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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 5 Sept 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Burqini Dilemma

By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

05 September 2016

What do we do when competing ethical systems with incommensurate ethical conceptualizations of the ‘good’/’reasonable ‘and priorities clash? The Burqini issue is yet another in a series of other dilemmas (radical imams, infiltration of ISIS fighters via refugee routes into Europe, Muslim male polygamy, the issue of Niqab, female genital cutting, western nation-states foreign policy in relation to the Muslim majority world, shaking of hands with the opposite sex, establishment of Muslim arbitration tribunals etc.), that have emerged in the recent years in the context of immigrant Muslims’ presence in the West. Both Muslims and non-Muslim disagree with each- other and within their respective communities as to what the real causes and solutions to these dilemmas are.

The possible answers can be approached from a number of angles:

  1. security related,

  2.  ii.)Multi-cultural policy related ( the level of the nation state),

  3.  iii.) Universal human rights norms related and

  4. iv.) Normative (i.e. from the perspective of religious tradition itself) related.

The first insight is that we can find ‘reasonable’ arguments at all these levels to support both sides of the divide (that is why the conflicting answers to these and similar dilemmas will not be going away any time soon) on the basis of evoking ‘national’ /cultural/common values, the idea of common citizenship, scriptural hermeneutics or that of personal liberty.

Furthermore, it could be argued that while the debates regarding the first and second level (i.e. security and multicultural policy) are primarily ( but not exclusively)  situation specific and take place  in the context of the nation state in question,  the third and the fourth levels pertain to the realm of the universal injunctions/values however differently these might be conceptualized in terms of the actual outcomes.

My contribution to the debates concerns the third and the fourth levels (although I do consider that nation-states have considerable power in dictating the terms of reference as long as they are in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) generally speaking). As a scholar of progressive Islam who has been dealing with (and publishing on) gender issues from a hermeneutical cum historical perspective for a decade at least I have come to a conclusion that (neo)-classical interpretations of Islam subscribe to an ethical system which is  Aristotelian, andocentric and in terms of gender issues (male and female gender roles and norms including in relation such as male/female modesty, family/male/tribal honour, nature of male and female sexuality, status and role of genders in public and private spheres such as the idea of male guardianship over women etc. ) strongly associated with the cultural cum customary outlook of the pre-modern societies in which the crucible of classical Islamic jurisprudence was forged and which it for many Muslims also canonized.

Importantly, changes in the ethico-moral compass among conservative-minded Muslims of various ideological viewpoints, including those living in the West,  in the context of late  modernity/ (post)-coloniality have taken place which have given rise to a  novel phenomenon whereby selective and for all purposes un-principal appropriation of  aspects of pre-modern Islamic gender cosmologies ( e.g. traditional forms of veiling in their various forms) and disregarded of others ( e.g. nature of fe/male sexuality ) occurred thereby dislocating the very rationale on which the actual practice of veiling was originally  justified. Hence, we are dealing with a distinct form of modern religiosity.  The influence of Wahhabi Islam and its petrodollars has a lot to do with this phenomenon. Therefore, these various practices of veiling among western Muslim women, including the Burqini, should be viewed from this conceptual lens. Indeed, the invention of the Burqini was justified on the basis of it being a tool for Muslim women’s gaining of freedom to engage in an activity (swimming) that otherwise could not be ‘justified’ normatively (again overlooking other elements of the tradition which would also preclude it such as gender mixing or the visibility of body shapes /curves of women wearing the Burqini).

As I argue in my forthcoming book titled the Imperatives of Progressive Islam progressive Muslim scholars consider that the spirit or the objectives of the Islamic tradition (including those pertaining to gender norms and roles) are conceptually commensurate with that of the values underpinning the UDHR. Hence, I and many other feminist/progressive/secular/liberal Muslims, do not subscribe to the view, (unlike the majority of neo-traditional scholars/Muslims), that the various traditionally prevalent forms of veiling among Muslim women (Niqabs /Hijabs/Jilbabs/Khimars/Burqinis etc.) and the kind of gender cosmologies that underpin them (strict gender segregation, male public sphere; women’s hyper-sexuality as a source of socio-moral chaos etc.)   are actually normative. We form this view on a basis of a different interpretational approach to the Islamic tradition. In many ways these Muslims find such an ethical system to be ethically problematic because it paints an ethically ugly view of women (and men) as a category.

In summary, ethical dilemmas surrounding the issues such as the Burqini are emblematic of competing worldviews and ethical systems that cut across religious boundaries. As such, they must not be framed as pitting Muslims against non-Muslims. Such a view would only aid the agendas of Islamophobes and well as ISIS minded conservative Muslims. Indeed, many Muslims reject the assumptions behind traditional Islam’s gender ideologies as contrary to the very spirit and the objectives of the Islamic tradition.

Adis Duderija is a Visiting Senior lecturer at the university Malaya. His academic and non-academic works can be read here: He blogs at: Critical-Progressive Muslim Thought: Islamic Hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue.