Politics of Labeling and Marginalization: Deconstructing Islamic Feminist Discourse

plm_08022012According to Foucault, the production of discourse in every society is simultaneously controlled, organized, selected and redistributed according to particular procedures. These procedures are meant to “avert its [the discourse’s] power and its dangers, to cope with change events, and to evade its ponderous and awesome materiality.”I Islamic feminist discourse is no different. Just like any other discourse, it contains internal and external systems for the control and delimitation of its discourse. But does this process actually serve to safeguard the proliferation and utility of Islamic feminist scholarship, or does it fulfill a larger purpose?

Many studies of Islamic feminist discourse have failed to address the historical moment in which the discourse emerged. Specifically, they neglect the influences of global feminist paradigms. Female scholars, who theorize sexual and gender equality as part of a larger Islamist paradigm, have been constant outliers within the production of Islamic feminist discourse since its induction into academic discussion. Their work is repeatedly contrasted to the ‘canon’ of Islamic feminist scholarship. Due to its discursive link with global feminism, Islamic feminist scholarship is unwittingly embedded within a theorization of sexual equality that hinges on secular liberal modernity. This article strives to understand the implications of power located within the process of marginalization of Islamist women scholars. It will also examine the larger political ramifications of the disputed label, “Islamic feminism.”

This analysis of Foucault’s “The Discourse on Language” serves as a point of departure to analyze the ways in which the borders of Islamic feminist discourse are created, controlled and reinforced in regards to the marginalization of Islamist women scholars and activists. By analyzing the ways in which the borders of Islamic feminists are policed, I will show that this border maintenance is, consequentially, an effect of Islamic feminist discourse being embedded within a larger feminist project. Therefore, this control is performed on a larger institutional level of feminist scholarship to preserve the hegemony of a universalizing feminist project. To further solidify this argument, the last section of this article looks at the postcolonial critique of mainstream feminism’s “politics of difference and inclusion” to show how critiques of feminism, particularly those coming from the third world, are neutralized by their inclusion to a global feminist project.

‘The Discourse on Language’: Bringing Marginalization into Perspective

Since the emergence of Islamic feminism, Islamist women scholars have been relegated to the position of the “outlier.” While some scholars have been labeled “Islamic feminist” against their will, Islamist women scholars like Zainab Al-Ghazali and Heba Raouf Ezzat, who speak towards gender equality within an Islamist paradigm, have been barred from inclusion in Islamic feminist discourse. These women are usually referred to as having a Gramscian ‘contradictory consciousness,’ which “represents a form of common sense that was rooted in folklore, but at the same time enriched ‘with scientific ideas and philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life.”II

The processes of censorship and the fabrication of divisions can be seen quite overtly in the marginalization of Islamist women scholars from Islamic feminist discourse. Islamist women scholars’ ability to theorize sexual and gender equality without evoking a feminist political project threatens the utility and maintenance of that project. Therefore, it is censored, silenced, discursively ‘othered’ and erased. The ability of scholars who define and negotiate the boundaries of Islamic feminism to enforce this censorship is based within a “ritual” positioning Islamism as the antithesis of feminism. This is due to the fact that the existence of feminist theory today hinges on its placement within secular liberal notions of modernity. This is demonstrated by the Egyptian Islamist activist Zeinab Al Ghazali and her organization, the Organization of Muslim Sisters, which is constantly contrasted against Hoda Shaarawi’s glorified secular feminist movement during the early 20th century.

Due to this fabricated division of Islamist vs. feminist, the challenges that Islamist women scholars pose to feminism by breaking its monopoly on the theorization of sexual and gender equality are disregarded and deemed as “madness.” Like the individuals Foucault discusses in The History of Madness, the discourse of Islamist women scholars is rendered null and void because of their opposition to the common discourse. This distinction has been reproduced so largely that it has become common knowledge that certain scholars overtly object to the inclusion of Islamist women in the debates and theorization of Islamic feminism as a field of academic study.

The internal systems of control and delimitation of discourse tend to work on a more covert level. By means of the internal systems “ discourse exercises its own control [presenting] rules concerned with the principles of classification, ordering, and distribution.” Intertextual repetition is a process by which the body of literature within a discourse builds in a way that each text becomes simply a “commentary” of earlier texts. This results in the formation of an “identity” and “sameness” within a given discourse. In other words, commentary reinforces the underlying truths of a discourse. It “gives us the opportunity to say something other than the text, but on the condition that it is the text itself which is uttered and…finalized.”III

A commonly cited argument of the need to maintain the label Islamic feminism, for instance, to describe the theorization of sexual and gender equality within an Islamic paradigm is “because feminism provides a common language, and for analytical reasons, the term Islamic feminism should be retained, firmly claimed and repeatedly explained.”IV Foucault has shown us, however, that institutionally, the need to universalize words and speech is not for transparency or the revelation of truth. Instead it is for the desire to control discourse and give it its proper place. It is the job of discourse analysis to “uncover the history of domination and enslavement [systems of power] that lurks behind words.”V

Furthermore, the restrictions on who can and cannot participate within Islamic feminist discourse create, what is referred to as, fellowship of discourse. This ‘fellowship’ insures the preservation and reproduction of a discourse, because challenges to the foundational truth of that discourse have been relegated to the position of ‘madness,’ not worthy of consideration. All Islamic feminist scholarship roots its analysis in a common originating experience. The common originating experience, an action that asserts the existence of an experience or phenomenon, also jumpstarts the process of preservation by solidifying the boundaries that determine who takes part in the fellowship of discourse. This lays the ground for the rejection of experiences that cannot trace their birth to such a phenomenon.

The Politics of Difference and Inclusion in Feminist Scholarship

A common critique of the second wave of feminism is that its promotion of a ‘global sisterhood’ actually furthered the universalization of the white, middle class woman’s life experience. The rise of Third World critiques challenged the notion that all women had similar problems, and therefore, required similar solutions. Instead of these critiques causing an epistemological break within feminist theory, however, a new paradigm of global feminism was articulated. Proponents of global feminism openly articulated a postmodern critique of second wave claims of “global sisterhood” while, detrimentally, retaining an attachment to the commonalities of women around the world. This new desire to display multiculturalism within feminist theory resulted in the proliferation of difference or the process of inclusion. It is amid this process of inclusion that Islamic feminist discourse was created and produced. Dealing with difference, however, merely “meant the absorption of difference into an already existing feminist community, without challenging the naturalized legitimacy of that community as a community.” VI This approach ultimately resulted in aiding the consolidation of a universalizing feminist project.

 In conclusion, understanding Islamic feminist discourse as a product of feminist theory’s proliferation of difference serves to explain why the boundaries of Islamic feminist discourse are policed as they are. As the proliferation of difference is meant to only acknowledge difference not restructure feminist theory as whole, the exclusion of Islamist women scholars is deemed necessary as they challenge the need to theorize sexual equality within a feminist paradigm and they force scholars to reconceptualize normative constructions of women’s agency.

[i] Foucault, Michel. “The Discourse on Language.” Trans. Rupert Swyer. Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (Tallahassee: UP of Florida, 1986) 149

[ii] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1999)

[iii] Foucault, “The Discourse on Language” 152

[iv] Margot Badran, “Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name,” Al Ahram Weekly Online (2002)http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/569/cu1.htm

[v] Foucault, “The Discourse on Language,”149

[vi] Ieng Ang, “I’m a Feminist But…”Other” Women and Postnational Feminism.” Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (2003), 193

TaylorMooreTaylor Moore is a senior at the American University in Cairo,  majoring in Honors Political Science and Sociology, specialising in Middle East History. Her current work deconstructs contemporary Islamic feminist discourse and identifies its inherent linkage to secular liberal notions of a universal feminist project and normative notions of agency as its Achilles Heel.