The Sound of a Broken Record: Alibhai-Brown’s Essay for The Independent

Reading Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s commentary in The Independent reminded me a bit of a group of people that Khaled Abou El Fadl mentioned in his introduction to Amina Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad. The group of people I refer to are “self-hating Muslims” with “tormented soul(s)” who seem all too eager to assuage the bigoted view of hateful Islamophobes when it comes to Muslim women and Muslims in general. Perhaps self-hating is a strong term for Alibhai-Brown, but reading her commentary, but I wondered if she had any hope for Muslims in regard to gender equality, considering that she views Muslims as being in a “dark age”.

The title of Alibhai-Brown’s essay, “Who’d be female under Islamic law?” is rather misleading. She speaks little of actual Islamic laws. I suppose this is a good thing, since Islamic law itself is not monolithic. Although it is a bit troubling since there could have been potential for Alibhai-Brown to discuss the efforts of Muslim scholars, male and female, as well as Muslim activists who wholeheartedly believe that the answer to Alibhai-Brown’s query is that all Muslim women, including her, have the right to be treated as human beings under Islamic law.

Instead, Alibhai-Brown uses her commentary to serve as a mostly Islamophobic rant filled with various Orientalist and racist cliches about Muslim women in mostly Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She starts off her essay with an all too familiar stereotype of the “liberated” Muslim woman. She tells us how she is “free” and “independent”, styling and coloring her hair, wearing perfume, appearing on “public platforms” with men not related to her, shaking their hands and (gasp!) embracing some of them.

This has to be one of the most tired cliches of the liberated Muslim woman I’ve seen. It really is not a big deal that she style or colors her hair. Plenty of Muslim women do the same thing. I’m one of them and I see a few of them everyday at my job. I also shake the hands of men, non-Muslim men at least. Yet, I don’t do these things as a badge of honor or to show how “liberated” I am and how “oppressed” other Muslim woman are. I have a friend who never shakes men’s hands, yet she works and travels across the country, often by herself. Would Alibhai-Brown consider her free and independent as well? Or would she be considered oppressed because she doesn’t shake men’s hands? Alibhai-Brown’s idea of oppression and liberation, especially in regard to Muslim women are simple, limited and based on Western ideals of what women should and shouldn’t do.

Alibhai-Brown’s picture of the “free” Muslim women may be limited, but it feels that her idea of Islam and Muslims is even more limited. To support her idea that “Muslim states” are in such a depressive dark age, Alibhai-Brown looks at disparate cases in four different Muslim countries. The countries–Saudia Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan–are Muslim countries usually targeted by those who wish to paint a broad brush stroke across all Muslims. It also rather curious that these are all countries that the U.S., Britain, and other Western powers have a very vested interest in. Putting aside this observation, it is troubling that 1) Muslim countries are usually represented by one of these four countries and 2) women and human rights activists in these countries are often ignored or barely focused upon. The Muslim world is diverse and for Alibhai-Brown to speak of Muslim states as a huge monolith displays a surprising ignorance on her end. It also aligns her with the the same reactionaries that Alibhai-Brown so loathes because they both see Muslims as a huge monolithic entity.

Once Alibhai-Brown is done presenting the usual “oppressed” portrait of women in those four countries, she goes on to criticize Muslim women in Western societies who do not conform to her notion of what a Muslim woman should be. Alibhai-Brown is concerned about Muslim women in the West who are “embracing backward practices”. Among other things these include dressing little girls in hijab. While I do not think that I could personally dress a daughter of mine in hijab as a child, I wonder why this causes such distress for Alibhai-Brown. Shouldn’t she be more concerned about women have equal and adequate access to mosques or women being on the boards of influential mosques and Muslim organizations? This is absent from her list of concerns. She also mentions Muslim women in Western societies “who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals”. I have yet to meet any Muslim woman who justify honor killings, forced marriage and especially inequality. As far as polygamy goes, this issue is not as black and white as Alibhai-Brown believes it to be.

After asking why so many large numbers of Muslim men are “so terrorized by the female body and spirit” (because this is definitely only an issue among Muslim men *rolls eyes*), we get the biggest cliche of them all when it comes to Muslim women:

I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others.

This is one of the most tired cliches of Muslim women. It completely ignores one of the basic rights that feminists, whether in Britain or Saudi Arabia have fought for, which is that women be able to dress as they please without being judged. This doesn’t just include the right of women to dress in anything but hijab, niqab or burqa. Is it really so hard to believe that there are some Muslim women who truly want to wear niqab and that wearing a niqab or burqa does not prevent them from having a life or from being happy, functional human beings?

I don’t want to sound as if I am dismissing legitimate concerns that Alibhai-Brown raises. Of course we must speak out against gender inequality done in the name of Islam and human right abuses done in predominately Muslim societies. However, this can be done without stereotyping Muslim women or setting up a false dichotomy of liberal Western ideals versus oppressive Muslim ideals. If we are truly attempting to bring about gender equality, this type of thinking will have to go.

  • http://snowyheights1.blogspot.com Sofi

    as anticipated, you have done a stellar job and spent longer analysing her diatriabe than i did. :D

    we all know, yes there is much to challenge and fight for within islam but reading her article, it seems as if that wasnt her agenda. there was no balance, just a broad brush to feed the egos of …well, i’ll leave that to the reader.

    i hope Ms Brown reads this, i really do. or perhaps she’s too liberated to read a female muslim authored site?

  • http://thatmashguy.blogspot.com mash

    I agree with the criticisms of the piece and I was surprised to see it in the Independent.

  • Phil

    The part i believe you missed is that people like her(her arguments) make it all too easy for …..people who have rather narrow view of role of women in society, to close down debate.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    What bothered me most about Ms. Alibhai-Brown’s piece is that she does the very thing that white feminists do: strap on her savior complex and cast a wide assumption net about Muslim women.

  • Faith

    As always thanks for the comments! They really are appreciated and I love getting feedback.

    @Sofi: I hope she reads this too. I know I came off a bit harsh but honestly, I do think she needs to let go of her paternalistic attitude towards some Muslim women.

    @mash: I was surprised to see it in The Independent too. I spoke to my husband about that. I usually expect news sites like the The Guardian, The Independent or the BBC to have quality news and analysis but when it comes to Muslims and especially Muslim women, it seems like the quality of their coverage suffers. Although I will say that the BBC is getting better at least.

    @Phil: There is always a danger that people who have a “narrow view” of gender roles will use commentary like Alibhai-Brown’s to “close down debate”. Still, it is important to point out the really glaring flaws in her arguments.

    @Fatemeh: You’re right. She does seem to have a savior complex and paternalistic attitude that is often seen among white feminists in their relationship with Muslim women.

  • http://happydaggers.blogspot.com/ Happy Daggers

    Thank you for this excellent analysis.

    Again, in Alibhai-Brown’s article, two old figures emerged: the good Muslim and the bad Muslim [M. Mamdani]. Whoever makes the difference: it is still morally appalling.
    Ms Alibhai-Brown is doing exactly the same distinctions as those she criticizes but with different contents (drinking wine is positive WHILE wearing burka is negative).

    In fact, the structure of the judgment itself is the same, she only changes the position of the statements: what was put in the good box is moved in the evil box, and vice-versa.

    But the most important to me, in her article, is the particularly worrying way she dehumanized – “a ghost” – a girl whose style was different from hers.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I’m not surprised. The Independent had an article a few years back by Deborah Orr titled “Why the sight of a woman in niqab offends me”.

    Yusuf Smith also did a pretty good break down of Alibhai-Brown’s essay on his blog and he wrote a critical letter to the newspaper which they published.

    Alibhai-Brown is a professional Muslim, e.g, when it suits her. Let’s face it, if she was called Julie Smith she wouldn’t be getting to write all these articles, but you’re never likely to see her down the mosque.

    Now before anyone gets squeamish about judging someone’s religiosity, I think it’s fair to ask why most newspaper’s cultural commentators (religious, racial or otherwise), tend to be from the community they’re writing about, yet when religious/practicing Muslims are discussed, they usually prefer a non-practicing or cultural Muslim to do the talking.

    The big problem with this, is that by describing themselves as the rational norm, they paint practicing Muslims as being somehow extreme.

    As classic example of this was when Saira Khan (former Apprentice contestant) did a piece on being a Muslim women, She started with “I’m a moderate Muslim. I don’t pray and I drink wine”, therefore immediately ensuring that practicing Muslims are seen as not being moderate.

  • Muffy

    I’ve read several pieces by Alibhai-Brown. To be honest, I think I agree with what she says most of the time. She is against both Islamic fundamentalism and Islamophobia, much like most readers/contributers to this site (I would assume).

    However, I agree that she goes about doing so in a very self-righteous and sometimes downright irritating way. I agree with you, Happy Daggers, that one of the worst parts of the article was the comments about women in Burkas being ghosts. Her statement “Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere” nags me especially. First of all, I don’t think a choice is any less valid just because other people in other countries are forced to make that choice. However, what bothers me most is how darn hypocritical she is about saying that. For instance, she brags about her “lovely things and perfume” and “feminine” side. However, in many countries, including Muslim countries, women are forced to be feminine! In Dubai, for instance, there is a government crackdown on “masculine” women and cross-dressing. I’ve been to Dubai and trust me, there are plenty of women with makeup, perfume, etc…. but women can’t dress “masculinely” in public! As someone who has faced social ridicule for the way I dress in the West (I don’t wearing perfume or related “lovely things”), I think Miss Alibhai-Brown is being insulting when she embraces feminine displays of beauty as liberating while mocking burka wearers as oppressed.

    Ok. End rant.

  • http://snowyheights1.blogspot.com Sofi

    >>But the most important to me, in her article, is the particularly worrying way she dehumanized – “a ghost” – a girl whose style was different from hers.

    Happy Daggers: your last line sums it up really, but oh the irony: she uses a handful of examples from the wicked East to violate one of the greatest and most spoken about beliefs of the west: one’s human right to do what they please .

    I am really disappointed as previously i have enjoyed reading some of her articles.

    Good on Yusuf Brown! Like i wrote elsewhere: what i found reassuring is that one skewed Ms Brown article incited alot of outrage and justified articles in response. Thats the “moderate” ummah uniting, thanks Ms Brown. :D

  • http://thatmashguy.blogspot.com mash

    like others here I agree that I have read her piece’s before and found them to be of a far better quality to this.

    it makes me question > am I just annoyed that she is criticising Muslim.

    I thought about that for around 1.2seconds and then decided no, as Muffy says she’s often critical of Muslims and in the past I’ve found sometimes found myself agreeing, on this occasion though I feel it was a half arsed job.

  • Zara

    I don’t know if you fellow ladies feel this way, but women like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown frustrate me more than the garden-variety Islamophobe. I can attribute the hatred spewed by non-Muslims to ignorance and lack of tolerance, but Alibhai-Brown walks that thin line where she self-identifies as Muslim, but at the same time, does as much as she can to distance herself from that identity. I fear that she wants the best (for her) of both worlds. She criticizes Islam from a non-Muslim viewpoint to appeal to a wider audience, but she retains her identity as a Muslim in an effort to convey her opinions as truth. This is obviously problematic because a non-Muslim audience is likely to think, “Oh, if this is how a ‘moderate’ Muslim views Islam, then, clearly, we were right all along”.

    Her reasoning bears similarity to “liberal” racists who make discriminatory remarks, then proclaim that they have “(insert race here) friends and (insert race here) family members”, and therefore can’t be racist.

  • http://www.gwillowwilson.com Willow

    I think this perfectly illustrates the difference between a Muslim professional and a professional Muslim. When your religious identity is your job, and your job requires you to write titillating articles, there’s an immediate conflict of interest.

  • http://www.bayyinat.org.uk/ Julaybib Ayoub

    I’ve noticed an increasingly shrill tone in YAB’s column vis-a-vis Islam/Muslims ever since she became a chair and trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Other trustees include Taj Hargey, “intellectual and theologian” (according to BMSD — pseudo-intellectual IMHO), whose views on these issues are fairly similar to those of YAB. On anything else, YAB’s column for the Indy is impressive and she is evidently someone of integrity.

  • Rosa

    This comment is a bit late, but I’m so annoyed by the burkaed mother/ghost image. YAB is projecting her own intensely negative feelings onto a blank canvas – she knows nothing of the woman’s life, attitudes, why she wears the burqa. A mother enjoying peace & quiet and the pleasure of seeing her husband playing with the children becomes, instead, “dead, buried.”
    As a non-Muslim I find it so frustrating to try to understand the choices Muslim women make when the media platform seems reserved for the most intolerant & self-satisfied voices. And, yes, don’t doubt for a moment that YAB confirms prejudice.


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