Contesting Female, Feminist and Muslim Identities - Post-Socialist Contexts of BiH and Kosovois a truly magisterial study. This rich volume offers a comprehensive and complex analysis of gender ideas and practices and the feminisms that confront them within Islamic and secular contexts, adroitly entwining the historical, philosophical, and political.
Wide-ranging and incisive theoretical discussion in combination with nuanced oral histories of Muslim women in BiH and Kosovo, including both observant and non-observant women of two generations, mark this work as unique and invaluable. In this study, examining feminisms in post-socialist BiH and Kosovo, identity, positioning, and women’s experience are central themes. The narratives of women’s perceptions, understandings, everyday experiences, encounters, avoidances, and activisms comprise the complicated and troubled picture of feminisms in contemporary BiH and Kosovo.
Participants’ accounts of their experiences and notions of being women, or “woman,” attest to the centrality, indeed the bedrock, of personal identities grounded in national, ethnic, and religious affiliations, which are variously prioritized and always gendered. To question or to suggest shifts in the gendered component of national, ethnic, or religious identities is to question these identities themselves, and to risk the allegation of religious and cultural treason with the threat of anathematization and isolation as the women’s narratives demonstrate.
This study takes care to focus on a diversity of women, marked, as just noted, by age, place, and way of being Muslim, enabling readers to see differences and similarities in approaches to feminism, Islam, “the religious,” and “the secular.” Particularly intriguing are the commonalities concerning certain gender issues of these diversely positioned women. The oral history methodology so sensitively applied opens up to readers the considerable nuance and complexity both within and among the personal accounts. This is clearly a great strength of this study, and as an historian, one notes that it will constitute a precious document for posterity, providing a narrative of this moment in time in the history of BiH and Kosovo.
It is striking to a scholar who has worked on feminisms in Muslim-majority counties, and more particularly, the Middle East, how similarly fraught “feminism” has been within these societies and in the contexts of BiH and Kosovo. Difficulties proceed with the common assertion, indeed, allegation, that “feminism is foreign—a political and cultural intrusion coming from the West.” But what is “the West”? BiH and Kosovo are in the West, yet even within these societies the pejorative declaration surfaces that feminism is an alien phenomenon coming “from the West,” implying another West. It is in the post-socialist context in BiH and Kosovo that this assertion finds circulation because during socialism feminism was absent from the scene. In postcolonial Muslim contexts in Africa and Asia, feminism was delegitimized as a form of western colonial cultural invasion. What better way of demonizing and discrediting feminism than branding it a foreign enemy insidiously working from within?
The women’s oral accounts reveal conundrums that “the West” and questions of positioning conjure up. BiH and Kosovo are clearly part of the geographical West, and constitute western cultures. They are also at the nexus of the geographical East and West. And, with the long and significant presence in BiH and Kosovo of Islam, historically associated with the East, questions of “West” and “East” intrude with fascinating ambiguities and ambivalences. The reader of the women’s oral histories, and perhaps particularly the outsider, detects a certain pride on the part of Bosnians and Kosovars in being western Muslims or Muslims of the West—even “the West”—despite the pejorative connotations. This appears as another layer of identity, and one that is writ large. Where does this leave Islam so heavily associated, as it is, with the “the East”?
A unique feature of this study focusing on feminisms among Muslims in BiH and Kosovo, and of critical value, is the inclusion of historical and contemporary accounts of feminisms in three pivotal Muslim-majority countries of the East: Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. The feminisms, both secular and Islamic, found in these countries, and in Muslim societies elsewhere in the East, reveal the range of possibilities of being feminist and Muslim, attesting to the diversity of feminisms. Examining feminisms in these locations reveals the shifting meanings of “the secular” and “the religious” in the construction of feminisms and indeed, of “the secular” and “the religious” per se. The pioneering nation-based feminisms that Muslims, along with Christians, in Egypt created early last century (at the same time that explicit feminisms in Western Europe and the United States were being shaped) included a weave of Islamic-modernist, secular-nationalist, and humanitarian discourses. Such feminisms were called secular feminisms, with secular connoting “national” and religious inclusivity. “The religious” and “the secular” were completing rather than competing.
In the West, under communism and socialism, Islam in varying ways was evacuated from the public arena as were feminisms. However, under socialism in Muslim- majority societies, taking Egypt as example, religion as such was not removed from the public arena but, instead, religious institutions and practices were sedulously regulated by the state. It was political Islam, or Islamism, that was interdicted. The “return to the veil” in the form of the hijab (head cover) that occurred with the rise of Islamism in Egypt was cast as proper religious practice and—although when it first emerged, the hijab signaled allegiance to the new movement of political Islam—it was not prohibited. Before long, wearing the hijab became part of a broader religious-cultural change and was freighted as signaling “true Islam.” Contemporary Muslim women’s narratives recounted in BiH and Kosovo tell the story of ideas and practices of veiling that arose simply with the return of religion in the public domain.
The example of Egypt shows that women’s secular feminisms in this county, and elsewhere in the Middle East, are another way of referring to nationalfeminisms, as well as indicating space for religion. Women’s identities as Egyptians, as Muslims, and as feminists intersected and were mutually re-enforcing. While the pioneering feminists in the early and middle decades of the 20th century proudly asserted their feminist identity, by the 1980s, with the attack on feminism by the spreading Islamist forces, the newer generation of de facto feminists expediently avoided publically declaring a feminist identity. This study shows that the approaches by Bosnian and Kosovar women in publically claiming or concealing feminism are also situational, although these women do not face the forces of homegrown political Islam but rather the force of resurrected religious culture. The participants from BiH and Kosovo state, either explicitly or inferentially that masking feminism occurs in their everyday lives because its public assertion could attract unwanted criticism and marginalization. Their narratives, however, also hint that women may champion ideas of gender equality more obliquely. Contextualization is grounded as much in time as in place and thus, for the moment, women inclined to achieve gender change finely tune the decibel level of their feminist inclinations.
In post-socialist BiH and Kosovo, after 1989, religion surfaced more fully and freely in the pubic arena. In Egypt, in the 1970s, post-socialism, feminismreappeared after its suppression by the state along with all other independent ideologies. In socialist BiH and Kosovo, feminism was associated with capitalism and the West. In socialist Egypt, feminism, which had been well rooted since the 1920s, was an unwanted independent ideology or competing distraction. When it was allowed to reappear, during Egypt’s turn toward open-door capitalism and a new alignment with the West, chiefly the US, feminism came under attack by the rising forces of political Islam, reviving patriarchal atavism. Islamists condemned feminism first as un-religious and soon as anti-religious.
In BiH and Kosovo, feminism is thwarted, or at least deeply challenged, not by political Islam but by ethno-religious, and cultural identity politics along with the resurrection of a patriarchal Islam. Complicating matters for Muslims in post-socialist countries like BiH and Kosovo, was a period of three decades of muted religion. The recovery of Islam or Muslim public identity in BiH and Kosovo was bound up with ethnic and nationalist identities infused by a socially, economically, and politically anachronistic patriarchy. For those reclaiming Islam as religion, culture, and pattern of everyday behaviors—and for many, including this study’s the younger participants, encountering Islam for the first time in this way—to question, let alone eschew, patriarchal conventions was seen as an attack on the Islamic religion itself. By contrast, in Muslim societies in the Middle East that had not experienced religious rupture, women could oppose patriarchal readings of their religion and culture. Moreover, in many parts of the East, Egypt being an important example, there had been decades of an unbroken tradition of feminism, and while publically occluded during socialism, it was alive at home behind the scenes and visible abroad in international forums.
In the 1990s, as citizens in the states of BiH and Kosovo, formed by the dissolution of Yugoslavia, were experiencing the renewal of a public expression of religion, retrieving rituals and practices from the past, that decade saw the birth of Islamic feminism in different parts of the globe, East and West. Appearing as a discourse of gender equality and social justice grounded in re-readings of the Qur’an and other religious texts, Islamic feminism transcended binaries of secular and religious, public and private, male and female, East and West. Islamic feminism, as a discourse, is not tied to identity or a single place of origin. It was, and continued to be, shaped by diverse individuals and groups in national locations and in transnational cyberspace. Islamic feminism challenges the intrusion of patriarchy into Islam, with its pretentions of constituting Islam itself. Islamic feminism replaces a patriarchal construction of Islam with an egalitarian understanding of Islam. Such disruption undercuts patriarchy masked as religion and, thus, presumably imposed as divine fiat. It challenges inherited patriarchal power embedded in structures and systems within national, tribal, and ethnic contexts. Opponents of Islamic feminism attack proponents of an egalitarian understanding and practice of Islam as deviants who undermine “sacred” institutions, especially the “sacrosanct” family and national and ethic units. The oral histories of BiH and Kosovo women suggest the perils and prices that departures from norms can entail and indicate how moves toward gender equality and social justice are short-circuited by impositions of paramount identity loyalties.
It is by way of these reflections in a comparative perspective that I have wished to pay homage to the stunning contribution that Feminisms in Post-Socialist Muslim Contexts of BiH and Kosovo makes to the literature on feminisms in Muslim and religiously mixed contexts in societies East and West, and to Muslim-majority societies undergoing the massive political, economic, social, and cultural transformation that BiH and Kosovo are presently experiencing. I believe that by sharing our different local experiences we can gain enhanced insights into how gender transformations within an egalitarian model of religion and culture can be achieved and sustained in our diverse societies, and how Islam, re-considered, contributes to part of this process. This book helps us immeasureably in this task.
(Margot Badran is an historian who has written for over four decades on feminisms in Muslim societies in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. Her most recent book is Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. She is presently writing a book on women and gender, and the secular and the religious, in the Egyptian revolution.)