When someone hears I am a Muslim, I am often asked: Do you believe in women’s rights? Why are women in your religion forced to wear that headscarf?
In our society, there is a lot of miscommunication about religion, especially Islam. That has been a constant theme that has influenced my life. When I started taking a high school class on feminism taught by Ileana Jiménez, it shifted my perspective on what feminism is and what it truly looks like. The following is my reflection on Islam based on what this course has made me think about in relation to stereotypes about Muslims based on gender and how we must create new tools to dismantle these stereotypes.
For most people, a Muslim man is seen as a sexist brute who likes nothing but money and power. But where do I fit in? When I go to Egypt, I have seen these stereotypes play out in my family, where almost all the men are in charge. There is this western belief about Muslims that is constantly fed to those in the so-called global north that makes white people see Islam as not right or even savage and that we need to change how we act to be more socially accepted.
When I am talking to fellow Muslims in Egypt, they almost always shift their tone of voice to sound more “American,” because there is this assumption that because I was raised in America, I know better, and they should change to sound more like me. On the flip side, when I am speaking to non-Muslim people in the US, there is already a certain filter that they apply to me. In other words, they think that I am too ignorant to have a conversation about anything. Both sides are part of the damaging cycle that blinds people to the true reality of Islam. Each time I look at all the reasons that Muslim men are stereotyped like this, I go back to the conflict between theory and practice.
Most assumptions about Muslims come from the media. Post 9/11, mass media’s racial profiling of “terrorists” has made a long-lasting impression on society worldwide. There is a general “othering” theme, as all Muslims are too often seen as the enemy. By countering these negative perceptions, I hope to foster understanding.
First, I believe in women’s rights because Islam says everyone has a right to act on what they believe. Regarding the headscarf or hijab, it is a woman’s right to decide when and how to wear it. The purpose of it is to show humility and respect for themselves and God.
I hope to use counter-narratives about Islam as a way to question whitewashed history and to reveal the western world’s violent imperialist sins in order to create reflective and empowering programs that will foster restorative justice between traditional Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
After taking this high school feminism class, I now believe that feminism and Islam go hand in hand. They represent equality and justice for all. Both examine systemic structures to seek to change them for a better and new world. When we realize these connections, we will be able to turn to solutions that will empower us to progress into the future together.
What can we do to change those structures and empower ourselves for change? The power between feminism and Islam is that both emphasize how to bring out your inner power. For instance, Islam lays out that each person, no matter what gender, is responsible for their independent identity. They have their own rights and carry the burden of their moral and spiritual obligations. Power comes from self-reflection on the morals inside of you.
For me, the Black feminism that we learned in class has allowed me to see how feminist theory also emphasizes inner power. This is elaborated in the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement”:
”The fact that racial politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not allow us, and still does not allow most black women, to look more deeply into our own experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.”
Engaging in feminist theory allows us to reflect on who we are. However, in my experience of Islam, self-reflection is always stopped by the top “men” in my life. This is because of the fear that if I do take the time to evaluate not only myself but also the systems of oppression that are around us, then they are afraid that I will realize how power functions. I want to work to end this kind of thinking. We need to recognize how power works so that we can have true justice and liberation in Islam for all genders.
The religion of Islam has been split into two: the culture and the actual religion. Unfortunately, the culture has turned towards a patriarchal corruption of men and boys that warps the true words of Islam. Extremist groups cherry-pick specific phrases and words to justify their extreme actions such as slaughtering innocents and damaging perspectives related to women’s rights. This takes away from the true meaning of Islam. The way that men are forced to “follow the religion or else they are not true Muslims” makes them follow harmful expectations that they don’t believe in.
I do not believe in rules that silence women and girls, such as not having the choice to wear a hijab, or not having basic human rights such as the women in Afghanistan. This is not the Islam I want to follow. A specific aspect of Islam that I always argue about with Muslims is that Islam has to adapt to the times, and the Qu’ran does mention that the people must re-interpret the fundamentals taught by the religion to respond to the current times. It states, ‘Inna Allāha Lā Yughayyiru Mā Biqawmin Ĥattá Yughayyirū Mā Bi’anfusihim (Surah Rad; Quran 13:11). That translates to “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
What does this mean for me?
Non-Muslims automatically assume that because I am a young Muslim man, I am sexist. However, what they don’t know is that sexist patriarchal values have ruined the beauty and truth of Islam. For example, when I visit my uncle in Egypt, I experience a cultural shift that makes me uncomfortable. He dominates his wife. There is this norm that she cooks, cleans, and just works around the house. He is the breadwinner, as he goes to work all day until he comes home and just sits on the couch. He rarely speaks and never talks about how he feels.
However, my immediate family breaks these sexist cultural standards. Throughout my life, I have seen that Muslim women have this power within themselves that topples any assumption that is thrown their way. My mom and dad both divide and conquer. Instead of my father sitting around, on some days, he will cook. On the days he has free time, he will make sure that he helps my mom get everything done.
However, when he is at my uncle’s home, my father dictates how my aunts practice Islam. He demands that she dresses in long sleeves, dark colors, and multiple layers because it is for Islam. He will tell her to pray with him at a specific time in a specific place.
However, when it comes to my family, my father lets my mom take her own path In Islam. It is night and day. The reality is that there are various factors such as Egyptian television and his friends and just generally being around my uncle, that makes my father decide to enforce Islam in a more strict way than when he is in the US. Even so, my father had the opportunity to experience the western world and the space to think and struggle on how to adapt and I think that’s what allows him to engage with Islam differently with my mom.
I don’t see my aunt and uncle communicating because my uncle believes his beliefs are dominant, and there are no arguments against him. For instance, if my female cousins are dating, they must go to my aunt first. My aunt gives them permission to go out. However, they will never tell my uncle because he just yells,” I am not allowing this because we are Muslim.” In this case, my aunt undermines his authority but will never confront him. They do not communicate about their differences because the culture perpetuates male dominance even though Islam talks about communication being the focal point of marriage. When my mom and dad disagree, there is always a talk after they calm down. They respect each other’s opinions in the conversation and communicate their differences.
My mom breaks a lot of cultural norms such as wearing Westernized clothing with a multi-color hijab rather than wearing the black one that the culture dictates. Beyond the dress code, my mom runs her own business both outside and inside the home on top of being a homemaker. This is possible because of how my dad is open to helping her out with household duties.
It makes me think of how I have the privilege to be born in the space that my father has built, such as the kind of school I go to in New York City and the kinds of conversations we have around the house. It has opened my eyes to how the world my parents have built together here in the US has provided me with opportunities, such as taking this feminism class and how this course allows me to change how I use and build my identity.
Black feminist Audre Lorde writes that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. We must create new tools to dismantle how the non-Muslim world views Islam. When you go on the New York Times website and type in “Middle East,” you are immediately connected to articles about wars and Muslim terrorists. Then it leads you to articles about individual Muslim issues, such as articles about the Taliban, which often perpetuate the idea that because the Taliban oppresses women then that translates to all of Islam is oppressive. These articles make it difficult to dismantle the ways in which the master, or Western society, views Islam. We need new tools.
I have to talk to the younger generation about planting this seed for it to grow into something bigger. I could certainly use these master’s tools, such as journalism, social media, and even books to try to shift opinions and bring out the true beliefs of Islam. The master’s tools also have ways of being subversive for good.
For instance, the Saleh family on TikTok and Youtube describe a day in the life of a Muslim family. They call out any misconceptions people may have about Islam in a direct and kind way. They have the attention of 786,000 viewers on Youtube and 1.5 million on TikTok.
Then you get into comic books with Ms. Marvel that features a character called Kamala Khan, a Muslim woman who shows power. In comics, usually, the Muslim is the villain or there is no representation at all of Muslims. To have a character who is Muslim and who is open about it, who has the power to stretch her limbs, give me and other readers the feeling that we are not alone. She becomes an icon for everyone to look up to. She is written so artfully that she is a pillar of not only reason but also creativity in the hero community.
Too often in comic books, we will see a white cisgender man like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc., be leaders in the hero community but with Ms. Marvel, she is a breath of fresh air because she is a woman of color gaining equal representation in a field that is male-dominated. She has become a lightning rod for other heroes to be themselves like Miles Morales’s Spider-man. She became the leader of the Avengers team. With the popularity of Ms. Marvel, Marvel has started to push to add more diversity and start to use more of these characters. These two instances are the old master’s tools being reinvented into new ones. This is just the beginning of change.
Likewise, I need to start using new tools, new approaches. These links go to stories and quotes of Muslim activists speaking up and out. The very ability to speak out on structures and traditions that are seen as absolute to so many Muslims is a new tool in itself. When we speak out, it empowers us to see what change we can do and what conversations need to be held.
After taking this class, I have a direction I need to head in. The path I am on is not a straight one but is an intersecting one that this piece is just beginning to explore. Islam provides me with another perspective on feminism and vice versa. I hope to use counter-narratives as a way to question this culture, reveal past imperialist Western sins, and create restorative justice as a driving force for everyone to reflect on the intersection of Islam and feminism.