Alessandra González on Islamic Feminism
Date: April 1st, 2013

Does the term “Islamic feminism” sound counter-intuitive?  Dr. Alessandra González, of John Jay College (CUNY) and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, explores how women in Kuwait are finding new ways to empower themselves and advocate for their interests in an environment where political Islam (or Islamism) is resurgent.  Dr. González begins the interview by noting that our podcast series, which is approaching 150 episodes, is bereft of any discussion of feminism, a fact that Tony notes is correct due to his complete lack of knowledge on the topic.  Alessandra shares how she came to study this topic, which admittedly is one that is not explored deeply and is often misunderstood in the world of academia.  We then review common understandings of “feminism,” covering the various waves of this movement from its early incarnation in the West with women’s suffrage to more current understandings of the term.  This discussion helps frame how feminism is understood in the US and Europe as compared to its incarnation in the Middle East, or Kuwait specifically.  Alessandra notes that few, if any, of her interview subjects considered themselves as “feminists.”  This opens the door to a discussion of the Kuwaiti landscape and Dr. González reviews the recent history of Kuwait as it relates to women, noting the influences of British influence, oil wealth, pan-Arabism, the opening of education to women in the mid-1960s, and the surprising influence of the Iraq invasion of the country in 1990.  During this latter event, women proved to be very crucial to the war effort and helped to reshape female roles in society.  We also cover three sources of authority in Kuwaiti society including religious authority (shari’a law), political authority, and community authority.  These three sources of authority are shown to be in tension, yet provide openings for feminist activism.  With additional discussion on the role of two ideological/theological groups in society — Islamists and Liberals — we inch closer to a definition of what it means to be an Islamic feminist.  We then move from a discussion of the role of higher education to the wearing of the Islamic veil (hijab) and how that is not seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression but a symbol for women who want to assert their religious identity through their own choice.  Interestingly, younger women are more likely to wear the veil than the previous generation, especially after September 11, 2001, a trend that Tony has noticed on his own university campus.  Throughout our conversation, Alessandra illustrates many of the issues she brings up with comments from women and men she interviewed during her various trips to Kuwait.  We then talk more specifically about what Islamic feminism represents, noting once again that this is not a term that many would use to refer to themselves in Kuwaiti society.  The focus turns to three important aspects of the movement including an academic component, the adoption of a comprehensive Islamic worldview, and a need to foster cultural compatability to a society that considers local community and tribal relations to be important.  Tony notes that this seems to be a grassroots movement without specifically-identified leaders as we’ve seen in the West with individuals such as Gloria Steinem, a contention that Alessandra agrees with and brings more context to.  Alessandra also highlights the important role that men play in this movement as well.  In our closing moments, we share some observations about Alessandra’s methodology, namely examining what it was like to be a non-Muslim Westerner studying this topic. Dr. González then shares some of the insights she brought back from her most recent visit to Kuwait after publishing her book and what some of the grand lessons she learned throughout the course of her study into this fascinating topic.  Recorded: March 25, 2013.



Alessandra González’s bio at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes, by Alessandra L. González.


Nathan Brown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ahmet Kuru on Islam in Europe.

3 Responses to “Alessandra González on Islamic Feminism”

  1. […] here, for Dr. Gonzalez’s interview about Islamic Feminism in Kuwait on the Research on Religion […]

  2. […] April: "Islamic Feminism." Research on Religion […]

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