To Asma Uddin and Ashley McGuire, accomplished religious women working in Washington’s more conservative circles, there seem to be plenty of outlets for women focused on issues like access to abortion and wives who are breadwinners. But what about the issues they and their friends turn to when they get together, such as:
Can you be a submissive feminist? Does being a hard-charging career woman make men think you don’t want to get married? And what if it doesn’t bother you at all if only men can be clergy?
This month Uddin, a Muslim lawyer, and McGuire, a Catholic advocate and writer, launched a digital project aimed at women who want to talk about gender and faith through a more traditional lens. I spoke with them about the launch of altfemmag.com, how they see their faiths guiding their own work-life balance and why they ditched words like “traditional.”
MB: altfemmag.com follows two separate sites you two started earlier about gender and your respective faiths, called altmuslimah.com and altcatholicah.com. Asma, you said you started yours after “tremendous soul-searching” about both distorted media images about Muslim women and issues you experienced, like Muslim leaders who say women’s primary role is to facilitate men’s spirituality, or cliquishness among some Muslim women against those who don’t wear head scarves.
AU: I used to wear a head scarf, but [the cliquishness] troubled me because it seemed so antithetical to the purpose of religion and why you wear religious garb, which is to self-purify. It showed me the internal hypocrisy. From the personal to the global, at every level I was being seriously troubled by this question of gender and Islam. I almost came to a point of losing faith, but then I decided: I need to put away all the social commentary and Web sites and I had what I call a “total faith moment.” I was just thinking and spiritually reflecting on the fact that God couldn’t have created women as anything but equal to men in dignity and worth. It was enough to bring me back.
AM: I am similar to Asma in that I felt the portrayal of Catholic women, especially on gender is either — you embrace the church’s teachings and are oppressed, or you are liberated. My experience is there is this huge swath of Catholic women who love the church’s teaching on women, who find them very dignified. And there wasn’t a space for women to have those conversations with one another.
MB: In addition to concern about an anti-traditional media bias, what are the issues on the ground people want to discuss? You had a launch conference last week.
AM: We organized the conference around feminism and what it means in our respective faiths, religious dating, marriage and motherhood. One idea that got really flushed out was that of submissiveness, a misunderstanding of what that means. There’s a huge misunderstanding of what that means in a Christian context. . . . People focus on this one line from Paul about “wives submit to their husbands,” but the second half says husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church he died for. And why are we so against the idea of submission in the first place? Maybe that’s something that’s overdone.
MB: But there are many women who read the idea of submission as a call to traditional roles, such as women staying home, men making the final financial or child-rearing decisions. Is it really a “misunderstanding?”
AM: I mean, there is a spectrum of views among Catholic women, but it’s not that they are oppressed by traditional gender roles. They find a traditional gender role empowering.
MB: Practically speaking, what gender-faith issues come up in your work, home and faith lives? (Uddin, 34, has a son and a daughter and is a lawyer at the Becket Fund public-interest law firm. McGuire, 29, is the mother of one child and a freelance writer. Both are married.)
AU: I don’t see myself as having struggles specific to my marriage. It was more other men in my life, related to women’s rights and Islam. The issue I think about a lot is that of women’s space in the mosque. . . . I don’t agree with women leading coed prayers, but there is space for women in other leadership roles. They can be other things, such as scholars, board presidents and religious community leaders.
AM: Some might say I have a traditional marriage in that I stay home raising our daughter, but my greatest support in pursuing my outside interests is my husband. And also priests. I’m interested in things like doing more to support women in urban parishes, such as nursery spaces and places to breast-feed.
MB: You both have been involved in more conservative political and social circles. Why did you leave words like “conservative” and “traditional” out?
AM: I have avoided the use of labels. Even with the “traditional” word it can mean so many things, like it’s all about stay-home moms. Or people might associate it politically. We tend to stay away from political issues. I’m over labels because I can’t figure out what they mean anymore.
MB: What have been the most popular posts on your respective blogs (before the launch of altfemmag.com)?
AU: We had one debunking the idea that wearing a hijab makes you less likely to be sexually assaulted. I think it was popular because it was counterintuitive to the overbearing narrative.
AM: I had one that was written under a pen name by a woman who was frustrated with the sense that being an accomplished woman in a Catholic world sent the message that she wasn’t interested in marriage. . . . I don’t want to say men are threatened by professional women, but there is a little bit of that.
MB: Both of you work in pretty intense, sometimes political, parts of Washington. How does that impact your views?
AM: Many of our writers have something going on that might be political in one way, or some career tied to an issue, but they enjoy setting that aside as well. The conference was a totally mixed bag politically. This feels like when I have women in my living room drinking wine, what they talk about. We’re hoping this can feel friendly, as if you were among friends.