A reflection on some aspects of contemporary feminism
By Maryam Sakeenah
Some strains in contemporary feminism celebrate unfettered individual liberty, often expressed in a very physical sense – such as FEMEN’s bare-chested demonstrations for the feminist cause, among others. In a similar vein is the demand for women’s sexual freedom, expressed as the right to choose sexual behaviour without being judged for that choice. For many who sympathise with the feminist cause like myself, this message is disturbing. The problem with this is not that it is offensive to conventional patriarchal attitudes, but rather the problem is with regard to a deeper question of personal faith and values.
The question really is of individual choices and individual freedoms to make those choices. This idea of human liberty (or women’s liberty) is highly individualistic – a freedom to make choices that refuse to take into consideration any factor outside of the self and its interest; self-centred, selfish choices. This message is disconcerting for reasons beyond the gender debate.
In confining choice to the self and its narrow interests, we refuse to consider that choices are made in a broader milieu, and that our choices are inadvertently and inextricably interconnected to a host of other factors and elements outside of the self. This perspective on human liberty clashes head-on with the faith-inspired sensibility.
In the Islamic understanding, a requisite to accepting faith is a voluntary stepping back from the self’s desires, obsessions and impulses for a deeper personal liberation. Faith is an act of submission to a higher, more perfect, sublime Being beyond the self. It sets one free from the crippling bondage to the base, carnal and selfish; the material and the merely temporal. This liberation, for the believer, lifts the spirit onto a higher plane of consciousness where one becomes capable of acting impersonally, and altruistic choices become gratifying and heartening; one becomes capable of living larger than life. This is why throughout human existence some of the most extraordinary acts of selflessness and heroism have been inspired by some form of faith. At this level of consciousness, we become mindful of our relationship with our context, those with whom we share the planet and our lives, and the Giver of all life.
In Islam this individual consciousness, attainable through faith, has a communal dimension. It is the most basic element of a social order that aims at justice, equity and the sanctity of individual rights and freedoms intrinsic to all creation. To achieve this is the collective goal of the community. It requires regulation of personal conduct and the laying down of rights, duties and responsibilities towards oneself, the community and the Creator for a larger purpose, one that brings the greatest good for all and in turn impacts individual wellbeing. In this scheme of things, the exclusive pursuit of absolute and unrestrained individual liberty above all simply does not belong.
This is why the message that the choice of sexual orientation and sexual behaviour is a free individual choice is offensive to the sensibility rooted in the ethic of faith-based submission. It refuses to consider that human choices operate in a context that is not isolated from other lives, and that we are part of ordered communities based on and seeking to achieve universally accepted moral ideals – justice, public welfare, equity, rights and liberties, peace, prosperity and harmony. The message of complete and uncompromising personal autonomy with disregard for all other factors and considerations is actually a call to irresponsible action, moral chaos and anarchy.
On the other hand is the feminists’ tendency to pit women against men – a crass and peevish brand of feminism which again flies in the face of the Islamic concept of a beautiful balance and the genders being complementary rather than competing. According to the Qur’an, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) has created everything in pairs. Muslim blogger on women’s issues, Sameen Sadaf, explains: ‘Pairs symbolize sharing, unity, togetherness, complementarity and completion. The nature of this universe thrives on the complementarity of pairs. It celebrates the interdependent nature of both genders that beautify each other and by working together can they complete the task assigned to them by their Creator. Men and women together weave the intricate web of society in which women are the binding force who strengthen the exquisite fabric of human relationships.’
So much of contemporary feminism ironically reeks of patriarchy. The lived experience of motherhood, for instance, shows that the feminist enthusiasm for women in the workforce does not really pertain to the actual lives of the generality of women. Ironically, this is imitative of men – as if the pursuits beyond homemaking and family are the standard benchmark against which to measure the quality of our lives and struggles. It is as if the overwhelming and vital task of mothering and homemaking was somehow inadequate or less worthwhile.
For all that women suffer, the panacea is not asserting a mutinous, defiant individualism, but rather living to the full our multifarious roles as women within our respective contexts. It is pursuing common goals for the greater good, being active agents to promote values that subvert oppressive patriarchal structures and attitudes that maintain the suffering of women. The commercial media industry is one such oppressive structure that objectifies the woman’s body for commercial ends.
The debate around how we define and stand for human liberation as it relates to women borders on deeper fundamental questions about our deepest convictions. The advocates of the feminism that believes removing clothing or sexual adventurism is liberation should stop pretending that this is a voice or choice of all or even most women, or that it ought to be. To take that message or reject it is also a matter of choice that comes out of deeply embedded personal convictions.