It’s Time to Stop Acting Like Women are the Reason Islamophobia Exists

Image source: Pixabay
Image source: Pixabay

After accusations of rape were made against Tariq Ramadan, Asra Nomani wrote an article for the New York Times parading an Islamophobic and anti-Semitic headline that inquired as to whether Tariq Ramadan is the “Harvey Weinstein of Islam.” While the rhetoric was familiar to anyone who’d experienced Islamophobia, reactions to Nomani’s article exhibited that the fight to dismantle Islamophobia prioritizes the reputation of Muslim men over the struggle to address sexual violence.

Hamid Dabashi of Al Jazeera outlandishly claimed that “No amount of sexual violence by Muslim men, no matter how ‘prominent’ they may think they are, amounts to the astoundingly racist headline of ‘the Harvey Weinstein of Islam’,” preposterously comparing a headline penned by a brown Muslim woman to any amount of sexual assault—and bewilderingly finding the headline worse.

Muslim men (and women) were quick to attribute Dabashi’s mistake to just that—a mistake. Dabashi must have intended to say that no amount of sexual assault justifies racism, right? Except he didn’t. And, it wasn’t a mistake. The poor framing carries consequences in a rape culture that continues to minimize the issue of sexual violence while centering the reputation of influential men.

Dabashi made the “mistake” because he believes it. His sentence, in one sweep, protects the specific ways Muslim men are targeted by Islamophobia at the cost of providing the same solidarity to many survivors, who are never believed and shamed into silence for daring to expose violence committed by influential men. It’s no accident that Dabashi’s same sentence continues on to praise Judaism’s “civilizing fortitude”— with the questionable enthusiasm characteristically employed to compensate for troubling views—in an obvious attempt by one patriarchy to congratulate another.

Alarmingly, this framing silences survivors of sexual violence unless they can produce legal evidence, court decisions, and the state’s stamp that sexual violence occurred, sending the message they should shut up because they may harm the reputation of beloved leaders. Critical conversations on rape culture, sexual violence, and its manifestations in Muslim communities are policed, casting Muslim feminists as the leading culprits whom the agenda of white supremacy and colonization position against the Muslim ummah to destroy the Muslim man.

We reject these dangerous binaries and disingenuous narratives, and argue that the conversation and work to dismantle Islamophobia must include survivors of sexual violence. The distinct ways in which gendered, patriarchal Islamophobia creates unique barriers against Muslim survivors of sexual violence, especially when the perpetrator is an individual with influence, are part of this struggle. We need to refocus the discourse on the issue of sexual violence, rather than deflecting away from addressing this important topic.

Using White Supremacy to Silence Muslim Women

But let’s practice the benefit of the doubt that we’ve never granted to Nomani, and presume that Dabashi meant that nothing, including sexual assault, justifies racism. What qualifies Dabashi, who is not a Muslim woman, to formulate this thought, much less voice it, and so poorly? Why do Muslim men continuously center themselves when a Muslim woman challenges them about sexual assault by citing white supremacy to discredit her?

What right do Muslim men have to say that no one outside of our communities can criticize them? Certainly, Muslim women can make this call, because we can choose who speaks for us. But why should men? Why should rapists and the systems that enable them choose their own judges? Why should men isolate us from our friends and allies? Why should men decide for Muslim women who should or shouldn’t support us?

Time and time again, the words “that’s how we’re depicted through white supremacy” are used to silence Muslim women, as though Muslim women ourselves are not victims of white supremacy, as if white supremacy is in fact our fault for not staying silent about abuse or not protesting abuse in a way considerate of and approved by Muslim men.

In what world is it okay to implicate Muslim women in white supremacy? How does a Muslim man muster up the immodesty to tell a Muslim woman outraged about sexual assault that she’s an agent for white supremacy? That she should watch her words because white men are listening? What, exactly, is she meant to do about that, other than offer herself as some sort of sacrificial lamb for the “greater” cause of fighting racism?

Women are Not the Reason Islamophobia Exists

Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider whether Muslim women even have the power to fuel Islamophobia like men believe, or whether that’s victim-blaming. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending women are the reason Islamophobia exists. Muslim men are inclined to source even their sexism to white supremacy, claiming that the effects of colonialism are the reason men commit drastic acts of violence such as sexual assault. (It isn’t, otherwise, why aren’t Muslim women, who are also victims of colonialism, assaulting, kidnapping, and raping Muslim men?) Most importantly, at what point does the source of this behavior matter?

When one of our writers was in grad school, she discussed institutional racism in a creative writing classroom. The professor, a man of color, argued this was too tedious a subject to engage readers and added that racism exists outside of white colonization, because people from his country of origin were racist against people of hers.

His point only confirmed her own: The racist stereotypes he described his people harboring against hers resulted from interaction with whites, as they were stereotypes perpetuated by white supremacy. At the time, she’d offered her response that colorism, for example, was derivative of white supremacy.

She was well-accustomed to forming excuses for non-white racists by insisting they were just internalizing/perpetuating. But does it matter? If you’re perpetuating white supremacist ideals on the institutional level of an entire nation, why should you get a pass by painting yourself as the victim instead of the people you’re actually hurting?

This is what men do to women, all the time, and we’ve graciously presented this story in terms of race instead of sex, so that those who refuse to see oppression they do not experience can understand this point. Why do victims of white supremacy who hold more power over us get to determine that we should go out of our way to protect them from Islamophobia rather than speaking frankly?

Muslim men know white supremacy and Islamophobia affects us too; consequently, they are able to hold us hostage from speaking against sexism in the Muslim community that men are responsible for. At the same time, they act as though we are outside of Islamophobic pressures, so we can’t criticize them.

Muslim Men Protecting Their Own

After the Tariq Ramadan accusations, it was no surprise Muslim men scrambled to protect themselves and Tariq Ramadan under the guise of standing against Islamophobia—by policing Muslim women. When will we discuss the hypocrisy of finding Muslim women Islamophobic, yet not realizing Muslim men too can be Islamophobic against Muslim women?

When a Muslim man polices the way a Muslim woman discusses sexual assault, that’s Islamophobia. It is placing gendered expectations on a woman because she is Muslim, and expecting her to prioritize the men in her community over her pain.

It’s especially infuriating that the way Muslim men decided to address Islamophobia in the case of Tariq Ramadan and time and time again was by policing Muslim women rather than addressing French politics.

With that creative-writing professor, our former grad student hadn’t registered at the time that by making excuses for him and his thoughts on white supremacy vs. prejudice between races, she was being unkind to herself …and to the entire Asian subcontinent. She had prioritized an admitted oppressor over her liberation. Women are so conditioned to de-prioritize our issues.

In fact, she didn’t realize how uncompassionate this was until she imagined herself inflicting it on someone else—consider if she ever even thought to demand someone dismiss her racist or sexist behavior because she learned it from white people, the way men do? Unimaginable. Disgusting. How do men fail to realize how inconsiderate and harmful they are?

How can you ever ask another to sacrifice herself for you because you face a common enemy whom you perceive as greater?

On Muslim Men Calling out Asra Nomani

Why do Muslim men feel they are in any position to call out Asra Nomani? What is most aggravating about this is that Muslims understand why Nomani may be insincere and deserving of criticism when she calls out Muslim men, but not why Muslim men are insincere and deserving of criticism when they call out Asra Nomani.

That speaks volumes about which oppressions we view as legitimate, and which we view as issues that “can wait.” Women’s rights can wait. So can anti-Blackness. Does anyone know of a single non-black Muslim male figure of mediocre prominence who criticized Asra Nomani when she was (and still is) anti-Black? Wanting to curb a Muslim woman’s speech when she’s aggrieved over sexual assault in order to preserve the reputation of Muslim men is telling, and it’s abusive.

Are these men as willing to criticize Nomani for her anti-Blackness too, or is it just oppressions that affect them or sully their reputations? Criticizing Nomani’s anti-Blackness would have actually been justifiable, but Muslim men aren’t interested in that. What they’re interested in is stepping out of line to put a woman in her perceived place.

Seeing that Muslim women have always called out Asra Nomani, who is an anti-Black racist who self-importantly believes the struggles of the Black community should cater to her specifically, a non-Black woman, for some reason, Muslim men needn’t worry about it. We’ll collect her. We’ll show up for Muslim men to protect them from Islamophobia like we always have while they continue to assault, harass, and rape us. All they have to do? Keep their mouths shut about Asra like they’ve been doing for everything else.

Dabashi is viewed as merely reacting to Islamophobia, but it’s inconceivable to men that Nomani is also reacting to the trauma of sexual assault. The suspicion leveled at Nomani is not extended to Dabashi. Men can criticize her while detached from their identities as men.

Let’s be clear: The hot takes of the New York Times and the rest of the Islamophobia brigade on whipping up Islamophobic rhetoric in a moment where a very serious issue of sexual assault is being brought forward aren’t helping. It’s adding to the already pervasive rape culture and how it manifests in Muslim communities.

One of the major barriers to why many individuals aren’t coming forward is because they fear the ways Islamophobes use these moments to whip up collective punishment. If you truly cared about survivors in the Muslim community, or even ex-Muslims, you would take a step back rather than using the experiences of survivors to further demonize a community, which by the way, also includes survivors.

And, Muslims upholding rape culture and using reports of rape to depict everything as a false allegation, demanding evidence and proof, and showing absolutely zero nuance in understanding how the legal system responds and using it as the golden standard—they need to stop adding to the rape culture conversation as well.

Men Fail to Extend Understandings of Racism to Women of Color

The experiences of many survivors with the legal system who never received justice are minimized because there wasn’t enough evidence. If you’re touting “innocent until proven guilty” and don’t understand how abusive the criminal justice system is towards survivors of sexual violence—where less than five percent of cases result in convictions, and those have extremely low sentences—then “innocent until proven guilty” is by no means effective in determining whether sexual assault actually occurred.

By that standard, more than 90 percent of incidents aren’t actually sexual violence.  We are extremely uncomfortable with the notion that it is the legal system which provides the ultimate stamp of approval of what is legitimate and isn’t legitimate violence. Also, consider the hypocrisy that many of the men who (rightly) critique and address how unfair the system is when it comes to injustices against themselves then turn around and use the same system to silence survivors of sexual violence in our communities by demanding it be used to prove violence occurred.

Newsflash: The system is also patriarchal.

The fight against patriarchy does not always, if ever, receive attention from those who otherwise condemn other forms of oppression, such as racist oppressions. As bell hooks asks in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, “Why is it many contemporary male thinkers, especially men of color, repudiate the imperialist legacy of Columbus but affirm dimensions of that legacy by their refusal to repudiate patriarchy?” (For hooks, Columbus’s legacy is marked by the gendered violence that he inflicted on those whom he invaded.)

Our point is not to suggest that sexist oppressions are more important than racist oppressions. Instead, we ask why one form of domination – imperialist, colonialist – is more deserving of critique and resistance than another, such as patriarchal domination. We are questioning the current prevailing power structures that display a sexist pattern in determining which forms of domination and violence are perceived as more relevant and urgent, more significant.

This sexist pattern is related to the desire and effort to preserve male privilege, male entitlement and gender hierarchy more broadly.

When male revolutionaries and warriors fight, they don’t fight for women’s rights. Their ideas of social justice typically fail to extend to women’s rights. Women’s struggles are not relevant or urgent enough to be engaged. It is as though a system is worth fighting only when it fails to serve these male intellectuals and activists; if they benefit from an oppressive system, such as patriarchy, the fight (for women’s rights, dignity, security) “can wait.”

In this selective fight against oppression, women matter only when our rights, our security, our dignity, our humanity come as part and parcel of men’s rights, security, dignity, and humanity. Women are not inherently entitled to security: women are merely to serve as collateral beneficiaries of a larger, men’s-rights struggle. Thus, so long as women’s activism for justice does not center on men, and in fact challenges men or male safety, it will not be taken seriously.

This is not to over simply the fact that power dynamics are not always very clear, or always clearly gendered. People cannot easily be categorized into either the oppressors or the oppressed. Since oppressions are complicated, racism privileges white women, while patriarchy oppresses them. Similarly, patriarchy privileges men of color, while racism oppresses them.

No system exists, however, through which women of color benefit by virtue of being women or persons of color. If nothing else, this—the awkward place that women of color occupy in various power structures—is what makes the struggles, the experiences, the concerns of women, of women of color, urgent and relevant.

When men of color, such as Muslims, invoke historical and existing power structures in justification of not taking women’s struggles seriously, what they are doing is to claim the women of their communities as “our women.” When violence against the women of their communities occurs, these men take it seriously only if the perpetrators were “outsiders.” (This point is best illustrated by the reaction from Muslim leaders on social media in response to the murder of Nabra Hassanen, a Muslim female teenager killed by a non-Muslim man in June 2017, as do Muslims’ outrage towards other Islamophobic violence against Muslim women as well.)

Yet, they do not take seriously the violence against women in their communities when the perpetrators are among themselves. Arguments that the effects of Islamophobia are more detrimental in France’s political climateeffects of Islamophobia are more detrimental in France’s political climate still operate on the premise that there is a “cap” that dictates when to de-prioritize sexism, that a certain “high enough” level of Islamophobia dismisses victims of sexual assault in favor of tiptoeing around and conserving the reputations of men.

The reality is that women’s oppression is urgent and relevant everywhere at all times. The longer that communities take to address the different levels of oppression of women, the longer the women will continue to suffer. Women’s rights cannot wait, especially when there will, inevitably, always be a “larger” battle to fight, such as Islamophobia in current western Muslim contexts.

Muslim Men Can’t Foresee and Don’t Care About the Consequences

Following criticism from Muslims, the New York Times changed the headline on Nomani’s article to “An Intellectual Star Faces an Accuser.” We can congratulate men on contributing to an equally appalling headline that, just like Dabashi’s article, minimizes sexual assault and rape.

The new headline is a vile glorification of a rapist by framing his victims as impeding on his “intellectual legacy,” and Muslim men have given it a pass as an improvement, because now “instead of” Islamophobic it’s just sexist.

But, aside from, say, the hijab due to its relevance to Islam and modesty, men have no knowledge whatsoever of the kind of gendered Islamophobia women face. Subsequently, they don’t qualify in calling out Muslim women on Islamophobia. If Muslim men can’t speak up for us, they’ve no business speaking against us.

We’ll check ourselves, without Muslim men, like we are when we have to speak up for ourselves. We don’t owe it to Muslim men to not be Islamophobic when they assault us. We owe it to ourselves. Muslim men can think twice before centering themselves or “checking” us.

Nahida S. Nisa is a fiction writer, paralegal, and Qur’anic exegete. Her focuses are international relations, law, and feminist analysis.

Shehnaz Haqqani is a Dissertation Diversity Scholar in Women’s and Gender Studies at Ithaca College and a Doctoral Candidate in Islamic Studies at UT Austin. She is a scholar of Islam and gender. Her life motto is #DeathToPatriarchy. She blogs at http://orbala.net/.

Darakshan Raja is a racial and gender justice advocate focused on fighting structural Islamophobia and gender-based violence in DC. She is the co-director of DC Justice For Muslims Coalition that focuses on combating institutional and structural Islamophobia in the DC metro area through education, grassroots organizing, advocacy, and policy change.

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