We need to reclaim the term [feminism] and defend it.”

She also says she believes Islam hasn’t achieved the reformation from patriarchy it needs yet.

Yassmin however, takes issue with the term reformation.

“Reformation  has a lot of history in Christian faith” and as a result, is a loaded terms in her eyes. “We need a… women reclaiming core of faith – a reclamation!”

As time runs out, in a complex discussion, one thing is clear. There are no easy answers or solutions. There is no simple ribbon to tie Islam and feminism together.

But nuanced conversations like these are a vital part of figuring that out.