Fighting Hislam: a look at tackling sexism within Muslim communities

Australian sociologist Susan Carland new book, Fighting Hislam, looks at tackling sexism within Muslim communities, Saeed Saeed reports

Australian sociologist Susan Carland is the author of Fighting Hislam
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When Susan Carland published her debut work a few weeks ago, the trepidation felt wasn't solely down to nerves.

With Fighting Hislam, the Australian sociologist tackles a difficult subject with a refreshing degree of honesty – Muslim women and their fight for gender equality.

Carland, who converted to Islam 20 years ago at the age of 19, admits her book has the potential to enflame critics on both sides of the global discussion surrounding Islam.

"I thought non-Muslims wouldn't like it because I was talking about women who were very passionate about their faith. The women I spoke to don't fit into their standard narrative about Muslim women who've left Islam and are very eager to tell the world that Islam is the source of all their problems," she tells me. 

"I also felt that Muslims wouldn't like it either. Muslim communities experience sexism like every other, and many people don't want to hear that."

Fighting Hislam is born out of Carland's doctoral thesis for Monash University, Melbourne. She recalls starting from scratch because there was so little research on the topic. 

"There was heaps on the hijab, and there were lots on Muslim women wanting to reject Islam and that sort of thing. But there was nothing about women who were proudly Muslim and actively engaged in the fight."

Fighting Hislam is not about offering solutions to the social malaise, instead it traces her journey as she travels around Australia and North America to interview more than 20 female Muslim subjects, ranging from theologians and community activists, to writers, bloggers and even a United States army colonel.

Fighting Hislam by Susan Carland
Fighting Hislam by Susan Carland

All discuss the challenges faced within their respective Muslim communities and societies, such as the patriarchal interpretations of the Quran and the lack of female social mobility, to the controversial rape laws in Pakistan.

The result is a fascinating array of case studies of women who use knowledge of Islam's teachings and professional acumen to counter personal and institutional sexism. Some of the subjects interviewed include Asma Uddin, the American-Pakistani lawyer and editor of the acclaimed and popular blog AltMuslimah. This week's main story on AltMuslimah, for example, explores the flipside of the modest fashion industry, and how instead of representing a positive representation of Muslim women, it creates a new diminishing framework to view them in – that of "savvy consumers and empowered fashonistas" and the other as "suspect, jihadi and threatening".

Then there is Daisy Khan, who as the head of the American Society of Muslim Advancement, launched the world's first global women's ­Shurah (consultation) council, where female Islamic scholars and experts provide religiously grounded opinion on spiritual issues concerning Muslim women. Also interviewed is "Sarah", the pseudonym for the editor of the popular Tumblr blog "Bad Ass Muslimahs" that showcases Muslim women excelling in various ­professional pursuits. 

One of the book's most illuminating interviews is with Asifa Quraishi-­Landes, an assistant professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, who specialises in comparative Sharia and US Constitutional Law.

She takes umbrage at the view that by publicly discussing sexism within Muslim communities, it will place extra pressure on a community that already feels besieged.

"They already know all of these things about us, so if I don't address it, it looks like I have my head in the sand about it, and I won't be taken credibly as a feminist or a scholar if I pretend like everything is rosy," Quraishi-Landes says. "There's already a misunderstanding of the history, stories and law, so I think it's important for Muslims to be educated about the very painful stuff."

But the knowledge comes at a price. Carland explains that all the women interviewed are caught in what she describes as a "double-bind", where "if they speak openly about issues to do with sexism, which occurs in the ­Muslim community, they can actually reinforce negative stereotypes ­outside the community".

Carland says there is no easy way to overcome the quandary.

"Some women in the book said: 'I realise that this occurs. I realise that doing this may make things worse, but, I still have an obligation to try to tackle this big issue'," Carland says.

"Whereas with other women, it was something they found really conflicting."

It is a dilemma Carland herself faced when considering developing her thesis into a more accessible book. She says: "There was a big part of me that just really wanted this research to stay as a PhD that sits on a shelf in a library that no one ever picks up. But the conversation about Muslims and particularly Muslim women in Australia, and other diaspora communities is of such staggering paucity that I could not bear to continue seeing it carry on in the way that it was.

"But I realised that 'well, you're sitting on this wealth of information. You can at least contribute to the conversation'. "I don't think I'm going to really change anything, necessarily, but I feel I need to at least contribute something."


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