No More Harems: The Hidden History of Muslim and Ex-Muslim Feminism

I love Muslim and ex-Muslim feminist women. They are so earthy, womanly, passionate, knowledgeable, beautiful, and eloquent -- so emotionally present, so incredibly brave. Smitten? I guess I am, I always have been -- ever since I began moving in Muslim circles 50 years ago.

Take Tunisia’s minister for women’s affairs. Amidst the mayhem and madness, Lilia Labidi just up and walked out of the United Nations meeting. Unlike Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was “waxing enthusiastic about the success of the Arab uprisings,” Labidi’s “giddy exposure to the UN rapidly dissipated. Her own appeal to the gathering (of powerful women presidents and secretary of states) for help in consolidating gains for women in Tunisia elicited little reaction.”

And so, Labidi decided to go home. She said: “I cannot live here in such luxury,” and she noted that her $700.00 a day cost of staying in New York “would be better spent on a project for rural women.” Labidi was offended, frustrated, that the entire UN seemed to care only about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and had absolutely no interest in the needs of women, neither in Tunisia nor anywhere else.

Labidi, a professor of anthropology and clinical psychology, may be the only honest diplomat in the joint.

We are in the midst of an Islamic and ex-Muslim feminist uprising. Some names are known to Westerners: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nonie Darwish, Irshad Manji, Azar Nafisi, Taslima Nasrin, Asra Q. Nomani, Wafa Sultan -- grave, elegant, impish, and fiery spirits who live in exile from their countries, communities, families, or even faith.

These heroic feminists have been systematically demonized as “racists” and “Islamophobes.” Yes, even those whose skin colors may be brown, black, or olive; some are still religious Muslims but most  are secularists, atheists, or apostates. These are high crimes according to Shari’a law. CAIR and the Muslim Student Association have stalked Darwish on campus. They are doing so right now in regard to her upcoming lecture on October 5th at George Mason School of Law in Virginia. Once Darwish’s appearance has been announced, CAIR has been known to bombard the campus group to either disinvite her or to cut into her time by having another speaker appear simultaneously to rebut her points about Islam’s relationship to women and jihad.

Some of these women are theatrical divas, starring in the stories of their own lives which they tell to rapt audiences again and again. In exile, they write books and articles and deliver stunning speeches. Some have begun to create foundations and organizations which are meant to go beyond personal stories, beyond collective trauma, to inform, console, and act as role models for other endangered Muslim women.

Many more such heroes have risen up. They are not yet known to us in the West: Ida Lichter, in Muslim Women Reformers, has written the biographies of more than 100 such "inspiring voices," mainly female, but also male, from 23 Muslim countries and from Israel, the (disputed) Palestinian territories, the United States, and France.

Many of these vibrant voices are the heirs to an indigenous historical Muslim feminism as well as the heirs to western First and Second Wave feminism. They are my heirs in terms of my commitment to universal human rights and specifically to women’s rights. They are not “multicultural relativists.”

On September 19, 2011, three Canadian Muslim women: Natasha Fatah, Marina Nemat, and Raheel Raza, spoke in Toronto at a panel titled: “Islamism’s war against women.”  The event was organized by Meryle Kates and moderated by Barbara Kay.

The audience overflowed the space. Yet, the Canadian mainstream media (Globe and Mail, Toronto Star) did not cover the panel. The National Post had a brief editorial which described something of what the women said:

Journalist and activist Raheel Raza argued that the legal code known as sharia has no basis in religion --but rather is a political artifice created as a means to leverage the Islamic faith into a tool for totalitarians and misogynists. Marina Nemat, an Iranian-Canadian woman who was tortured at Tehran's Evin prison as a teenager, described how Iran's revolutionaries exploited Islamist fervor to transform her pluralistic, cosmopolitan nation into a medieval prison state. Finally, broadcaster/activist Natasha Fatah lamented that even now, and even in Canada, we often are blind to Islamism's true face: In the name of "tolerance," we permit the sort of degradation of Muslim girls women that would be completely unacceptable if perpetrated against whites.