Throughout the Islamic world, many injustices committed against women horrify the Western conscience: Polygamy, child marriage, honor killings, female genital mutilation, niqabs, forced hijab, unequal rights codified for centuries under sharia, and so forth. So what do female Islamist activist-scholars dedicate their energies to opposing? "White liberal feminists."
At the Ilmspiration Conference held by the Walnut, California-based Institute of Knowledge on September 21st, 2019 in Anaheim, Muslema Purmul was the stand-out female speaker in both substance and style. The moderator introduced her, noting she was a graduate of sharia from Al-Azhar University, that her husband Jamaal Diwaan was also a sheik, and that they both were "critical role models."
The couple operates two organizations they founded: The Majlis mosque and the Safa Center for Research and Education. Both also appeared at last year's Muslim American Society's (MAS) 21st annual West Coast Convention, and each have been named by the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Los Angeles chapter as Muslims of the week. Both MAS and CAIR were designated as terrorist groups by the United Arab Emirates in 2014.
Purmul's talk fascinated in its contradictions, as she spent about three fourths expressing disdain and critiquing feminism's fractiousness, only to conclude by conceding that serious sexism existed in Muslim communities.
She started with humor: "I was given the topic 'Do we need feminism?' So the answer, really, is 'no.'" The audience — whose young women in hijab sat segregated to the left side of the ball room — burst into laughter and applause. "And I'm done with my talk. No, I'm joking."
Purmul cited the research of a "faith-based feminist" writing at Forbes about religious communities and feminism: "In general, specific views in these issues are rooted deeply in our own personal and direct experiences rather than data and research." Purmul then embraced this, arguing in favor of judging an ideology based on encounters with a handful of people:
"... there has never been someone in my life who has ever told me the words 'when I see women who wear that I just want to rip it off their heads' other than white liberal feminists. I have heard that actually three times in my life from different white liberal feminists ... You don't get to judge my paradigm."
Purmul then revealed another life experience, this time in a religious studies class, that angered her because it did not present Islam as she believed it. "I do not take my paradigm from morality from people who don't understand my religion," she said. Thus, Purmul creates the ultimate counter to any critiques: They simply don't "understand my religion."
Purmul conceded the existence of Muslim feminists she supports and references a convert who came to see Islam as "the most feminist religion in the world." Purmul clarified: "What she means when she uses that term is the advocacy of women's rights according to the sharia. ... If you were to just ask me, I'd say, 'Well that's just Islam. I advocate for Islam.'"
Purmul then proffered the broad range of feminist views as further evidence in her argument, saying "There's no consensus ... that all feminists say 'this is what we're about' because there's a difference of agreement in that movement."
Yet unacknowledged in Purmul's speech or throughout the conference: There are plenty of disagreements within Islam and even within Islamism. Herein lies the central contradiction of Purmul and all the day's speakers. They will accuse every Western ideology of being endlessly divided, but they also believe that they have a monopoly to define the one true Islam.
Rather than the rights in traditional feminism, instead Purmul advocated for "divine privileges" and "matriarchy" as supposed checks on patriarchy: "It might be a little taboo to say this, but we also believe that Allah has privileged both genders. ... We do have patriarchy, but we also have matriarchy ... ." Tellingly, Purmul did not detail what "matriarchy" entailed.
Then Purmul echoed a theme throughout the other talks, which also demanded Islam stand over any man-made ideology: "The reason I could never sign on to feminism, on a personal level, was just the idea that if you have to go outside your own theology for your human rights and dignity, what does that say about your religion?"
Then Purmul let her guard down, shifting from attacking feminism to defending the Muslim world. She mentioned a Muslim woman confessing to her that she felt "very oppressed" because her family would not let her attend college like her brothers. Purmul conceded that "women are being abused in the name of Islam... ."
How could Purmul look the other way so much on the women suffering throughout the Islamic world? She was merely following an important rule in Islamism, stated by Abdul Nasir Jangda in his final speech of the night: "There's nothing more ugly and more detestable than someone who tries to divide the ummah."
In the day's closing panel, Purmul got the last word, revealing a related tactic which holds Islamism together: "Not every single thing that every organization does is agreed upon by every other organization within the Muslim community. ... We can't write people off because we don't like one thing that they're doing. ... And what we disagree on, like, let's disagree with it honestly, behind closed doors.'"
These principles that Purmul asserts however, have resulted in a closed system that effectively empowers individuals with disturbing records: The sexual harassment claims against Nouman Ali Khan, Tariq Ramadan's (who Purmul has defended) facing heinous allegations of rape, and Linda Sarsour looking the other way on sexual harassment charges.
Purmul may proudly insist that "You don't get to judge my paradigm!," but in America we all do have the freedom to judge her insistence that Islamism and feminism are mutually exclusive — and to condemn her moral blindness in regarding "white liberal feminists" as a greater danger to many Muslim girls than some of their own families forcing them to endure genital mutilation and child marriages.