Conservative Islamist and Laicist Republican Paternalism against Muslim Women: Islamic and Multiculturalist Feminist Critiques
In paternalist accounts, the idea of "womanhood" and the monopoly to define it are far too important to be left to women. Paternalist ideologies aim to define the political dimension of gender relations. They also seek to control women’s roles, identities, and life plans through the notions of protection, guidance, or emancipation (Ivekovic, 2004). In this paper, I will examine a double paternalism that contemporary Muslim women face: Conservative Islamist and laicist republican paternalism. Although drastically different, both forms of paternalism define what womanhood is and deny Muslim women the freedom to speak for themselves. Conservative Islamist paternalist discourses imply patriarchy, a hierarchical relationship between men and women. While the public sphere is the realm of the men, gender-segregated education and workplaces are necessary to protect women, their wellbeing, chastity and dignity (Istanbullu, 2014). Husbands are responsible to discipline their wives as a means of protection and instruction due to women's weak nature. Laicist republican paternalism, on the other hand, is justified by notions such as individual autonomy, women’s liberation and gender equality (Laborde, 2013). Paternalism here seeks to assimilate Muslim women within patriarchal, ‘illiberal’ and 'irrational' Islamic cultures. The religious subject must be brought in line with the rationality of liberal political culture and its secular values (Scott, 2019).
This paper is divided into two main parts and a concluding section. The first part challenges conservative Islamist paternalism. I utilise Islamic feminist scholarship, with a specific focus on the women’s rights debate over the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in Turkey. Islamic feminists scholars like Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud initiate an emancipatory theology via their pursuit of an “Islamic justice tradition” (Wadud, 2006.) An anti-patriarchal episteme of tawhid, centred on God’s sovereignty, repudiates a privileged male ontology (Barlas, 2001). Islamic feminist scholarship challenges Islamic forms of paternalism and defends gender equality simultaneously.
Part two addresses laicist republican paternalism. I engage with multiculturalist feminism, with a specific focus on the France’s headscarf ban. Multiculturalist feminism challenges the assimilation of Muslim women to European gender roles and codes. A “stance of superiority and paternalistic knowledge” dictates Muslim women an enforced set of goods, needs, and codes (Young 2003). The needs, capacities, and autonomy of women can more be suitably interpreted and instantiated in culturally variable ways (Mookherjee 2009). Women’s rights and cultural identity should not be conceived as conflicting, but rather as interrelated.
In the concluding part of this paper, I highlight the similarities between Islamic and multiculturalist feminists on the need not to obscure the experiences of Muslim women through the generalising statements that neglect the specific empirical contexts in which the agency of Muslim women is exercised, empowered and curtailed. Such an approach to Muslim women would be more effective in tackling Islamic and republican patriarchies that discount and deny Muslim women the subjecthood, autonomous individuality, and capacity to articulate their identities as women.