Muslim Women Don’t Need Saving

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.

Photo: Maaria Lohiya 

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