racism


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.

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

I don’t frequent forums as much I use to because I find it so much harder to deal with stupid comments. Another reason why I don’t frequent forums however is because I often encounter people who I really think have the best intentions but who also have a hard time acknowledging the various privileges they have and questioning the biases they have. I think in order to help yourself and help others–I mean really help yourself and others and not just give yourself a pat on the back–you have to recognize not only the oppression that occurs but also your own relationship with the people you’re working with and perhaps even your role in the oppression.

I was having a discussion with one such person. She is a white woman who is also a non-Muslim. I honestly believe that she wants to help Muslim women. However, we got into an argument over the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I don’t like the book for a lot of reasons but the woman in question said that there aren’t enough books like Infidel: basically books that discuss how Muslim women have to “overcome” oppressive cultures, perhaps leave Islam or just make it so watered down as to render it completely unrecognizable, fight those oppressive Muslim brutes with beards, escapes a whole lot of death threats and more. I disagreed with that assertion for three reasons. The first is that there are so many books, articles, and website dedicated to Muslim women or former Muslim women who have agendas that seem to work more conservative political agendas rather than equality for Muslim women. I don’t want to discount Hirsi Ali’s experiences, especially in regard to FGM and forced marriage (not to be confused with arranged marriages). However, I don’t think we should overlook the role of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the plight of Muslim women. Even certain practices like FGM have been aggravated by colonialism in some societies.

The second and bigger problem I have with that assertion is that it basically strips Muslim women of any control they have over the movement. Muslim women want to tell their stories in their own ways. We shouldn’t be forced into telling stories ultimately serve only two purposes: making Muslims look bad and making Western societies look great while absolving them of any role in current problems that Muslim women in various countries face. I’m not being apologetic nor am I saying that Muslims shouldn’t give themselves a cold, hard look in the mirror when looking at gender inequality. However, Muslim women’s stories shouldn’t be usurped to serve political and imperial purposes nor should we be told to only tell stories where Muslim men are the boogie monster and the West, including Western feminists, are our saviors. The oppression that Muslim men live under concerns us just as much as it does our brothers. After all, those men are our sons, our brothers, our fathers, and our husbands. Additionally, we want to tell our stories in our own way. So yes, we will speak about “honor” killings and masajid that have poor or no accommodations for women but we will also speak about war rapes that occur against Muslim women in Iraq, women having their privacy invaded everyday in the name of “security”, Western media that portrays Muslim women, especially those in hijab and niqab as “oppressed” and “weak” and more. By fighting all of these biases oppressions, we show that we are not helpless. We are strong and we will write our own narrative.