Deterritorializing oppression:
Lou Salome and the individuation of the Islamic female

Philip Simon

Local identity on a global stage

The west’s precarious conceptions of the place of women in contemporary Islamic culture can be traced in large part to its non-consideration of Islam’s socio-historical context, so that the possibility that Qur’anic Islam could support believers’ transcendence of their biological gender is also conveniently and often neglected. The distinction between Islam’s theoretical Qur’anic notions concerning women and such nations’ as Iran, whose civil code actively sanctions numerous practices which clearly penalize women juridically, must be made, however. The ebb and flow of the deterritorializing global economy seemed to invite initial hostility and later open arms when it began with the spread of the industrial revolution through the Middle East, but today’s west will expect not only ever-increasing economic transparency but western standards of equity in jurisprudence as well. And conversely, with modern anti-globalization alarmism slowly gaining credence amidst the global economy’s emerging implications, middle-class alarmists’ hegemony (however puritanical) cannot help but to undermine such a traditionalist religio-politico-social model as contemporary Islam. The fluidity of Islam’s existing legacy, however, with respect to validity in the changing global cultural climate via its internal objective value-codes, is defended mainly by scholarly theorists and juridical purists. Consideration of these apologetics is an attempt to clarify whether or not an Islamic purist’s view of the woman, even and especially when understood within its proper socio-historical context, can possibly be reconciled with today’s Americanizing global economic trends, which promise to further destabilize ethnic social patterns. This paper does not pretend, however, to propose a political activism, but rather to explore (the trajectory of) a re-consideration of the Islamic female experience informed by the thoughts of a recent female who, though not a Muslim, developed in a relative ideological context.

Abdal Hakim Murad’s (2000) contention is poignant, that "Islam’s theology of gender contends with a maze, a web of connections which demand familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. This complexity should warn us against offering facile generalizations about Islam’s attitude to women." ( While Islam’s ‘attitudes’ may be too broadly divergent to generalize, practices legally-sanctioned by the faith are a necessary concern in public policy and commerce as the western(ized) conscience takes on a continuously more important role in shaping both.

The Iranian Qisas (Law of Retribution) prescribes that for the process of stoning men be buried up to their waist, while women are buried up to their chest (Article 102), making obvious the possibility of escaping the punishment by freeing oneself from the hole (Article 103) greater for a man than for a woman. Haideh Moghissi (1999, 110) extends the meaning of the blood money (dieh) payable to the family of the victim for the death of a man being twice that for a woman (Article 258), to an official calculation (at least in financial terms) of the value of awoman’s life as half that of a man’s. In her examination of current Islamic periodical literature, she finds Chief Justice Ayatollah Yazdi admitting that it has encouraged the murder of women under the pretext of defending ‘family honor,’ so that many women and girls live in constant fear for their lives simply because some men murder their wives or daughter on slight suspicion and are then easily set free by paying a very low sum of compensation (blood) money (dieh); in addition, setting a higher price on a man’s life also means that rape and women’s murder go unpunished (Said-Zadeh, 1998). Under the Iranian criminal code these crimes are punishable by death, but under the new "Islamified" law, the family of a murdered woman is required to pay a substantial sum of dieh to the murderer before he can be punished (Article 209).

Needless to say, Article 209’s social and cultural consequences go beyond its impact on individuals. It (Article 209) proves that in Iran, today, full citizenship remains a male prerogative. In fact, laws like these constitute an assault on the dignity of women; they negatively affect social perceptions about women and women’s own sense of self-worth and confidence, forcing them to live under constant fear (Moghissi, 111).

Elizabeth Fernea’s travelogue (1998, 196) of her "Search for Islamic Feminism" recalls the observation of Dr. Bedriya Awadhi, a Kuwaiti lawyer who does not call herself a feminist: "They (Arab families) want daughters always. But they need sons…According to our present laws, only a son can protect his mother and her property. Only a son has that legal standing. And I don’t think the laws are going to be revolutionized very soon." It may be argued deterministically that the more egregious practices are bound to fade into oblivion with the crystallization of American worldwide material hegemony, but if a recognizable political form of Islam is to survive the washing tide of economic advancement, its foundation will certainly have to remain deeply rooted in the coherence of its philosophical system.

Islam’s feminist dialectic

For women believers in the fundamentals of the Islamic faith, who accept the Qur’an as the word of God (as Muslims do), non-acceptance of the justice of its sexual hierarchy within the family and in society is tantamount to heresy. Such a person may call herself a feminist, but by conventional western reckoning, she cannot believe in both the Islamic and feminist concepts of equality—the two notions are incompatible (Moghissi, 1999; Fernea, 1998). The perspective of the Islamic woman believer has been widely studied, but the overwhelming majority of the studies conducted conform to types of an Orient contra Occident paradigm, with western feminism (often western-educated, middle eastern female academics) pitted against two branches of apologists: Islamic clerics and western women who embrace religious Islam. Ziba Mir-Hosseini (1999), in a contribution to the opposing scholarship (which argues for the compatibility of Islamic beliefs and feminism) describes well the tension faced by women who acquire a feminist consciousness in either a western or an indigenous form: their Muslimness is perceived as backward and oppressed, yet authentic and innate; while their feminism as progressive and emancipated, yet corrupt and alien.

The seventh century found Arab women dispossessed of spiritual, material, and domestic freedoms of almost any sort; primitive local codes intertwined discursively with parvenu Christian politics and morality to confuse the nomadic shepherd and merchant tribes who traced their lineage to Ishmael. The universe’s order as revealed to Mohammed, however, proclaimed cosmic equanimity for women, who became responsible for educating themselves and day-to-day domestic administration; child rearing was aggrandized with Mohammed’s declaration that "Paradise is under the feet of the mothers." " O ye who believe!" says the Qur’an, "Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will." While civil administration and material maintenance belonged to men, these rights were commonly accepted to be earthly ones, which significant mundane responsibility was equated with women’s celestial.

This cosmic harmony envisioned by Mohammed, though, according to Sister Saasira bint Ellison (2000) only appears distortedly discordant through the magnifying glass which has been placed over the status of Muslim women since the height of the feminist movement in the late 1970’s ( And indeed, as Murad (1999) points out,

"Islamic theology confronts us with the spectacular absence of a gendered Godhead. A theology which reveals the divine through incarnation in a body also locates it in a gender, and inescapably passes judgment on the other sex. A theology which locates it in a book makes no judgment, since books are unsexed. The divine remains divine, that is, genderless, even when expressed in a fully saving way on earth." (
And further,
though "the divine is referred to by the masculine pronoun, grammarians and exegetes concur that this is not even allegoric: Arabic has no neuter, and the use of the masculine is normal in Arabic for genderless nouns. No male preponderance is implied, any more than femininity is implied by the grammatically female gender of neuter plurals." (ibid.)

For Murad, a gender-neutral image of the divine suggests a God who is simply above gender. One logical conclusion that may be drawn connects the infinite and eternal transcendence of gender to its right fulfillment on earth by each individual believer.

Even the most sophisticated apologists of Islam and feminism’s reconcilability concede soberly the ideological monopoly exercised, for instance, by Iranian clerics and jurists in the Islamic Republic of Iran (many such apologists are themselves clerics/jurists). Women’s subordinate legal position is firmly upheld by these civil and religious leaders, who maintain their own right vis-à-vis western criticism to cultivate oppressive regimes informed by divine justice as pre-modern social models, and an antidote to the moral and social crises currently experienced by western society, (which they identify as) resulting directly from women’s insubordinate, de-regulated legal status and public participation. Their defense of the right to choose to limit others’ choice fits neatly under the umbrella of cultural relativism, which is an ironic benchmark of intellectual ‘post-modernity,’ the star to which feminism in modernity has had necessarily to hitch itself. A re-evaluation of the Islamic female’s ideological currency must be undertaken if she is to make a sound platform of the rights feminism has already helped establish for women in the western world. The Islamic female experience can be actuated by a perspective beyond post-modern cultural relativism, but also beyond feminism’s heretofore necessary overreaction to modernist constructs. An attempt to enhance the position of the Muslim female believer must begin with the woman herself; the specifically Islamic feminist/antifeminist discourse is in many ways a shared experience with women in recent periods of western history. As I will explore in the next section, the changing cultural climate in which a contemporary Muslim female finds herself, overlaps in many ways with the experience of an inspirational woman at a corresponding point in European modernity’s cultural paradigm shift.


Historical transitions: evolution of the ego

The nineteenth century’s latter half saw the industrial revolution catalyze the release of imperial Europe’s increasingly tenuous codified and ideological solipsism. Its thriving intellectual communities, however, represented this phenomenon paradoxically: the experience of the self was the subject of deeper rational scientific study than ever before. Education as a cultural imperative sailed on the winds of class de-stratification to an enriched and enhanced view of the individual per se, and women no less than men profited from the benign side of the empowerment of the individual. Modernity’s stabilization from ‘revolution’ into historical moment balanced on this very fulcrum—the status, position, prominence of the individual in meta-narrative—just as the place of the personal narrative in post-modernity vacillates toward an enriched perception of the individual in current re-evaluations of the meta-narrative. It is suggested that a specifically empirical approach to the rational model of Islamic fundamentalism can inform believing woman in daily as well as socially implied dimensions: the multidimensional empowerment exemplified by western feminism can share a trajectory with the empowerment of Islamic women, starting at the level of individual experience.

Lou Salome, the intellectually beguiling, emotional and spiritual muse to Freud, Rilke, and Nietzsche, concludes in Jesus the Jew "that it is always only the individual, the great individual who attains the peaks of religion, its genuine blissfulness and its full tragedy." What he experiences up there, the crowd below does not learn. Likewise the Islamic female, as on a trajectory of individuation via a speculative individualized experience of her faith can evolve in moment to transcendence of her current functional context. Indeed to Salome isolation in vacuo of a trait resultant from votive spirituality is impossible, for "the actual religious phenomenon really only emerges in the back-effect of a god on the human beings who believe in it, no matter how that god originated (ibid., 342-3). Salome viewed being—that is, being in the world—as a cause for rejoicing, and passion after the wholeness of existence as characteristically female: "She celebrated the feminine desire and capacity for self-dissolution over masculine oedipal renunciations only if the ‘feminine’ tendency to remain locked in a childhood misperception of the other as the locus of the self and the consequent lack of ego boundaries were countered by an equally strong passion for knowledge and or being in the world (Martin, 36)."

The idea of the ‘back-effect’ of religion becomes particularly relevant when it is observed that the force driving the Islamic consciousness in its conception of unity is its social facet, self-perceived as a cosmic meta-narrative. Institutional constraints at a given historical moment may be expressed oppressively, but if the sunnah purports to be a constructive moral scheme it is bound to reckon with contextual evolution which by western measures of constructiveness may be progressing at an indistinguishably varying pace from, but not necessarily after a pattern incongruous with, constructive social goals. Martin (78) describes the religious experience according to Salome, as ‘an involuntary blending and exchanging of the most intimate with the most lofty—this conception of the intimate as the lofty…the characteristic basic element of the religious.’ In a socio-cultural moment which appears to conspire to divest the individual (woman) of her right to subjective individuation, what sounder recourse could she have than to the development of personal intimacy with her faith? However limited her external locus may prove itself, the means of self-becoming under an oppressive political regime will always be at her fingertips if it be a Muslim one, for what are the revealed religions if not the organized infusion of purpose into suffering’s chaos?

Most oustanding in Lou Salome was her devotion exclusively to the culture of her time, complete immersion in that culture, by which her life could be characterized by Rudolph Binion (491) as "outwardly and inwardly both…among the richest on record." An "interest in religious experience," though, "was at the center of her particular model of reading and interpretation, and religious effect served as the foundation for her conception of modernity as renewal, growth, and transformation" (Martin, 27). The only obstacle to these variants on the theme of religious devotion as a few bars to the ear of an Islamic female—and stimulus toward a life-enriching, gender-affirming pattern—would be her material access: clearly at the center of the need to adapt to shifting global perceptions, though, is democratized access to knowledge tools, and this point quickly grows moot where it is not already. Binion’s expansion upon Lou Salome’s legacy helps us to identify precisely where the potential for a gender-transcendent Islamic experience can be informed by this woman whose own consciousness was raised by the cultivation of intimacy with an individual religious back-effect: "A microchemistry of history could lead into a new macrophysics of history in ways unforeseeable—not excluding some simple transpositions, as from how we singly to how we collectively reformulate our past."


According to Moghissi (38), literature by Islamic women (e.g., Nawal el-Saadawi) emphasizes women’s irrepressible strength and struggles rather than their victimization, de-mystifying their experiences under patriarchal traditions and institutions. This is in fact a shared tradition in western and "Oriental" literature by women, a demonstration of mutuality of purpose and grounds for re-consideration of the compatibility of the Islamic religious experience with multidimensional feminine empowerment and enrichment.

Despite regional development further outside of normatively rational loci and the ostensible consensus among Islamic females (and males alike) that the western paradigm is unable to process the elementary symbols of their faith’s coherence (Kahf, 179; Fernea, 29, 87-88, 246-47), the oppressed juridical position of the contemporary Islamic female deposits itself immediately in a culturally repressive social experience. Criticism of the Western narrative of the Muslim woman has not attended to the historical genealogy of this narrative (Kahf, 177), though, and fundamentally Qur’anic conceptions of ‘woman’ in Islam are not incompatible with an empowering itinerary in a similar vein to that traveled by constructs of the western woman, albeit requiring sensitivity to ethnic developmental paces and moral context. An analysis of the character of this necessary sensitivity shows it to be sustained effectively externally and internally in the united moral context and cultural moment of which Lou Salome’s thought was a product.

Attempts to disentangle cultural conceptualizations of ‘self’ from their social or ideological context are infinitely less realistic than simple cognizance of self, which is the springboard to enacting meaningful changes in one’s environment. Tradition quotes a Russian ascetic of the middle 19th century (Seraphim of Sarov) as having said that "one who saves his own soul saves a thousand with him." The cultivation and defense of legal equanimity (and all its social implications) may be outpaced by one’s spiritual development, but civil advancement can only be stabilized, indeed catalyzed, by the noetic experience of emancipation. Social justice figures centrally in Qur’anic Islam, and Salome’s idea of religious back-effect engages in a unique and essential discourse with Islam’s basically holistic premise.

Uniformity is no more possible among Islamic political boundaries than globally for at least the foreseeable future (if it were even desirable). But just as the humanist search for a unity of knowledge fueled the political syncretism which has been the linchpin of progress for the west, coherence in one’s self-narrative is essential to the preservation of one’s place in a necessarily united global scene. The western experience is itself immeasurably enriched, en route to the recognition of universal commonalities—and the avoidance of self-destructive militarism—from reminders (such as Islam nurtures) of the transcendent potential in the nature of one’s place cosmically, of human identity. It would be hopelessly myopic to imagine that either Judaeo-Christian modernity or today’s Islamic world can serve one another as only economic stimuli.


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