Judy Brink and Joan Mencher, eds. Mixed Blessings: Gender and Religious Fundamentalism Cross Culturally. New York: Routledge, 1997. vi + 275 pp. ISBN 0-415-91185-0 (cl); 0-415-91166-9 (pb).
The books reviewed here--which deal with everyday life, enmeshments of the private and public, cultural politics, and projects of religious interpretation--extend our thinking about feminisms and Islam, and cause us to consider the possibilities of feminisms within Islamisms (forms of political Islam, sometimes called fundamentalism, a term increasingly difficult to define). The borders of what constitute feminisms in general are fluid and expanding; there is no consensus on definitions, nor an adequate vocabulary. Some forms of women's actions and gender consciousness may perhaps be better called "prefeminist" or "protofeminist." Others may more easily, or conventionally, be classified as "feminist." It has been presumed widely that "feminisms" cannot exist within "Islamisms"; however, the works under review make us question this notion and reveal new forms of feminism which emerge from Islamic contexts.
The title of a new collection of anthropological studies edited by Judy Brink and Joan Mencher, Mixed Blessings, captures women's recent encounters with fundamentalisms in different religious traditions, especially Islam. Three contributors, in particular, illustrate the complexities of women's positionings within Islamic cultures: Mary Hegland in her work on mourning rituals in Northwest Pakistan; Erika Friedl in a study of womanhood in postrevolutionary Iran; and Keng-Fong Pang in her investigation of Muslims of Hainan Island in China. Hegland discusses how Pakistani women, in the context of the Shia minority's drive for transnational consolidation, traveled considerable distances to participate in women's mourning ceremonies marking the martyrdom of their revered leader Hussein. While forging links among scattered Shia communities, women expanded their own female networks and gained self-esteem through the skills they developed in leading chants and delivering sermons. However, pressures for women to adhere to conventions of female subordination within the community tempered the empowerment these activities brought to women. Friedl observes a different trajectory; she shows how tribal women in southwest Iran over time constructed notions of "proper womanhood," which validated the skills and strengths necessary for the conduct of their everyday family and work lives. Moreover, when urban intellectuals and journalists bring alternative female lifestyles and values such as these to wider public attention they help dismantle the notion of a monolithic Islamist androcentric construction of "ideal womanhood" advanced by conservative religious elites and Islamist government officials. Pang found that in the context of communal resurgence, with its deliberate reassertion of Islamic identity following the removal of the state's ban on the public display of religion in China, women on Hainan Island were encouraged for the first time to attend Islamic schools. This new education, in turn, equipped them for jobs opening up in the Hainan Special Economic Free Zone. Pang calls the empowerment that women attained through their new economic and social roles a manifestation of "indigenous feminism" (42) and a part of the process of shaping a highly visible religious modernist identity.
Another religious modernist project is the subject of The Forbidden Modern, a complex analysis of contemporary …