Interview with Omaima Abou-Bakr on science, islamic feminism and history.
About Omaima Abou-Bakr
I met Omaima Abou-Bakr during research for my master thesis in 2006 in Cairo. I chose her, her projects and specifically her academic work in order to analyse, work and write about it within the topic I chose: “Islamic Feminisn in Egypt”. I interviewd Omaima Abou-Bakr and analysd her relevant publications.
Omaima Abou-Bakr is a professor for English Literature at the Cairo University. Her research and teaching focusses on medieval literature and mysticism, Women’s history and mysticism in the Middle Ages and (islamic) feminist theory. She is currently a visiting Professor at the University of Qatar. Moreover, she is a founding member of the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo, a research group, that deals with gender related issues in arabic cultural history.
How is your life as a female academic in comparison between Egypt and Qatar?
Same and different at the same time. Both countries in general are respectful and appreciative of women academics. In both, I feel acknowledged on that professional level and validated. In both cultures, I do not feel like I am doing something strange or out of the ordinary. I am carrying out here in Doha all my teaching and academic responsibilities as I always have throughout my life, for this has been my choice: to teach and do research. It’s quiet both in the city of Doha and in my house, so the only drawback is that I miss my family. Another difference is that there is the feeling that Egypt with its longer history/tradition in women’s issues and activism provides a more experienced and dynamic atmosphere for women of culture and of academic & political interests.
There have been a number of conferences in the West to cover the topic of women empowerment in Islam/Islamic feminism. Do you value this phenomenon as an enrichment or success? Is there a political/academic interest in such topics and what does it look like in the Arab world? What are the dominating discourses regarding gender related topics in the Middle East according to your perception?
Yes, on a certain level it can be a successful exploration of the idea or cause that a lot of Muslim women today have grown to believe in. Such conferences in the West can act as acquainting non-Muslims in Western societies with the dynamism in Islam and its indigenous voices of reform. They dispel the notion or stereotype in the West that ALL Muslim women are silent and submissive, because they are uneducated and stupid. So if the purpose of such conferences and academic activities is honest exploration of the issues from a Muslim perspective, and there is no hidden agenda of interrogating Islam, putting it on trial and forcing certain alien discourses and interpretations, and justifying Western hegemony/superiority—then fine.
In the Arab world, in the popular culture and popular media, there is still confusion and distrust of the name itself–“Islamic feminism”—and what it entails. It is different among the academics and researchers, particularly if they are feminists themselves to begin with. In the Arab world, very often people do not make the subtle distinction between suspect politically motivated events/activities/publications…etc. and the cause itself regardless. So they throw the “baby with the baby water” as the saying goes. Of course, what makes things worse is some of these shocking and unacceptable events or conferences are encouraged, supported, and funded by some—not all—Western institutions. The effect of this on people in the Arab world hearing about them is that it confirms suspicion about the Muslim or Islamic feminists. Ironically, more and more women today are outspoken about rights in the public sphere and other issues—without knowing that this is a form of feminist resistance. More and more women are taking pride in both their Islamic identity/religious observance and asserting their shar3′ rights without knowing that this attitude is a form of Islamic or good indigenous feminism.
Dominating gender discourses now in the Middle East in the popular culture & media are mostly fiqhi topics that have to do with marital relations, marriage, divorce, nafaqah, custody…etc. Such topics reveal existent social problems in gender relations in the private sphere. Then, in very limited circles of academic feminist researchers and activists, the issues of theory, historiography, hermeneutics, changing cultural concepts & notions, cultural history, discourses, legal history…etc. are discussed.
Can you tell us about your latest discoveries in your gender related research—especially your historical discourse analysis on gender related topics and your historical research on female biographies? Have there been changes in focus or perspective?
There are a lot of discoveries in various areas. One of those areas is studying the literatures of tafsir and fiqh, not just to confirm and prove the scholars’ bias/misogyny (they were naturally a product of their medieval times), but with an eye on unexpected positive nuances in this tradition to show that it was not static or monolithic. Some good things can come out of their methodology and system of deduction. We can build on only the ‘good’ and ‘just’ in that tradition. At the same time, surely the ulama’ did not always carry out the justice and morals of Islam when it came to women. But we need to understand why and how they went wrong—the cultural history of this erroneous path. We need to analyze it and correct it. The ancients, if anything, were good in their erudition, learning, and outlining methodologies and arguments. They may have reached the wrong conclusions about women. But we can also now re-construct methodologies, theories, arguments, systems in order to respectfully and learnedly disagree with the ancients and fulfill better the justice and compassion of shari3a.
As for the other area of female biographies, it is amazing what we discover. We discover—in the medieval history of Muslim societies—women physicians treating men; surgically operating on women in hospitals; learning medicine directly from other doctors; investing in their own names with their money in agricultural, trade, and market activities; owning property, houses, and shops; leasing such places to other merchants or their husbands; going to court for litigation; working in the marketplace and going out on the streets; spending hours and nights praying and holding halaqat dhikr in the mosques; interacting with male Sufis and mystical scholars; preaching to Muslims in the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina about mystical states; managing hostels and shelters for divorced women and orphans; managing charity religious schools where Qur’an is recited and taught; managing religious endowments (waqf); learning, studying, and consulting on fiqh; preaching in mosques; issuing fatawa; teaching the Hadith tradition to male students and issuing scholarly licenses or degrees; writing and reciting poetry in literary circles; corresponding in letters with peer scholars, writers, and poets; composing works on fiqh and writing Sufi poetry in praise of the Prophet. Just amazing.
Which problems and questions are of particular importance for you in your research? And for whom are they or can they be interesting? Are your results relevant in the academic sense only or should these results be reflected in practice too?
Issues that have to do with religious identity for Muslim women, their Islamic and shar3′ rights to justice, equality, and dignity, their empowerment within their cultures and societies, issues of Qur’anic and Hadith interpretation, dismantling erroneous social and cultural gender concepts and notions about women’s characters and natures; defending women of Islam in the eyes of the non-Muslim West. Such subjects are mostly interesting to Muslim women, but also should be addressed to the men and particularly the religious scholars in our communities. These topics are academically significant, but also very relevant to changing people’s attitudes, cultural notions, social practices, and religious misunderstanding.
How do students in Egypt and Qatar receive your research focus? What questions are interesting for junior scientists?
In Egypt, my young female students get very excited and inspired by these ideas. Sometimes they tell me that they found what they’ve been looking for all along: an Islamic perspective that validates the identity that they love and are emotionally & faithfully tied to combined with an awareness of injustice to women and the demand for application of rights. I haven’t had the chance yet to open this subject with my Qatari students, so I can’t tell.
You are an active participant in academic discourses on “Islamic Feminism” of the last 10 years, in the english speaking sphere as well as in the arabic speaking world. You didn’t reject the term itself as a lot western academics as well as muslim academics do. Why is that? And in retrospect: can you describe the evolution of this discourse and how you value it? What do you think is important for this discourse in order to be efficient in your sense?
About the term “Islamic Feminism,” it is true I did not reject it because it depends on what you put under the name, how you define and qualify it, and what are the ideas and notions you subscribe to under that name. It is true that the terms “feminism” and “gender” themselves are etymologically English/Western, but the ideas of egalitarianism, justice, equal rights, compassion, resistance to tyranny, activism…etc. are not a Western invention or a monopoly by the West. Especially the history of women in the Arab world in the 19th and 20th century shows their “feminist activism” and discussion of “gender” long before these terms came to the surface. Furthermore, the term “Islamic Feminism” allows me to qualify my own indigenous brand of feminism and work out a feminist discourse stemming from within the culture and religion. There is an Islamic ethics of feminism, just as in many other things. Of course, the problem now is that I sense that the field—after it had a strong promising beginning of women scholars and experts analyzing, interpreting, and coming up with that Muslim feminist perspective/discourse—degenerated into chaos and anything goes. Any rejection, any Islam-bashing, any confrontation, any search for the shocking and the odd, and any unlearned or uninformed talk can pass now for Muslim feminist calls for reform !
Hence, the field now is a mixed bag. One has to be careful to discriminate scholarly contributions from fluff. There are still several impressive works that have come out and which I consider landmarks in the field of Islamic feminist hermeneutics and research activism issues: Wadud’s first book, Meisam Al-Faruqi’s article in Windows of Faith, Azizah Al-Hibri’s article “A Study of Islamic Herstory,” some of Riffat Hassan’s views, Asma Barlas’ genius book, Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s work, May Yamani’s Islam and Feminism…etc. Now, there is a new generation such as Kecia Ali focusing on feminist fiqh and Sa’diyah Al-Shaykh focusing on feminist mysticism…and others. However, there seems to be a new, bolder phase in the evolution of the field, which perceives Islamic feminism under the larger umbrella of ‘progressive Islam.’ This recent brand of Islamic feminism has ventured into untrodden territories by raising issues of homosexuality and aggressively clashing with orthodoxy on many other matters. This attitude of practicing provocation—for its own sake sometimes or for attention—worries me. It worries me because it puts the focus on being provocative and sensational, rather than on learning and the production of knowledge.
Related to this point of evolution in the discourse of Islamic Feminism, I see Wadud’s last book Inside the Gender Jihad as another good example of this: how she moved beyond hermeneutical or specific Qur’anic interpretation issues in her first book—calling this approach “apologetic”—to unlimited vistas of what she calls now “post-text.” She considers this new approach “textual intervention” by way of possible refutation of certain explicit verses (saying ‘no’ to the text), but still guided and supported by the Qur’an as only a “window to look through” or a “threshold” one can pass over to more unlimited infinite possibilities of meanings…etc.
For the discourse of Islamic Feminism to be efficient, its practitioners and scholars should avoid superficiality and sensationalism, and—in respect for the Islamic tradition—focus on scholarship and research activism. They should not alienate mainstream Muslims everywhere and anywhere, women & men, or the ‘ulama, whom we are trying to convert to our cause.
Oct. 21, 2008
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