Dr Susan Carland’s first book Hislam has pulled off an enormous achievement.
A PhD is the highest degree one can achieve in a Western university. The PhD dissertation, however, is often barely read by a handful of people. Dr Carland has transformed her dissertation into a relatively short and easy-to-read book for general readership.
Making her job even more difficult is that the topic – how Muslim women fight sexism inside and outside their communities – is one fraught with controversy. It’s a topic that often involves the least knowledgeable assuming expert status.
Within the first few pages of the book, the reader can understand Dr Carland has so many reasons to be frustrated, upset and angry. Including angry at Muslim blokes like me.
Rarely are Muslim women given a chance to comment on the opinion. And when a Muslim woman offers a differing opinion, all hell can break loose.
When a small group of women produced a video expressing disapproval of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s opinions, they were accused of harassment and abused to high heaven.
In this respect, Dr Carland is taking a risk by publishing on this subject. She lets us into her world of meeting intelligent people who suddenly transform into near-imbeciles when she tells them about her research.
Notwithstanding Benazir Bhutto, Tansu Ciller, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Atife Jahjaga and Shirene Ebadi (google them if they are unfamiliar to you), it is always assumed that Muslim women are incapable of defending themselves.
For many Muslims, the idea of researching how Muslim women combat sexism within their own communities is hardly anything new. But the word “feminism” isn’t always a popular choice to describe the process.
Feminism is rejected in many parts of the Muslim-majority world as part of the ideological imposition of colonial powers who had no respect for indigenous values. In other Muslim societies, feminism was identified as such, and was as old a phenomenon as in the West. Maybe it’s just a case of semantics.
In Turkey, where colonisation was replaced with a small nation state carved out of the remains of the Ottoman empire, a form of feminism was enforced as part of a national project of secular fundamentalism.
The Turkish state took over all religious institutions. Independent women’s movements were outlawed and the wearing of hijab was banned in certain public places.
Similar laws were passed by the Shah of Iran but overturned following the 1979 Revolution. Today feminism in Iran is a strongly contested terrain.
There is a popular perception even in the West that feminism and Islam are antonyms. Feminists are often seen as using Islam as an ideological punching bag. Ironically such claims are often made by conservative anti-Islam polemicists who never tire of showing their hostility toward Western feminism.
Dr Carland interviewed Muslim women in North America and Australia from a wide variety of backgrounds. Such a range of ethnicities would not have been available to her if she had focussed her research on some Muslim majority states.
Her interviewees included many converts, African-Americans. Her age range was 21 to 60-plus.
Hislam is combative but worthwhile reading.