Though it is something that has regained renewed fervor with the pushing of hijabi models like the gorgeous Halima Aden taking the fashion world by storm, and the banning of the niqab and other Muslim dress in Canada, the subject of the hijab and Muslim women has always been a hot topic—the barometer by which white, western, civilized society compared itself in terms of progress. Muslim women of color remain an example in the Western mind of the voiceless, silent victims that need to be saved by Western virtues. If that sounds like a simplification of the issue, it is only because I am laying bare the core message of white feminist colonial thinking.
As a black Muslim American woman who reverted last year to the religion, I too had absorbed these ideologies growing up. Muslim women were brainwashed, helpless and voiceless creatures who were imprisoned by a backwards culture in Africa and the Middle East. As budding feminists, we were made to believe that the only hope for Muslim women was to abandon their religion, their culture. Never once did we read or discuss Muslim and Arab scholars like Leila Ahmed, Sarah Ahmed, or other Islamic feminists who had grown up in the culture and had addressed intra-religious issues on their own.
Instead we were fed works by Western white feminists looking from the outside in, with no relation or pure understanding. In fact, it was only as I got older and entered my third year of college did I begin to recognize that in the same way white feminists tend to very selectively address the issues of black women—something addressed by Audre Lorde in her letter to Mary Daly—in ways that benefit them, the same thing was happening to all Muslim women of color. If we as a society, are supposed to be giving back the Muslim woman’s voice why is the only image of her as an oppressed third worlder, ill-equipped and unable to free herself? Why are Muslim women ignored in mainstream academia? Where were the Islamic feminist voiced represented in our women’s studies syllabi? Where are any third world feminist voices that don’t take a pro-western slant?
And who does it truly serve when Western society and purported feminists erase the voices of these women and deny them agency?
Leila Ahmed summarizes this colonial narrative when she mentions in her book Women and Gender in Islam: “Feminism on the home front and feminism directed against white men was to be resisted and suppressed; but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonized peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of the white man.”
Much of the same ideals and methodologies are espoused today—when the US sends drone strikes to bomb civilians that include women and children in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc. we are told it is because we are liberating people from a society that oppresses their women, that fosters terrorists that enslave women. When a Muslim woman in France is assaulted at the beach by police officers and humiliated, it is because they are ‘saving’ her from her backwards ideals and culture. When acid is thrown at Muslim citizens outside of London mosques in the UK, it is because Muslims are seen as barbaric acid throwers and oppressors of women.
Instances of oppression within Muslim communities or countries are never seen as the result of solely the patriarchal ideas that are a global issue, not just an Eastern one, corrupt governments that are seen all over the world particularly in the US and Europe, are used as an example of how the Middle East and Africa are still stuck in barbaric uncivilized times.
“It was never argued, for instance, even by the most ardent nineteenth-century feminists, that European women could liberate themselves from the oppressiveness of Victorian dress (designed to compel the female figure to the ideal of frailty and helplessness by means of suffocating, rib-cracking stays, it must surely rank among the more constrictive fashions of relatively recent times) only by adopting the dress of some other culture. Nor has it ever been argued, whether in Mary Wollstonecraft’s day, when European women had no rights, or in our own day and even by the most radical feminists, that because male domination and injustice to women have existed throughout the West’s recorded history, the only recourse for Western women is to abandon Western culture and find themselves some other culture. The idea seems absurd, and yet this is routinely how the matter of improving the status of women is posed with respect to women in Arab and other non-Western societies.”
–Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam
When 15-year-old girls are being forced to deal with porn addicted boys who abuse their adolescent bodies and rob them of emotional fulfillment in relationships in imitation of the things they see on websites such as pornhub; Western society’s obsession with sex, porn and meaningless relationships based solely on the physical aren’t blamed. We are not told to abandon Western ideals of sexual liberation.
When white men abuse travel to Asian countries to engage in child sex trafficking and sex tourism, or when they fetishize and seek out Asian women to abuse, Western stereotypes and imperialistic ideals of the submissive Asian woman clamoring for white penis to save them, are seen as anomalies, one offs, or laughed at and made light of, instead of one of the dominating cultural ideology of white society when it comes to Asian women and that it is these orientalist ideas that are the root of the problem.
When Christian missionaries sexually abused and forcefully assimilated Native American children in boarding schools through the use of what would rightly be called torture and brainwashing, a war on Christian society and white culture as a whole wasn’t declared. Nay, white Christian society is still seen as the model of civilization in comparison to Islam.
When western feminists speak of the oppression of women in the Middle East, the comparison of statistics of domestic violence, killings of women by men they rejected, rates of sexual abuse etc, aren’t made in a way that highlights their similarities. When western feminists speak of lack of justice for these foreign victims, they do so in a way that suggests that women in the west receive justice. This is despite the fact that the majority of rape victims rarely report it, men like Brock Turner get pittance of a sentence, that teen and rape porn are the most searched categories on lurid websites, that politicians believe that legitimate rapes do not end up in pregnancy, and that we have a man that urges other men to “grab women by the pussy” as president.
It would do well for western white feminists, when they claim they want to help Muslim women like myself, to actually listen to our voices instead of trying to erase our culture. Oppression and patriarchy are not symptoms of any particular religious issue, but a global male issue and the continuous twisting of doctrine by men who use religion for their own needs. Instead of portraying us as being unable to think on our own and picking and choosing which voices you allow to speak on our behalf, you need to allow us to be as multi-faceted as white western women are.
When white mainstream feminists fail to take an intersectional view in their supposed fight for all women’s liberation, they only further aid the patriarchal society they fight against, by establishing white western culture as the apex of civilization and progressiveness. When you take away our own discussion on the various intra-community issues we live with on a daily basis, when you ignore the continued work we invest in our communities, you imitate the same men you claim to fight against. When you put up our culture as the antithesis to civilized society you aid in the imperialism that destroys us. When I chose to convert to Islam it wasn’t because a man had forced or manipulated me into. It was because of the women and their humanity who nurtured and guided me. It is an insult to suggest or assume otherwise.
To learn more about women centered in Islam and intracommunity issues taken on by Muslim women themselves, the Women’s Mosque of America has an excellent plethora of resources!
Written by Jasmine Naghiyev