What would justice look like for Muslim Women? Everyone seems to be an expert when it comes to the answer, except for those most affected – Muslim women. “Experts” from both sides of the aisle – including conservatives who would gladly take away American women’s rights and self-proclaimed feminists – all claim to know what is best for a group to which they do not belong. As a Muslim feminist, I still cannot claim to know what justice would like for each of the nearly billion Muslim women on earth. However, I can offer some common-sense advice for those who actually want to help: instead of speaking for us, ask us what we want.
Feminists should be concerned about the violence Muslim women experience, just as we should be concerned about the violence every woman experiences – Muslim or not. In my submission last year for One Billion Rising, I spoke about the racism and sexism self-proclaimed feminists can exhibit when trying to “save” Muslim women. A long-time, anti-domestic-violence advocate blamed the entire Muslim religion for the murder of a wife by her husband, saying that the religion sanctioned wife beatings. Instead of helping other Muslim women come forward about abuse, her condemnation of an entire group of people did the exact opposite by shaming Muslim women into silence. Why would anyone wish to work with an “advocate” who sees her entire group through a racist lens? As a long-time, anti-domestic-violence advocate, I know all too well how shame and self-blame can be mammoth obstacles for victims in seeking help. If self-proclaimed feminists really want to be allies, they must work with Muslim women to help them feel safe and valued as their human equals. Otherwise, they are aiding abusers control the women by perpetuating the victims’ insecurities and self-reproach.
Crusading “feminists” accuse Islam of condoning violence against women, saying that the Qur’an gives husbands the right to beat their wives. Many of these self-proclaimed experts on Islam even admit to never having read the Muslim holy book. One of these “experts” quoted a mistranslation to me, trying to save me from my religion. When I pointed out that the translation she was reading was incorrect and has been denounced by many Muslim scholars, she reverted to plain-old cyber bullying. If any of these “experts” read a proper, feminist translation of the Qur’an, they would know the main reason why patriarchy is antithetical to Islam. As I explained during a TV interview alongside Eve Ensler, the most fundamental tenet of Islam is the oneness of God, meaning there can be no one between a person and God. For a man to be above a woman – whether it’s her father, husband, brother or even Imam (Muslim worship leader) – undermines the most important value a Muslim holds. As this young Muslim feminist explains,
(Muslim feminists) are not reformists. We are revivalists.
Islamic feminism is … a retrieval of the ways Islam had been practiced before and should be practiced still. It is the reclamation of the rights of women, from twisted patriarchal interpretations and mistranslations, back into the hands of the women to whom they belong. It is a return to understanding the Qur’an in the classical language in which it was delivered and a hadith in the contexts and specific conditions in which they were proclaimed, instead of through the lenses of a bigoted culture that uses them as political weapons.
…God gave women freedom. We don’t need the permission of men to live freely.
Femen illustrated another example of how not to try to “help” Muslim women when the group started a “Jihad” against Islam by going topless in front of mosques. As ridiculous as that might sound, their tactics made sense when a documentary revealed that the group was controlled by a man who called them bi*ches and started the group “to get girls.” Islamophobic attempts to “save” Muslim women go beyond self-proclaimed feminists to include every structure of our society. Consider how a long-time American Congresswoman who identifies as a champion of (U.S.) women’s rights alienated both Muslim and non-Muslim young feminists by her Islamophobic speech and actions at a feminist conference.
Muslim women’s attire seems to be the focus of these crusading “feminists,” who equate the burqa, hijab and other forms of traditional or modest clothing with oppression. Reducing the intelligence and agency of almost a billion Muslim women to their clothing is bad enough. What if we did the same for American women? With American girls as young as six developing eating disorders because of how American culture views women and girls, American women are not that much freer than women in patriarchal Muslim societies in how we can present ourselves in public. This illustration proves the point well.
Muslim women like me keep repeating to self-proclaimed feminists that covering up can be a choice – just as the right to wear short skirts. A young, Bangladeshi-American, Muslim woman started World Hijab Day to foster religious tolerance and understanding by inviting women (non-Hijab wearing Muslims/non-Muslims) to experience the hijab for one day. Women across the world answered her call and were surprised at the hatred they experienced for wearing a piece of clothing. Instead of listening to Muslim women about what is right for us, racist “feminists” in Canada proposed a ban on the hijab and other religious clothing. As in France after their burqa ban, the proposed law has resulted in an increase in Islamophobic attacks.
The rate of violence against Muslim women is not surprising, considering the prevalence of Islamophobia in America and the West, documented by Gallup polls. The rate of discrimination Muslims endure is on par with Latino and African Americans. One of the most disturbing findings in the Gallup research is that even among Americans who report no personal prejudice toward Muslims, one-third say they have an unfavorable opinion about our religion, Islam. The Islamophobia exists despite other Gallup research that confirm the feminist tenets of Islam, documenting how Muslim women are more educated than the average American woman, second only to Jewish-American women, and how we have more income parity with our male counterparts than any other group of American women.
With evidence to the contrary, why do the media and others still equate Islam with sexism? Just look at the economic reasons behind their Islamophobia. Saving the “poor, oppressed Muslim women” was part of the narrative justifying the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, which benefitted war profiteers. The hatred also helps individuals like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer sell their books and receive honoraria, whose Islamophobic organizations are designated as hate groups by the Anti-defamation league and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Not to mention, it helps sexist men in the West make distinctions between “safe western sexism and scary, heathen Muslim sexism.”
I am grateful to Eve’s V-Day and One Billion Rising for giving women around the world agency in deciding what justice looks like for each one of us, whether we identify as religious, spiritual, atheist or secular. If you wish to truly help women – whether they are from a group you belong to or one you wish to be an ally to – I hope you will follow Eve’s lead, instead of joining Islamophobes like Richard Dawkins, who told a woman to “stop whining” when she reported sexual harassment. By allowing women to speak for ourselves, instead of speaking for us, and listening to what we want, you can help us gain true justice.