While women are omnipresent in the humanities and social sciences, they have long been severely underrepresented in philosophy, a fact that Alia Al-Saji, a researcher in McGill University’s Department of Philosophy, came to realize during a stay at the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, in the mid-1990s: not a single philosophy professor was a woman. Unsurprisingly, the philosophy curriculum paid little attention to the great philosophers’ often problematic views on women.
“The sexist, misogynist or racist views of philosophers are generally treated as anecdotal and having no impact on their philosophical system,” deplores Alia Al-Saji. “And yet, taking these views on women into account leads to an interpretation that is not only more critical, but much more fertile. That is what prompted me to adopt an intersectional feminist approach to philosophy.”
Not just a woman
Intersectionality grew out of a black feminist perspective and is concerned with situations where people are simultaneously subjected to multiple forms of oppression or discrimination. The intersectional feminist approach is not limited to gender: it extends to racism, heterosexism and transphobia. It recognizes that a woman is not just a woman: she can also be black, Muslim, lesbian, etc., and may therefore have to face several forms discrimination.
This part of Alia Al-Saji’s research arises largely out of her own lived experiences. Originally from Iraq, she spent her youth in Baghdad, Great Britain and Kuwaït before moving to Canada in 1988, first to Ontario, and then to Québec in 2002.
A feminist dilemma
Personal experience led her to reflect on western perceptions of Muslim women. Alia Al-Saji has devoted a great deal of time to studying the discourse on the wearing of the veil by Muslim women, especially in the wake of the last war between the USA and Iraq. Feminists themselves are sometimes divided on these issues, as was the case during the debate leading to the ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols (i.e. the veil) in public schools in France in 2004 and similar debates that took place in Québec. For Al-Saji, the rhetoric around the equality of the sexes, which claims to be feminist, too often hides a form of cultural racism
“Many believe that all feminists should be opposed to wearing the veil,” she says. “But can’t a woman wear the veil in accordance with her religious beliefs, and still be a feminist? Clothing becomes a standard by which women are defined. A liberated woman must show her body. If she hides it, if she wears the veil, she must be controlled by her husband or by other men. Intersectionality is useful when discussing this type of issue; it prevents the use of feminism as a pretext for camouflaged racism. Muslim women in the Western world are more likely to experience discrimination or exclusion because they are Muslim than because they are women.”
Her 2010 article on the subject, entitled The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A Philosophical Analysis, had a strong impact in a number of fields and is still frequently studied in the classroom.