Excerpt: Conclusion of 'Citizenship, Faith & Feminism'

Women of faith in Kuwait, Israel, and the United States enrich our understanding of the connection among citizenship, religion and feminism. They make use of the narrative of civic citizenship combined with what they take to be a more authentic, if alternative reading of their faith tradition. They seek to recapture G-d’s intention from which they believe the dominant interpretive insights and judgments to have historically strayed. Women in these settings are connected critics of their regimes and their religions.

Both Muslim and Jewish feminists seek to align their religious equality with their political equality in countries where they enjoy full rights of citizenship. Both groups have evolved, through struggle, strategies that are both political and theological. Religious feminists in Israel, the United States and Kuwait, though differently situated, have all made progress toward equality within their religions, by enlisting civil law and constitutional promises as levers to open a crack in the façade of male religious power. 

Feminists of faith, whether Jewish or Muslim, American, Kuwaiti or Israeli, have more in common than they perhaps realize. Both emphasize that G-d is just and that men and women share in divine justice and mercy. Both emphasize that there is an irreducible element of human subjectivity and fallibility in the act of interpretation required to understand and apply these precepts. Education, principles of public discourse and deliberation are the best antidotes to the problem of the fallibility of the individual exegete. Both understand that the right of exegesis belongs to all humans but that it has been monopolized by men, which has produced distortions of G-d’s will through the ages. Both groups understand the necessity of disentangling religious principles from cultural accretions that have distorted divine intent. Both Muslim and Jewish feminists see their project as one of recovery, involving the reinterpretation of sacred texts according to their best principles, rather than as refracted through male perspectives and interests. Both groups engage in this process in full submission and faith in G-d.

In Israel and Kuwait entrenched religious authorities are the most powerful opponents of equal rights for women. In deferring to these religious authorities, the secular governments of both Israel and Kuwait risk sacrificing the guaranteed rights of their female citizens in the name of greater regime stability that they believe religious authorities can deliver or withhold.

In Kuwait, religious critics of the established authority are no friends of feminists. They are primarily the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which have more in common with Islamists than feminists in terms of their agenda and goals. They promise, if they manage to become politically powerful in Kuwait, to upend the hard-earned reforms that feminists have achieved to this date. Nonetheless, Kuwaiti women have made impressive political gains. They have been appointed to ministerial positions by two successive friendly Amirs, and most recently, they have garnered grass-roots electoral support and had four women elected to the National Assembly. The election results signal a cultural shift reflected in public opinion in favor of women’s political participation and leadership, but as in Israel, a determined opposition backed by entrenched religious parties still threatens these gains, in both the public and private realm of family law. Because Israel’s voters are accustomed to and supportive of women’s citizenship and civil rights, democracy poses no real threat of reversing women’s gains. But Kuwait’s fragile and tension-ridden sectarian democracy may actually prove the undoing of Kuwaiti women’s gains. For the time being, Kuwaiti women still depend on the backing of the Amir. Yet political challenges to this Amir are increasing, and his popularity, though still widespread, may be ebbing. If he is replaced, there is no reliable predictor of the future of women’s rights.

In Israel, where women achieved formal equal citizenship long ago, political culture reflects the popular habituation to women’s public equality. Still, the religious parties threaten a different, but significant source of opposition. Real gains have been made by Israeli feminists, but a backlash by the religious authorities is a perpetual threat because of the dual legal system which grants religious authorities a stranglehold over family law. While Israel’s numerous internal critics of the religious authorities represent a more pluralistic, secular, liberal and democratic worldview, and are certainly friendlier to women’s rights than the religious authorities, they are not necessarily embraced by Orthodox feminists who pursue reform within the Orthodox fold.

In the United States, where Jews and Muslims live as minorities in an overwhelmingly liberal Protestant culture, women are minorities within minorities. American law and a liberal democratic regime provide a different set of opportunities and challenges to feminists than the partly democratic and partly theocratic regimes of Israel and Kuwait. Ironically, the US hospitality to cultural diversity and its sensitivity to minority groups may actually compound the challenges for women in Islamic and Jewish communities in its midst. The First Amendment principle of Free Exercise of religion, and the informal principle of tolerance for multiculturalism may find themselves at odds with the Establishment Clause and civil rights legislation that upholds gender equality. The United States provides the most sympathetic and fertile environment for the acquisition of women’s rights in their religious communities in that “heresy” or calls for reform from within a religious community are not enforced under criminal law of the United States. Yet, ironically, the Free Exercise Clause may also be applied in such a way as to unintentionally reinforce male religious authorities, as they are most likely to represent the community’s religious precepts before the judiciary and legislature. In such cases, American feminists may find themselves hobbled in their attempts to bring reformist pressures to bear against their religious authorities by the very sympathetic stance of western societies toward minority cultures.

The adverse effect of a policy of multicultural accommodation that unwittingly entrenches male power within religions and cultures applies in the international realm, as well. Internationally, organizations like the UN are squarely behind women’s rights and gender equality. Nonetheless, the UN has made it a “right” to have one’s culture recognized, respected and preserved. Not surprisingly, as is the case at the national level, men speak for minority cultures and claim to represent their “authentic” values. Moreover, the United Nations and the international human rights regime are relatively impotent in the face of respect for national sovereignty. Unless national governments put forward women-friendly domestic legislation and allocate funds for adjudication and enforcement of these provisions, international treaties and documents remain mere paper.

Finally, the backlash against feminism is in full swing and should not be underestimated. Haredi groups in Israel have political leverage and a high birth rate. It is particularly alarming for Israel’s future that many of the Haredi do not support the Israel’s statehood any more than they support full rights for women. Therefore, they have no real incentive to engage with the government in any area that appears to require religious compromises. They expect all of the compromises to be on the part of the state. Meanwhile, Islamists, worldwide, while composed of diverse and in cases adversarial factions, share a set of norms that are contrary to pluralism and toleration, and importantly, are contrary to the United Nations’ norms favoring women’s equality. Having harnessed religion to politics, Islamists reject political compromises as if they entailed religious compromises. While in the realm of international relations, there are political solutions to political problems, for groups that infuse politics with religion, no political solutions or compromises are available.   Islamists have gained widespread credibility because of their resistance to the West and to modernity, which includes liberalism and women’s rights. Where Islamists extend their political and military reach, women’s rights and feminists are their first targets. My guess and my hope is that faithful feminists will stand strong against their opponents and that they will face down the manifold dangers with a determination rooted in a desire to see that G-d given justice prevails for our daughters.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage