‘The wider community thinks the Muslim community is a monolith… ‘
I was intrigued by the title of this book, interested to read what Susan Carland has to say about sexism and faith. But first, a little about Dr Susan Carland. Susan converted to Islam when she was aged 19. She had explored other religions, but felt an intellectual connection to the Islamic faith. Dr Susan Carland is a sociologist and lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, and ‘Fighting Hislam’ began life as her PhD thesis. Susan Carland married Waleed Aly in 2002: they are arguably the most recognised Muslim couple in Australia.
In this book, Dr Carland draws together the experiences of twenty-three Muslim women, of their individual fights against sexism. Sixteen of the twenty-three women involved are from North America, the other seven are from Australia. While these are well-educated, articulate women, their experiences are different as are their approaches to dealing with sexism. Two of the women involved have since died.
What I found most interesting about this book is the diversity of the views expressed. While none of the Muslim women I know personally are either oppressed or part of a harem, the clichés persist. Muslim women are often identifiable by the way they dress (as were, I recall, Catholic nuns in the 1960s and earlier). And I’m old enough to remember when most Christian women covered their heads in church. The point of my digression? Simply that we ‘other’ people based on assumptions we make which are often based on clichés or partial information. Many assume that no woman would choose to cover her hair and, if she does, it is because she is forced to. And this assumption becomes for many of us the basis of our ‘knowledge’ that (all) Muslim women are oppressed.
‘There is a saying among Muslims: you don’t read the Qur’an, the Qur’an reads you.’
This saying goes a long way towards explaining the different ways in which the Qur’an can be interpreted by individuals as diverse as the Persian poet Rumi, and the leader of the Islamic State. These different interpretations also a part of the reason why Muslim women need to fight against sexism. The important point Dr Carland makes is that the sexism arises from different interpretations of Islam, that sexism is not an inherent part of the religion.
Dr Carland describes the different boundaries that Muslim women need to negotiate when trying to address sexism: if they speak out, do they give the Islamophobes more fuel against Islam? How will they be viewed within their own communities where, frequently, feminism is seen as a western influence (and therefore probably suspect)? Is faith enough?
I finished this book wondering about the future. Some of the fight against sexism in Islam is similar to battles fought (and still being fought) in the community more broadly. Equality may have been achieved in some societies in relation to some aspects of life, but the battle continues. And the answer? Alas, there is no single answer: the community is too diverse for a single, simple answer. But I can hope that the conversation continues. This is a book to read and reflect on, to discuss with others. For my own part, I saw many similarities between the roles of Muslim women and the roles of women more generally over the past four or five decades. Far more similarities than differences.
Note: My thanks to Melbourne University Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.