Featured Philosopher: Serene Khader

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Serene Khader is Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy of Culture at Brooklyn College and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. She works in ethics, political philosophy, and feminist philosophy, with an emphasis on the normative questions raised by transnational feminisms. She is the author of Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment (Oxford 2011) and is completing a book on transnational feminist solidarity, also for Oxford University Press. She is also co-editor, with Ann Garry and Alison Stone, of the Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy.

I’d like to begin by thanking Meena for her work on this important blog and for inviting me to contribute. I will be using this opportunity to discuss the role arguments linking feminism and freedom play in justifying policies that harm and marginalize Muslims and claim that feminism can do without the notion of freedom operative in these arguments. I have developed these ideas further in my 2016 article, “Do Muslim Women Need Freedom?”[1]

After Khizr Khan’s comments at the Democratic National Convention, President Trump wondered aloud whether the reason Ghazala Khan had not spoken was that she had not been “allowed” to say anything. His revised Muslim ban included a clause ostensibly designed to respond to violence against women, stating that “the secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney general, shall … collect and make publicly available … information regarding the number and types of acts of gender based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals.” Trump’s comments typify a common contemporary phenomenon: the use of feminist ideas to mobilize anti-Muslim sentiment. In Trump’s case, as in many others, the use of feminist rhetoric is instrumental and straightforwardly opportunist; after all, Trump supports outlawing abortion and punishing women for having abortions, has loosened federal regulations on sex discrimination and employment, and is the object of numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations. But not all cases of the invocation of feminist concerns against Muslims involve such straightforward opportunism. Many supporters of policies ranging from the de facto ban on the hijab in public schools in France to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have a history of consistent support for feminist causes.

Feminists become co-opted into supporting such policies because of a perceived conceptual connection between traditions, religious and otherwise, and women’s subordination. This perception arises from recognition of a deep and genuine problem: supporters of patriarchal practices often believe those practices are traditionally dictated, and exhort women to participate in them on such grounds. Feminism thus cannot retain its status as a normative perspective, one that deems certain forms of treatment gender unjust, without being willing to criticize traditions.

Feminists who find themselves in league with supporters of policies that harm and stigmatize Muslims often appeal to the value of freedom to explain why traditions need to be criticized. Consider, for example, this defense of banning the hijab from French public schools, written by a collective of French feminists, including philosopher and public intellectual, Elisabeth Badinter:

            To tolerate the Islamic veil is not to accept a free being (in the form of a

young girl); it is to open the door to those who decided, once and for all,

to try to bend her to their wills. Instead of offering her a space of freedom,

you send her the message that there is no difference between the school

and her father’s house. . . . It is no longer the equality of the sexes, or free

decision making—that is the law of France . . . [You want] a school in

which each student is always reminded of her parents, riveted to her roots

—a school of social predestination. (Badinter et al. 1989[2] ; translation mine)

Though there is brief mention of gender equality, the ability to cover one’s head in public is conceived in the quotation primarily as an infringement of freedom. According to the quotation, a “space of freedom,” is, by definition, a space where the markers of tradition are absent. Even to be reminded that others engage in a behavior associated with traditional adherence is to deny a young woman the ability to come up with her own ideas, to “rivet [her] to her roots.” The thought seems to be that, in order to choose freely, a person must reject tradition or not be shaped by it at all. This idea is echoed by other feminists who portray Islam as causing women’s oppression. For example, Dutch public intellectual Ayan Hirsi Ali, in a memoir describing her life in Kenya, Somalia, and Saudia Arabia, describes her journey to the West as one wherein she discovered that “faith itself was the root of oppression.”[3]

It is worth saying explicitly that this notion of freedom gains much of its plausibility from an unstated non-normative view: namely, the view that Westerners do not have traditions. To consistently apply the notion that traditional adherence, or even unquestioned traditional adherence, undermined a person’s freedom would require seeing most dress practices as freedom-undermining; yet the hijab is specially singled out.

The notion of freedom to which Ali and Badinter refer is not the one that appears in contemporary liberal political philosophy. Many contemporary liberal views allow the possibility of autonomous adherence to at least some traditional dictates. But it would be a mistake to say that the version of freedom they defend is unrelated to liberal philosophy. The ideal of freedom from tradition has important resonances with the ideas of eighteenth and nineteenth century liberal thinkers, such as those found in Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and the lines of argument in Mill that paint tradition as an impediment to individuality. But regardless of whether the notion of freedom in question aligns with a single philosophical view, it is worth paying theoretical attention to because of its effects in our contemporary political world.

In her highly influential book Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood describes another connection between freedom from tradition and politics that harm and marginalize Muslims.[4] In addition to noting that freedom from tradition plays the Islamophobic justificatory role I described above, she argues that many Muslim women simply do not value it, and hold views about the good life that make valuing it impossible. Mahmood is an ethnographer of a group of conservative Salafist women in Cairo who have a particular understanding of what it means to lead a pious life. According to them, self-actualization is achieved through practices that must be adopted before they are fully understood, and whose value adherents are not in a position to question. For example, one of the women in Mahmood’s book describes only coming to know what modesty was after she had begun covering her hair and body.

The class of women captured by Mahmood’s concern is narrower than Muslim women in a sense and broader in another. Many Muslim women reject the view that practices that are thought to be religiously dictated cannot be questioned, and many also reject the particular practices Mahmood’s Cairo women take to be religiously dictated. On the other hand, many women who are not Muslim take some practices to be traditionally dictated, and worth doing for that reason.

So value for freedom from tradition seems to justify harm and marginalization of Muslims in two ways: it suggests that traditional adherence is essentially harmful to women (while marking only Islam and other “other” traditions as traditions), and it suggests disrespect for ways of life that place a high value on traditional adherence. Neither of these problems will seem like problems to the feminist who sees a conceptual, or just a very tight, relationship between sexism and tradition. Instead, it will seem that the same value that is the root of feminism causes Islamophia, and that feminists must choose one. Given a choice between being a relativist (or more accurately, a patriarchal apologist) and being an imperialist, it is not surprising that some feminists decide to bite the bullet of chauvinism and imperialism.

I believe instead that this dilemma is false. Feminists need not embrace wanton destruction of traditions, because feminism does not require value for freedom from tradition. Feminism, I think, is not best understood as a project of liberating women from traditions. Feminism is instead, as bell hooks wrote in an early piece, is opposition to sexist oppression.[5] Oppression, as Marilyn Frye argues in her classic work, is systematic disadvantage and powerlessness that accrues to one because one is a member of a social group.[6]

This conception of feminism accommodates the fact that traditions, and particular traditional practices, are often antifeminist without suggesting that tradition as such is the enemy. To the extent that traditions, or what are called traditions, cause women, or members of other gender-subordinated groups to be socially disadvantaged, feminists should want to change these traditions. But the link between traditionalism– that is, perceived historical external dictatedness– and oppression is contingent. Traditions can be emancipatory, and new, ostensibly chosen practices can be oppressive. For an example of the latter, consider the existence of seemingly new practices, such as the expectation that women’s genitals conform to those displayed in pornography, that disadvantage women.

Actual Muslim women’s movements reveal that calls to adhere to tradition can be deployed in ways that are explicitly feminist. Some of these movements even share the view of that tradition is unquestionable shared by the Cairo women; they just have a different interpretation of the content of Islam. For example, Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, in her early work, argues that the Qu’ran is unquestionable, but also that the Qu’ran dictates gender equality. In fact, according to her, the Qu’ran provides better tools than human reason for discerning what is wrong with oppression.[7] Many Muslim women have organized movements that oppose oppression by appealing to the value of tradition.

Once we recognize that feminism is opposition to sexist oppression, and that freedom from tradition is only contingently related to it, we can see, not only that the dilemma pitting feminism and opposition to imperialism against one another is false, but also that many feminist proponents of the marginalization of Muslims seem more strongly motivated by a parochial morality than concern about gender equality. Margot Badran, in a discussion of Islamic feminisms, writes that feminism is a tree that can grow in many kinds of soil, and perhaps a feminism that is less easily co-opted into Islamophobia would do well to recognize this.[8] Mahmood rightly ends her book with a wish for a feminist “vision of coexistence that does not require making the lifeworlds of others extinct or provisional” (2005, 199). Detaching feminism from value for freedom from tradition makes it possible to oppose sexist oppression without surrendering that hope.

[1] Politics and Gender 12: 727-753.

[2] Badinter, Elisabeth, Re´gis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, Elisabeth De Fontenay, and

Catherine Kintzler. 1989. “Profs, ne capitulons pas!” Le Nouvel Observateur,

November 2.

[3] Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. 2007. Infidel. New York: Simon & Schuster

[4] Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[5] hooks, bell. Feminism from Margin to Center, 1988. More recently, hooks has also offered a definition of feminism as the struggle against all oppressions. I employ her old definition, not to deny the fact of intersectionality but rather because of the problem I am trying to address in this post. The problem this article focuses on stems from the possibility of two anti-oppression aims as conflicting—the end of imperialist domination and the end of sexism. Keeping the forms of oppression analytically distinct helps us see the problem, even if the two forms of oppression are often deeply intertwined with one another in practice.

[6] Frye, Marilyn. 1983. “Oppression.” In The Politics of Reality. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press,


[7] Wadud, Amina. 2006. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. London: Oneworld.

[8] Badran, Margot. 2001. “Locating Feminisms: The Collapse of Religious and Secular

Feminisms in the Mashriq.” Agenda 50: 41–57.

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