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A Feminist by Any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet

24 April 2013 2 Comments

Alessandra Gonzalez

Alessandra L. González
United States 

“They didn’t have to call themselves feminists to fight for women’s equality in public and private life.”

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The first Kuwaiti I ever met told me straightforwardly, “I am a feminist.” Then she gave me a book entitled Women in Kuwait by Haya Al-Mughni and said, “Take a look at this.” And thus began my seven-year journey into the topic of women and politics in the majority Muslim country of Kuwait. As I began my graduate studies, I had a family connection that enabled me to travel to Kuwait, and once I met with professors at a local university, I saw a whole new world of opportunity unfold before me. My first trip to Kuwait was in 2006, only one year after women in Kuwait were given the right to vote and run for public office in 2005. So as I arrived, I realized that everyone was excited to talk about what women’s entry into the political scene in Kuwait would mean for the country. As an outside observer, I was interested to know how men and women incorporated their faith into their views about politics, and though I saw many limitations to being an outside observer, in this particular case, I felt that being an outsider and a student at the time was actually an advantage, because I did not take any new knowledge for granted. I also felt that people were eager to share their perspective on women’s entry into politics with me, which included both excitement about the new possibilities, as well as some apprehension about what kinds of social changes would result.

I think the fact of my being non-Kuwaiti allowed both Islamists and political liberals to share their perspectives with me, knowing that I did not have a personal interest in either side. In many ways, as a neutral ear, I could try to take a more balanced approach in my analysis. I also felt that taking an academically neutral approach to the study of Islam and feminism in Kuwait gave me the ability to become a bridge between Western audiences and the stories I had the privilege of hearing in Kuwait.

I felt that all of my interviewees, both men and women, young and old, were excited to share their views with me in my study because they were all proud to be Kuwaitis, and were sincere in their desire to be part of a better future for their country. I believe the book that resulted from my fieldwork there emphasizes that even the most conservative Salafi Islamists believed they were working in the interest of women by being politically engaged, which is not easily understood by Americans. I was pleased to find that on my most recent trip to Kuwait, the feedback I received from those who have had a chance to review the book has been positive, and that the book accurately reflects the tensions of tradition and modernity that may look like paradoxes to Western outsiders.

Islamic Feminism in Kuwait Book Cover

The results of my journey have been recently published as Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). After my first Kuwaiti friend, I did not encounter another Kuwaiti woman or man who told me directly that they considered themselves a “feminist” or an “Islamic feminist,” but in the book I use the latter term academically to mean anyone who fights for women’s rights within an Islamic worldview. Interestingly, this includes many fathers, husbands, and sons who believe their daughters, wives, and sisters can do anything they can do. They didn’t have to call themselves feminists  to fight for women’s equality in public and private life. Often without a name, Islamic feminists are doing the most important work to further women’s rights by highlighting women’s positive achievements at the individual and grassroots levels.

Almost every Kuwaiti I met, however, did consider themself to be a believing Muslim, and that was the part that intrigued me as a sociologist – what kind of force for empowerment does Islam provide these men and women who challenge the status quo? How can religion be a force for good, when many times Islam as a religion is mistakenly characterized as altogether oppressive towards women?

What I found in my travels is that religion offers another way to understand women’s equality – often in paradoxical ways to the approach of secular politics. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Sociology of Religion to be open-minded enough to ask questions like, “What does your faith mean to you?” and “Does your faith shape your attitudes about women’s rights?” without judgments or agendas. Oftentimes we may enter a conversation thinking we have the answers; for example, that political equality for women will automatically and quickly bring about economic and social equality. And yet in a situation like Kuwait’s, we see that every culture and country must decide the parameters and pace for what they would like women’s equality with men to look like. I believe the lessons I learned from Islamic feminists in Kuwait have great implications for a broader approach towards peace and dialogue. By moving beyond what we think are our limitations (being from a different religion or speaking a different language), we can still try to reach across them and find common issues to work through together.

In fact, I think the more we begin to ask ourselves such questions, the more we can begin to listen to the answers of others. You never know what kind of relationships and paths for peace can develop when such dialogues take place.

For a copy of Alessandra L. González’s book, Islamic Feminism in Kuwait, go to: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=649724

You can hear an interview by Dr. González on the Research on Religion podcast:
http://www.researchonreligion.org/religion-politics/alessandra-gonzalez-on-islamic-feminism

Dr. González is currently a post-doctoral Research Associate at John Jay College, CUNY and a non-resident Research Fellow at the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in Sociology from Baylor University and received a B.A. in Sociology and Policy Studies from Rice University. Dr. González has publications in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, and an op-ed on Islamic Feminism in the Dallas Morning News. She has presented her research at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s Conference on “The Rights of Women in Islam,” the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, the Dialogue of Civilizations Conference hosted by the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Houston, the Gulf Research Conference at the University of Exeter, and in various other academic settings.

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2 Comments to “A Feminist by Any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet”
  1. [...] by Nassef Adiong. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2013 González, Alessandra L. “A Feminist by Any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet,” Peace x Peace Connection Point Blog. 2012 González, Alessandra L. “Choosing through the Iron [...]

  2. [...] April: "A Feminist by Any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet." Guest Blog for the Peace x Peace Women’s [...]

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