Following the inaugural Shoulder to Shoulder Seminarian Interfaith Seminar at the ISNA Annual Convention in August, 2014, participants of the Seminar published opinion pieces and blogs in local and national outlets to disseminate more widely what they learned through this experience. Kathryn Ray, a Seminary student at the University of Chicago, published her piece in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog on September 29, 2014:
What I Wish I Told My Friend About Muslim Feminism
As a Christian feminist, I long to be asked, “What do you find empowering about your tradition?”
It is exhausting to have to begin interfaith discourse by reassuring people that I am not oppressed or abused.”
This was how a Muslim woman I recently met while participating in an interfaith seminar at the Islamic Society of North America’s convention described her experience trying to spread awareness about her faith.
I got a small taste of what she meant when I was describing to a friend a panel I had attended on Muslim feminism. He asked, “Like how some Muslim women wear headscarves, and some don’t?”
In my head, I quickly went through what had actually happened: discussions on female Muslim leaders and scholars throughout history, how to increase the participation of women in leadership roles within the Muslim community and how Islamic tradition and teachings supported key feminist values of personal autonomy, financial self-sufficiency, and community engagement. The issue of hijab, or headscarves, did not come up at all.
I bristled at the comment, which was earnestly intended, but so missed the point entirely. I tried to explain that this discussion of Muslim feminism mirrored discourse in Christian and secular feminist circles. The questions were similar: How do we reclaim the traditions we were brought up with? Who are the female role models in our history that we can look to? How do we increase access to power for women in our communities?
I bristled because his comment resembled much of the discourse I see in non-Muslim arenas about the rights and welfare of Muslim women. I see the disconnect between my friend’s question and what actually took place as reflecting a broader disconnect between non-Muslim discussions of Muslim women in the United States and discussions among Muslim women. As a result, while these women strive to achieve full access to leadership within their own communities, they face a daunting challenge from others who believe that, as female Muslims, they must be grievously oppressed.
As a woman who identifies as both Christian and feminist, I am no stranger to this tension. I have encountered my share of religious and secular individuals alike who believe that the two identities are irreconcilable, and this has caused me frustration and exhaustion.
Yet, I identify with the dominating religion in the United States. If I feel the frustration of being misunderstood by others, I can only begin to imagine how difficult the struggle must be for Muslim women, as members of a marginalized and misrepresented religion in the United States.
As a woman who draws strength from my own faith, I was profoundly touched by how the Islamic women I met at this conference felt empowered by their faith. Our conversations gave me a new vision for interfaith feminist conversations that begins not with the question, “How does your tradition oppress you?” but “What do you find empowering about your tradition?” As a Christian feminist, this is the question I long to be asked, and it was a question I longed to ask of the women I met at the ISNA conference.
If I’m ever faced with a question about Muslim feminism again, I hope to reframe the conversation entirely. Instead of talking about the struggles these women described, I want to talk about the hope, vision, and inspiration they drew from Islam.