About two years ago I participated in the Limmud Vancouver conference. The night before the conference, at a reception held for those who were attending the conference, a woman asked me about the topic of my presentation and I told her that I was presenting a chapter from my PhD dissertation dealing with current trends in Orthodox Jewish and Islamic feminism. She responded with a bewildered look and said “Islamic feminism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”
The next morning, I started my talk with an old joke that was popular in Israel during the 1960’s. Two Kibbutzniks arrive in Tel Aviv for the very first time, and are determined to enjoy everything the big city has to offer. They decide to go to the zoo, where one of them notices a giraffe. Excited, he calls his buddy and point at the magnificent creature. His friend takes one look at the giraffe and announces, without a shadow of any doubt in his voice – “Ein chayah kazot! – there ain’t no such animal!”
I am convinced that Linda Sarsour, a hijab-clad Palestinian-American feminist activist, has encountered many people who told her that “there ain’t no such animal;” that you cannot possibly be a committed Muslim as well as a feminist. She is probably sick and tired of people telling her that despite what she may think, her head covering is nothing but a symbol of patriarchal oppression, and that by wearing it she is cooperating with oppressive men who seek to control the women in their lives and keep them in their place. I guess she is probably already exhausted from explaining that identities are a complex issue and that there are more reasons for following a traditional practice than simply conforming to the patriarchy. I am sure that she has had enough of people explaining to her that she is either a bad Muslim for being a feminist, or a bad feminist for being a Muslim.
And yet Ms. Sarsour somehow completely missed the irony, when this week she announced in an interview with The Nation that one simply cannot call herself a feminist if she also identifies as a Zionist. It is impossible to claim that you support women’s rights, she claimed, if you support a regime that ignores the rights of Palestinian women. Somehow, Sarsour is perfectly capable of understanding that no ideology is a monolith, and that one can be very committed to an ideology whose track record on women’s rights is less than stellar, while still identifying as a feminist. And rightfully so. From some reason though, she applies a very different standard to Zionism.
Linda Sarsour has gained a lot of credit – and rightfully so – when she started a successful campaign to raise funds for the restoration of the St. Louis Jewish cemetery that was desecrated last month. It was a wonderful gesture of interfaith cooperation that signaled that in such turbulent times for minorities in the United States, we can set aside our political differences and work together for a common cause. However, I suspect that Sarsour’s latest statement and her attempt to effectively police the activist community, did not come out of nowhere. Zionism has long served as a litmus test within the Muslim community. When studying contemporary Islamic rulings, I noticed that many liberal Muslim scholars tend to advocate a harsh treatment of Israel and Zionism, treating them as purely evil entities that are neither diverse nor complex. In other words, the public may find the scholars’ liberal or lenient views on other issues more ‘digestible’ because of their hawkish views on Israel, which are widely supported among their constituents. My guess is, that some in Sarsour’s own community did not see her commendable efforts to reach out to the Jewish community as favourably as others. In order to maintain her status in her own home group, she had to resort to justifying her religious tolerance by explaining that her views on Israel are still as hawkish as anybody else’s.
At the end of the day, nobody appointed Sarsour as the chief of the activism – or feminism – police, and I doubt that her views on the topic are as influential as she thinks they are. Zionists of different views will remain a substantial part of the activist community regardless of whether Sarsour approves or not. I just wish she would be able to notice the sheer hypocrisy of her words and actions.