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.

‘Black Panther’: Why Representation Matters

Image Source: Pinterest

Growing up, seeing people who looked like me – especially in mainstream media – certainly wasn’t the norm. Today, not much has changed. Muslim and Arab representations still depict us as a savage, barbaric people driven by terrorist motives to ruthlessly kill. We have been treated to film after film in which we are reduced to playing the part of terrorist, evil villain, sinister billionaire and, of course, silenced women. Think about how such images would impact your sense of self-worth. And, worse, think about how that makes others see you and your community. If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mainstream media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. If you are a minority, it’s challenging to not be angry with Hollywood for the irresponsibly negative ways it has depicted Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs and other minority groups – all in the pursuit of making millions, if not billions, of dollars. 

So, a movie like Black Panther comes along – taking in nearly $200 million dollars across North American theatres its opening weekend – and I’m left feeling more inspired and hopeful than ever before. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It is an authentic and honest delivery on imagining a world of alternative possibilities. Representations are both complex and nuanced. It illuminates the vast diversity of African cultures and histories. It honours the significant ties to ancestral struggle and sacrifice. And for the first time in Hollywood’s history, Black people, particularly Black women, embody a powerful spirit of agency. A story is finally being told on the big screen without care or concern to appease a white audience. For far too long, Hollywood has set a low standard for incredibly talented Black actors and artists in the industry. Limited by stereotypical roles – the slave, the criminal thug, the poor ghetto kid –  Black people have been expected to play characters only serving to support the leading role of white actors – the saviour, the hero, the saint. That, or they are instantly killed off, usually within the first few minutes of the opening credits. Black Panther is a film that refuses to settle, and pushes back with a great force of tenacity and ambition nevertheless. Played by a mostly Black cast, Black people here are unapologetically their own agents of change. They’re heroes leading their own destinies with a great sense of triumph and inner strength. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely humour, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colours.

Above all else, it’s a movie about what it means to be Black in both America and Africa – and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day Black life. It challenges racist, colonial ideologies by dispelling myths of current-day political and social realities. The U.S. loses its credibility as an imperial power, and Africa is no longer depicted as a starving, barren land dependent upon foreign aid for survival. Instead, these alternative representations serve to interrupt stereotypical ways of thinking of Africa and its people in relation to the rest of the world. It provides an uncontested space to speak truths by completely reimagining the possibilities. It asks of us to consider African states as sovereign, wealthy, and technologically advanced, with an unyielding will for self-determination. This too is coming from an assumed connection to the historical implications that colonialism – the theft of land, resources, and human capital by European colonizers – and racism – the history of slavery in the Americas and the Jim Crow era –  has had and continues to have on African states and Black people everywhere. Essentially, Black Panther makes us contemplate the what ifs if you will. After the Obama era, perhaps none of this should feel groundbreaking. But it does. In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge systemic racism (e.g. police brutality and mass incarceration), its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on Black life and tradition.

Throughout the entirety of the film, Black Panther offers counter narratives of cultural resistance to impartial, untrue, and problematic representations of Black people and other communities of colour. It’s a reclamation of stories – a movement towards reinventing the public perception of who we are and where we come from. It’s a retelling of lived experiences from the eyes of those of us who have historically been marginalized and shunned from the dominant sphere. Black Panther also places a striking emphasis on the nuances of home. It doesn’t shy away from the painful realities of exile and diaspora most commonly experienced by many living in the West. While it focused primarily on the experiences of African Americans, this is something that deeply resonates with me. As a child of immigrants, self-discovery and identity formation in context of the question of home has always been a struggle. Coming to terms with my identity and my place in the world has resulted in a difficult, and ongoing process of reconciling the void between here and there. That is, the relationship between my birthplace and place of origin is complicated. Here, never Canadian enough to belong – there, never considered Arab or Muslim enough to fit in. Deemed an outsider within, my Canadian, Arab, and Muslim identities are at once rejected. Seen as one or the another, but never all together. They are at odds with one another, wrestling the notorious battle that aspires to cultivate a sense of purpose, belonging, and inner peace. I’ve learned that acceptance of this beautifully agonizing predicament is necessary. It’s a way of being and becoming, but also vital to my very existence. In the same way, Black Panther is telling of a similar account rooted in longing for someplace else.

Black Panther is a history-in-the-making kind of film. It’s a milestone worthy of celebration for many reasons. But for me, Black Panther is a big deal particularly because it gives me – and people of other minority groups – the freedom to dream of one day seeing our own superheroes. I look forward to the day when my community can be this excited to see a movie that showcases one of us as a superhero. What a contrast it would be to how cruelly Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs in both television and films for decades. Black Panther has already broken box-office records, which means that we’ll hopefully continue to see dynamically complex Black characters and captivatingly compelling stories of communities of colour both on and off screen. And here’s hoping that Black Panther’s popularity translates into other minority groups finally getting a chance to see someone who looks like them save the world.

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