Women setting their own agenda

by Asma Afsaruddin
Notre Dame, Indiana - In discussing the role of women in US-Muslim relations, it is important to first broach the topic of how women are often discursively and symbolically used to demarcate cultural parameters and create a sense of “us” versus “them.” In the “culture war” or, more dramatically, the “clash of civilizations” that is supposedly underway between the United States (or the West in general) and the Muslim world, women’s roles and their attire assume a disproportionate importance. From this vantage point, presumed cultural differences tend to be more sharply etched in people’s minds and contribute to acrimonious debates about women’s well-being, whether defined in physical and/or moral terms on both sides of the divide.

Thus, those who wish to accentuate “civilizational” differences in the West speak of a reified Islam uniformly oppressing women and restricting their civil and human rights. They invoke the veil as a ubiquitous symbol of women’s repression. Their counterparts on the other side of the divide point to the moral degradation of Western women as evident, they will say, in their skimpy attire and the breakdown of the American family. All of this is a consequence, this latter group insists, of the typical decadence to be found in Western societies. Furthermore, some maintain that both human and women’s rights discourses emanating from the secular West are intended to erode the dignity of women and destroy the moral core of Muslim societies.

It is remarkable how persistent these unflattering stereotypes can be both in the West and in the Muslim world, even among relatively educated people. The challenge then for women in Muslim societies and in the US is to rise above these superficial and divisive depictions and pursue better communication with one another. Since women are often deployed as cultural icons freighted with all kinds of political associations, it is women themselves who are in a unique position to dismantle these icons. Women in both parts of the world should assert their own agencies, and in direct communication with one another articulate the complexities inherent in their gendered identities within their specific societal circumstances. Even within a given society, there are huge differentials contingent on socio-economic circumstances, levels of education and support systems, which determine a woman’s sense of well-being and accomplishment. There is, after all, a basic commonality of interests and concerns undergirding women’s lives anywhere in the world. Questions of health, child care, education and employment opportunities are constants in most women’s lives.

It may sound trite to suggest that because women remain fundamentally concerned with the well-being of their families, whether they work or not, certain issues find immediate resonance with them regardless of the ideological framework in which these issues may be found. What follows are two suggestions regarding how women may tap into this reservoir of shared concerns and interests across cultural and religious divides in order to emphasize shared common ground and thus effectively circumvent the rhetoric of divisiveness that forms the master narrative of our times.

The first suggestion is that women from the US and the Muslim world reach out to one another directly and set their own agendas for discussion and negotiation. They can do this both individually and collectively. Individual academics and activists can organize lectures, workshops, and symposia to plan effective ways to empower women socially and politically. Women’s non-governmental organizations in the Muslim world and in the US can initiate collaborative projects with one another. American Muslim women are in a unique position to act as facilitators of many of these projects, since they are able to successfully bridge the cultural divide and be comprehensible to both worlds.

Perceptions are as important as realities: interlocutors who are both American and Muslim can successfully negotiate the pitfalls inherent in the cross-cultural encounters between the US and the Muslim world, especially when the power imbalance is so acute between these two entities. American Muslim women would still be perceived as insiders to a certain extent by their counterparts in the Muslim heartland, making communication less politically fraught.

The second suggestion is that when discussing issues of common concern, one should try to find as much common ground as possible without “ideologizing” these issues. In other words, one should avoid as much as possible replicating the master narratives of civilizational discourses that trumpet greatly accentuated differences between cultures and posit the superiority of one set of values over another (assumed to be the binary opposite). Even the most well-intentioned projects may be undermined by such ideological language. Thus, a respected think-tank in Washington DC recently published a book on women’s rights and roles in Middle Eastern societies, the result of an ambitious survey of a selected number of Middle Eastern countries, conducted by academics and trained researchers in most cases.

Yet an undercurrent of Western triumphalist rhetoric marred the study’s overall effectiveness which assumed that only a relentlessly secular and materialistic perspective would lead to positive results in terms of effecting change in the lives of the women interviewed. As one of the commentators on a pre-publication draft of the survey, I had the occasion to point out that although the survey rightly drew attention to job discrimination against women in a number of Muslim societies and difficulty of access at times to higher education, it barely addressed the issues of health care and did not stress at all governmental and employer responsibilities in providing day care facilities and maternity leaves for women, for example. Veiled and unveiled women all over the world continue to find these issues of pressing concern. If women anywhere choose to define their sense of well-being and empowerment solely in familial terms, then these are the concerns that should be given priority and not the pre-set agendas set by policy-makers and pundits in remote places.

Respecting women’s agency means, first and foremost, letting women articulate their wishes and concerns. It also means listening to them. On such a basis we may collaboratively envision programs and policies that demonstrably improve the quality of women’s lives and of all those around them.

* Asma Afsaruddin is Associate Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies at University of Notre Dame.

Source: CGNews-PiH publishes this article, part of a series of views on "The role of women in US-Muslim relations,” in partnership with United Press International (UPI).

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Other articles in this series

Women and a culture of peace by Claude Salhani
American and Muslim Women Working Together by Hiam Nawas
Muslim-American Relations: Women’s Crucial Role by Cyra McFadden
Women crucial in better East-West Relations by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr