In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey

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9780385488587: In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey
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"Islamic feminism" would seem a contradiction in terms to most Westerners. We are taught to think of Islam as a culture wherein social code and religious law alike force women to accept male authority and surrender to the veil. How could feminism emerge under such a code, let alone flourish? Now, traveling throughout Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as Islamic communities in the United States, acclaimed Arab Studies scholar and bestselling author Elizabeth Fernea sets out to answer that question.

Fernea's dialogue with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances prompts a range of diverse and unpredictable responses, but in every country she visits, women demonstrate they are anything but passive. In Iraq, we see an 85 percent literacy rate among women; in Egypt, we see women owning their own farms; and in Israel, we see women at the very forefront of peacemaking efforts. Poor or rich, educated or illiterate, these women define their own needs, solve their own problems, and determine the boundaries of their own very real, very viable feminism. In Search of Islamic Feminism offers a groundbreaking new interpretation of the status and vision of Muslim women that will open up a new world to its readers, even as it challenges our own sense of what feminism means.

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To the West, the Islamic world often appears homogeneous and monolithic; the Islam practiced in Iran or Saudi Arabia is our model for Islam everywhere: heavily veiled women, strictly segregated schools and workplaces, the harsh law of sharia demanding a thief's hand cut off or an adulterous woman stoned to death. In reality, the practice of Islam varies widely from place to place and culture to culture; in Turkey, for example, Islam may be the religion of the majority, but the political and legal systems are strictly secular. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, politics and religion are one, represented by the power of the mullahs and the ruling family. Uzbeki Muslims are different from Senegalese Muslims, and North African Islam has more than a little sub-Saharan influence to thank for its pantheon of djinns, afrites, and holy saints. Just as religious practices differ from country to country, so does the impact of Islam on women. Muslim women in Morocco, for example, have the legal right to drive a car, while women in Saudi Arabia do not. This being the case, is it even possible to define an Islamic brand of feminism? Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, Austin, certainly tries and, in many cases, succeeds. Her book, In Search of Islamic Feminism, is both an account of her many years spent living and traveling in the Middle East and an attempt to define the issues facing Islamic women today. Though Fernea occasionally comes off as naive, she also makes valuable points about the many faces of Islam and feminism.

From the Publisher:

To most American readers, the very idea of "Islamic feminism" would seem a contradiction in terms. We are taught to think of Islam as a culture wherein social code and religious law alike force Muslim women to accept male authority, to throw themselves on their husband's funeral biers, to surrender to the veil...how could feminism survive under Islam, let alone flourish? Acclaimed Arab Studies scholar and bestselling author Elizabeth Fernea sets out to answer that question, traveling throughout Russia, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as Islamic communities in the United States, to interview Muslim women.

The questions Fernea poses to scores of women friends, colleagues, and acquaintances prompt a range of diverse and unpredictable responses, but in every country she visits, Fernea finds that Muslim women are hardly passive. Poor or rich, educated or illiterate, these women define their own needs, solve their own problems, and determine the boundaries of their own very real, very viable feminisms.

Since her first visits to the Arab World in the 1950s, Elizabeth Fernea has been an intelligent and unique voice in the documentation of cultures that are all too often misunderstood. In Search of Islamic Feminism offers a ground-breaking new interpretation of the status and vision of Muslim women that will open up a new world to its American readers, even as it challenges our own sense of what feminism means.

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