I Finally Saw the Fishbowl

Always having believed myself to be a realist more than an idealist I had my hesitations about post-structural feminism. I thought, “why not work within the system we have to defeat it from the inside?” Feminist ninja’s out defeating gender discrimination wherever it may be found. How cunning to crumble a system from within the fortifications and foundations it was built upon? Following in this vein I was allied with feminist jurist, Katherine MacKinnon. “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State” seemed like a good idea. Take a societies laws, examine them closely, and overrule them wherever discrimination is found. It all seemed great…and then I took a walk outside the fish bowl.

Today in my course on Islamic Jurisprudence we began a short, yet profound, discussion as to why the Muslim feminist movement has not been successful. The first question was where did these women go to get their legal support for expanding the role of women. They went exactly where I would have gone: to the Qua’ran and the Sunna and engaged in the process of itjihad (deducting law from the sources). This makes perfect sense. If you wanted to change the practices and perceptions of women in your religion wouldn’t God’s voice carry the most weight? Apparently not.

In Sunni Islam (which is were my scope is currently limited) there are four primary schools of law. If you are not familiar with Islam then it may be best to think of these schools as divisions in the protestant Christian faith (Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ, etc.). They all believe in the same thing, there is only one God, Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet, but they quibble on the small things like the appropriate way to pray. These four schools are the authorities in Islamic Law. For example, if I were praying in a Shafi’i Mosque with my arms down by my sides when everyone else is praying with their arms across their chests and someone came and asked me why I was praying differently I would have two answers. First, I could do what would seem to be the best course of action…you know, quote the Qua’ran or Sunna supporting my prayer practice. My interrogator would counter by offering more Qua’ran and Sunna supporting his side, and on and on we would bicker never reaching a conclusion. Secondly, I could simply say I am a Manaki and this is how we pray. The interrogator then throws up his hands says sorry and walks away. Why this distinction? Because the Manaki School has authority, my own interpretations of the Qua’ran do not.

Apply this to Muslim feminism and you have women thinkers interpreting the Qua’ran and Sunna for an theory (or fatwa) that has no authority. In order to have legal authority (you know, the kind that brings about change) interpretation must come from one of the four schools of law. Basically, you have to work within the system that is oppressing you, and has been for centuries, to try and find ways of bringing down the system from the inside. How incredibly ridiculous does that sound? I know, I thought so too. I can not believe I ever thought this would work for women’s rights in America!

Here is where I have to bid my farewell to Kitty MacKinnon and run over to Judith Butler’s camp pleading that I could not see the forest for the trees and asking to be accepted into the fold. Judy’s right. You can not achieve gender equality working within a system that oppresses one gender. Sure, tearing down a few walls inside the fortress will upset some and gain some ground, but nothing really gets any better until you decide the fortress was flawed to begin with, tear it down, and build another (hopefully learning from your mistakes).

Sorry it took so long, Judy. I know a few professor’s back at my alma matter who will be glad to know I finally saw the fishbowl!

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