Stand Up WITH Muslim Women, Johann

Muslimah Media Watch thanks Thabet for the tip.

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.

Friday Links | December 26, 2014
#SuitablyDressed: A hijab is perfectly suitable attire for a courtroom
Erotica by Muslim Women for Muslim Women
Review – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Refusing the Veil
  • luckyfatima

    so very very well said, every last word of yours. there was just sooo much wrong with Hari’s article and it needed to be taken apart piece by piece like this.

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  • Sahar

    “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”.

    Agreed. Which is why we shouldn’t be referring to these women as “Muslim women” in the first place; it merely reinforces the stereotype and not only homogenises the experiences of Muslim women, but this reductive approach also implies that it is religion that is reason for their oppression.

    “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”.

    Reminds me of El Guindi here, who wrote about feminism in Egypt. She writes how women played a significant role in educating themselves and to a degree, this was sanctioned in the culture and religon.The colonial experience however eroded these ideas by bringing in their far more oppressive patriarchal ideas and ‘educating’ the elite. For patriarchy differs in every cultural context after all. Although they campaigned for the ‘liberation’ of women, like the coloniser, these elites in fact helped introduce a different type of patriarchy. The colonial powers purposely pursued a campaign of destruction and distortion of not only the cultural, political and economic system of those it colonised, but also a psychological violence in wordlview. In fact, i’d go as far as to say, through a mimetic process, it was a European version of patriarchy that was transported to this region which displaced the more traditonal version– which from what i’ve read was no where near as concentrated in power. This process of imposing strict regimes of control (patriarchy, military beauracratic regimes etc) is part of this continued process of appropriation today, only the colonial (neo to be exact) system of destruction is more global today. We’re just seeing different manifestations of it. The left in the West, which seeks inspiration from liberal thought which is inherently racist in many ways I can’t go into here, has yet to fully grasp this because they’re a product of this system, and themselves have not decolonised their own discourse. Hence their inability to give these women agency and a voice, as you suggest.

    Interesting post!

  • Fatemeh

    GREAT PIECE, SOBIA! Snappity snap!
    And wasn’t Razack’s book fantastic?!

  • Philip

    good article, although championing Aminah and Manji isn’t….. terribly smart.

  • Jehanzeb

    Wow, this rocked! Really excellent job, Sobia. I couldn’t believe some of the things Hari says in his article. “Ugliest passages” — seriously, how do non-Muslims expect to build positive relations with Muslims if they speak like this of Islam and the Qur’an. They don’t have to believe in Islam, but at least show some respect, you know?

    You also raised a good point about how horrible things happen in non-Muslim countries too. I found this recent unsettling report about a nun in India getting gang-raped by anti-Christian “Hindu” extremists. The nun also accused the police for shielding her attackers.

    I wonder if Hari would go ahead and make the same criticisms towards Hindus.

  • cycads


    “good article, although championing Aminah and Manji isn’t….. terribly smart.”

    I don’t think it’s … terribly smart to stop right there – WHY do you say it’s not smart to engage with a variety of Muslim feminist opinions?

  • Sobia

    Thanks for all the positive feedback guys :)


    I heard that story! How horrific? Wonder why it hasn’t been used to show “how crazy those Hindus are.” You can bet if those had been Muslims it would have been all over the news.

    @ Philip:
    I agree with cycads. Why would it not be smart to engage with a variety of Muslim feminists?

    Personally I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Amina Wadud so I would indeed champion her. Voices like hers are necessary. And even though I don’t agree with a lot of what Manji says, I do still think there needs to be someone to question the status quo. She does that.

  • Sahar

    Sobia, are you serious? So what do you think women like Amina Wadud and other Islamic feminists like her, who are more educated in the scholarship, doing? Reinforcing the status quo? Odd.

  • Philip

    Because you have to think about if the inclusion of those voices will actually help bring about change or will give those …regressive elements (in terms of gender equality) an excuse to do nothing. (and most likely slander people who work towards gender equity as sell outs or even kaffir)

    There is a very sizable percentage of Muslims who view both these women as not part of the “us” but rather as someone outside.

    And Manji doesn’t even work inside any kind of religious frame of reference, all her work that i have read is based on western philosophical and political thought.

  • Sobia

    @ Philip:

    “There is a very sizable percentage of Muslims who view both these women as not part of the “us” but rather as someone outside. ”

    Does it matter what others think? These women have a right to define themselves. Additionally, there is also a sizeable percentage of Muslims who view these MUSLIM women as “us.”

    And also, why are we confounding Wadud and Manji? They are two very different women.

  • Sobia

    @ Sahar:

    First let me address your “question.”

    Amina Wadud also questions the status quo. Does that seem a little less odd to you?

    Second, it is obvious you have a problem with me. This is not the first time you have purposely misunderstood what I said and presented it in a patronizing and passive-aggressive manner. Stop with your passive-aggressiveness. It is shameful that a fellow Muslim woman blogger could have such hostility toward another. Disagreements are fine but they should be handled in a mature and cordial debate manner, not by resorting to such juvenile tactics.

    If you actually want to engage in a healthy debate I am willing to. But if you will continue with this passive-aggressiveness then I will not respond.

  • Sahar

    Sobia, Haha. Learn to take criticism! I get it all the time! It’s nothing personal. It makes for better discussion than everyone agreeing for the sake of being polite. I infact agree AND disagree with you, shown in both of my comments on this topic. Would you just prefer positive responses to everything you write? In that case, you’re not really interested in debate but being flattered.

  • Philip

    Hirsi Ali (who i have her on record as saying “i don’t believe in Allah”) also calls herself a muslim. So the issue here isn’t self identity.

    And as i explained , or tried to, is that if you are really going for change you don’t put up a figure that is hugely divisive. Who happens to totally alienate one rather large group of practicing muslims. Of course if you are planning on having a debate in a niche part of the muslim community, then putting them up is quite reasonable/logical.

    and i am conflating them because they are divisive, one more than the other , but divisive nevertheless.

  • rochelle

    “What Western/Northern people can do is stand up WITH us.”

    I liked this post a lot, as I do this blog in general. But I just want to bring up the question of what constitutes the “West/North” and, on the other hand, the “East/South”, and what this dichotomy serves for us.

    I think we can all agree that essentializing Islam or the “East” is a big no-no. But we also have to make sure not to essentialize the “West.” I live in the West, a lot of you live in the West, and a TON of Muslims live in the West. Yes, there is the social history of colonialism, and it plays a big, manifest role in the world today. But I demur the West/Muslim dichotomy, if only for the fact that a lot of people are Muslim, and Western at the same time. And to put the two side by side like that conjures up Class of Civilizations shutters for me.

    Just something to think about…

  • Fatemeh

    @ Sahar: How something is said matters just as much as what is said. On the internet, it’s difficult to read tone and other nonverbal cues; I think that’s where Sobia’s frustration lies.

    @ Rochelle: Good points. I think one of the issues is that Hari does some of that essentializing by equating Muslim women with East/South, and so that’s where we usually get pigeonholed. Plus, a lot of white “western” feminist groups seek to aid Eastern/Southern Muslim women (focusing on Afghanistan or Iraq, for example), while completely ignoring difficulties Western Muslim women face (like in Britain or France).

  • Sobia

    @ Philip:

    Hirsi Ali does not identify as Muslim anymore. She identifies as ex-Muslim. Her position is very clear to everyone. And as much as I dispise her and her tactics I cannot deny that her views of Islam are based on her own experiences with it. What she fails to acknowledge is that others experiences with Islam are just as valid.

    Wadud, to me, is not divisive. Just because some traditional Muslims don’t like that she lead prayers or is promoting a less sexist interpretation of the Qur’an does not make her divisive. To the non-Muslim she does nothing to misrepresent or diminish our community. Her and Manji are worlds apart.

    We cannot silence Muslims just because we do not agree with them.

    Finally, after ALL I wrote, Manji and Wadud is the only point you picked up on? From now on please ensure that your comments address the actual post and remain on topic. Any further discussion of Manji or Wadud is off topic and need not be brought up. If you (or anyone else) have an axe to grind with them, do it on your own blog or wait for a post that is about them.

    Now back to the ACTUAL post.


    Excellent point.

    When I speak of the West/North and East/South dichotomy I speak of the regions in political terms. Yes, we are also Western/Northern (as I mentioned in my post) but we are not the ones making, or even influencing, government policy.

    Additionally, I was speaking specifically of Muslim women in the East/South not those of us here in the West/North as it was the Eastern/Southern Muslims who Hari referred to as needing saving, not us.

    Plus, as a Western/Northern Muslim woman I recognize my own privilege and know that I cannot truly speak for the Muslim women of the East/South. As much as I may on MMW, at the end of the day I do not live the life of an Eastern/Southern Muslim woman.

    Hm…I think we may need some more contributors from the East/South….

    @ Fatemeh:

    Thanks :)

    It’s difficult to read tone but not words.

  • cycads

    I sometimes wonder whether the reason why Islamic feminism does not appeal to the general Muslim masses is really because the big personalities involved: Amina, Ayaan, Irshad et al, are simply labeled ‘controversial’. And by inflicting more controversy to the numerous problems Islam already has, is, as Philip puts it, “not terribly smart”.

    I also wonder whether people like Philip really know what Amina Wadud’s policies are on Islamic feminism? Now, Amina Wadud does not oppose to polygamy for example (I was only a few feet away from her when she said this, so blame my hearing). Principally because she believes that some women are comfortable with it and choose it, and also because it’s permitted in the Quran.

    You see, from one Muslim feminist alone you can have a myriad of opinions which on the surface perhaps appear contradictory to feminism, but they all point towards equality and freedom of choice. I don’t know how that can be divisive.

    Another example: I identify myself as a Muslim-Marxist feminist (yeah, inspired by that “Religion is the opiate of the masses” guy). As a Marxist feminist I believe that capitalism victimises a huge number of working-class women in the developing world. The Quran doesn’t really mention about the mechanism of capitalism, so that’s why I chose it for myself. Marxism as a struggle for economic equality, by the way, might appear to be very divisive, especially if you are a shopaholic feminist.

  • cycads

    woops. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not a Islamic feminist. My bad!

  • Sahar

    Fatemeh: That’s true, but I still disagree. I did not say anything rude or even remotely hostile, unless being critical is going to be misconstrued here as hostile.

    Sobia, i’ll only post when I agree with you to avoid any misunderstandings from now on. : )

  • Farah B

    This is a good post, I think you raised some really good issues and I agree with a lot of what you discuss.

    Now, regarding the Manji issue (and I don’t want you to construe this as an attack of any kind) but I personally think the focus is less on the fact that she is decisive but rather that when compared with Amina Wadud and the majority of Muslim feminists, Manji doesn’t have any real educational qualifications to back up her conclusions. Wadud on the other has a PhD, studied extensively in Qu’ranic studies etc. So where Wadud says she is offering a feminist re-interpretation of the Qu’ran I take more notice in what she says because she has the credentials to back up her claims. Manji, on the otherhand, lacks those credentials and (as Phillip mentioned above) writes exclusively from a western, liberal democratic framework, one that is ill-equipped to apply to Islam.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attempting to silence Manji’s (or anyone else’s) experiences. The problem for me is if people start making claims about knowing what’s “the problem with Islam today” then I’m expecting an actual theoretical inquiry into the nature of Islam. For me, Wadud is in a better position to provided that discussion, not Manji.

  • Krista

    This was a great post, Sobia. I think your title says it all – he’s doing no one any good until he’s standing up WITH them. I thought his own title was problematic, both in the idea of standing up “for” people, but also in the question of “dare we,” which to me conveyed some kind of fear, like, oh no, poor me, if I stand up for Muslim women, I might get attacked! Which just made me want to roll my eyes and tell him to get over himself. Seriously.

    I found myself going back and forth though when reading his article. I hated the beginning; as much as I can definitely understand that it’s a horrific experience that he’s describing, the language that he used really put me off. He described that woman in such a passive way, and really described her body parts way more than anything else about her. As you say about the rest of the article, he totally reinforced images of Muslim women as silent and perpetually victims.

    On the other hand, there were things that he acknowledged about the political and economic agendas related to Iraq and Afghanistan that few people actually touch on, and despite a lot of problems with his article, I was actually pretty impressed that at least he brought these things up. I particularly liked his example about the Bush government freaking out about the clause in Iraq’s draft constitution about oil being in Iraqi control, and how the fuss about having access to oil ended up undermining the section on women’s rights. I mean, I didn’t even know that! I thought he was surprisingly direct in calling people on their claims of “liberation” of Muslim women when their real interests were political and economic, and I was glad to see that… but it definitely didn’t make up for the problems of the rest of the article.

    Like many of the commenters, I too was annoyed that he mentioned Irshad Manji as the main Muslim feminist, and was also somewhat annoyed that Amina Wadud leading the prayer was showcased as the big advance that Muslim women are making. First of all because I personally feel like Wadud’s contributions around understandings of the Qur’an have been more valuable to the Muslim community than the specific issue of female-led prayer (for anyone who flinches every time you hear Wadud’s name because you’re not comfortable with women leading prayer, I would still recommend reading her work, which is actually quite compelling, and a whole lot less radical than many people expect it to be.) More importantly, without wanting to dismiss the issue altogether, I don’t feel like the women-led prayer debates are seen as that big an priority in a lot of communities, and they really aren’t affecting people to the degree that other issues are. What about women who are fighting for greater access to mosques (both in terms of physical space – I don’t really care WHO is leading the prayer if I’m squished in some tiny women’s section filled with screaming children – and in terms of community leadership)? Or women who are working to educate other Muslim women about their rights in Islam? Or Muslim women who are working against poverty, domestic violence, war, etc.? Because it’s not just Islam-related issues that are oppressing Muslim women…

    Anyway, thanks for posting about this. That was definitely an article that deserved a serious MMW analysis!

  • Hannah

    Everyone here seems to be responding to the headline on the artiicle. You should be aware columnists do not write the headlines for their articles; they are written by subeditors, often on the basis of cursory readings of the article. So critiquing his column on that basis is flawed.

  • Sobia


    Thanks for pointing that out. You’re right about it. However, I critiqued the content of his article. The title was just briefly critiqued to emphasize the issues brought up in the article and sum up my critiques.