Feminism and Interfaith: a holy alliance

Content warning: this post contains brief, non-graphic mentions of rape and sexual abuse that may be triggering to some readers.

For many feminists, religion can feel like an enemy. More often than not, the harassers who protest our events are religious folks donned in t-shirts and signs that quote their religious texts. Pop culture icons and politicians alike tell us that rape and the pregnancies it can cause are gifts from god. Life saving comprehensive sex education and access to abortion are often vocally opposed on religious grounds. Women who speak out for feminist causes are sometimes faced with violence or more insidious attacks from their own religious communities.

I do not think this anger is necessarily misplaced. As much as religion can be liberating, it can also be an oppressive force used against women. But religion and feminism don’t have to be at odds. In fact, the interfaith movement and feminism can strengthen each other by examining and engaging with their intersections. Many women experience forms of sexism that are exacerbated by discrimination against their religious groups. Likewise, issues important to the interfaith movement like poverty, immigration justice, and religious freedom often disproportionately effect women.

Despite its exclusionary past, modern feminism, for the most part, has been more inclusive of women of color, trans* women, disabled women, poor women, women who are immigrants, and who are a part of other groups uniquely effected by misogyny combined with other forms of institutional oppression. This movement toward intersectionality must continue to lift up the narratives and experiences of all women from marginalized religious groups. Meeting this goal necessarily means creating an environment safe and welcoming to women of all faith and non-faith backgrounds.

While the often antagonistic relationship between feminists and religious people remains, asking women to “leave their religion at the door” of feminist spaces and dialogues forces them to leave behind what is for many an important identity. While women in general are already more likely to be religious than men, African Americans are also more religious than the American population at large, and people living in poverty identify religion as an important part of their lives more often than middle and upper class people. Alienating religious women only exacerbates the lack of diversity and inclusion still present in mainstream western feminism.

In recent weeks, this problem has been more visible than usual in the aftermath of threats made against Tunisian activist Amina Tyler. Femen, a feminist organization based in Kiev, launched its International Topless Jihad movement, which basically revolves around (mostly young, mostly thin, mostly white, mostly European) women protesting topless outside of mosques in response to the persecution of Tyler.

After posting nude pictures on her facebook page, Tyler, the founder of a Femen branch in Tunisia, was threatened with violence by religious and political leaders and has since gone in to hiding. Amina Tyler’s treatment by her community is most definitely unjust – she has reportedly been disowned by her family, has definitely faced threats of violence, and stated in an interview last month that she fears she will be raped and tortured if she is found by the Tunisian police.

Even Amina herself has denounced Femen’s mode of protest inspired by her photos, stating in an interview “I am against it. Everyone will think that I encouraged their actions. They have insulted all Muslims everywhere and it’s not acceptable… At the moment I don’t regret what I did. But I do not know what the future holds.” Amina’s words echo those of the many Muslim women who have organized the Muslim Women Against Femen campaign, posting pictures and tweeting with the hashtag #MuslimahPride.

image via Muslim Women Against Femen group

image via Muslim Women Against Femen group

By speaking over and protesting “on behalf of” Muslim women, Femen is reinforcing colonialist, orientalist, and Islamophobic narratives – that the liberated women of the West must save oppressed Muslim and Arab women from themselves and their culture. Femen’s rhetoric against religious head coverings says the same thing as bans on revealing clothing or certain reproductive health procedures: that women’s bodies, or at least the bodies of some women, are not our own to control. Ignoring the voices of Muslim feminists in favor of a shock campaign is dismissive of the movement’s years of activism and criticism against patriarchy in Muslim spaces.

Rather than use them as an example of backward thinking and subordination, Femen and other feminists who want to help Muslim women and women in the MENA region should instead listen to their stories and support them in the feminist activism they have chosen to pursue for themselves. Lift up the accomplishments and voices of Muslim feminists like Fatemeh Fakhraie, Shamsia Sharifi, Linda Sarsour, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Sajia Behgum, Shaista Patel, Farkhunda Saamy, Mozn Hassan, Faghmeda Miller, and countless others who do this important work.

image via Muslim Women Against Femen group

image via Muslim Women Against Femen group

Using principles and practices of open, constructive, and inclusive dialogue and storytelling embraced by the interfaith movement, Femen and feminists in general can build an intersectional and safe movement for the liberation of all women. Particularly when addressing issues directly related to faith-based practices and norms, we must be as radically inclusive and self aware as possible to avoid making the same mistakes Femen continues to make.

Rather than leave religion at the door, let’s use the wisdom from our diverse traditions to enrich and empower our feminism. Likewise, the interfaith movement can absolutely must start embracing feminist principles. Feminist theologian Ursula King defines feminism in relationship to interfaith in her 1998 article “Feminism: the Missing Dimension in the Dialogue of Religions,” arguing that formal interfaith dialogue often literally excludes women, ignores gender issues, and fosters spaces in which the complicity of religious institutions in patriarchy is denied altogether.

While I don’t buy essentialist claims that women automatically bring some inborn sense of empathy or grace to a discussion, in order to fully engage the viewpoints of all religious and non-religious folks, the interfaith movement must as well work actively to welcome and include women. Women’s experience of religion and with religious discrimination is often very different than the experiences of men because it is so often gendered. The interfaith movement cannot effectively address the issues it faces without paying special attention to the voices of those most uniquely or disproportionately affected.

These two movements – interfaith and feminism – are incredibly near and dear to my heart. For as long as privileged voices are heard the loudest in these movements, we have some serious work to do, but I can’t wait to watch them change and grow from the inside out.

In UU circles, we often use a guideline called Step Up, Step Back for group discussions. It asks simply that all participants be aware of their presence in a conversation; those who may be dominating the group or speaking over others will step back and create a comfortable environment for others to speak, while those remaining silent will step up and contribute to the dialogue more actively. While this model doesn’t always guarantee a perfect outcome, I think it teaches an important lesson, particularly for those of us who are already heard clearly and loudly in our social movements. We must always be aware of our influence and actively and willingly back up and listen to those who have been silenced in or our movements or by our presence.


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