It would perhaps be most satisfying to learn that Western women were agreed as to their goals and their definition of feminism. But that is far from true. And as Elizabeth Fernea learns from her research for her latest book, "In Search of Islamic Feminism, Muslim women also represent a wide variety of aspirations and ideologies that respond to their own self-expressed needs.
Fernea finds one big difference between Western and Islamic feminism. Whereas Western feminism has defined itself over the years as solidly secular, a movement set apart from religion, the Muslim women she interviewed invariably seemed to say religion was part of their lives and could not be divorced from them. Fernea, author of the best-selling Guests of the Sheik and A Street in Marakech, traveled to Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. There, she writes, her encounters with Muslim women forced her to recast her own definition of feminism, as a movement for equality between men and women, a way for women to share the world which has been until recently the sole prerogative of men. Many Muslim women told Fernea they classify themselves as feminists, but they see themselves as different from Western feminists. "We see feminism in America as dividing men from women-separating women from the family. This is not good for anyone," said Haifa Abdul Rahman, deputy secretary of the General Federation of Iraqi Women.
Fernea's statistics indicate that Iraqi women, despite living under a dictator, are the most liberated of all Middle Eastern women. The Iraqi Women's Federation boasts a million and half women members, spread out through the several provinces of Iraq. "That meant a lot of women in organizational positions, a lot of women poised to carry out the political as well as social aims of the federation," Fernea writes. A working Iraqi mother gets one year of maternity leave. In terms of inheritance, women as well as men get what the law says, even the land. And there is an 85 percent literacy rate among Iraqi women. Fernea has high praise for the Iraqi approach with its support for maternity leave, child care and other needs that are shared by both women and men, saying that this might be called "family feminism." In America, she points out, ''the feminist emphasis on the individual woman has allowed the religious right to appropriate family values."
To her surprise, Fernea writes, "Islamic belief is also the stated basis of most of the behavior I felt to be feminist." Many Islamic women, she points out, begin with the assumption that the possibility of gender equality already exists in the Qu'ran and the problem, as they see it, is malpractice, or misunderstanding, of the sacred text. In all the countries she visited, she found grass-roots women's groups organizing, networking, protesting, petitioning the nation's leaders. In Egypt, she writes, women's groups and human-rights groups have joined forces to fight female circumcision, which has increased rather than decreased in recent years. But, "it's a long hard battle," says Aziza Hussein, president of the Cairo Family Planning Association, who has been campaigning against female circumcision for thirty years. "It's a custom that predates Islam, a cultural practice," added Marie Assad, who heads the task force which is involved in nationwide workshops, data collecting, and lobbying of national leaders to end the practice.
Everywhere Fernea asked about the veil, and everywhere Islamic women responded with their own query: Why was it such a focus of interest in the West? Why did it seem to be equated with oppression in the Western mind? That was not, on the basis of her interviews, what it meant to Muslim women. "Cover or hijab is an important new development in Muslim countries, where it is equated with piety and belief," Fernea writes. "Sometimes women are forced to cover, as in Iran and Afghanistan, and that is certainly a restriction. But in other countries, hijab appears to be a matter of the woman's choice, of her own decision based on her reading of religious texts. Sometimes this dress gives women extra authority as they struggle with male Muslims to achieve gender equality."
Fernea's book shows the reader that Muslim women are not passive. They are busy balancing their Muslim identity with their responsibilities as citizens, often fighting poverty, illiteracy and other critical obstacles on the path to feminism and freedom. She quotes Um Zhivago, a woman activist in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashadiyah, as saying, "A revolution is like cooking; before you begin, you have to look in the cupboard to see what ingredients you have to work with."