The Politics of Gender and Representation in Interfaith Dialogue and Scholarship (@theTable: Intersecting Islamophobia)
“Women’s issues” are often claimed to be the wedge or problematic concern in interfaith dialogues. My interest in this blog is to have us think more deeply about the interfaith space itself, whether it is the academic or community one in which we work and research. Moreover, how do feminisms inform the construction of this space? You can access a public lecture by me on this topic, entitled Ten Feminist Ethical Principles in Interfaith Dialogue and Comparative Theology. That said, my primary interest for this piece is to address the native informant phenomenon.
In the increasingly Islamophobic arena, in which blatant bias and denigration fills the airwaves and public discourse on Islam in the US and parts of Europe, it is the time to consider who is being asked to speak on Islam. My own work has often been concerned with the native informant phenomenon, whether in the real world or in the digital media-scape.
The genealogy of the term “native informant” can be traced from multiple fields including anthropology and philosophy. The most notable recent articulation of a theory of native informants can be found in the work of Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak (see Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present). For the purpose of this brief blog, we will consider the construct of the native informant as one who speaks, writes, and researches about a community, as well as also shares some identity markers with others from that community or group. In particular, to carry the work of Spivak here, we have a particularized interest in groups and communities that have been objects of academic and historical colonialisms.
For example, Saba Mahmood (see Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject) points out that the interest in Muslim women’s representation grows as military engagement with the Islam increases, as has been seen in Laura Bush’s campaigns related to Muslim women in Afghanistan. Similarly, Fatemeh Keshvarz’s work (see Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran) on native informant dynamics present in the larger culture today points to the fact that the market calls for a voice, name, and embodiment that speaks to “Muslim” women’s representation.
This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of the native informant aspect of Muslim women’s portrayal. It is no longer an outsider perspective that suffices, it is often the woman who looks as if she is somehow deeply engaged with the community but her agenda focuses not just on a critical engagement with the tradition, but a wholesale interest in dismantling Islam itself. Often the person will have an agenda to “civilize” their own rhetoric, juxtaposing their own narrative against a portrayal of the very multi-faceted community as monolithically barbaric.
How do we begin to push back? Here, I would recommend Layla Abu Laghod’s work in Muslim women’s representation as a resource to begin this process. Another area I have written about is the politics of representation of a community, which is important here. For example, drawing on the field of literature, Adam Zachary Newton’s book Narrative Ethics affords us a useful framing for how a “…proposal of a narrative ethics implies simply narrative as ethics: the ethical consequences of narrating story and fictionalizing person, and the binding teller, listener, witness, and reader in that process” (11). Newton’s work delineates that we, as writers and speakers, must work within a wider set of accountabilities as we coalesce a community’s story into a narrative form. We are operating in a set of relationships that are created by the narrator, with the subject of the narration and the audience who is ultimately not just a consumer of information, but also imbibes the words we produce in a way that bears witness to how a community is characterized. What is the line between caricature and characterization? How do feminists maintain an acute critical analysis of gender issues interreligiously, while also paying attention the non-neutral spaces that interfaith conversations actually occur?
One of the most important ways we can do this is to move away from a single person representation of community. I had witnessed this was when I gave the opening keynote for the conference “Changing Roles? – Women in Traditional Jewish and Muslim Communities.” Multiple scholars of the Jewish and Muslim tradition were able to provide profound, contesting narratives of Muslim and Jewish women’s concerns and scholarship. These multiplicities of narratives allowed for a sharpened interreligious scholarly lens, rather than diluting each tradition to a monolithized narrative.
When developing interfaith scholarship, dialogue, and coalitions, consider the internal and interior diversity of voices you are engaging. In doing so, you can begin to ensure that your work represents the varied landscape of each tradition, so as to not to make it a totalizing narrative that undermines the representation of any one community.
For More Information:
Najeeba Syeed. “The Road to Forming a Gendered Understanding of Just Peacemaking and Intersection with Digital Peacemaking.” In Formation for Life: Just Peacemaking and Twenty-First-Century Discipleship, eds. Glen H. Stassen and Rodney L. Peterson, 169-86 (Wipf & Stock, 2013).