October 2008


In Thursday, October 23rd’s edition of The Independent, journalist Johann Hari asked the question “Dare we stand up for Muslim women?” Hari (pictured below right), a young British journalist with left leanings and who has defended Muslims against the fear mongering of Canadian right-wing writer Mark Steyn, has presented an interesting and compelling case for the need to better the situation of Muslim women in the world. His examples are heartbreaking and elicit sympathy for the suffering women. However, as noble as Hari’s intentions may be in writing the piece he has made one very big, yet sadly extremely common, mistake – he has assumed the worst of Muslim women themselves – and this mistake only further entrenches racism toward Muslims in the East/South and creates a superior-inferior dichotomy.

Johann Hari. Image via Hari's website.

Johann Hari. Image via Hari's website.

Hari begins by presenting us with a graphic depiction of the severely burned face of a 21-year-old Bangladeshi acid-burn victim, Shahnaz, whose husband and brother-in-laws attacked her with acid. Why? According to Hari “[h]er crime was to be a Muslim woman who wanted to be treated as equal to a man.” Shahnaz had wanted to study but her husband disagreed. Hari also reports that the incidences of acid-burning of women has increased in Bangladesh and cites the growing independence of Bangladeshi women as the cause of anger among the men who burn them. “It is just one tactic in a global war to keep Muslim women at heel,” Hari says. He then lists tactics through which other Muslim countries have displayed their misogyny, often in brutal ways.

No one can deny that such horrific incidences occur. No one can deny that many Muslim women live in very difficult situations. However this is not a Muslim problem. Violence against women in many different forms whether it be hitting, slapping, rape, burning, etc., occurs in all countries. There exist men in all cultures and all religions who feel it their right to abuse women. Pointing out occurrences of such behaviour only among Muslims demonizes Muslim men and denies Muslim women their agency (a point to which I will return below). Additionally, in the process of painting this as a Muslim problem, which is what Hari has done, we end up denying that non-Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries suffer similar fates. For instance, if we stay with the region of South Asia, India‘s rates of violence against women are disturbing to many human rights workers. Additionally, this Violence Against Women Fact Sheet would indicate the universality of the problem of violence against women.

However, getting back to the Muslims in Hari’s piece, it is worth noting that Hari writes about the cultural variation in Muslim countries by writing:

We ask nervously: isn’t it just their culture that women are treated differently? Isn’t it a form of cultural imperialism to condemn these practices? The only rational response is to ask: whose culture do you want to respect here? Shahnaz’s culture, or her husband’s? The culture of the little girls learning in a Kandahar classroom, or of the Taliban thug who bursts in and shoots their teacher?…Muslim societies are not a homogenous block – and it is racist to pretend they are.

However, he points out cultural variation not to say, as I would, Muslims are a diverse people, or that the culture does not condone violence against women and that such behaviour is not a part of their diverse cultures but rather a product of ubiquitous patriarchy, the entrenchment of which is in large part a product of international economic and educational injustices. No, he uses this argument to say that there exist two cultures – the male Muslim culture and the female Muslim culture. The male Muslim culture is the brutal, angry and oppressive one, and the female Muslim culture is the subjugated, imperiled and submissive one. The picture that Hari has painted is one of brutal Muslim men and their oppressed Muslim women. It would seem that all Muslim men oppress all Muslim women all the time in every way possible. This message is nothing new and has been a part of Western/Northern discourse regarding the East/South for centuries now. A message used to demonize and to justify invasions of the East/South for centuries, including this one. Afghanistan and Iraq sound familiar?

But no Western/Northern saviour can stop here. It is not enough for those of us in the West/North (and yes I am also Western/Northern) to say “those people are so bad,” but we must, as now we have a contrasting people, say “we are so good.” After all, where there is bad there must also be something good. How else would we know that something is bad? And Hari does just this.

It is here, in our open societies, that the freedom of Muslim women is slowly being born. Last week, Amina Wadud became the first ever woman to lead British Muslims in prayer. All over Europe and the US, Muslim women are pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran and trying to turn many of its ugliest passages into misty metaphor.

It is true that the West/North is seeing the rise of many Muslim women who are “pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran.” We have Amina Wadud, Laleh Bakhtiar and Asma Barlas to name some. However, this is not unique to our part of the world. If the West/North has these women then the East/South has academics like Fatima Mernissi and Nawal El-Saadawi, and not to mention activists like Asma Jehangir, Malalai Joya, Ghada Jamshir, Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, Mukhtaran Bibi, Shirin Ebadi, just to name a few. Hari would have us believe that women living in Muslim countries are so utterly helpless so as to need pity and eagerly await to be rescued from their men by the West/North. However, the evidence states something quite the opposite.

A rally in Afghanistan in support of Malalai Joya, 2007. Image via AP Photo.

A rally in Afghanistan in support of Malalai Joya, 2007. Image via AP Photo.

Women living in Muslim countries can help themselves and are helping themselves. They are working every day to better the conditions of the women in their countries. They are resisting the misogyny of men all the time. Muslim women living in Muslim countries DO have agency and are taking the initiative to better their conditions. If anything is holding them back, if anything is oppressing them, it is the West/North itself (though not alone). Even Hari touches on this issue a little though fails to elaborate, mainly because it would seem that he may not realize that elaboration is an option. Let me try.

Hari rightly criticizes Western/Northern governments who support regimes that oppress women – Saudi Arabia for example. He is right when he says:

While we as a society are addicted to oil, our governments will always put petroleum before feminism. While we suck on the Saudi petrol pump, smearing rhetorical estrogen on to our bombs looks like an ugly trick.

But this is just the contemporary aspect of how the West/North oppresses women in the East/South. Colonization of the East/South by the West/North is a racist part of world history, the legacy of which has lived on in the East/South. The colonizers left, but not without making sure those whom they ruled over were not only thoroughly traumatized but also left with the mess of ethnic rivalries, wealth disparities, and educational discrepancies. The colonizers raped the land then left “her” to die. The result has been ages of high levels of wealth and educational discrepancies – factors which can gravely and greatly impact patriarchy and its strength. Patriarchy exists everywhere, though the strength of it can be impacted by other, namely economic, factors. All this then results in, what seem to be, stronger patriarchies in post-colonial regions. And of course, how can we forget the role the War on Terror has played in oppressing Muslim women, specifically in Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Pakistan. How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their homes are being bombed and their loved ones dying? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their brothers, sons, husbands are being disappeared or killed by occupying forces? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their food-producing soil is contaminated with chemicals from Western/Northern bombs? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when they have no water, no heating, no shelter?

Finally, as if to prove the freedom of Muslim women in the West/North Hari gives the example of his friend Irshad Manji’s call to the E.U. and U.N. to provide microcredits to Muslim women across the Middle East to help them start their own businesses. But in doing so he completely neglects the fact that the idea of microcredits, or microloans, belongs to a Bangladeshi, Muslim man – Muhammad Yunus – who Manji herself credits. But Hari, for some reason, completely leaves out this glaring fact.

And here we come full circle – from the Bangladeshi Muslim girl who was the victim of her husband’s cruelty, to the Bangladeshi Muslim man who created an economic model to help the poor women of his Muslim majority country. The dichotomy of the “dangerous Muslim man” and the “imperiled Muslim woman” of which Sherene Razack so aptly speaks in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics (read Fatemeh’s review here) just does not exist in Bangladesh it would seem. Or in any other Muslim country for that matter, as simple and compact as that would be.

So then, in the end, what can we do? Hari wants people in the West/North to stand up for Muslim women. As I have already (hopefully) shown, Muslim women are already standing up for our/themselves and the problem is not simply Muslim men (though I hope I did not create the impression that Muslim men never oppress Muslim women – many do but no more than non-Muslim men). To that we say thanks, but no thanks.

What Western/Northern people can do is stand up WITH us. When we say American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq cause Muslim women much suffering, stand with Muslim women as we speak against the occupations. When Muslim women say the War on Terror causes us great suffering because our freedoms are surpressed, the safety of our brothers, fathers, sons, is jepordized, we are terrorized, join us in our criticism of this war of terror. It is in standing WITH Muslim women, not for us, that achievements will be made. It is in solidarity, not appropriation, that healthy progress can take place.

Noha Ostadh   Copyright BBC

Noha Ostadh Copyright BBC

The BBC reports that Sharif Gomaa was given three years with hard labor as well as ordered to pay a fine of 5001 Egyptian pounds ($895) for sexually harassing Noha Rushdi Saleh. This is the first known instance of a man being imprisioned for sexual harassment in Egypt. Saleh, who is also known as Noha Ostadh, went public with her ordeal even when she was encouraged not to.

However, this attack in June became the focus of media coverage after the 27-year-old filmmaker, also known as Noha Ostadh, went public about her ordeal.

She told the BBC how shocked she had been at her attacker’s behaviour, and also at the attitude of passers-by who told her not to go to the police – while others blamed her for provoking the attack.

After an hour-long tussle in which she dragged Gomaa to a police station, she says the police officers initially refused to open an investigation.

The case was taken up by the Badeel opposition daily, which blamed Egypt’s oppressive government, and “the majority of citizens who identified with the oppressor”, and “decades of incitement against women” in some mosques.

Thank you Noha Ostadh for taking a stand, pushing the government to prosecute and showing that sexual harassment is unacceptable and wrong!

Update: For more on the coverage and reaction to the ruling, read Ethar’s post at MMW. She does a great job looking at reaction to verdict from around the globe.

We need to talk.

Having the economic privilege to spend a few summers in Cairo or to study abroad in Dubai does not give you the authority to speak about Middle Eastern culture.

Dating a Saudi guy does not give you the authority to speak about Islam. Or about Muslim men.

Knowing some Muslim women through work or as friends does not give you the authority to speak for them or the rest of Muslim women.

There are those of us who suffer. But don’t speak of us as victims if we are not dead. Don’t deny the agency with which we become survivors and active shapers of our lives. Don’t ignore the fighting we do for ourselves.

We can—and do—speak for ourselves. So stop speaking for us.

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.

So please check yourselves.

Being an ally does not mean speaking for us, making choices for us, or figuring out what’s best for us. It means supporting and defending the choices we make and the voices we use.

If we want help, and ask for it, then do only what you’re asked. Don’t invent new ways to characterize us as oppressed or agitate for the solving of problems that aren’t pressingly important. Case in point: if we want better divorce laws in a particular country, don’t agitate for the abolishing of mandatory clothing policies.

If you can’t do that, then don’t bother. It’s better to just stay out of our way. Passing judgment on and mischaracterizing our choices, our religion, or ways of life does us more harm than good; with friends like that, who needs enemies?

Sincerely,

An Islamic feminist who has met one-too-many white non-Muslim feminists that assume that they know better

Update: Before you comment, here’s some suggested reading:

If you have any fleeting knowledge of the Bible, you know exactly what the title of the post refers to. Often, this phrase is quoted by some Christian when discussing why they will not marry anyone else but another Christian. I wanted to discuss this issue in relation to Muslims, well specifically Muslim women, since this never seems to be an issue for Muslim men.

One of the first things I learned when I started to get of that age when I started to “mature” was that Muslim women do not marry non-Muslim men, doesn’t matter if they’re “people of the book” (i.e. Christians, Jews, Zorastians, among some scholars Hindus). There were no ifs, ands or buts about this. Muslim men, I was told, did not have to follow this same rule. They could marry women of the book and I saw some who did. Being the thinking girl that I was, I wondered why. One of the first answers I was given was that men are the head of the household and responsible for the religion of the children. If children had Muslim fathers, they were automatically Muslim, duh! But if they have non-Muslim fathers and Muslim mothers, they were automatically non-Muslims. This answer may have sounded ok in theory but then I saw that it wasn’t playing out in reality, at least not where I was. I saw children of Muslim fathers and Christian mothers who weren’t Muslim at all. I couldn’t even tell you about the opposite side of the coin because I rarely saw it and the Muslim women who “dared” to marry non-Muslims were usually run out of the community so I couldn’t tell you how their children ended up.

So if having a Muslim father didn’t ensure more Muslim children, there had to be another reason for not allowing Muslim women to marry out but allowing Muslim men to do so. There’s a verse in the Qur’an that addresses interfaith marriage.

5:5 Today, all the good things of life have been made lawful to you. And the food of those who have been vouchsafed revelation aforetime is lawful to you, and your food is lawful to them. And [lawful to you are], in wedlock, women from among those who believe [in this divine writ], and, in wedlock, women from among those who have been vouchsafed revelation before your time -provided that you give them their dowers, taking them in honest wedlock, not in fornication, nor as secret love-companions. But as for him who rejects belief [in God] – in vain will be all his works: for in the life to come he shall be among the lost.

This verse mentions only who is lawful for men and not women. So one question that could be asked is “doesn’t this verse apply to women too?” This is what Khaled Abou El-Fadl says:

Surprising to me, all schools of thought prohibited a Muslim woman from marrying a man who is a kitabi (among the people of the book). I am not aware of a single dissenting opinion on this, which is rather unusual for Islamic jurisprudence because Muslim jurists often disagreed on many issues, but this is not one of them.

All jurists agreed that a Muslim man or woman may not marry a mushrik [one who associates partners with God–there is a complex and multi-layered discourse on who is to be considered a mushrik, but we will leave this for a separate discussion]. However, because of al-Ma’ida verse 5, there is an exception in the case of a Muslim man marrying a kitabiyya. There is no express prohibition in the Qur’an or elsewhere about a Muslim woman marrying a kitabi. However, the jurists argued that since express permission was given to men, by implication women must be prohibited from doing the same. The argument goes: If men needed to be given express permission to marry a kitabiyya, women needed to be given express permission as well, but since they were not given any such permission then they must be barred from marrying a kitabi.

The justification for this rule was two-fold: 1) Technically, children are given the religion of their father, and so legally speaking, the offspring of a union between a Muslim male and a kitabiyya would still be Muslim; 2)It was argued that Muslim men are Islamically prohibited from forcing their wives to become Muslim. Religious coercion is prohibited in Islam. However, in Christianity and Judaism a similar prohibition against coercion does not exist. According to their own religious law, Muslim jurists argued, Christian men may force their Muslim wives to convert to their (the husbands’) religion. Put differently, it was argued, Islam recognizes Christianity and Judaism as valid religions, but Judaism and Christianity do not recognize the validity of Islam as a religion. Since it was assumed that the man is the stronger party in a marriage, it was argued that Christian and Jewish men will be able to compel their Muslim wives to abandon Islam. (If a Muslim man would do the same, he would be violating Islamic law and committing a grave sin).

This is the law as it exists or the legal legacy as we inherited it. In all honesty, personally, I am not convinced that the evidence prohibiting Muslim women from marrying a kitabi is very strong. Muslim jurists took a very strong position on this matter–many of them going as far as saying if a Muslim woman marries a kitabi she is as good as an apostate. I think, and God knows best, that this position is not reasonable and the evidence supporting it is not very strong. However, I must confess that in my humble opinion, I strongly sympathize with the jurists that argued that in non-Muslim countries it is reprehensible (makruh) for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim.

http://www.scholarofthehouse.org/oninma.html

Now, I have to be honest and say that this issue doesn’t affect me because I am married to a Muslim and I honestly didn’t want to be in an interfaith marriage. However, it does affect a lot of Muslim women in Western countries. Some women have actually left the deen (religion) because of this issue. I have also met a couple of older sisters who converted while their husbands did not and remained married to their husbands. So I’m opening up the floor and asking what do you think?

Iranian woman in Car

Iranian woman in Car

As soon as I saw headline, I have to admit I was thinking “huh?” and “what!” I’m not too keen on products geared towards women because usually these products rely heavily on stereotypes. Unfortunately, this new feminine car does just that. It’s suppose to come out in a range of “feminine colors” and “interior designs” because we are just so keen on how our car looks. I guess those guys in my neighborhood who spend thousands of dollars on rims and getting their car waxed didn’t get the memo that they’re not suppose to car our their cars looks. Oh, and those women I see in big, black Escalades with spinning rims really didn’t get the memo that they’re suppose to be in more “feminine” cars but I digress. To make things even better the new cars will feature “automatic transmission, parking and navigation aids and a jack for changing tyres without getting grease on your chador.” Again, I wonder why this is special to women. I’m sure plenty of men in Iran would love to drive an automatic since they’re much easier to drive. My husband and most American men aren’t buying automatic simply for their wives to drive but to drive themselves since they’re less of a hassle than stick shifts. Same for the navigation aids. As for not getting grease on chador, who wants to get grease on their clothes. I honestly don’t understand why these products aren’t marketed to both genders since they would seem to benefit both men and women.

While that was annoying, that part of the article that “ground my gears” was the BBC’s little tirade about gender in Iranian society. After describing the features of the car the author writes “If that suggests a degree of sexist stereotyping in Iranian society, it is, just possibly, true.” Yes, definitely. But then we start to get in this little slippery slope of self righteousness with the author saying things like “Iranian men have yet to absorb fully the message of equality” or “‘As a result, the report concludes, Iran’s new generation of working women “are obliged to play the role of a superwoman to resolve their contradictions in handling all tasks.’ It says such women ‘have become increasingly frustrated with their life'”. Now I don’t disagree with these assertions but I did wonder why they were brought up in an article about a car for women and why the author was acting like these issues were exclusive to Iranian women. American women have to contend with this issue as well. American women spend more time doing household chores than their husbands. British working women also have to contend with juggling it all while getting little help from men. So this is an issue that affects women all around the globe. Next time, I think the BBC should just stick to the story.

Find out more at MMW’s Friday Links.

What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of a Muslim woman? Is she Arab or South Asian? White or maybe Afghan or Indonesian? Notice that I haven’t mentioned African American (and also Latina). The media depiction of Muslim women usually does not include African American women. Often, Muslim women are depicted as coming from the Middle East or South Asia, and occasionally sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there has been increasing focus on Muslimahs of European descent, especially converts such as Yvonne Ridley and Dr. Ingrid Mattson.

When African American Muslims are depicted in the media, it is usually a male face (Siraj Wahaj, Abdul Hakeem Jackson, Malcolm X, Imam Warithdeen Muhammad, etc.) that is presented to the public. There are exceptions such as Dr. Amina Wadud. However, the overall trend is rather disheartening, considering how much African American Muslimahs do for other black Muslims as well as the whole Muslim community. I have often wondered why the stories, needs and concerns of African American Muslimahs are not focused on and come up with a myriad of possible answers.

One is the sexism that black Muslimahs encounter in their own community. This is probably symptomatic of the sexism that black women as a whole face in the black community. Black Muslimahs still have a long way to go in gaining leadership positions in mosques and national organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America, which focuses heavily on issues affecting African American Muslims. When there are few of us in leadership positions, it is hard for us to become the faces of the community in the media.

There’s also the racism, both covert and overt, that African Americans face in the Muslim community. Often, we’re not on the boards of masajid that aren’t predominately African American and if we are, our numbers are insignificant. African Americans are also not well represented in national organizations like ISNA, ICNA and CAIR. Also, the issues that affect African American Muslimahs are often ignored by organizations like ISNA and ICNA. When these organizations are pushed as the voice of American Muslims but lack significant input from African American Muslimahs, then it is not surprising that representation of African American Muslimahs is seriously lacking in the media.

Lastly, there is the racism of the mainstream media. On MMW, we have often discussed how Muslim women are portrayed as victims and otherized. The face of this woman is usually brown. Fatemeh has a great post about the racialization of Islam up at Racialicious. I think that this racialization of Islam leaves little space for the representation of Western Muslim women and almost no space for the representation of African American Muslim women.

While this post thus far may sound bleak, I do think that there is slow progress in getting African American Muslimahs heard. The blogosphere has provided an outlet for many African American Muslimahs to speak to the world. Not too long ago, NPR did a piece on polygyny among African American women. About four years ago, a great ethnography of African American Muslim women titled Engaged Surrender was published by the University of California press. Additionally, there has been more focus on African American Muslimahs in the entertainment industry as well. So things have been getting better. However, there needs to be more coverage of African American Muslimahs, as well as Latina Muslimahs. We are Muslim women too and we’re not invisible.

Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch