Gender Studies

Women Claim Islam

Miriam Cooke, New York: Routledge, 2001. 175 pages.

This book embarks on a sojourn into the stories and autobiographies of Arab women writers who “claim Islam” by “writing themselves into the history of the twentieth century.” Being situated outside their nations’ historical narratives, Cooke examines the literary practices of Arab Muslim women who have entered into global political discourses as vibrant public intellectuals, rather than as history’s invisible subtext. According to her, Arab Muslim women “have been left out of history, out of the War Story, out of the narratives of emigration and exile, out of the physical and hermeneutical spaces of religion.” Thus Muslim women intellectuals and writers are challenging the erasures of their experiences in the public and discursive spaces of nation, community, and faith.

Cooke argues that women have become the “symbolic center” in societies increasingly dominated by Islamic discourse. But while this discourse gives “unprecedented importance to women,” it also centers them as pivotal to the “virtuous Muslim community” and thereby dictates constricting rules for their “appropriate behavior.” This has resulted in a preoccupation with regulating and policing women’s bodies (clearly evident in Talibanized Afghanistan). Yet at the same time, shifting women’s experiences from the margins to the center of discursive focus has allowed their voices to emerge in new ways. In many cases, this stakes their claim to a more empowering Islamic identity. This movement has allowed Muslim women writers and intellectuals to develop a gendered Islamic epistemology. According to Cooke, these women “do not challenge the sacrality of the Qur’an, but they do examine the temporality of its interpretations.”

Cooke examines the stories of Muslim women who seek to claim their voices and redefine their identities in more politicized ways that represent a burgeoning Islamic feminist movement. In the introduction, she articulately and intelligently lays out the historical, theological, and political contexts for the development of Islamic feminism. Yet she concedes that feminism has been tainted by the often imperialist approach of the western feminist movement.

Indigenous feminist epistemologies spearheaded by Muslim women often have used an alternative terminology, such as womanists or remakers of women. However, following the call of cultural critic Anne McClintock, Cooke argues that the historical resonance of feminism needs to be maintained, albeit in a more inclusive formulation, to subvert the hegemonic control that western white feminists have garnered over the nature of feminist discourse. Despite this, the author does not locate or question her own social position in relation to her research among Muslim women. This lack of critical self-reflexivity leaves open the question of whether she also may be complicit in maintaining dominant hegemonic control over Muslim women’s discourses.

Cooke follows the trajectory of political and religious developments in the Arab world to examine Arab women’s resistance to androcentric constructions of “official Islamic knowledge.” In the early part of the twentieth century, such Arab feminists as Huda Shaarawi and Nazira Zayn al-Din openly challenged the male authority that has traditionally framed theological, cultural, and political discourses about Muslim women. These women provided an entry point into the political and scriptural debates regarding women’s participation in the public domain and their role as interpreters of Islamic doctrine. From these nascent roots of Islamic feminist thought and critique, Cooke then situates more contemporary examples of women in the Arab world who operate as public intellectuals, lecturing to other women, and opening up new pathways for understanding Islamic knowledge from a gendered standpoint.

While many of these discourses are largely centered within an Islamic paradigm, they bring new challenges to traditional patriarchal interpretations. These emergent discourses also raise significant questions posed by Cooke, such as: “How can one be modern, global, and yet observant? Will Islamically inspired responses to globalization help or harm women? What role will Islam play in shaping ethical, modern citizens who are able to survive in, as well as to critique, a rapidly transforming world?”

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