Friday, January 07, 2005

on identity...

The last post was an interesting experience for me. I wasn't quite surprised by the comments, yet it was interesting to see the reaction from two seemingly opposing sides: Those who reject religion as a rational way of answering questions of modern times, and those who seem to be religious and refer to Qur'an in order to answer to today's social issues. Their approaches may be different, but there seems to be a consensus between the two sides (well, I only had two people who voiced their concerns in this oppositional manner, so really by "them," I mean the two sides who saw my statement about being a secular Muslim as paradoxical. By no means am I attempting to generalize their views to the bloggers in Weblogistan. Of course there was also another person who went beyond the either/or binary). "How can one be gay and Muslim?" "How can one be a feminist and a Muslim?" The multiplicity of one's identity seemed to be seen as an oxymoron. More dichotomies were created in the course of this long discussion. Science became opposed to religion, mathematical reasoning took the privileged status.
Here are my post-discussion thoughts and some explanations that may be helpful in shifting this discussion to another level:
When I put forward the idea of being a secular Muslim feminist, the first question came from a friend who was interested to know what my interpretation of Sura Nesaa was. I said in my comments that interpreting Qur'an is not my expertise. I think there needs to be a clarification: there is a difference between being an Islamic feminist and being a Muslim feminist. The former is interested in re-negotiating Islamic laws and operates within those laws, the latter may not even practice Islam, but uses her/his Muslim identity to refer to being implicated in a culture that has historically and politically been informed by Islamic discourses. So, when I say I am a Muslim feminist, it doesn't necessarily mean that I am religious.
But a more important issue that I am going to address here, is the way one is asked to choose between being a feminist and accepting Islam. While I do not consider myself to be an Islamic feminist, I still do think that Islamic feminism is legitimate, as neither Islam, nor feminism are monolithic categories. It is only when one tries to fix Islam and feminism by rigid definitions that the possibility of Islamic feminism becomes paradoxical (or halted).
So, when I say that I am a secular Muslim feminist, one of my goals is to destabilize categories that are often defined as exclusionary. We all use identities to represent ourselves in one way or another. One may see he/his career as an important part of her/his identity. Another may use something else as a way of representing her/himself. We use our identities as a way of REPRESENTING ourselves. This means that we are not inherently something or another, but are always a representation of something that itself is a representation. So, when I say I am a Muslim secular woman, none of the three parts of this identification is fixed. Muslim has multiple meanings, so does secular, and yes, so does woman. All of these are discursively defined. They have different meanings in different times and locations and become meaningful according to discourses that are available in specific historical junctures. By this, I don't mean that we can pick and choose freely from what we want, as if identities are free-floating. No. We are often defined by dominant discourses (be it discourses of gender, race, religion, science, etc.) and as Althusser would say it, we are interpellated by these discourses (although Althusser used "ideology" and not "discourse"). Yet, we are not without agency either. We are subjected to these discourses and become subjects of these discourses through what Butler, using Derrida would call "performativity." That means we occupy the available subject position of being a "man," a "woman," "Muslim," or "queer," and then through repetition, we make these into identities. So in a sense we consolidate these hegemonic discourses, but at the same time we shift them, because in every repetition, that womanhood, or manhood, or Muslim ness, or queerness, moves a bit further than what it was before. There is always an excess. So, while we may not quite transgress these hegemonic discourses (as we are subjected to them and implicated in them), these discourses do not remain the same. They do employ disciplinary apparatus to produce subjects (who are law-abiding, religious, etc. etc. depending on which discourses are dominant at the time), but this doesn't mean that we are docile subjects and that these discourses remain fixed. that would be depressing, no?
O.K. this post is getting too long, but let me just add one other thing: Islam and modernity are not mutually exclusive. I think there are plenty of examples that can attest to this.


The sidebar image is taken from Mahmoud Pakzad's "Old Tehran", Did Publishers, 1994. Thanks to Jahanshah Javid (www.iranian.com) for sharing it.

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