Throughout the course of this month, TOS would like to champion the work of feminist academics. In doing so, we asked Dr. Fauzia Ahmad to tell us about activists and academics who inspired her journey into feminism. Here is her response.
My academic introduction to feminism came after I completed a degree in Biology and began an MSc in Social Anthropology in the early 1990’s. I was inspired to move to the social sciences after seeing an interview with Edward Said during the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s and realising that I wanted to learn about the social world. His seminal book ‘Orientalism’ opened my eyes to the ways social and political structures had engaged in systematic processes of ‘Othering’ and pathologizing of non-European people and cultures – he articulated the feelings of discomfort I had grown up about representations of Islam and Muslims in the mainstream media, foreign policy, and academic texts.
During my MSc I took modules in Sex-Gender systems and Islamic societies. Through these modules I learnt about Western feminism, Black feminism and Islamic feminism. The work of bell hooks, Valerie Amos and Prabita Parmar in the famous ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi and Lila Abu-Lughod, opened my mind to ways of being that resonated with my own cultural and religious identity and upbringing at a time when Western feminism, although highlighting obvious gender-based discrimination, was doing so from a wholly Western-centric and Orientalist perspective and one that pathologised Black and Muslim women and families. Where Western feminists saw the family as a site of oppression, Black and Muslim feminists saw the family as a source of refuge from racism; where Western feminists demanded equality with men, the Islamic perspective argued for equality while recognising difference and the importance of working with men in order to affect positive change.
The work of Avtar Brah, has been hugely important in helping me think through issues around ‘difference’ and identity, as well the importance of recognising the significant differences between ‘patriarchy’ and ‘patriarchal relations’. This has been crucial in helping me to make links with the work of many of the Muslim feminists I have been influenced by. Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s work has also been hugely influential for articulating why we need to challenge the imposition of Western feminist frameworks onto non-Western women’s lives. Later influences have come from the work of Saba Mahmoud and Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on the need for intersectional approaches.
Linda Tuhuwai-Smith and her work on decolonising research methodologies is so important when thinking about research and the need to pay attention to the ways we devise, conduct, interpret and disseminate social research, but also for recognising the violence inflicted on the colonised in the name of ‘research’.
I have to also mention Priyamvada Gopal - -for her strength in challenging racism and sexism within the academy and beyond Every.Single.Day.
One of the important messages from Lila Abu-Lughod’s book ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ (2013) is on the need to recognise the importance of allyship and support - and that this can sometimes come from unexpected sources while the expected sources may sometimes not be available or unwilling to share your pain. For me, in my recent battles over my position at Goldsmiths, my colleagues Drs Kirsten Campbell, Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Kiran Grewal and Milly Williamson have all been my rocks and have shown me what true feminist allyship looks like.
In terms of activists, the work of international Muslim feminist organisations such as MUSAWA and Sisters in Islam are doing amazing work in re-reading and liberating Islamic texts away from the patriarchal interpretations that have seen women’s rights in Muslim majority countries fall by the wayside. They work alongside Muslim men in various projects such as challenging cultural and historically rooted interpretations of Islamic texts that take rights away from women. They are challenging some commonly held beliefs that are largely used a charge to accuse Islam as inherently sexist such rules in inheritance, and who a Muslim woman can marry, so it is really important and foundational work. Key activists within these networks are women like Prof Aminah Wadud and Prof Ziba Mir-Hosseini.
Asma Barlas and her book, ‘Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an’ (2019) also brilliantly deconstructs commonly accepted (mis)beliefs to reveal that their true meaning has been lost or manipulated. This book is hugely important for anyone interested in gender relations and Islam.
Another huge influence in my development as a Muslim feminist came in the late 1990’s when I was fortunate to meet several very strong Muslim feminists (I was in my early 30’s by this time) – women such as Humera and Khalida Khan who founded groups such as The An-Nisa Society in Brent and meeting Sarah Sheriff, then Chair of The Muslim Women’s Helpline. Both organisations identified themselves as Muslim feminist and demonstrated this in practice through their work supporting Muslim women and families in getting appropriate faith-based support and counselling at a time when welfare services only identified client needs on the basis of race, ignoring faith.
The Writer Behind the Writing