From the moment I pulled In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea from our bookshelf, I was hesitant. The title interested me the most when I was scanning the book spines for my next read. But the book was written by a white Christian American woman—not inherently bad but not quite the right perspective for writing about Islamic feminism. Fernea, or B.J. as she is known in the book, has written several books on Middle East (i.e., Guests of the Sheik), filmed several documentaries, was a professor of English and Middle Eastern Studies, and lived in Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq for periods of time. She was not going into this book project blind in any sense; I still hesitated before I continued reading the book anyway.
This was my longest read of 2017 so far, beating out Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse back in January. There was a lot of information packed into each chapter, which focused on a single country. Eight countries were represented—Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel/Palestine—nine if you count the United States, which was the final chapter. Many of the countries featured in the book I had a base knowledge of but not much more.
Most of the chapters were formatted as conversations she had with her friends and various people she interviewed in each country. I enjoyed hearing her interview subjects’ experiences from their own mouth; it made the information that Fernea was collecting feel more authentic, more personal. While the chapters featured these interviews, the narrative flow of the chapters could have used a lot of editing help. There wasn’t much narrative to begin with; it felt very scattered and would jump from one place to the next, and I couldn’t tell if she was retelling her visits and interviews chronologically or by most important. The chapters on Saudi Arabia and Israel/Palestine were the most succinct in how she presented the information. This is most likely because these were shorter visits, but the way these chapters were written could have informed the other country chapters.
There were many times when Fernea’s biases and assumptions would appear. What I did appreciate is that she addressed these biases a majority of the time. This happened most often when she was recounting interviews with certain subjects, when they would say something that contradicted what she had believed to be true. Fernea also acknowledged her shortcomings, especially in the Iraq chapter. It had been forty years since she had been in the country and much had changed, something she had to reconcile again and again.
Criticisms aside, I’m glad I read the book. It provided snapshots of women’s issues in those eight countries in the mid-1990s, and I would be interested in finding a similar book that was published more recently. A lot has changed since this book was published in 1998.
One thing I took away from this book is that there isn’t necessarily an Islamic feminism. Using that term, at least in my point of view, is akin to saying Christian feminism or Jewish feminism. One of the women Fernea interviewed in Kuwait, Lubna Abbas Muhammed, said it best: “I’m a Muslim. But I’m a feminist. Islamic feminist sounds like a made-up name, to pin labels on us again in the West. Why not just say I’m a feminist and I’m a Muslim. Is there some special brand of feminism that were supposed to have, according to Muslim rules, or something?” (192)
Many of the women Fernea interviewed said that “feminist” was heavily Westernized and thus many women avoided using that term to describe what they believed. I wonder if, twenty years later, there is still that feeling.
If you’re thinking of reading In Search of Islamic Feminism, I would recommend going one chapter/country at a time and don’t feel like you have to read the book from start to finish. This is definitely a book I would like to keep on hand as a reference.