Review: Is there such a thing as 'Islamic Feminism'?
'In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey'
by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
Review by Joe Sterling
(CNN) -- Many people in the West associate Islamic civilization with war, fanaticism and intolerance. TV and newspapers cover seismic events first, like wars and bombings, and tend to focus on issues that seem outlandish to the West, like the Salman Rushdie affair.
As a result, Westerners will read and hear about discord in Indonesia, Israel, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Algeria before they will read about the bread-and-butter issues people care about in the Muslim world, which stretches from Asia to Africa and reaches into the Americas and Europe.
In her book "In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey", Elizabeth Warnock Fernea helps us understand and appreciate Muslim society and its struggle with modern life through an examination of the status of women there.
Fernea is the author of "Guests of the Sheik", a description of life in a village in rural Iraq, and she has written other books and made films about life in the Arab world.
With a keen eye, an alert ear and a collection of well-informed contacts cultivated through years of living and working in the Middle East, Fernea fashions a picture of Muslim society a daily journalist just doesn't have the time to provide, except in snippets.
Fernea travels to Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and the territories. And she spends some time in the United States, where she interviews American Muslim women.
And she has written an intelligent, respectful, informative book that helps us hurdle the headlines.
Fernea's goal is to find out the state of women in the Islamic world and to see what kind of impact feminism has had on them: "Are feminist ideas helpful? Does feminism work across class, geographical, and cultural boundaries? Are its tenets universal? Do other forms of feminism exist -- Islamic feminism, for instance?"
The people who address these issues are not the women on the street. They are the elite -- novelists, the politicians, the college educated.
The interviewees are well aware of the issues their respective societies face and they were able to impart the problems and challenges.
The issues women face are wide-ranging and profound. Laws and customs involving marriage and divorce, child-care policies and female circumcision, for example, are of great concern.
The knowledge of and feeling for the hopes and dreams of Muslim women make for some enlightening conversation and commentary. The chapter on Morocco was strong in this regard. Fernea had lived in Morocco before, and her host, novelist Leila Abouzeid, was particularly insightful.
It's fair to say that the majority of women interviewed in the book feel a bit uncomfortable with or perplexed about the word "feminism."
In Kuwait, for example, the word was "hard to translate" for some women, who perceived the term as "an American export, sort of like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, lots of flash."
But some of the same people who express the discomfort may still embody the heart and soul of a feminist by Western standards.
The chapter about Iraq belies some of the stereotypes about that nation.
While it is a country that epitomizes the worst in human rights, at the same time, Fernea found that it exhibits the best record on women's rights in the Middle East. One of the factors is the influence of the Baathist socialist movement.
On the issue of maternity leave, for example, an Iraqi mother gets a full year - "six months with full pay, six months half pay."
We learn in this book that the Muslim world seems to be much more conscious of class matters than we are in the West. Addressing social imparities such as poverty is seen by some as a solution, in large part, for the women's plight.
In Uzbekistan, Fernea is told by one woman: "Feminism, I tell you, is a luxury of rich people. If you don't have enough to eat and you're sick, do you think you care about anything except getting enough to eat, trying to get well? Here everyone has to work, men and women, there is no choice, you work or you don't eat."
Women's liberation is also seen attainable only within the context of Islam.
Fernea says: "Islamic women begin with the assumption that the possibility of gender equality already exists in the Qu'ran itself; the problem, as they see it, is malpractice, or misunderstanding, of the sacred text."
And she adds, "And no women I met doubted the basic message of the Qu'ran: men and women are equal in possibility and potential. (Some men felt differently!)"
The only thin chapter in the book was the one entitled Israel/Palestine. Some Jewish Israeli women were interviewed, and they were in the peace movement. My understanding of Israeli society is that Jewish women there -- a population that remains largely secular -- have always played a major role in that country's development, are not regarded as second-class citizens and seem to naturally embrace what we in the West call feminism.
Because Fernea broaches the subject of the status of Jewish and Muslim women in Israel and its territories, she should have gone further with it. That tumultuous region is small geographically, but with the complex interplay of religious and secular, Christian, Jewish and Muslim and traditional and modern, the topic deserves more much.
Also, I thought it was odd that the former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, wasn't mentioned. (In the chapter about Turkey, no one discusses Tansu Ciller, who recently was prime minister.) The fact that women can rise to the top spot in their respective societies attests to the gender-blindness of the citizenry.
But after reading "In Search of Islamic Feminism", it is clear to me that women in the Muslim world are emerging and will continue to rise as a positive political, economic and social force.
The chapter about Egypt, where women have been given title to land under the New Lands program, is an example of a triumph. Also, the educational opportunities for women throughout the Muslim world are ultimately the most effective of revolutions.
Fernea's book helps us realize the stirrings of change are change. Women will transform the face of the Muslim world slowly. And they will extricate themselves from the patriarchal traditions they consider harmful, even if they don't call themselves "feminists" when they do it.
Joe Sterling is a writer and editor with CNN Interactive. He worked as an editor with "The Nando Times" and with "The Pittsburgh Press" as a reporter and copy editor.