Muslim Sexual Ethics:

Literature Review

Elizabeth W. Fernea. In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

By Tracey L. Hurd, Ph.D.

This narrative book follows Elizabeth Fernea (a North American white woman, raised by a Presbyterian father and Roman Catholic mother) and her personal scholarship and reflections on Muslim women both in the U.S. and abroad. Fernea teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas and there is an academic slant to this personal narrative. The book is informal in style, although many of her questions and reflections are acute. Fernea’s book does a laudable service in describing the flavor of conversation between a white North American woman and diverse Muslim women. The inherent tension between her quest to understand and connect with Muslim women and her tenacity to hold tight to her feminist ideals is evident on every page. More than any anecdote in the book, it is this penetrating tension that provides the main story. There is no one Islamic Feminism and the search for “feminism” itself may create insurmountable cultural barriers to understanding Muslim women.

The book is based on Fernea’s travels and conversations with Muslim women over a number of years. Fernea is the instrument of knowing. The reader is sometimes left with many details about the meal she shared with a Muslim friend, and less about their conversation. There is also a liminal message that there may be more to be learned from and with women in “the doing” and in watching “the doing” than in conversation. Fernea is sensitive to her Western biases, but in almost every conversation she trips over her own assumptions. In particular, her Western ideals of independence and autonomy, the valuing of intellect over emotional intelligence, and viewing parity as only found in equality are highlighted in conversations.

For scholars of religion in the U.S., Fernea’s chapter on Muslim women in the U.S. is (naturally) most important. Implicit in her conversations is the question, “What is gained by holding on to the traditions of Islam that seem patriarchal?” The beauty of Islamic religion, the freedom for women’s intellectual advancement, and the authority of the Muslim women Fernea talks to are showcased. In addition, the resistance to claiming “feminism” as a label and “feminist” as an identity also emerges. The reader is left wondering about the utility of these labels’—the Western bias in language as a necessary precursor to knowledge.

Fernea’s discussion of hijab, the veil that many Islamic women chose (or are told) to wear, is an excellent introduction to the intricacies of Western women negotiating non-Western feminisms. Fernea’s best quote is from a Muslim woman who states, “The veil doesn’t suck my brains out.” But Fernea persists in questioning the inherent subordination (as she clearly sees it) of veiling. Many Muslim women in the U.S. discuss discrimination and the hijab, and Fernea is sympathetic. Fernea does not, however, analyze the wearing of the hijab from a critical race theory standpoint. In fact her entire retelling and discussion of conversations with women in the U.S. about the hijab is ripe for a reinterpretation from strictly the perspective of the salience of race and racism and any marker of the two. How is wearing the hijab active resistance to racism as well as active adherence to Islam? Fernea only really focuses on the latter. How does subscribing to patriarchal traditions of men who are highly devalued (systematically based on race and culture) in U.S. society constitute something unique from the same behaviors in other countries? Fernea touches too lightly on these questions, in the service of creating her own personal narrative cohesion.

The Qur’an is the primary text that Fernea struggles with in conversations with Islamic women, but legal documents and legal articles (such as “Family Planning in Islamic Jurisprudence”) are central to conversations as well. Personal versus collective rights and privileges are themes in the book that are critical for Western readers to keep considering. With honesty and clearly good intent Fernea illustrates the problems of “outsider” representation of “the other.” But in addition, she also illustrates well the power of initiating dialogue and negotiating cultural boundaries, even when the process is far from easy.