We want more of the oppressed, helpless Muslim woman

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 two 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 for 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 monsters 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 and oppressions, we show that we are not helpless. We are strong and we will write our own narrative.

  • UmmRashidah

    Assalaamu alaikum warahmatullah.I think it would be great for muslim women there who have great dads, sons, uncles, husbands to celebrate them, write about their good. They are our ‘rijaal’. I am grateful for mine alhamdulillah! and could not do without them.

  • Arabista

    Here Here!! Excellent post sister!

  • Anonymous

    So you see Ayaan as serving imperial purposes? And zealous, if rather simplistic girls born and raised as well as abused in strictly Islamic countries like the Pakistani Heretical Girl as working for the right too? As far as I know she had death threats from the extreme right, didn’t she? The police were certainly involved with that as was a UK member of parliament, so what kind of tool of right wing imperialism was she? Wasn’t she a Pakistani secular nationalist who saw America as implicitly involved in the woes her country of ethnic origin faces? But you have a point, girls like apg are landing on the doorsteps of western hedgemonists because people like you refuse to hear them out or try to incorporate the fact that they actually DID suffer into your overall message that Islam should not be demonized. You have to take responsibility for people like Ayaan and PHG doing this and there will be more. You have a role in breaking the hate by at least acknowledging the truth of their experience. Or you can ignore it, and find lots more books like Ayaan’s on the shelves, because like it or not, those girls come from those countries, they speak those languages and their personal testimonials carry emotional, persuasive force. So why not give them a hug for god’s sake?

  • Chrystal Ocean

    Faith, I’m a white Western feminist on very low income. Therefore, I frequently come up against the class differences between myself and other white Western feminists. I wanted to stop in to say how much I appreciate your post. In my work with other low-income women, my message has always been that WE – the women so affected, the women upon whom others do research, on whom others write stories – WE should lead the fight, do the research, write the stories, and be the voices which are heard the loudest, not those who do not experience our situation. For this reason alone, but also for others, I appreciate your point that Muslim women’s voices must be at the forefront of any movement for change and it is they, not Western feminists, who should determine what those changes should be.I also agree with your point regarding the Western role in oppression. We’ve not only problems within our own societies, we’re imposing them (oftentimes by force) on other societies. Which makes me thankful for women like yourself who are resisting such imposition and also raising the issues which you think important, not what Westerners think should be important. What Westerners think truly is irrelevant – which rather makes my comment irrelevant too, but heck, I wanted to offer it as an electronic nod of respect.

  • Zeynab

    anonymous, I think Faith’s point about Hirsi Ali is that her story has been appropriated by the right-wing to buttress their Islamophobia, which is common. The experiences of Hirsi Ali and APG are valid ones that need to be heard; they indicate that patriarchy is still a strong and damaging force in many predominantly Muslim countries. Their stories need to be told, but they must not be co-opted by white, non-Muslim conservatives (or, for that matter, white, Western, non-Muslim feminists–also people who think they can speak for us). These stories must not be used as an excuse to generalize about Muslims, Muslim women, certain countries or races. These stories must not be ignored, but neither should any woman’s story, positive or negative. Chrystal Ocean: Thanks for sharing your views with us! But I think you’re confusing “western” with “non-muslim.” Since many of our writers are western-based, we often have western viewpoints. What counts is that they are Muslim women’s viewpoints.

  • Sakura Kiss

    You’re post has made me realize something. Since there seems to be a market for Muslim women authors,( I read this article from Islmaica Magazine I believe) it discusses how it seems that her work has to be either the Victim and the Escapee. It’s very difficult for a Muslim woman who has something different to say to try to get her work published. Yeah, it seems that when there are stories of Muslim women who aren’t oppressed or victimized in any way, no one seems really all that interested.

  • Faith

    Thanks for the comments! To anon: Zeynab basically summed up my response. Hirsi Ali’s story is valid. I’m not dismissing the struggles she went through. I wasn’t disputing that. However, her story and stories like hers shouldn’t be the only stories we hear about Muslim women nor should her story be used for political purposes by Western conservatives seeking to force Muslim women into one mold.

  • Anonymous

    Faith, if Ayaan and Apg have valid stories, then why is their message not valid too? Ayaan doesn’t generalize against all Muslims, how can she? These girls know full well that it is Muslim women calling for change who are in the gravest danger of all.When you say Muslim women in the media, I assume you are talking about Muslim women who define themselves as something existential to simply being Muslima- wich is reductionist in the extreme. What would be the point of that? Muslim girl detectives, single mums, lesbian Muslimas, Muslima athletes, Muslimas doing whatever you want, yes, we need to see that, as these girls needs strong and positive role models and society needs to break down stereotypes. They can not get that through any traditionally Islamic incorporation into their media role.If you try to do it on Islamic “terms” at best you end up with a petty bourgeois figure who is a businesswoman who combines her imam, great, but that’s as weedling as something the Conservative right would produce; and you say you are against the right, no? At worst, you have another documentary about multiculturalism leaning heavily towards Islamic mores and values which is enough for viewers to scramble for the tv controls. Islamic inclusion therefore is a very limiting and unnecceasry piece of baggage to the self expression Muslim women need to show they are indeed- more than victims and the angry oppressed. Until you accept that, anti Muslim rad fems like the Pakistani Heretical Girl will always sell their books.

  • Anonymous

    I think the article Sakura Kiss is referring to was written by Mohja Kahf, and can be found here: http://www.islamicamagazine.com/issue-17/on-being-a-muslim-woman-writer-in-the-west.html. Would just like to say that I’m a huge fan of Muslimah Media Watch, even as one of those white, Western, non-Muslim feminists. :-) Coming from a post-colonialist angle, I’m quite strongly aware of the problems with Western feminism and the way it tends to deal with non-Western women and their priorities and traditions. I think this blog offers great critiques of a field that sorely needs it. I would strongly hope that Western feminism(s) can get away from its/their tendency towards colonisation – and there is some work being done in that direction – and blogs like this one do really contribute towards that.

  • Zeynab

    Anonymous #1, this blog and its contributors operate under the idea that there are interpretations of Islam that are empowering to Muslim women and treat women as equals, despite the many patriarchal interpretations. Assuming that a woman can’t be a practicing Muslim AND do whatever she wants in life (particularly in the West, which is what Faith is talking about) demeans the women who do just this. It also violates our comment policy. First/last warning.

  • Zayna

    “At worst, you have another documentary about multiculturalism leaning heavily towards Islamic mores and values which is enough for viewers to scramble for the tv controls”Or maybe not. I don’t agree with your terms. Your terms seem to say that Muslim women (who are of course more than just Muslim) must bury their Islam to be acceptable. So if a woman draws her values and mores from a love and knowledge of Qur’an or from a serious interrogation of Hadith she should not speak. To me this is just another form of silencing. Yes, I am more than just a Muslim but I refuse to lose my religion to make people (including feminists) comfortable.

  • The Girl Detective

    Well said.

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