Celebrating Mardi Gras AND International Women's Day

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In a weird confluence, the 100th International Women’s Day falls on Mardi Gras this year. We editors realized this as we ate punchkis together and titled our upcoming interview with anthropologist and former Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, on his study of American Muslims.

While we may be embracing the “fat” of “fat” Tuesday in our office, Mardi Gras has come to mean something completely different in American culture: getting drunk and flaunting sexuality, devoid of the fasting that follows.

Ahmed didn’t only meet with Muslims into his Journey into America; he also looked into American culture. And on his stop in New Orleans, he sent his team of young people out into the wee hours of the night to ask people questions about what it meant to be American. Predictably, the answers were scary. I’ll leave the profanities to your imagination.

But the observations they made helped him understand an interesting phenomenon: white women converting to Islam. It’s about boundaries, he says. It could be Catholicism, he adds, but certainly Islam provides extremely strong boundaries when it comes to sex. Donna Freitas told us a few years ago that even her most liberal students wanted boundaries. Their favorite book was A Return to Modesty, written by a woman who turned to Orthodox Judaism for a way out of hook-up culture.

As an American, I was defensive reading Ahmed’s critique about Mardi Gras. So I asked him whether Mardi Gras behavior defines American culture any more than honor killings define the cultures of Muslim-majority countries. “It’s not mainstream America, but that is a part of society that we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” he responded, saying that the same can be said honor killings and genital mutilation.

As a Catholic and feminist (you got a problem with that?), I argue that we must work for justice for the least of these. We can stand with our Muslim sisters against the injustices they face. American women, according to a new report, have made great strides in the past 50 years and show what is possible (even though we have many issues that remain unresolved here). Meanwhile we’ve abandoned our efforts to help Afghan women gain greater property rights—this, sadly, might not be realistic in that country yet, but advocates continue to fight for it.

But Western women can learn from Muslim feminists on this Women's Day/Mardi Gras, as well. We aren’t empowered by earning beads, they tell us. One hundred years after the first International Women’s Day, the world has grown smaller, allowing women from diverse cultures to meet, help, and inspire each other. May we all be better for it.