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Book review: The story of feminism so far

28th Jan 2022
Book review: The story of feminism so far

Sisters in the Mirror. By Elora Shehabuddin. 398 pages. 202. University of California Press. HB. £24.

Feminism is considered both modern and western-built upon the struggles for the emancipation of women in the Western hemisphere.

This book, written by Elora Shehabuddin, shows that the ideas of Western feminism were built upon the interactions that the early thinkers had with their counterparts in the East and vice versa. Sisters in the Mirror is an intense piece of academic work collecting writings and narratives from numerous resources, showcasing the movements of feminism in both hemispheres.

Shehabuddin provides the historical contexts of the works she cites, and in the early 1700s, the English feminists based their case on how unlike they were to the Turks and the ‘infidels.’

To make a case in point, that English women were treated far better than their counterparts in the Turkish courts

. But the reality on the ground was far different: “In listing the legal disadvantages forced on English wives – their inability to write wills, their lack of rights of property and child custody – it did not occur to her, or so many of her contemporaries, that Muslim women, irrespective of marital status, had enjoyed formal legal rights to contract and property since the dawn of Islam, for a thousand years already.

Indeed, given the vast gap between women’s legal rights under Islamic law and their rights under Jewish and Christian law, Jewish and Christian women under Muslim rule were known to take their cases to Muslim courts in the hope of receiving a more desirable hearing.” (p38).

In citing the early traditions of Islam in giving women a civic presence independent of their male relatives, the author allows us, Western women, with Eastern heritage to draw on our histories and narratives with pride, opposed to the shame that is quite often hoisted upon us by narratives that have no knowledge of our illustrious histories.

Another trail of narratives that Shehabuddin follows is that of Shamsunnahar Mahmud, a woman from East Bengal who had met Eleanor Roosevelt and then participated in the Foreign Leader Program of the International Educational Exchange Service of the US State Department a few years later.

The author talks about how Mahmud was perceived (positively) in the US, but also cites her observations of the US. “While she was impressed by the US women voters’ level of awareness and engagement with the electoral campaigns, she was surprised by the low numbers of women in elected office.

The US Congress had eighteen women at the time, while Pakistan’s new constitution, promulgated just months before Mahmud’s visit, had reserved ten seats for women in a much smaller unicameral parliament.” (p178)

This citation of the progress of new – supposedly backward – democracies compared to the -supposedly advanced – one such as the US, is a constant theme throughout the book. Contrary to popular belief, the pursuit of peace and advancements in the human race have been pioneered and worked upon by both Eastern and Western protagonists in equal measure.

This book is a book of history, encapsulating the thoughts and movements of women within it. Shehabuddin has put in an indescribable amount of work to put together countless histories weaving a coherent narrative that equalises the history of the East and the West, emphasising that our stories and struggles can better the lives of all communities that we interact with and not just our own. Our strength is dependent on this interaction.

Aasiya Versi

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