Karima Bennoune on Feminism, Solidarity and Fundamentalism

Karima Bennoune is a Professor of International Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law, the author of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here and a Peace is Loud speaker. The following is a transcript of an interview with her and Feminist Magazine’s Cherise Charleswell, which aired on KPFK public radio on March 24, 2015.

Cherise Charleswell (CC): During the course of this interview I’d like to address a lot of the various misconceptions, stereotypes and double standards when it comes to the work that Muslim feminists are doing, and human rights work against fundamentalism in general. I think there’s not always a voice being given for people in the Muslim world and community who are doing that work and we wanted to give a platform for that here.

Karima Bennoune (KB): Well, that’s wonderful, and I should stress though that not all the people I’m talking about would identify themselves as Muslim feminists—some would identify themselves based on their national origin or maybe the region that they are from instead. Some would identify as Muslim feminists, but we have to be very careful in applying that label. It’s not the label that everyone would give to themselves.

CC: I’m very mindful about labels and I wanted you to give an explanation, if you can, as to why we have to be mindful about those labels and how these labels are or are not applied in that respect.

KB: These days, we call everyone “Muslim” whether they are practicing or not based on where they’re from. I interviewed about 300 people working against Muslim fundamentalism or who had been victims of terrorism who are either Muslims or what I call “people of Muslim heritage” — that means they may be from that heritage, they may be practicing or not, and they may have that as their sole identifier or not, but nowadays we just sort of apply this label to everyone whether that’s the way they would see themselves or not. There is great diversity in these parts of the world. Some of the people I’m talking with are atheists, but of Muslim heritage. Some of them are agnostics or free-thinkers. Some of them are practicing religious believers, but they might identify themselves in another way. Say they’re Senegalese, South Asian, and so on. So, I think we have to be very careful with a label that presumes we know what everyone’s religious belief may be.

CC: Thank you for speaking towards the diversity of the people… I think that’s something that should be addressed in mainstream media.

KB: Absolutely. It was very important to me. I went to West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. I wish that I could have traveled further. What was so important for me was to tell these stories of people who are on the frontlines, who have been working against extremism and terrorist violence for many years, and who have sometimes been victims of it. They didn’t need the West to explain to them that this was something they should oppose. They’ve been doing it for a long time and really, we haven’t been listening to their voices. We haven’t been paying attention to them. And I set out to try to change that one story at a time.

CC: Can you share some of these critical human rights struggles—as well as women’s rights struggles—that are being carried out by women?

KB: There’s no accident that in my book, the longest chapter is the one on women human rights defenders: the chapter called “The Imam’s Liberated Daughter and Other Stories: Women Battling Beyond Stereotypes”. Literally everywhere I went, when I would ask people, “Who should I interview about this topic?” they would begin by listing women’s human rights defenders because everywhere, women have been at the forefront of pushing back against fundamentalism. This has been true in other faith communities as well. Definitely in the pushback against Christian fundamentalism, one can think about the important role of women all around the world. When looking at the struggle against Jewish fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, and so on, you see women on the frontlines. I think this is, in part, because women and women’s rights are so often the first targets of fundamentalist movements. There’s really a correlation here. I think about what a brilliant sociologist from Niger said to me, a woman named Zeinabou Hadari. She said, “Every step forward for women’s rights is a piece of the struggle against fundamentalism.” And I think that’s absolutely critical.

CC: In your interactions with Western feminists, what are the principle misconceptions that you believe they have about women and feminism transnationally and in Muslim countries and societies?

KB: I think there’s been this big backlash against this category that we label as “Western feminists”. I think that some Western feminists have done some incredibly good work on these issues and that should be acknowledged. I think that some have not. Some have played into stereotypes. But I also think that some of the sweeping critique of Western feminists on this issue is often a critique based on promoting views that are not terribly helpful to the women human rights defenders that I was talking to: promoting cultural relativism, justifying practices that these women themselves are challenging, like FGM [female genital mutilation], forced veiling and so on. What was really important to me was to show the people that I interviewed not as passive victims, but as agents of change in their own communities and countries who have a very clear understanding and a very sophisticated analysis of the challenge of defending human rights in the face of rising tides of fundamentalism. It was very important to respect that and to listen to their voices.

But I actually think that we see around the world that there are very important coalitions being built amongst feminists from these parts of the world that I went to, and some feminists here who are thinking in a global way. I think of this wonderful panel that’s going to be held this coming Friday in New York City at the CUNY Law School on the strategies of Syrian and Iraqi women in challenging ISIS. You see at an event like that not only someone like Yanar Mohammed, a wonderful Iraqi feminist who I interviewed for my book, and Syrian feminists who will be speaking, but you also see very prominent American feminists likeCharlotte Bunch, the Founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, who has played such a critical role in building these bridges and I think that solidarity now is absolutely critical. But one thing I think needs to be clear to feminists anywhere is the fact that this challenge of fundamentalism is a very real challenge for women in Muslim-majority contexts right now, both women of Muslim heritage and women from religious minorities in those contexts.

Too often on the Left, people assume that this is an agenda driven by the West, and not at all. Women on the ground are understanding that this is a major threat to their human rights. I’ll never forget what a young activist from Niger said to me: “It feels as if we are seated on a bomb.” I think it’s so critical to understand that right now, for women in regions that are gravely affected by this issue, whether it’s Mali, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, this is a grave threat to their human rights. They understand that as such, and they see it as a critical moment in which they need solidarity.

CC: So for the Western feminists who would want to build these bridges, what strategies can they use to continue to build solidarity? What role should they be taking in doing this work?

KB: One of the first things is to listen to people tell their stories and analyze their own situations. I think about some of the women I met, like Cherifa Khedder, a women’s rights advocate and the spokeswoman for the National Observatory on Violence against Women in Algeria, my father’s home country, who also lost both her sister Leila, a lawyer, and her brother Mohammed Redha, a businessman, to the awful violence of the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria back in the 1990s. That was kind of Algeria’s version of ISIS. She has been making the connection between the struggle for women’s rights and equality and the struggle against fundamentalism and terrorism. For example, she said to me, “It’s not just enough to battle terrorism. You actually have to have to take on fundamentalism—the ideology underlying it.” Because it is this fundamentalist ideology that, in her view, makes the bed of this terrorism. And a critical part of that ideology is the notion that women are not equal, that women are to be subordinated, and that in the fundamentalist view, that is religiously justified. So I think it’s absolutely critical to listen to these voices, to learn from their strategies.

Cherifa Kheddar also heads a group of victims of terrorism called “Djazairouna”, or “Our Algeria”. One of the things she does is, every year on International Women’s Day, she stands with other women out on the square in front of the main post office in downtown Algiers, holding signs with the names of as many of the women killed by the armed fundamentalist groups in Algeria in the 1990s as she is able to collect. And she stands out there trying to keep the memory of those women alive. I think one of the priorities for her is making sure to learn from the history of what has happened in countries like Algeria, or Afghanistan, where there has been vast fundamentalist violence including against women so that we can better confront these movements today.

CC: While women are at the forefront of these struggles, which, if people do their due diligence, they will find, it still seems that the Western media depicts women in the Muslim world as almost being complacent, or invisible. Even in the current case with democratic uprisings in North Africa following the Arab Spring, you didn’t really see them speaking about women who were at the forefront of some of that struggle. Is this another example of this system of global patriarchy and the marginalization of women’s voices?

KB: I would say, actually, that in my view, there was more coverage of women’s participation in what was called here in the West “The Arab Spring” than there has been in many other contexts, and I think actually it has gotten worse since then. Now, when we see a lot of the coverage of, say, ISIS, or some of the ongoing coverage of what is happening in countries like Afghanistan, the systematic fundamentalist attack on women and on women’s rights is really being left out of the equation. We hear about the Western victims of ISIS—and we should hear about them, it’s atrocious, for example, the way that the hostages like James Foley were killed—but we don’t hear about the local people, including the local women.

I always tell the story of Samira Saleh al-Naimi who was an Iraqi lawyer in the city of Mosul, who was arrested by ISIS in September of last year after she had the courage to denounce them on her Facebook page, including the denunciation of their destruction of cultural sites in her home city of Mosul. She was reportedly tortured for four days and then publicly executed by ISIS on the 24th of September.

I want to know why it is that we don’t see her face on our TV screens. Or you can think about women from countries that we’re not even paying attention to now. I think about, and I talked about in the Afterword to my book, in the new paperback edition that came out recently, the case of Salwa Bughaighis, who was a brilliant Libyan human rights lawyer in the city of Benghazi, who had been an opponent back in 2011, and before, of Qadaffi, and had supported the overthrow of Qadaffi, and then was battling the Islamists who were trying to take over in her city and she received a lot of threats. She was a very brave woman. She did not cover her head. She was very actively involved in politics. She received threats. She left Libya and she was so determined to go back and participate in the elections that she did go home to Benghazi and she was horribly killed by men presumed to be from Islamist groups in Libya on the 25th of June of last year. And again, in her case, we’re not only not hearing her story, which is appalling, but we’re not even hearing about her country, which she cared so much about. So, one of the key things we can do is to put women’s stories, again, back at the center of the way that we are describing what is happening in these countries.

CC: Thank you for stating all the names, because I always believe in speaking the names of women who are doing this work and pointing out a lot of times that they are targeted for not only the work that they’re doing, but for the fact that they’re educated. Can you speak towards that a little bit, as to why we’re seeing now that these are the women who are becoming the targets of some of these fundamentalist groups? And how although these women are being targeted in this way, for some reason, these groups are still able to recruit young women from all over the world to join their ranks?

KB: Well, one of the reasons, which I think is unfortunate, is that we have spent so much time talking about the small number of women who have been recruited, say by ISIS. The statistic I was able to find, and it may be an under-estimate, is that there are about 30 women from Western countries who have been recruited to go and try to join ISIS in Syria. So, we spend a lot of time talking about that, but we spend very little time talking about all the women who are opposing these groups and are victims of these groups. I think that’s absolutely critical. There has been a kind of one-sided aspect of this.

It makes it even more tragic, I think, that young women and girls could be recruited by these groups to basically help support organizations that are murdering other women and are absolutely bent on undermining women’s rights and women’s humanity in every single way that they can. One of the key ways to fight against that is to tell the stories of many of these women of Muslim heritage and Muslim women who are opposing these movements, whether it’s women in Kabul running battered women’s shelters; young women in Afghanistan going out and organizing street protests; very sophisticated feminist academics in West Africa who are doing a very thorough analysis of the fundamentalist efforts to push back against women’s rights in their societies; or women’s rights advocates in Pakistan. We need to be telling those stories. I’m trying to understand why the small number of women and girls who have been recruited by these groups—while that is a serious matter—have attracted so much more attention, say, then the thousands of women who have been reportedly kidnapped and, in many cases, raped and sexually abused and even sold as slaves by the same groups.

CC: I would agree. When it comes to the attacks we see that catch headlines here, whether it’s ISIS, or formerly Al Qaeda, the West seems to always call for Muslims to condemn these acts, even though people like yourself and others are speaking out against this and are speaking peace. Why are your voices going unheard?

KB: I have a particularly strong view about this. My father was from Algeria. Algeria was a country racked by fundamentalist violence back in the 90’s. My father received death threats and finally had to move out of his home, but he continued to be very outspoken. I lost friends and family members to that fundamentalist violence. I actually think that Muslims and people of Muslim heritage in the diaspora could make a huge contribution to the struggle if they not only spoke out consistently, and sometimes they do and are simply not heard, but if we did more to try to support those in our home countries who are really risking themselves to work against this violence. Feminists are taking the lead in challenging these movements, and supporting that struggle, to me, is absolutely critical.

 

To learn more about Karima and book her for an upcoming event, click here.