Crimcast sat down with Dr. Alessandra Gonzalez, John Jay College of Criminal Justice post-doctoral fellow and author of Islamic Feminism in Kuwait (2013), to discuss her book’s insightful glimpse into women’s rights in a Muslim national context. Islamic feminism is a school of thought which aims to bolster women’s rights and participation in public life while grounded in an Islamic framework. Dr. Gonzalez’s interviews with Kuwaiti women’s rights activists, religious scholars, and national leaders pointed to a number of interesting paradoxes which she describes in her book. One is that when women recently got the right to vote, they often voted for conservative Islamist candidates— the same people who previously stood against the right to vote. What did your interviews find to explain the paradox of women voting for conservative candidates once they got the right to vote?
There are several possible explanations which are discussed in the book. The sociological explanations include demographic shifts of bedouin desert background Kuwaitis moving to urban spaces, where they bring their conservative cultural perspectives into their political participation which happen to favor conservative Islamists. There are also global factors that influence the resurgence of Islamic identity among youth across the Middle East, which are favoring political Islamists as bearers of cultural representation of Islamic identity in politics. Lastly, many of my more politically Liberal interviewees blamed a lack of experience in politics on first-time women voters for voting for Islamists who more or less represented the status quo.
What were some of the other paradoxes that your book describes?
Some of the other paradoxes explored in the book include: the fact that Western feminism has not taken root in Muslim hearts and minds; that veiled women are not shying away from public life but are in fact leading in several sectors including education, business, and now politics; that men as a whole are not oppressing women, but are in fact enabling Islamic feminism; and that the youth are both modern and traditional in their approach to women’s rights. These paradoxes emerged from my interviews and show the compatibility of Islam and an indigenous approach to women’s rights, as illustrated by activists in Kuwait.
The book explores the idea that Islam and women’s rights are not incompatible. Is this an idea that you feel is popular in the Arabian Gulf today?
Absolutely. In my research I found that instead of a “clash of civilizations” scenario, that Kuwaiti youth approached the idea of feminism within Islam from what I call a “co-existence” model. The majority of the youth in my survey sample, both male and female, believed in gender equality and agreed that Islam was a source of motivation for them to fight for women’s rights.
Crimcast readers are interested in gender and violence. How did your research subjects feel about women’s access to the criminal justice system and social support mechanisms in the event of a woman being the victim of domestic violence? Has Kuwait made an effort to combat domestic violence?
Kuwait, like many of its neighbors, is responding to increasing deviations from their traditions regarding family life. Among them is the rise in divorce rate to above 30%, which leaves the society and government looking for reasons to address the high number of failing young marriages. It is possible that intolerance for domestic abuse is actually a positive reason for leaving a marriage, however more research needs to be done to determine what percentage of these marriages are actually failing as a response to abuse, versus other factors such as economics or personal incompatibilities. Many Kuwaiti women are also choosing not to marry in order to focus on their careers. This means a flooding of the labor market by highly qualified and educated women in a country where conservative family traditions prefer to hire men as family breadwinners over single women. Women’s access to the criminal justice system in Kuwait (not unlike women’s access to justice in the US) is an issue whether it is due to domestic abuse, divorce, or discriminatory hiring practices. Changes at the societal level need to be addressed at the level of legislation and many of the women’s rights activists in Kuwait are focusing on these issues.
What are you working on these days? Will we see more work from you on the subject of Islamic feminism in the future?
I am working on several projects at the moment. Currently I am working on the Extremist Crime Database Project at John Jay College looking at theoretical approaches to female criminal involvement in ideological extremist groups in the US. I believe there is a window for us to understand women’s empowerment that fights violent extremism in our communities by also understanding how women engage in criminal activity themselves. It is in fact, the other side of the coin of female agency, where women are free to seek power through legitimate or illegitimate means for a greater ideological belief. Next year, I will be continuing my work on Islamic Feminism as a James Madison Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow at Princeton University.
Dr. González is currently a post-doctoral Research Associate at John Jay College, CUNY and a non-resident Research Fellow at the Institute for the Studies of religion at Baylor University. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in Sociology from Baylor University and received a B.A. in Sociology and Policy Studies from Rice University. Dr. González has publications in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, and an op-ed on Islamic Feminism in the Dallas Morning News. She has presented her research at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy's Conference on "The Rights of Women in Islam," the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, the Dialogue of Civilizations Conference hosted by the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Houston, the Gulf Research Conference at the University of Exeter, and various other academic settings.
Go here, for Dr. Gonzalez's interview about Islamic Feminism in Kuwait on the Research on Religion podcast.
Go here, for a review of Islamic Feminism in Kuwait in the journal Contemporary Islam.