A feminist professor has once again passed up an opportunity to stand up for the human rights of Muslim women. Recently Dr. Laura Briggs, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Head of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, welcomed new Ph.D. students to the department.
In the course of her address, Briggs, author of Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico, praised the work of other professors, including that of Saba Mahmood, Associate Professor of Social Cultural Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. Mahmood, said Briggs, “confronted one of the legacies of a long history of orientalism and the recent wars in the Middle East: the way we are invited to see Muslim women as hopelessly, painfully oppressed, without their own autonomy, will, or individual rights.” So apparently the oppression of Muslim women has nothing to do with Islamic law or culture; it is merely a byproduct of “orientalism and the recent wars in the Middle East” – in other words, it is the West’s fault. “If we sometimes notice other Middle Eastern women—women’s rights activists, for example,” Briggs continued, “it is only to reinforce the notion that the great mass of Muslim women are terribly oppressed by the rise of conservative religiosity, by their husbands, by the ways they are compelled to dress.”
Briggs has good news: Mahmood spent two years – two years! – in Egypt and discovered that that oppression is just a mirage: “But after two years of fieldwork in the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, Mahmood asks us to consider a new question: what if community, as much as or more than the notions of individual rights, is a route to living meaningfully? Perhaps we ought to rethink the idea that women’s agency and personhood spring from resistance to subjection, and attend to the ways that in conservative religious communities, the cultivation of virtue and of closeness to God, of certain emotions and of forms of embodiment, are challenging but hardly one-dimensional ways of producing the self.”
Clearing away the pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, Briggs is apparently saying that if women feel fulfilled in being subjugated as inferiors under Sharia law, then their good feelings outweigh their oppression and subjection. One wonders what Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem might have said in the 1960s if this same argument-from-fulfillment had been posed to them regarding American women. But aside from being inconsistent with what has been the feminist view of women’s oppression for decades, Briggs’s words also represent a betrayal of the Muslim women whose suffering is objective, ongoing, and largely unnoticed.
To take just one of many available examples, wife-beating is largely tolerated, and even encouraged, in many Muslim cultures – largely due to the deleterious influence of Qur’an 4:34, which directs men to beat disobedient women. It is accordingly no surprise that the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences has determined that over ninety percent of Pakistani wives have been struck, beaten, or abused sexually — for offenses on the order of cooking an unsatisfactory meal. Others were punished for failing to give birth to a male child. Dominating their women by violence is a prerogative Muslim men cling to tenaciously. In Spring 2005, when the East African nation of Chad tried to institute a new family law that would outlaw wife beating, Muslim clerics led resistance to the measure as un-Islamic.
But to this – and to genital mutilation, honor killing, polygamy, and so much more that is sanctioned or tolerated by Islamic law – Briggs and Mahmood would apparently turn a blind eye, as long as the women involved were “living meaningfully.” And our concern for them? “Orientalism”!
Ironically, in her address Briggs also praised Saidiya Hartman, a professor of English and Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies at Columbia University. Hartman, according to Briggs, “sees everywhere around us and in us the legacies of slavery.” Briggs asks: “Can we exorcise these ghosts by calling into memory the Middle Passage, the rapes, the slave raids, the fortresses of the Gold Coast and the betrayals of the obruni, the stranger, that made the commerce of slavery possible?” And she concludes: “In her books, Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother, Women’s Studies scholar Hartman writes brilliant prose that is full of heart and embodied, because she thinks that we as individuals and communities are not better off when we try to forget these things.”
Fair enough. But if we are not better off when we try to forget slavery, why are we better off when we try to forget the oppression of women in Islam?
It’s a question that Linda Briggs, and other feminists, would do well to consider.