Critical South Asian Muslim Feminisms: From Margins to Centre

Monday May 16 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm (Eastern Daylight Time)
Virtual Platform

Session Code: FEM2
Session Format: Regular Session
Session Language: English
Research Cluster Affiliation: Feminist Sociology, Race and Ethnicity
Session Categories: Panel

The purpose of this session is to center the scholarship and lived experiences of graduate students, community activists, and emerging scholars in the field of Critical Muslim Studies. This session has its origins in the “Critical Diasporic South Asian Feminisms Symposium” held in July 2021 at X University. By highlighting diverse Muslim feminist voices, this session seeks to challenge hegemonic sociopolitical and historical discourses that construct Islam and Muslim women (trans, cis) as homogenous, monolithic and uniform. This session will provide a brave space of collaboration, community, and critical conversations for Muslim feminist voices that are often marginalized based on the intersections of their South Asian identities and life experiences through ethno-nationalities, disability, sexual and gender identities and expressions, compulsory heterosexuality and sectarian differences to name just a few facets. Tags: Feminism, Gender, Religion, Sexuality

Organizers: Ayesha Mian Akram, University of Windsor, Safiyya Hosein, Independent Scholar, Aaliya Khan, York University, Maryam Khan, Wilfrid Laurier University; Chair: Aaliya Khan, York University


Esra Ari, Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS)

How I became an Alevi Muslim Woman?

In this presentation, I will get into a negotiation with myself about my identity. Born and raised in Turkey (a Middle Eastern country), I defined myself as a Turkish woman. Although I was designated as a Muslim at birth, I had never seen myself as a Muslim woman before I emigrated to Canada. Upon my arrival as a PhD student, I mingled with new people. A woman friend of mine asked me if my parents were upset because I didn’t wear hijab. This was a triggering question that made me think about my experiences and interactions with people in the last ten years. I realized that my asserted identity had been constantly challenged and people tried to box me into the stereotypical image of a Muslim woman in North America. As identity construction is a complex, contested, and ongoing process, I want to explore the implications of my personal identity re-construction in a supposedly multicultural Canada and the U.S. I will reflect on this process through some questions: How did I come to define myself as an Alevi Muslim woman? What is the difference between being a Muslim woman and feeling like a Muslim woman? How has my identity transformed from a Turkish woman to an Alevi Muslim woman? I will unpack my lived experiences with the help of Said’s post-colonial work Orientalism and critical theory of whiteness.

Nuzhat Khurshid, York University

Beyond the Secular/Religious Binary: Expanding Muslim Women's Piety

This paper attempts to unravel secular biases in academia by showing how normative categories of secularism can be found to limit a broader understanding of feminist political agency in literature on Muslim women’s piety. How do the normative assumptions of secularism continue to impact our intellectual horizons today? In this paper, I argue that a thorough study of the historical emergence of secularism will show certain biases that are normally hidden in its apparently ‘neutral’ appearance. It is a vague term which leads to difficulty in intellectual discussion; by being defined in opposition to religion, it lacks a rigorous and comprehensive definition. Another difficulty that arises with secularism pertains to the boundaries that it draws around itself any precise articulation of a multifaceted phenomenon such as secularism is fraught with decisions about what, who, which locations and what period is included in its trajectory. One area of feminist political theory that is impacted by secular assumptions is the literature on religious agency that was popularized with Sabah Mahmood’s influential book, The Politics of Piety in 2005. I will argue that her depiction of Muslim women’s agency, while successfully pushing back against secular liberal conceptions of agency by asserting the validity of ‘pious’ agency, inadvertently replicates the bias of secularism by not engaging with multiple religious subjectivities that can contain universal concerns such as feminism and politics. As such, an analysis of secularism’s emergence and biases can shed light on the gaps in this literature, in an effort to lay bear how secularism continues to dominate the academy and intellectual discourse. 

Fauzia Erfan Ahmed, Miami University, Ohio

South Asian Critical Feminism and Muslim Feminist Women's Leadership Models

South Asian Critical Muslim feminism requires an analysis not only of challenges at the family (micro); community (meso), state, and global contexts, but also of solutions: different feminist Muslim leadership models. Terror is the first challenge. The state’s War against Terror, whether it is in the mountain fastnesses of Kashmir, or in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, or through the PATRIOTS act in post 9/11 America, impedes Muslim women’s voices and the Muslim feminist impetus. At the micro level, Muslim women are reluctant to bring domestic violence concerns to the authorities for fear of deportation or imprisonment of the batterer. By framing reports about gender-based violence and abuse as disloyalty, community-level patriarchy seeks to mute Muslim women. Further, within-community contests about gendered access to material and spiritual resources are discouraged, if not voiced over. Binarism is the second challenge. The nexus of Islam, globalization, and empire has created binary ideologies. The stereotype of the monolithic bearded Muslim male oppressor and the submissive hijabi Muslim woman is dear to liberal Western feminists and their civilizing mission. Simultaneously crude and subtle, these Orientalist binaries challenge Muslim women in their everyday lives. Two models of South Asian Muslim feminist leadership are needed to overcome these challenges: 1.) The community-leadership model, which is  based on a feminist interpretation of the Quran and organizing Muslim women to resist patriarchy within the community; and  2.) The scholar-activist model, which directly confronts the imperial gaze and publicly advocates for Muslim women. Such leaders ally with nonMuslim feminists outside the community Both models share common perspectives: power differentials among Muslim women have to be acknowledged, and solidarity among Muslim women coupled with alliances with profeminist Muslim men are vital.

Ayesha Mian Akram, University of Windsor

"You Are Not a Muslim:" Critically Examining South Asian-ness & Religious Politics in the Diaspora

In 1974, the Pakistani Constitution was amended to declare Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslim, initiating a systematic structural attempt to erase Ahmadi Muslims from the very fabric of Pakistan. This resulted in institutional persecution, the concealment of Ahmadi identities, and the mass migration of Ahmadis out of Pakistan into diasporic contexts. This was the story of my family. Subsequently, my association with South Asian-ness is governed by the attempted erasure of my community from South Asian history and politics through the intergenerational reproduction of oppressive structures and practices of persecution. Considering the hostility and violence with which my family and other community members were forced out of their homes, I constantly debate public disclosure of my identity and hesitate to expect welcome into South Asian spaces, fearing similar sentiments are deeply embedded in diasporic South Asian relationships. This disclosure or un-disclosure depending on context is one that I continue to navigate as part of my Muslim and Pakistani heritage. As with other markers of identity that we choose to turn away from, deliberately take up in reclamation efforts, or go back-and-forth in liminality, I realize that these South Asian politics have shaped my own politics as a feminist, educator, and researcher. The transformative potential of critical South Asian diasporic feminisms relies on critical scrutiny of interrelated structures of oppression that challenge the erasure of identities, respect differences, build solidarities, and ultimately challenge the hegemonies that seek to continue the marginalization of religious minorities.

Ummul Fayiza, University of Warwick

Islamic Feminism in the Public Discourse of Kerala, South India

Taking the south Indian state of Kerala as a site of inquiry, this presentation explores the ways in which the relationship between Islam and feminism is developed through various forms of contestations and negotiations. For the last two decades, there has been an emergence of independent perspectives within Muslim women politics in Kerala, specifically from the dual vantage of being a minority inside the community and the context of Hindu nationalist otherization of the Muslim minority as a whole overcoming both secular and religious binaries. The global discourse of Islamic feminism is engaged in different ways according to the changing patterns of political interest and preferences of the community in Kerala. This presentation focuses on the response from the Muslim community and the secular public sphere of Kerala to the emergence of Islamic feminist discourse in the last two decades. Islamic feminism entered the public discourse when Margot Badran visited Kerala as part of a United States of America (USA) consulate outreach program in 2003. There was a massive public protest in opposition to what was termed as the "cultural imperialism" of the USA, especially in the context of growing local protest against Iraq and the Afghan invasion. The second moment of Islamic feminist discourse in Kerala had emerged when Amina Waduds book Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Womans Perspective (1999) was translated into Malayalam in the year of 2009. This community-led translation initiative was positively welcomed from different positions, in contrast to the USA-led project of Islamic feminism. In the third moment of Islamic feminism in Kerala, I want to explore the responses to my book, a critical introduction to Islamic feminism (2020), written in Malayalam language, that was dynamically engaged and debated within different parts of the Muslim community. The presentation self reflectively analyses the experience and theory of Islamic feminism in Kerala to demonstrate that the community is an important site for Muslim womens politics and textual and scholarly hermeneutics of Islamic feminism.