Muslim Women Don’t Need Saving

Photo: Maaria Lohiya

In “Men Explain Things to Me”, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story…(T)he ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” A declaration meant to illuminate the struggle of women at large, this statement also resonates in a very particular way for many Muslim women. We too are the nameless victims in a saviour story whereby the saviour – a hero or heroine – is more important and consequential than the supposed victim. Muslim women are made to be caricatures shaped and molded to fit an image already constructed. Other times, we are simply reduced to academic subjects examined within a theory designed to justify conclusions already reached about Islam and the lived experiences of Muslim women everywhere. Rarely, if ever, are we considered as living breathing beings, with real voices of our own. Voices that are often raised but completely ignored, let alone listened to. To be the understudy of your own story, to be relegated to the wings of life’s stage while others say your lines for you, is the reality of many Muslim women out there, including myself. Time and tired time again, we have seen how the claim of standing up for Muslim women has served as a pretext for singling out Islam and Muslim men for misogynistic domination and control of their own. This has been the case in the ongoing furor over providing space for Muslim students to pray (in which girls and boys are separated) at many schools across Southern Ontario, and in the previous Conservative federal government’s efforts to prohibit niqab-wearing women from becoming Canadian citizens. Nearly two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the receiving end of some rather harsh criticisms for attending an Ottawa mosque on Eid Al-Adha, whereby men and women pray in separate areas (but are mixed during other events). This makes for a good example in a string of fabricated controversies seen in this country. To condemn Trudeau’s visit to the mosque as a betrayal of “feminism” and collusion with patriarchy is hypocritical at best. Never mind that some of Canada’s most elite educational institutions also practice the apparently cardinal sin of gender separation, in the form of single-sex schools. And never mind that former prime minister Stephen Harper also visited religious spaces whereby gender segregation is the norm, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2014.

 It is high time that we begin to see through the pretense that these campaigns against Muslim “misogyny” have anything to do with the wellbeing of Muslim women. If they did, one would expect them to be more concerned with accuracy than with sensationalism – to the benefit of cultural hysteria in supporting the media’s propagandist, Islamophobic agenda, I might add. Now, let me make myself very clear. I am by no means interested in defending the misogynistic behaviour of some Muslim men – or any man for that matter. I personally believe that some Islamic traditions and practices are long overdue for reform. But that’s not the point. While undoubtedly an issue, it’s completely absurd – even outright racist and xenophobic – to accuse Muslim men of being the only beneficiaries of male privilege, and perpetrators of gendered violence. And what’s worse is that in effort to save face, it’s all being done under the guise of “saving” Muslim women from themselves. From my experience, Westerners seem to like the idea of a brown Muslim girl finding “liberation” and “freedom” through “Western” values. Mainstream media usually depicts Muslim women as docile victims forced to wear the “oppressive” hijab and obey the men in their lives. While I cannot deny that this is the experience of some, it is ridiculous to think that all Muslim women are subjugated and in need of rescue. In this debate on whether Muslim women need saving, the voices that are most often ignored are the ones that are most important – those of Muslim women. To even call it a debate is dishonest and unequivocally biased. The media does not care to focus on what Muslim women happen to think about wearing the hijab or even what Muslim women find empowering. The truth is many Muslim women are empowered by their faith – finding both strength and freedom from it. But the media – including the very people who consume and give into the problematic narratives that illustrate Muslim women as “submissive” and “oppressed” – are not concerned with understanding and acknowledging the very wants of Muslim women whatsoever. Even when Muslim women tirelessly argue that they are not oppressed by Islam, people like to believe otherwise. Some are even quick to dismiss their claims altogether by stating that these women are brainwashed and don’t know what’s best for them. A patronizing pity of sorts. So, it would be a fairly reasonable thing to expect them to pay more attention to the actual voices, experiences and perspectives of the women whose rights and interests are at stake. Rather than to completely ignore most – expect for the few – who supposedly represent Islam as the entire cause of Muslim women’s suffering. This is not solidarity with Muslim women, but racism thinly veiled in the language of “feminism.” While the demonization of Islam and Muslims as exclusively oppressive certainly advances the cause of racist stereotyping, it does little to benefit the women in whose interests these so-called champions for equality claim to speak. On the contrary, Muslim women bear a heavy part of the burden of violence and hatred generated by these stereotypes. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, from 2010 to 2013, hate crimes against Muslims in Canada has increased by a staggering 253%, with the highest percentage of hate crime victims being female (47 per cent). During the aftermath of 9/11 (and the decade ensuing), we have seen women wearing the hijab and niqab being physically attacked in cities across Canada and the United States. This has increasingly been the case, especially with our current political climate ruled by the Trumps, neo-Nazis, and fascists of the world. The critics who are so incensed by the subjugation of Muslim women tend to be conspicuously silent when the agents of violence are non-Muslims, motivated by the Islamophobic narratives that they have helped perpetuate. So much for a principled stand against gendered violence and inequality.

Misogyny and sexism are universal issues rooted in the deep-seated belief that men are in many ways superior to women – including socially, politically, ideologically, and morally. Ultimately, it all comes down to power and control. Any other assertion would otherwise be inaccurate and completely out of place. So, we must do away with the double standards that continue to muddle with the advancement of gender equity and women’s rights both locally and abroad. Islam is not synonymous with misogyny, just as much as Christianity is not synonymous with racism. And so, I refuse to have my faith incriminated by others in an attempt to distance us from the other. In our own way, we are just as complicit in allowing gender inequities to happen right under our noses here at home. Masking this gendered Islamophobia in a cloak of so-called “feminism” and “gender equality” is a tasteless sham, and it certainly hasn’t fooled me. Many Muslim women are reclaiming their story and talking about their experiences. The media and civic community just need to hear them out and take them seriously. My story is not that of a victim, and I choose to define my narrative on my own terms. The right to claim one’s narrative is something that everyone should have. Muslim women are no different, and definitely don’t need others to tell their story or speak for them. They are more than capable to speak for themselves. In Canada, Muslim women have been at the forefront of fundamental struggles for justice, equality, and freedom: Monia Mazigh, who advocated for the release of her husband, Maher Arar, when he was secretly imprisoned and tortured in Syria with Canadian complicity; Zunera Ishaq, who successfully challenged the government’s discriminatory ban on face veils at citizenship ceremonies; and, Yusra Khogali, who is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Toronto. Of course, there are far too many to name here, but you get the idea. We are fighting the struggles that need to be fought on several fronts: against sexism, against racism, against Islamophobia. We do not need to be told what to wear on our faces and on our heads and on our bodies, or where to sit when we pray. And we definitely do not need to be “saved” by ideologues who are only interested in Islam to prove its supposed inferiority, or as a proxy for attacking a political party. It is an insult to Muslim women’s agency and intelligence to be rendered silent puppets in a stale supremacist script.

A Critical Lens on Sister Solidarity

Over the past year, we have seen how the global mass movement of the Women’s March has rapidly gained momentum in harnessing the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change. The public outcry came immediately after Trump’s inauguration in January last year. It sent a clear and direct message to the administration and those in power that we were not going to take their abuse lying down. It symbolized an intersectional solidarity between women and their allies* – the first of its kind. It was certainly empowering to watch a historic moment like this unfold before me nonetheless. People from all over the world took to the streets. Women mobilized together, and used their collective power to voice resistance. It was women who weaponized against a system that is so openly willing to exploit and sanction violence against its own people. It’s inspired and even given leverage to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. We’ve made some tremendous strides, and our struggles, our stories, and our demands are being broadcasted loud and clear across industries everywhere. My reflections here are not intended to trivialize the tireless work and courage of our sisters – this should never be taken for granted. However, I believe this to be an especially critical time to beg the question: can we, as women, honestly say that the same is being done in our own relationships with other women? I believe it’s important because unfortunately I still meet women who quite genuinely enjoy bringing other women down. They take pleasure in bringing them to their demise. So, this very question needs to be taken seriously, and I pose it here to really challenge ourselves to reflect on it with great intention and purpose. We need to look within, and be as honest and as open with ourselves as possible. Ask yourself: am I bringing other women up with me along my journey? If you are, ask yourself: in what ways am I supporting their success? If you’re not, ask yourself: why, and what can I do to change?

Although very problematic at times, but I won’t get into that right now. Maybe stay tuned for a future post?

We need to do a better job in raising each other up. We need to hold the one thing we all share in common to a higher esteem – our sisterhood. We need to show it more respect, and handle it with the care and dignity it deserves. Our sisterhood is a sacred entity, and it’s about time we wake up and treat it as such. We need to commit ourselves to being better to one another by unlearning this internalized behaviour. For far too long, we’ve been conditioned from a young age to see other females as competition. It’s internalized through the process of socialization, and this form of socialization in turn can produce outcomes that nurture systemically-rooted issues for us women.  These subliminal messages are reinforced over and over again. It’s an age-old narrative that’s normalized in the media we consume, in the schools and workplaces we attend, and by the very adults we grow up to love and trust. It’s implicit as much as it’s explicit in nature, which seems to suggest that the thoughts influencing this behavior are sub-conscious. We sometimes don’t even realize when we do it or why it’s even happening. But when we actively participate, we are in essence feeding into the hands of a patriarchal system that’s meant to keep women in their place. We internalize the misogynic ideologies that underpin the second-class citizenry of women. The ways in which this operates on a systemic level needs to be acknowledged, but it’s no excuse. We still need to hold ourselves accountable nevertheless. Accountability in this case means bringing awareness to one’s own individual behaviours and interactions with women. But it also means checking your privilege. Yes, even as a woman. The reality is that some women have more privilege than other women. You see, who we are directly informs the power and privilege we have. For example, although white women are marginalized because of their gender, they still benefit in many ways because of their racial identity – which may also include other privileges based on their class, sexuality, and/or ability (although this isn’t necessarily always the case). So, we can see how this is further complicated by the varying contexts and realities that exist when gender intersects with other identities that may either work to marginalize or privilege us. Now it’s easy for us to get warped into an “oppression Olympics” mindset. And I urge us to resist this way of thinking altogether. It’s counterproductive, and will only make us feel helpless, petty, and vindictive towards one another. It’s no one’s fault for having privilege. And you shouldn’t feel guilty for having it either. I refuse to participate in shaming and blaming women for it. What I will not tolerate however is the refusal to name oppression, especially when it does not implicate us directly. The truth is, even if we are not directly affected by it, we are.  

My point is that if we are really serious about being committed to achieving gender equity, we must develop a critical understanding of how race, class, sexuality and other differences contribute to further oppressing women who may be different from us. Use your privilege for good. Use it to give other women a voice and space to liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression. Otherwise, what you’re doing is actively being complicit in further marginalizing women who don’t share the same identity-based privilege you have. So, if our personal and collective objective is to successfully liberate ourselves as women, we need to be inclusive of all women – including and especially Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, rural women, Muslim women, disabled women, lesbian queer and trans women, as well as any intersecting identities of the like. It’s either all of us, or none of us. We need to recognize that our liberation is bond to one another. True liberation can only ever be realized through the stronghold of sister solidarity and allyship. So long as another woman is unfree, I will never myself truly be free, even when her shackles are very different from my own. It’s up to us to break the vicious cycle. We cannot let them pit us against each other. We cannot afford to see each other’s wins as losses. Men certainly have a role to play here too. But it’s up to us women to lead our own liberation. Let us embrace being and becoming our own heroes. The power we have when we come together is astronomical. It’s an incredibly powerful force – one not to be reckoned with. Together, we can defy all possibilities. We can, and will, overcome. We wield the strength of steel, and carry the courage and resilience of all women who came before us, and those who presently ground us. They fought tirelessly for us, and their spirits continue to live within us. We must have the critical consciousness to realize this if we are ever going to unleash our greatest and most powerful potential. So, let’s all take a step back and reflect. Let’s be honest and critical with ourselves, starting with the way we treat other women in our lives. So, I invite you, my dear sisters, to let this knowledge and awareness empower you. Let it empower you, and together let’s empower each other. Because whether you realize it or not, we’re all in this together, and I want us to envision a future that’s kinder, more compassionate, and more loving than ever before. Women have always been at the forefront of revolutionary change, and women will continue to be the ones coming together to fight for a better world for many, many generations to come.

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