“What does it mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to be a woman?” author Ousseina Alidou asked on Tuesday in a seminar hosted by the Comparative Muslim Societies Program.
Born in Niger, Prof. Alidou, African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literatures, Rutgers University, has written several books on women in the Sahelian region of Africa and their political and intellectual contributions to their culture.
Alidou framed her lecture Monday on these topics as a response to three main questions: what does it mean to be Muslim? What are Muslim women doing? What is in their mind?
“There is such a diversity of identities for Muslim [women], and there are vibrant Islamic contributions due to Africa having such a huge Muslim constituency,” she said.
The journey toward embracing this identity has not been, and still is not, an easy one, Alidou said. Public acceptance of women’s intellectual contributions has been difficult to ascertain, she said.
In the colonial period, women were largely silenced, Alidou said. Works by women were kept “within the house,” “under the bed” or “hidden inside a book.”
Women’s contributions in poetry, prose and political thought have been found in private homes in West Africa in the Sahel, Alidou said, and when she traveled there to look through archives, she said she found them in surprising places.
“When I would talk to people, they would say, ‘Open the curtain, and in the bedroom, the bed is the library,’” she said. “Under the bed is where they have the texts that they were writing. In between their clothes, you are finding texts.”
Alidou said women began to gain exposure beginning in the post-colonial era. More women began publicizing their views, especially regarding equality and justice, and as a result, more women began to pursue education.
When Muslim countries began to democratize, Alidou said, women developed a collective identity and an intellectual movement bloomed among them.
“With the 1990s’ democratization processes and the rise of political Islam and the politicization of what it means to be a Muslim woman, Muslim women who are for gender justice and inequalities started to know that they needed to know the texts,” she said.
Even since then, however, Muslim women have faced challenges as a result of what Alidou said is “neo-liberalism” and the “privatization that limit public access to education.”
New problems have also begun to confront women in the modern era.
One issue raised was that of the hijab and the burqa, garments often perceived as “repressive” in the West.
Alidou challenged the stereotypes associated with such garments and the women who wear them, highlighting the importance of respecting the women’s freedom to choose what to wear.
“We like fashion,” she said. “We wear what we feel like. I can wear the headscarf one day and then [American clothing] the next. It is a political right to choose how we dress.”
Bichara Sani Haladou ’21, an international student from Niger, said she thought Alidou’s point was especially important for people to hear in a world that often stereotypes Muslim women.
“Countries like Niger are 95 to 98 percent Muslim, but no one is obligated to dress a certain way or act a certain way,” she said. “Women are free to do what they want, and this is really what unites them. Things like ethnicity, religion and language do not separate our women.”
This tendency to stereotype can be more of a local than worldwide issue, Alidou said, urging the audience “not to look at stereotypes” but to “research Muslim women and their contributions to society, whether in the arts, sciences, politics, or in broader social reform movements.”
“People need to be aware, and the West needs to promote a picture of African Muslim women that truly reflects the reality of who they are,” she said.