ABC, Qatar

“We Believe in Hybridity, We Believe in the Middle Ground”

Interview with Dr. Amal Malki on postcolonial feminism and overcoming outdated dichotomies

Photo by Andrey Shental

Is there really a unsurmountable conflict between Islam and feminism? How can the role Arab women play in fighting for their own voice, human rights and gender equiality be adequately represented and conceptualized? Curators of the Cultural Creative Agency Vera Traktenberg and Andrey Shental discussed these questions with Dr. Amal Malki, a postcolonial scholar and a founding dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

Andrey Shental: I would like to start by discussing Islamic feminism. I am sure to some of our readers this term may sound like a contradiction, because feminist optics is strongly associated with the Western secular culture. Could you explain what it is?

Amal Malki: Islamic feminism emerged as a defined school of thought at the end of the previous century but has been a form of advocacy way before it was coined as such. The first thing that I hear is that there is a clash between feminism and Islam. How do they mesh? Actually, it is very interesting because feminism in the Arab world or Muslim world are different. You know, people often think all Arabs are Muslims and that all Muslims are Arab. But that is not the case.

When feminism emerged as a political movement at the beginning and then switched into a social movement, each context generated its own school of thought. Islamic feminism is one of those feminist movements that emerged in the Arab world that grounded its theory and practice on the fact that gender equality is an entrenched part of Islam. And they justified their argument within the sacred texts, and specifically within the Quran. What they have done and what was very progressive, is they went back to the text to reinterpret it. Many feminists think that the reinterpretation of the Quran is the problem, not the Quran itself, because its patriarchal reading was accomplished by men at a certain time and space who were indoctrinated by the thinking and mindset of that specific context. 

What they have done as feminists is that they reinterpreted the Ayaat from a feminist perspective; that was on its own a huge achievement because the sacred text has been historically dominated by men. And men had full authority over it in all religions, as far as I know. So that was very empowering for women to break that barrier and say: we as feminists and as Muslim feminists have the right as long as we have the intellectual tools to engage with the Quran. 

The term appeared in the late 1990s, and many feminist scholars were labeled as “Islamic feminists,” because they engaged with the Quran. I would mention Ziba Mir-Hosseini from Iran, Fatema Mernissi whose work predated the school of thought that was called “Islamic feminism” (she came even earlier—in the 1980s) and also Amina Wadud in the United States is a landmark in her advocacy. So the curious thing about Islamic feminism, is that it was not generated in one part of the Islamic world, but from across the globe, even in Europe—which shows the coverage of Islam and the diversity in the Islamic thought! So another empowering point that Islamic feminists have achieved was engaging with advocacy. Because, firstly, you are engaging with the text and then you are advocating a totally different school of thought in a context that is not very friendly towards reinventing religious narratives. What was empowering is that it came when political Islam was dominant, but feminists suggested another discourse that had Islamic or Quaranic texts at the heart of it. There was the political Islam, but also the other schools of thought who were saying things contrary to it.

I would love to mention one of the movements that appeared around twelve years ago, which is a product of the Islamic feminist movement—“Musawah.” It is a movement started by Muslim woman who are engaging with the sacred texts to re-introduce what Islam is, especially from a feminist perspective.

AS:Would you consider yourself a feminist?

AM:I am a very proud feminist, but I do not consider myself an Islamic feminist. I do not possess the intellectual tools to engage with the Quran. I would classify myself as a hybrid feminist, because I believe in different schools of thoughts. I believe that in certain situations, we have to alter our discourse for specific causes. I believe in human rights and gender equality. I believe in the bigger picture of feminism, but when it comes to our specific communities, each community needs a different language to communicate with.

Vera Trakhternberg: Is it intersectional then?

AM: Intersectional feminism, definitely.

VT:There is another movement called “postcolonial feminism” that goes against a view common within Euro-American academia, that perceives “Eastern” women as victims of backward religious and patriarchal structures. Does Islamic feminism imply postcolonial critique?

AM:This was actually the beginning of my interest in feminism, I did postcolonial theory for my PhD. And I was then introduced to the world of postcolonial feminism, which is embedded in general postcolonial theory. Of course, it attempts to decolonize the mind and the body, the nation and the structures embedded in the nation, it strives to overcome the colonial stereotypes: the way we perceive the world and the way the world perceives us. In this light, Islamic feminism is indeed a postcolonial feminism’s spin-off, just like black feminism or Third World feminism. They all rejected the reductionist and essentialist attitudes of colonial and imperial school of thoughts that looked at feminists, women and “orientalists” in general.

Islamic and postcolonial feminism is both a political and a social movement. So what these spin offs managed to do is to contextualize women's experiences. So, there was a focus on women's history, on what are the actual factors that contribute to shaping woman's realities and those contexts. So, for example, if we speak about Arab and Muslim woman, we know how women are perceived and treated on daily basis, how they have been impacted by patriarchal or religious interpretations. But also, it has been impacted by traditions, social norms, orientalist attitudes, and modernist attitudes too. Feminisms in the Arab world vary to the same degree that the contexts vary. And you know, in my book, I actually promoted the idea of the diversity of the experiences of Arab women. As intersectionality teaches us, even within a certain context there is diversity and multiplicity. Because we cannot speak even about Qatari women as one homogeneous entity. They are definitely not; they are not equally educated, wealthy, or exposed internationally.

Photo by Andrey Shental

AS: Since you mentioned orientalization, I think it is the right time to shift to the specific subject that you studied. But I would start from a more historical perspective. Representation of Arab women by the “West” has a long tradition, exemplified by the omnipresent image of the odalisque especially of 19th century France that is directly linked to the French colonization of North Africa. Some researchers claim that they are excessively sexualized, they become a screen on which is projected male “Western” fantasies—would you agree?

AM:Definitely. And this predated the actual colonialism, this was the door into colonialism. These images of Oriental women as harem or as odalisques were staged from the 1850s. They exoticized and reduced all women to one image, which is the harem, as you said. Unfortunately, this cliche still finds its way into different forms of popular culture these days, especially because of Hollywood, which played a major role in perpetuating and circulating this image. 

So you know, when it comes to certain misrepresentations or stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, you see that this has been embedded in the Western imagination to this day. Even the younger generation that would not know what harem means, inherited them, which is very shocking. With everything that we have been doing—writing, researching, and talking to the West—this finds its way, which shows you how strong it was. To cater to many Western readers’ curiosity for this mysterious “Other,” the Arab woman, it was historically eroticized, and her harem reimagined as a brothel. Visuals within the image served as a substantiation of this image. Mountain of images have been created about Oriental, Arab, or Muslim woman in a harem. Unfortunately, this stereotype has paved the way for other stereotypes to emerge. So the erotization of Arab women that at the beginning coincided with the romanticist international movement, has led to the politicization of this image. And those women became the submissive women, the oppressed women.

VT:Another pervasive trope is representation of Arab women as oppressed. Scholar and poet Malek Alloula, speaks about postcards from Algiere, exploited by French photographers. Many of them were even staged in front of the prison cells. Is it true that the image of an oppressed Arab woman was used in colonial discourse as an excuse for colonization?

AM:Definitely, it was one of the main factors. The image of oppressed Muslim or Arab woman—again, I am purposefully using both terms interchangeably—have been exaggerated, and politicized for sure. And thus, the Western myth of rescue emerged. Arab women were represented as the veiled, the oppressed, the secluded, and the ones that had no voice and thus needed to be saved by the West. They needed to be protected from their own culture, men, and religion. This myth has been pervasive throughout the West since the 1900s, basically, it has a long and very unhappy history. As I have already told you, the method predates the era of European colonization and was a contributing factor to it. Both during colonization and after, the myth has been reinforced, and commodified through paintings, through postcards and then, of course, through media, Hollywood, and so on. 

“The rescue myth,” showing the Arab woman as unassertive, compliant, and voiceless, exists up to this day. At any point, it is there and the history is there in the European popular imagination—all you need to do is conjure it up, which is very scary, right?

But how was this actually politicized? This is an interesting thing to talk about. “The rescue myth,” showing the Arab woman as unassertive, compliant, and voiceless, exists up to this day. At any point, it is there and the history is there in the European popular imagination—all you need to do is conjure it up, which is very scary, right? All of those years, we have done so much work to eradicate this kind of mentality and the stereotypes with the work of Edward Said, my work, and other people's work. But why is it so easy to play on the imagination and the emotions of masses of people and Europe by just conjuring up this image and saying: “We are going to Iraq or Afghanistan to help oppressed women there.”

VT:But that looks similar to Hujum actions done by Comunist Party of the Soviet Union in Central Asia in 1920s: this changed the role of women in public domain, they gained access to education and high-skill jobs, but in private households their role did not change much. In many ways, the processes that began in Soviet Asia during the Hujum period were reversed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and women were, in my opinion, used as an object of visual agitation, which once again objectified them, but did not liberate them.

AM: This is totally not about that. But it has always been politicized. And it is very sad, because it is always the woman or children, the weakest link in societies that are played with. Will it ever stop?

AS:You gave us some negative examples of perpetuation of this myth, but has the situation changed today somehow? Can we still see some progress?

AM:As I told you, it is very easy to tap into this very strong school of thought and this rescue myth that has been created. If you remember, in 2001 when George Bush started the war on terror, his wife Laura Bush made it more about women. In one interview, she even said: “We are going there to free Afgani women as well.” 

Yes, it has changed because of education, studies of Orientalism, Middle Eastern Studies, women's studies. In the Middle Eastern Studies department at my college, we have the only Women Studies program in Qatar, which I established. It is an MA program in Women, Society, and Development. So these kinds of education—if they are implemented on a larger scale and in a bigger context—would make better sense. So you have the Middle Eastern Studies in the West that teaches how to read misconceptions and misrepresentations within different contexts. You have the work of amazing people: again I would repeat the name of Edward Said and his seminal book Orientalism, and Jack Shaheen whom I met and I adore. Bear in mind, both of them are Arab Christians and not Muslims. Once again, not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims. But Said and Shaheen have done justice to this cause more than anyone else, basically. And as I told you, I strive in my work to contribute to the work that was founded by these amazing scholars who spoke to the West in their own language. So I speak and I publish in English because I am very aware of how we are perceived until this day and it is very important for me to contribute to fixing those images for the younger generations to come. 

The progress happened because of intelligentsia and intellectuals who are working on the topic, and because the younger generation is able to communicate using different languages, not just English. New media and social media have helped to bring people together and facilitated a new type of reporting. For example, citizen journalism that is conducted by ordinary people who cover certain events. It appeared, during the so-called Arab Spring, in Egypt and other places. It was multimodal and the multimodality of citizen journalism was amazing, because it is audio visual, you see people you talk to people, and use different languages. So my answer is yes, there is some progress, but it's not enough.

VT:Yes, in contemporary Western media, it seems that Arab women are no longer represented as imprisoned, but still as passive. It is especially interesting in relation to speech: they are often veiled, silent, as if they do not have an opinion.

AM:Definitely. The problem was that Westerners had exposure to Arab women through media that focused on the their images. So the Arab women did not speak for themselves, but were spoken for through a third person narrative. Photo-journalism has made their voices silenced, they definitely did not use the language. And this is easily manipulated. 

I will give you a very concrete example. What do you know about a Palestinian women? Usually, you see them draped in black, crying over a son or a husband who has been killed. This is all you know. I have launched a podcast called “Women of the Middle East.” I love it: this is what I do as a feminist and not as a dean. That is not part of my job, it is a part of my passion. I was talking to representatives of the Palestinian woman associations and Palestinian feminists who do not look or sound like those images in the newspaper. Do you see highly intellectual, intelligent Palestinian women who are fighting partriarchy for their rights or for social rights? Political rights are always a part of their identity, they are under occupation. You can not take it away from them, it is a part of who they are as feminists. But you never hear in the West about Palestinian women and social rights; you don’t hear about their fight against child marriages, domestic violence, patriarchal costumes. So this is what I want to do with the podcast—introduce these magnificent women to the world and expose all misconceptions and misrepresentations. 

Now, let me tell you about the book. I was one of the contributors to Arab Women in Arab News: Old Stereotypes and New Media. There, I wanted to compare previous Eurocentric studies with my findings. The primary objective of the former was studying visual images of Arab women straight out of photojournalism. These images are of women who were typically exotic looking, veiled, with no speaking parts. When they were given words to speak, these lines were typically supplied by Western caption writers. By contrast, in the samples of pan-Arab news that my fellow researchers and I found Arab women are often quoted, their voices contributed to the construction of the story. We call this phenomenon “source effect”: this “source,” Arabian women, are speaking for themselves. It makes them more active; Arab news exceeded most pre-internet Western coverage. So the pre-internet Western coverage was the image that you talked about—paintings or postcards. This tells you that there is a changing power of new media. Social media and citizen journalism affect people's perception. One way would be diversifying the images, the second way would be handling and correcting history, which is a very difficult to do.

AS:When one speaks about Orientalism, it is usually about how the West constructed an image of the East, but sometimes one could speak about how the East constructs the West. I understand there is a very crude generalization behind my question, but could you say something about how Eastern women see Western women? Are there stereotypical patterns of representation there?

AM:Well, Orientalism is faced with Occidentalism, right? So there is also a very interesting history of how people perceived the Occident. It also went through the phases that started with fascination and ended with resentment. At the beginning, it was this imperial white supremacy that was internalized by lots of people, either through romanticism, or colonialism. People in our part of the world also fantasized about the Whites. Let me start by saying that as humans, we tend to stereotype in order to make things easier for us to understand, to reduce the anxiety when meeting someone new, to have a base for interaction. You know, I am going to meet a person of such a nationality and this nationality is known for that and that... People have done that for centuries. And I think we are all hybrids in the middle of those competing cultures, so one cannot generalize anymore. 

I do not believe in dichotomies: the “black” and “white,” “self” and “other,” and the way we used to perceive the world is no longer valid—it is extremely problematic to see the world in those terms

Going back to your question, the fascination was often a source of modernization movements in the Arab world. One example is Muhammad Ali in Egypt. He sent Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, an Egyptian translator and intellectual, to France in an attempt to understand Christian culture. He lived in Paris for five years and upon his return opened the school of languages, and a robust translation movement started between the West and East. One or the most interesting quotes that was said about this initial fascination with the West came from Mohammed Abduh, who said: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” This showed us the importance of cultural interaction and exchange. 

One of the things that I am very proud of is establishment of the Translation and Interpreting Institute (TII) in 2012, before the college actually. With it, we introduced the importance of translation and interpreting. I do not believe in dichotomies: the “black” and “white,” “self” and “other.” The way we used to perceive the world is no longer valid—it is extremely problematic to see it in those terms. We are not the “self” and “other” anymore. We believe in hybridity, we believe in the middle ground, we believe in interculturalism and multiculturalism. So yes, it exists as a school of thought and people subscribe to it. I would say that the people who subscribe to it are the people who perceive “East” and “West” and this problematic dichotomy in terms of a “clash of civilizations”. And as long as we do that, it will be a battle.

VT:What are the situations of women in Qatar, where many institutions are governed by women? Does someone talk about soft power?

AM:The change is happening. Women are taking leading roles and contributing to this change. I believe that any change in the status of a woman needs to happen through the woman herself. Political will is very important. Our leaders are all young, starting from the Emir who is educated, multicultural, speaks multiple languages. We look up to him and say: look, this is a role model for our kids. He is a result of a mother and a father that are visionary and open-minded. Sheikha Moza established the Education City. When I myself came here in the morning after several months of working remotely, I was like: wow, you know, it is lovely to be part of this establishment. This is where enlightenment starts. I believe in the power of education. 

I always say I am not an activist in the way that other feminists are. To be honest, I do not have the personality or strength to be like them, but I look up to them. What I do I do through education, and I hope that it will have a long-term effect. So this is why I am very proud to be a part of this beacon of enlightenment in the region. 

But now we are at a stage where a woman and the government need to speak together, because this change needs to be viable and long-lasting. We do not want to do anything today that will change ten years from now, we need to document it. Qatari women have been working hard to the extent that we did not have time to stop and reflect. But initiatives like the MA program in women's studies do that, because postcolonial feminism started with documenting personal narratives. We are at a stage when women are running institutions because they want to contribute to change. But us, students, researchers, need to document our life experiences when we talk with the government. Whatever we have achieved (equality in education, equality in the job market) needs to be institutionalized. So we need to make sure that these things are valid for the next generations to come. And this is doable, as long as we have enough women who believe in the cause and have a conversation with each other. 

At the moment it is difficult because of COVID-19, but we have been very active in the college, we have webinars. For instance, we have remote interpreting—it has not happened before in Qatar, especially on an academic platform. My graduates from Women Studies program started a series of webinars called Qatari Women Affairs, speaking about issues pertaining to local women, our current life, where we are very keen on affecting change. But there is still intersectionality: not all of us are the same. We look and struggle on different levels. My struggle is not like your struggle, not like other women's struggles. We have lots of researchers around us who publish about us and speak on our behalf. But this is Orientalism, right? So we have to have our voice and use it to communicate with others as well.

AS:You have said a lot about education. Are there any other ways to overcome these stereotypes?

AM:There is a lot to be done, but conversation is of the most importance. I believe in education, and I believe in engaging with the youth—the younger generation can do more. We should mentor them, not everything is always peachy. We need to be very frank about the challenges, we need to put them on the table and discuss them in order to overcome them. There are no utopian contexts or societies, so we have to work harder to become better.

All tags
Amal Malki
She is the Founding Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar Foundation. Before that, she was the Executive Director of the Translation and Interpreting Institute, which she founded in 2011. Dr. Al-Malki holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of London-SOAS, her research interests include the negotiation of identity between East and West, media representations of Arab women, and postcolonial literature.
Andrey Shental
Аrtist, critic and curator. He holds a Master’s degree from the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) at Kingston University, London and currently he is writing a PhD in philosophical aesthetics at Goethe-Universität (Frankfurt). From 2016 to 2019 he co-curated the Philosophy Club at Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. He curated and took part as an artist in several exhibitions, contributed reviews, interviews, and articles to various international publications.
Vera Trakhtenberg
Art critic, curator of the Cultural Creative Agency. She worked as a curator of the START project at WINZAVOD. The exhibitions she produced include Phantom memory of a beautiful era, MUZEON, 2014; Sculptures that we do not see, Central Exhibition Hall “Manezh,” 2015; Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Personal File, IEC Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 2015 (co-curator); Faith in a Deep Crisis, Victoria Gallery, Samara, 2019. Vera Trakhtenberg is also a lecturer at the School of Design, National Research University Higher School of Economics.