Islam is arguably the most discussed religion in the West and in the world today. Besides the constant discussions of terrorism, the predicament of Muslim women definitely comes in second as the most controversial topic of debate regarding Islam. Many non-Muslims believe that sexism against Muslim women is widespread and that Muslim women themselves aren’t capable of challenging the misogynist principles that they constantly face in their community. People fail to realize that a large number of Muslim women are standing up against these extremely dangerous and damaging circumstances of patriarchy. However, many women are also hesitant.
The discussion around feminism in Muslim communities is complicated for many reasons. Often times, Muslims will see this as an attack on Islam and you have to quickly reassure them that this isn’t about the religion, but the people who practice it. This is a topic of the culture within Muslim societies spanning from Africa to the Middle East and how problematic they are.
The other side of the argument is not wanting to speak out about what is going on in our community to give non-Muslims more of a reason to look down on our religion and think they have the right to critique it. For example, a number of Arab women will criticize feminism. They see it as contributing to the damaging and minimizing impressions that the West has of Muslims and Arabs in particular. They do not want to be seen as helpless and passive women that are oppressed by their own religion, and they do not want Muslim men to be seen as monsters.
My experience of trying to navigate gender politics within the Muslim community and within the white Western world reminds me a lot of the discussions regarding race and gender that my high school feminism class had after watching the Anita: Speaking Truth to Power documentary in class. This constant cycle of women of color being forced to choose between their race and their gender will always result in our suffering in silence because we are being told that protecting “our men” is more important than whatever we are going through.
Growing up, I learned that maintaining the well-being of boys and men is the responsibility of the women in their lives. I noticed how a lot of the older women in my family never put themselves first, and unfortunately, they didn’t even realize that. I heard from too many people that if a woman is abused, she needs to realize what she did wrong and not do it again. I also heard that “a husband cannot rape his wife.” This deeply saddens me because a lot of these statements came from women themselves.
The intersection of race and gender will always be hard to discuss openly in communities of color. If a Muslim man is beating, raping, or inflicting any kind of emotional or physical damage to a Muslim woman, we must not only criticize him, but we have to discuss the bigger notions that are so deeply embedded in our culture and community that are guiding him to do these things. We must set aside our discomfort and have these important discussions because they are very alive, but for some reason they are too delicate and sensitive to talk about directly.
Several students of color in our high school feminism class shared how they initially thought that feminism was for white women and girls. This belief resonates with many Muslims as well, specifically Muslim men. In my family, I have heard men use the violent and deadly American invasion of countries in the Middle East and Africa, and the constant bombings, etc. as a way to further dismiss feminism as just another thing that Westerners are trying to impose on us, demanding that “we as Muslims do it differently.” Now that I am more knowledgeable on this topic, I know that real and intersectional feminism is concerned about all women, no matter how multifaceted their identity may be.
I stated earlier that we are critiquing the people who practice the religion, not the religion itself. It is important for all of us to realize that this sexism that is ingrained in our community is not specific to Islam. This institutionalized misogyny isn’t about our religion. I believe that not all, but a lot of it has to do with the racist and sexist colonialism that took and continues to take place in Muslim countries. Colonial powers from the Ottoman empire, the British, the French, etc. all played a huge role in promoting misogynist ideals in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. They distorted our culture so they could be able to easily implement their dominance.
There are many ways that we can see these colonial powers at work in the everydayness of Muslim life. One example of something that is wrongly justified by religion is women in Saudi Arabia not being allowed to drive. The reasoning behind this law claimed that Islam states that men and women have to be separate, not equal, when in actuality, Islam preaches the very opposite.
There is another law that women in Saudi Arabia must have a male guardian at all times. This is also completely contradictory because Islam constantly promotes and praises the individuality and independence of women. These are just a few examples of how Muslim men use Islam to hide behind their misogyny and hyper-sexualization of Muslim girls and women.
I want to emphasize that bringing colonialism to the discussion isn’t to excuse or distract from the sexist behavior of Muslim men and I definitely don’t think this is the sole reason for sexism in our community. With or without colonial powers, these ideals would have still surely made their way into our societies. The root causes will always be complicated, but in order to even begin fixing something, we must always acknowledge systemic problems such as imperialism and colonialism.
As I continue to get older and grow into myself as a feminist and more specifically a Muslim feminist, I want to continue to have conversations, big and small, with family members or with others, about how important it is to acknowledge feminism in our everyday lives as Muslims. I want to clear up misconceptions in my community of what feminism is and ensure them that it isn’t just for white women. I would love to see us start to dismantle these extremely dangerous and oppressive notions that we have internalized and continue to teach others.