The Do’s and Don’t’s of Defending Muslim Women

While the defense of the rights of Muslim women from all faiths and from all corners of the globe is laudable, it’s important to call non-Muslims out on their privileges and prejudices about Muslim women’s lives and manifestations of faith, and the arrogance in how they speak about and interact with Muslim women.

I once wrote a piece for Double X in which I highlighted the fact that many non-Muslim feminists do not understand Muslim women or Muslim feminists accurately. Last year, I wrote “An Open Letter to White, Non-Muslim Feminists” forMuslimnista, which was a more acerbic version of the Double X piece:

“I notice a lot of condescension and arrogance when you talk to us or about us. Let me be clear: you do not know more about us than we know about ourselves, our religion, our cultures, our families, or the forces that shape our lives. You do not know what’s best for us more than we do.”

The letter was an unburdening. Yes, I wrote it while angry, after hearing yet another non-Muslim person believe that they held the key to female Muslim liberation because of the summer they spent in Dubai or the Muslim friend they had in college. But while my anger may have exposed readers to a rawer expression of my beliefs, I still stand by what I wrote, I still feel my anger is and was valid, and I still feel that it’s important to call non-Muslims out on their privileges and prejudices about Muslim women’s lives and manifestations of faith, and the arrogance in how they speak about and interact with Muslim women.

The recent statements on Aasiya Hassan’s murder from NOW director Marcia Pappas highlight what I’m talking about. Despite the fact that Aasiya’s murder was a cut-and-dried crime of domestic-violence, Pappas insisted on racializing it and “Islamocizing” it by calling it a “terroristic version of an honor killing”. Her continued support for her statements, in the face of disagreement and point-by-point dismantling of her views by Muslims, Muslim and non-Muslim domestic violence workers, and other feminists, personifies the arrogance and prejudice my letter aimed to call out. Pappas, through her statements and actions, sends the message, “This is what I think of Aasiya. This is what I think of Muslims and Muslim women, no matter how many people prove me wrong.”

When I published my Double X piece, which was admittedly more measured, it received a fairly receptive response. Though I know change is more often generational than radical, I believe more people are willing to listen to strategies for change in the dialogue between non-Muslim and Muslim women.

So I think it’s time to revisit the underlying arguments my letter implied but didn’t flesh out.

My difficulty with Pappas and those like her (whatever gender, color, or creed) is made up of several complex issues:

1. Arrogance and ethnocentrism

The arrogant-but-sometimes-well-meaning “I know what’s best for you” attitude that flies in the face of respect for others’ lifestyles, worldviews, histories, and differences, and ignores or disrespects Muslim women’s personal agency. This is a major barrier and has been dubbed neo-colonialism for a good reason. Decades ago (even centuries), when the British colonized India, Egypt, Algeria, and other regions, the “I know what’s best for you” attitude was what enabled them to oppress men and women (Muslim and others) in these regions.

The idea that another person outside a Muslim woman’s communities and situations knows better about the issues she faces as a Muslim woman or as a woman of a certain ethnicity is impossible. While someone from outside my communities can offer an outsider’s perspective, s/he cannot understand my issues authoritatively enough to know them better than I. And, in constructing strategies for change, assuming someone else’s way (“Western” or secular or “progressive”) is better often ignores the fact that the secular way may not fit into a Muslim woman’s life, or a certain Western feminist model may not offer a Muslim woman constructive way to demand for the changing of laws that hurt her and her family. Refusing to believe that working within an Islamic or cultural framework can help me achieve the liberation I’m looking for isn’t fair to me—this isn’t cultural relativism, this is taking into account different forces that shape and have shaped a Muslim woman’s circumstances, and the different issues that she faces.

Furthermore, speaking for me when I did not ask you to actually takes my voice away. It is oppression just the same when a feminists does it as when, for example, a man speaks for a woman without her consent.

2. Prejudice

Often in the form of racialized Islamophobia and sexism. The refusal to listen to me or believe me when I tell you that Islam has given me wonderful things. Painting a Muslim woman’s issues as religious when they may really involve class, or patriarchal manifestations in her culture, or race. Demonizing my religion or culture in order to paint me as a victim that must be released from both of these things, no matter how much I love them or how they have positively shaped me.

3. Pity and victim construction

Specifically, the constant victim narrative that Muslim women are forced into. Assuming I am brainwashed because I identify as a Muslim, assuming every woman who wears a headscarf didn’t choose to.

Looking at a woman who involuntarily underwent female genital cutting as a victim does not empower that woman; it is often demeaning because it assumes that she can never be more than what happened to her. Pitying her because of what happened to her doesn’t empower her, either.

Looking at a woman who escaped an abusive marriage as a victim of her religion does not empower that woman. Not only does it mischaracterize the situation (it was her husband who abused her, not Islam), but also it doesn’t get her on the road to rebuilding her life.

Looking at an Iraqi woman as a victim ignores the agency she may exercise; constructing her only as a victim of war erases all her individual personality traits, her memories, and her humanity, leaving her to be nothing but part of a wretched aftermath. No human should be a wretched aftermath.

Pity doesn’t help anyone. And pitying me is just another type of oppression—just another way to construct yourself as better than I.

4. Using the wrong tools to measure liberation

Liberation is not a cookie-cutter deal. It looks different to every single woman in the world, and Muslim women are no different. There are Muslim women for whom liberation looks like a miniskirt, or a headscarf, or a university degree, or a well-paying job, or a husband, or a house, or debt wiped clean, or a divorce, or a reliable source of clean water, or opportunities for her children, or different combinations of these, etc. Forcing one model of liberation on anyone isn’t liberating; it’s just as oppressive as other paternalist or patriarchal forces in a Muslim woman’s life.

The best example of this is clothing, and the symbolizing of clothing as liberation, oftentimes equating choice of clothing with liberation. While I personally believe that women should be able to wear what they themselves want and face no cultural, religious, or other repercussions for it, assuming that changing clothing brings liberation is misguided. Clothing is a symbol of repression for a reason: it is not the cloth itself that oppresses, but the complex legal, social, and economic issues that enforce the cloth. Campaigning for Afghan women to have the right to remove their burqas will not change the issues that stand in their way and enforce a dress code.

Now a framework of “Don’ts” has been established, let’s move on to the “Dos”. Strategies for change:

1. Changing arrogance and co-option of voice

If I ask you to speak for me because I am unable to speak for myself, make sure you’re doing it right: keep my concerns in mind, keep my circumstances in mind, and reflect that. Don’t reflect what you think is best for me.

If a Muslim woman doesn’t ask you to be her voice or speak for her, don’t. If you wish to help a Muslim woman you feel is voiceless, help her get a voice. Never assume you have the right to speak on someone else’s behalf.

2. Changing prejudice

Recognize that I might not view Islam or my culture the same way as you do. Don’t accept information about Islam from unqualified sources, especially those who don’t have my best interests in mind. Realize that my Islam will be different from others’. Don’t demonize my faith or my culture or the men in my life, no matter what I say about them, no matter how bad my experiences have been or how I complain: they are my experiences to sort out, and no one else’s. Keep in mind that patriarchy is a worldwide phenomenon, and it will manifest itself differently for me than it will for others. I may experience very patriarchal forms of Islam, while my sister may not.

3. Do not pity me or construct me as a victim

Recognize that no matter what has happened to me, good or bad, I am a person who is more than my labels or experiences.

4. Let Muslim women define liberation for themselves

Help only if I ask for it. By help, I do not mean co-opting my liberation and planning it out for me; I mean helping me get where I want to go, wherever that is. If a Muslim woman wants to leave an abusive relationship, don’t tell her that marriage in Islam is (insert your opinion here), help her find a divorce lawyer and safe shelter.

Being an ally is the same as being a true friend: respecting my wishes, even if you may want something different for me; helping me when I need it, without thinking me helpless; and viewing me as an entire person.

Photo Credit: Friends for Peace

Fatemeh Fakhraie is a former Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.

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