Growing up, I was taught that Islam was a faith that championed the rights of women and that the Prophet Mohammed was kind and benevolent to my gender. I would listen attentively to stories of his compassion, how he would save baby girls from being buried in the sand in defiance of the custom at the time. Yet just as these tales captured my imagination, I frequently found myself struggling to reconcile my feminism with my religion. The lived experience of Muslim women caused me to wonder whether the teachings of love and respect had become lost in the recesses of our collective Muslim history.
As I grew older I consulted the writings of incensed women who had come before me. Discovering Nawal El Saadawi at the age of sixteen was a turning point. She opened the door to others like her: Aurde Lorde, bell hooks, Doria Shafik, Fatima Mernissi, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Mona El Tahawi all raging against the patriarchal systems in which we live and are controlled. My reading inspired me to challenge the norms of my upbringing and prompted me to question everything. I started asking increasingly uncomfortable questions at family gatherings. You see, I have always been theatrical. My personal favourite was during a milad at my parent’s home where I managed to pluck up the courage – potentially bolstered by the multiple laddoos I had eaten at this point – to ask why the premarital virginity of me and my sisters mattered so much more than any of my male cousins. Needless to say this endeared me to no one and caused a significant ruckus but it is notable that no one has ever managed to give me a satisfactory answer.
Weaving together my feminist and faith-based beliefs has been a struggle at many moments in my life and caused my views to evolve numerous times. With each new evolution I have been introduced to a new set of trailblazers and I felt sure, when I picked up Sherin Khankhan’s book, that she would be one of them. Denmark’s first female Imam, the author of Women Are The Future of Islam has been responsible for the establishment of the first ever female led and focused mosque in Europe. It was with intense excitement that I began reading, preparing myself for a blueprint through which me and my like-minded contemporaries would see a path to the future.
Khankan charts her own journey with great eloquence. I imagine if her book was ever turned into a feature film the colour grading would be in peachy and pinky tones with blurred lines and idyllic scenery. She starts from the beginning, detailing her heritage. Born in Denmark to a Syrian father and Finnish mother she battled many of the same dichotomies I did growing up. The first half of the book is dedicated to her own voyage through and to Islam, from the little girl growing up, to the time she spent in Egypt and Syria as a student. Her recollections are moderately idealistic – they are expressed through the prism of a light skinned racially ambiguous woman in countries rife with misogyny and patriarchal narratives. She alludes to the illicit racist underbelly existing within both nations but takes a dismissive view that these are mere foibles, without being critical of her own position. This, unfortunately, is a running theme throughout the book. It is with regrettable glee that she recalls people in the streets of Cairo shouting ‘Rose’ at her – inferring that she looks similar to the alabaster character of Rose played by Kate Winslet in Titanic. She speaks of these incidents in a manner that accepts them as compliments without referencing the racism they speak to. There are several such examples throughout Khankan’s book where she does not seem to have allowed herself the introspection to understand the complex reasons why catcalls such as these offer an insight into the dark underbelly of experiences Egyptian women face on a daily basis. By coincidence I found myself simultaneously reading Mona Eltahawy’s Hymens and Headscarves and the contrast between the two books was jarring. I felt frustrated by Khankan’s seemingly tepid tone compared with the horrors depicted in Eltahawy’s raw and impassioned tirade against the injustices Egyptian women routinely experience.
The rest of Khankan’s book is devoted to retellings of her work to set up organisations designed to fill gaps in the existing support structures available to Muslim and non-Muslim women in Denmark and beyond. We are witness to the struggles of her activism and the impact on her public and private life and I applaud the strength and perseverance it takes to be the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings. She works hard to explain that the Qur’an is a dynamic text that should be interpreted within the context of the time and the society it references. One particular example she takes great pains to focus on is that of marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. As the product of a mixed marriage, and as someone who is about to enter into the same situation, I read this with considerable interest. I had always found certain rulings to be devoid of logic when applied to our contemporary reality. The idea that a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman but the same right is not afforded to Muslim women was one of them, and I was glad to read another text in which the apparently Islamic grounding for this ruling was refuted.
I admire Khankan and the work she has done but I came away feeling that her work lacked the blueprint I had been searching for. This was not going to be a guide for feminism within the context of Islam. I found it difficult to reconcile the thirst to be critical of so-called Islamic practices and the knock-on effects of that criticism. In a world where Islam is perpetually the target of vitriol and Islamophobia masked as ‘genuine critiques’, there is a deep-seated compulsion in many Muslim communities to present a united front of defence. It is possible that Khankan avoided deeper critiques of allegedly Islamic practices for fear of opening the floodgates to further Islamophobia. This is a valid fear but her parochial style and lack of broader interrogation left me dissatisfied and I struggled to understand what the purpose of her book was: it is more of a memoire interspersed with historical context rather than the blueprint for Muslim women I had hoped for.
Khankan speaks comprehensively about the intersection of gender and Islam but that is the extent of her analysis. She writes as if the women she speaks to live in a vacuum of gender and religion where they never have to consider their race, sexuality, or any other aspect of their being. She avoids addressing other defining aspects of Muslim identities that are often rejected by the mainstream. Khankan treats LGBTQ and race issues as ‘orbiting realities’ to the prominent narrative she is presenting, which negates the experiences of so many Muslim women, and renders her thesis on Muslim women being the future of Islam, incomplete.
We all have privileges that we cannot avoid. I – like Khankan – am from a middle class family, I am heterosexual and a light-skinned, mixed-race woman. With these privileges comes the responsibility to be allies to those who do not share them. I believe the first step to this is to address the elephant in the room and unfortunately Khankan does not do this. What she does instead is provide the reader with a detailed retelling of all the initiatives she is involved in, and in doing so seems to be presenting herself as the template by which we should understand how Muslim women should conduct themselves. Yet, her work does not extend beyond this.
This is not to say that Khankan is not a pioneer in Europe. She has created platforms for women in places where previously none existed, but her approach ignores vast swathes of people who can never access the advantages that have facilitated her path. Opportunities were afforded to her that would not be afforded to other Muslim women and it seems that she is either not cognisant of that or did not see fit to include this understanding in her work.
There were several moments throughout the book where I felt that Khankan had missed the mark slightly and lacked the courage of insight. One of the chapters focuses entirely on the work she did in setting up the Association of Critical Muslims in Denmark, the irony of which was not lost on me. She touches upon Egyptian feminist movements but does not delve into what the catalyst to them was or where they are now. She provides heartbreaking and enlightening insights into the women who come to her for help but does not extrapolate how that speaks to broader issues in any great detail. Worse still, her chapter on ‘Looking at the future of Islam’ focuses entirely on the history of Islam. I was left wanting more and that is when I realised that this book was not written for me.
Instead, this book has been written for people who do not have any previous experience of Muslim feminism or doctrines within Islam that support or uplift women. This could undoubtedly be a fruitful read for any individual seeking an introductory glimpse into the day-to-day experiences of Muslim women in an Islamophobically inclined Europe. It is a soft introduction to the European Muslim experience for open minded non-Muslims and at this it succeeds. If you are like me and are seeking out women across the world to bolster your Islamically focused feminist ideology then this book may well repeat much of what you already know to be true. However, the book is not without merit at all and I would recommend delivering it through the letterbox of anyone you have interacted with who has told you that Islam is inherently inclined to demean women – it would certainly teach them a thing or two.