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New Left Review I/224, July-August 1997


Janet Afary

The War Against Feminism in the Name of the Almighty: Making Sense of Gender and Muslim Fundamentalism

I. Two Feminisms [1] A version of this article was presented at the 1997 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York. I am grateful for many helpful comments and suggestions by Kevin Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Sondra Hale, Valentine Moghadam, Claire Moses, Rayna Rapp, and especially Nikki Keddie on various drafts of this article.

In recent years, some postmodern feminists have warned us about the perils of generalizations in feminist theory that transcend the boundaries of culture and region, while feminist critics of postmodernism have argued conversely that abandoning cross-cultural and comparative theoretical perspectives may lead to relativism and eventual political paralysis. [2] For the first view, see Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism, London 1990, pp. 1–16, and Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds, Feminists Theorize the Political, London 1992; for the second view, see Nancy C.M. Hartsock, ‘Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?’, in Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism, pp. 157–75, and Caroline Ramazanoglu, ed., Up Against Foucault, London 1993. As I will argue in this article, the two positions are not always as diametrically opposed as they seem to be. The militant Islamist movements which have proliferated across a wide variety of cultures and societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, have propagated remarkably similar policies and doctrines with regard to gender issues. As a result, a comparative theoretical perspective that would focus on this issue is both essential and surprisingly neglected. But careful distinctions need be made between conservative discourses—both Sunni and Shi’ite—that praise women’s roles as mothers and guardians of the heritage yet deny them personal autonomy, and progressive discourses on Islam that argue for a more tolerant and egalitarian view of gender roles.

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