In a recent article, a blogger by the pseudonym “Muslim Feminist” takes Yasmin Mogahed to task by exposing the subtle “sexism” in her online personality. “Muslim Feminist” claims that Mogahed deliberately reposted a “sexist” joke and wrote an article with a hidden “sexist” agenda — all of which provides ample ammunition to pierce the religious leader’s moral credibility.
“Muslim Feminist” is not off the mark in suggesting that a Muslim woman can promote gender inequality. Any person, regardless of sexual and religious orientation, can be a sexist. I would hesitate, however, to accuse Yasmin Mogahed of willfully propagating underlying sexist messages and religious beliefs. Labelling her work as “sexist” fails to comprehend Mogahed’s complex sensibilities and attachments that make up her worldview.
Mogahed would be regarded by many in the Muslim community as a da`iya or religious teacher who is either self-taught or has received some formal training. She instructs both women and men on proper Islamic conduct and urges them to greater piety. Her “self-help” book and articles are laced throughout with exhortations to developing a primary relationship with God.
The internal critique by “Muslim Feminist” is necessary. Religious public figures are not exempt from criticism as they engage the public discourse. In fact, they may be subjected to an even higher standard of scrutiny given their claim to religious authority. Constructive and meaningful criticism however, does not overshadow a person’s good works. Popular academic critique tends to entirely obliterate a person by exposing errors in a way that permanently taints the bulk of his or her work. This genre of critique dangerously impels us to forget the truth and good in another’s labor. What I mean to say is: Mogahed may have posted an indiscreet joke but by no means should this color her integrity as a Muslim woman role model and mentor.
In Mogahed’s view, traditional gender roles do not indicate inequality. Women and men are celebrated for their uniqueness. She criticizes women who emulate men in superficial ways like physical appearance and behavior. Notice she never says that women shouldn’t participate in the public sphere and pursue careers in politics, education, finance, and healthcare, etc. I highly doubt whether Mogahed, who spends much of her time empowering and uplifting Muslim women, would advocate less rights for her own sex. Moreover, some Muslim men are uncomfortable with Mogahed’s emergence in the public spotlight. Their particular religious view maintains that women should remain within the confines and seclusion of their own home. Mogahed disregards these religious gender boundaries, contradicting her supposed sexist ideology.
My point however, is not to ascertain Mogahed’s level of feminism. Mogahed appears to derive her gender notions from a deep sense of religious belief wherein women are equal, but not similar to men. Her rhetoric might appear outwardly inimical to our own ideals and values but a closer look reveals a similar desire for liberation and empowerment. This demands we show reluctance in labeling her with incisive antifeminist terms, lest we run the risk of projecting our own ideas and misinterpreting her intentions and sensibilities. In other words, this warrants an act of humility on our part.
Saba Mahmood, while researching the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, arrived at a similar conclusion. She eloquently writes:
“Rather what I mean to gesture at is a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty about how the world should process can remain stable. This attitude requires the virtue of humility: a sense that one does not always know what one opposes…”
After immersing herself within the rich and multilayered lives of Egyptian women, Mahmood was able to dismantle her own subjectivities. She recognized a religious force incapable of being translated into limiting definitions. There is a strong reflex in feminist discourses to mock a worldview like Mogahed’s. We consider it backwards and outmoded. We project our own assumptions which prevent us from critically engaging a work on its own merit.
I believe as Muslims first and foremost, we should exercise a degree of caution in deconstructing another’s worldview. We should critique with the hefty realization that we are not always experts in what we purport to know. This requires that we objectively interrogate our own assumptions and then proceed with circumspect and nuanced arguments. Our goal is not to obliterate a person nor is it to tiptoe nicely around his or her obvious errors in judgment. Rather, it is to modestly impart a balanced critique, always mindful of the sacred trope, “And Allah knows best.”