Friday, July 31, 2020
ARTICLE: "American Muslim Woman: Who We Are and What We Demand From Feminist Jurisprudence" by Mehwish Shaukat
Attorney Mehwish Shaukat of O'Melveny & Myers LLP authored American Muslim Women: Who We Are and What We Demand From Feminist Jurisprudence, 31 Hastings Women's L.J. 155 (2020). She writes in this piece on the need for a shift in the way feminist jurisprudence views American Muslim women.
It is time for feminist jurisprudence to recognize American Muslim women (AMW) as a distinct and agentic group. For too long, feminist discourse has victimized and objectified Muslim women. Our identities are constructed, deconstructed, and weaponized to suit third party needs; yet, our voices are rarely heard. When feminist legal theories singularly refer to Muslim women in relation to oppression, it harms Muslim women as a group and it attacks the very ethos of the discipline itself. Legal academia trains students to actively interrogate assumptions, but, it curiously treats the oppressed Muslim woman as an irrefutable reality. There is a dearth of first-person legal scholarship on AMW, and this article takes one step towards filling this precarious void. I invite the leading scholars of feminist jurisprudence to closely examine their own scholarship, and to discard orientalist constructions of AMW in exchange for first-person narratives.
As a visibly Muslim woman, like Ms. Shaukat, I have also been struck by what feels like the hidden arrows in feminist jurisprudence. This article is the first law review article I encountered that speaks to me versus about me. I often feel like I'm in a petri dish as a law professor in the majority white legal academy. In the midst the pandemic and the BLM protests, the academy appears to me to be the petri dish/bubble - completely out of touch with realities of larger subset of the global population of Muslim woman. As an American Muslim woman I can look at this petri dish of the legal academy and not wonder why racist laws and systems are in place, ranging from the over-criminalization of black and brown people to massive corporate bailouts that benefit white elites. The system works exactly as it has been designed to work.
2020 became the year of the niqabi. As Muslim women's facial and head coverings were the subject of the policing of women's bodies and appearance, the irony of how everyone is covering their faces now is not lost. Feminist jurisprudence has serious blind spots in its understanding and regard for Muslim women.
Ms. Shaukat adds:
Feminist jurisprudence speaks about American Muslim women (“AMW”), but it does not speak to AMW. Sidelined since slavery, AMW are paradoxically visible and invisible. In 2020, we expect to be recognized as a distinct and agentic group with an equal stake in American liberties. There is a gaping hole in feminist jurisprudence—AMW’s inclusion. And this article takes one step toward filling this void with a first-person account. This article will define AMW’s group identity, analyze AMW’s intersectional marginalization, and highlight AMW’s exclusion from feminist jurisprudence and the resulting harms.
When feminist jurisprudence excludes AMW, it inflicts harm on two parties: AMW and feminist jurisprudence itself. These harms should be of special concern to legal academia at large, scholars of feminist jurisprudence, and those committed to ending the subordination of all women. The harm that feminist jurisprudence inflicts upon AMW is further discussed in Part Three, but, it is critical to understand how the discipline engages in self-harm at the outset.
This self-harm is best understood through a study of feminist jurisprudence’s own founding principles. If one purpose of feminist jurisprudence as a field of scholarship is “to map the contours of the ongoing legal supports in an era characterized by a liberal consensus on very basic norms of nondiscrimination and formal equality,” then, leaving AMW off the map violates this foundational principle. If a second equally important aim of feminist legal theory is to give women the sort of agency “according to which all of us are defined primarily by our individual attributes and ambitions rather than by any socially mandated role or set of presumed characteristics, and the value of autonomy, by which is meant the irreducible importance of self-determination and the pursuit of one’s own understanding of the good life without societal or state based censorial control,” then it follows that denying AMW this sacred right to self-determination attacks the very ethos of feminist legal theory and threatens the integrity of the discipline as a whole.
Today AMW are primarily defined by the socially mandated roles and characteristics foisted upon us by western culture and feminist legal theories, and we are excluded from critical conversations that shape feminist jurisprudence. This exclusion is an egregious harm, but, the remedy is within reach. Small changes can begin to realign both parties into a powerful coalition. In fact, some feminist legal theories are natural allies for AMW’s integration into feminist jurisprudence—but, this coalition has yet to be widely discussed in legal academia.
Our complex intersectional marginalization is invisible to feminist legal theories. This invisibility compounded with the failure of feminist legal theories to affirmatively challenge AMW’s subordination renders feminist jurisprudence complicit in assaults on AMW’s bodies and liberties in a post-9/11 Trumpian world. As it stands, third party accounts dominate the scholarship and public discourse on AMW. We are written about—our identities are constructed, reconstructed, and perverted to suit the writers’ needs; but, we are not spoken to much less listened to. AMW exist in extremes because dramatic characterizations supply the best ammunition for third party agendas.
Today, feminist discourse marginalizes AMW by singularly referring to us in relation to oppression. Intersectional feminism is a force of change, and our inclusion is long overdue. This article seeks to combat essentializing by adding much needed nuance to narratives on AMW. Instead of replacing one stereotypical image with another, my objective is to create a rich intersectional portrayal of AMW that is currently wholly lacking in legal academia and popular culture. Every section of this article could be an entire book, and I introduce these topics to spark pressing discussions where the academy is silent. (internal citations omitted)