Judge Judy: Judy Bachrach Plays Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Some articles are fairly subtle in their Islamophobia, others less so.

Judy Bachrach’s article “Twice Branded: Western Women, Muslim Lands,” starts off badly and then to proceeds to elicit gasps with its sheer awfulness. It even cites Not Without My Daughter as an accurate depiction of life for most Muslim women. Yes, really. The title itself states how difficult it is to be a white woman in a Muslim (read: non-white) place. Grab an onion, folks, it’s time to cry for the poor white women!

Before we get to that part, Bachrach makes it clear that we must also pity the Muslim women, who she only reads about when they are being harmed by evil Muslim men. No one cares about Muslim women like she does. Apparently Western journalists and politicians never write about them, or at least when they do, they don’t write what she thinks they should.

Except for Mona Eltahawy. Bachrach quotes Eltahawy extensively, because Muslim women are such a homogeneous globule of victimhood that one journalist can speak for us all.

Apparently Eltahawy was sexually harassed while living in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which means that her experience automatically transfers to the rest of the female population in “Muslim lands.” As we know, bad things only happen to women in Muslim countries; the rest of the planet is a misogyny-free paradise.

Just in case we’re not yet sure why these bad things happen, Bachrach states at length that it the fault of Muslim men, as “this is the way they prefer things to be”. That’s some serious finger-pointing!

However, she wishes to focus on Muslim women in “their home countries”. That’s not the West, by the way. Muslim women obviously aren’t at home there.

She begins her focus by citing an Egyptian survey stating that 62% of Egyptian men had admitted to harassing women. However, she admits that the survey only questioned 2,000 men.  As the population of Egypt is  some 76.8 million (UN, 2008), this isn’t quite the damning statistic she thinks it is.

Having used a person of color as a mouthpiece and quoted some spurious statistics, Bachrach now moves onto her personal experience of Egypt. She considered herself to have a “double deficit”: being both female and foreign. At this point, the reader may wonder if the “branding” Bachrach speaks of is actually the marks left by the heavy straps of her invisible knapsack, but I digress.

Her harassment was a daily occurrence, made worse by the “entire city of Cairo” being avid watchers of Dallas:

When I lived in Egypt, everyone in Cairo avidly watched the television series Dallas, and as a result became expert on the sexual habits of American women. And not simply expert, but unrepentantly predatory. After all, these were women whose husbands and brothers would not reflexively massacre those who insulted them.

For it wasn’t the shoulder-pad-clad bed-hopping of its cast that made American women in Cairo seem like easy targets, it was the realization that “these were women whose husbands and brothers would not reflexively massacre those who insulted them.”

Reflexively massacre? This must be because Muslim men are such barbarians. Unlike civilized Western men of course, who are lovely to all women, all the time.

Back to how special and wonderful white women are. Local women in Cairo are of “neglible importance”, as if they don’t face any harassment at all. Whereas the exotic foreign woman lacks a “murderous uncle by her side” and is hassled from all sides.

The article then takes a brief detour through the “Married to Muslim Man Misery Memoir”, just in case you haven’t realized yet just how wicked Muslim men are. Bachrach uses “experts” whose reputations precede them: he chats with Phyllis Chesler, a notorious Islamophobe, about why any sane Western woman would marry a Muslim man and move to a predominantly Muslim country. Chesler’s choice quote: “You will live but wish you were dead”. Having spoken to Islamic scholar Hussein Rashid about Qur’anic interpretation and finding him far too positive about his religion, she then turns to that beacon of Islamic learning, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Bachrach goes back to playing the role of statistician, reeling off statistics about domestic violence, honor killings and force feedings. Of course none of those are issues that affect Muslims alone, but Bachrach doesn’t let that hold her back.

Following this is much hand-wringing about Muslim women suffering in the West. Apparently, cultural/religious respect is nothing more than post-colonial guilt:

One of the least savory consequences of a colonial past is guilt: an insidious remorse that transmutes itself into a persistent reluctance to criticize publicly those who have now themselves taken on the role of oppressor—even against those who happen to oppress, openly and without shame, within the borders of liberal nations. “You hear people talking about the need to ‘respect’ other cultures. You want me to respect this awful behavior?” Eltahawy says.

The sad part about this is that Judy Bachrach truly believes that she cares about Muslim women. After all, she has visited “Muslim lands” and she speaks to Muslim women.

Why then, does this article seem so laden with grotesque stereotyping? It animalizes Muslim men and infantalizes Muslim women.

This article is not about helping Muslim women, but the author claiming that she knows better, for in her privilege-blinded mind,  she is better. She is not saving anyone, just asserting how superior she feels she is.

As a speaker of Arabic, I’m sure she’ll understand me when I say:

La, shukran (No, thank you) .

  • http://www.muslimahcomments.wordpress.com Samira Abdur-Rahman

    Safiyah,

    I can’t even read the article that you are referring to-because I’m at the point now where I just can’t digest the blatant ignorance-I really think that the privilege that some Muslim women in the west are receiving (Hirshi, Elthawy, Nomani,) needs to be continuously criticized in a serious non reactionary way. We can fight sexism at the same time that we refuse to legitimate voices that are fundamentally based on representing Muslim women AND men as subhuman & irrational in the fallacious dichotomy of the West vs. the rest.

    On a personal note-as an African American Muslim woman who has experienced and witnessed harassment at the intersections of my identity I find this glorification of the west laughable-especially in lieu of the treatment of poor, women of color. I mean it was only a litte while ago when I watched a mainstream commercial where a white man pointed to a young African-American woman and demanded “You shake your junk!”

    The grotesque sexualization of woman of color is real. Yet in this culture we live under the fallacy of choice. Because it is only Muslim women who are socially pressured to conform in dress-to participate in their own oppression. Yes, because Western women (who are always universalized as non-Muslim) are somehow more rational and more free. Like Mohja Kahf said “spare me the sermon on Muslim women!”

  • Shahneela

    i agree with the comment of Samira Abdur-Rahman, i can’t even bear to read these stupid articles due to the appalling stereotypes. according to most of these articles, muslim women are too brainwashed and suppressed to think for themselves; and muslim men are brutes who like nothing more than to beat women

    for once, I’d like to read something written by a muslim woman, on muslim women; not someone who thinks they are so superior to the subversive Muslim women that they have the right to judge however they want.

    I’m just absolutely sick of all this islamaphobia, its disgusting, and for a long time i decided to ignore it rather than bother to read about it.

    What i am sick of is how these idiots write about unjust things happening to women, and then narrow it down to the fact that it mainly only happens in muslim cultures; even though many of those things (honour killings, wife beating, child marriages, etc) are prevalent in almost every culture.

    I am originally from India, and there you see many injustices towards women [muslim as well as non-muslim]. Girls openly get raped in packed trains, child marriages in villages are rampant, couples are killed by their relatives if their marry by their own choice…the list goes on. What i find unfair is that; if these things happened in Iran in some Middle-Eastern country, western newspapers will be splashed all over the place with the news, but if its some other country, then yeh who cares.
    There was a large amount of violence against Christians in Dec 2008 in Orissa, where churches were burnt, many Christians were killed or forced to leave their homes. Was this reported in the Western media?
    Very little.
    If this had happened in a country like (say) Egypt, then an all out war of words would have broken loose.

    I currently live in the Middle-East with my parents [im 18], and to a certain extent it is true that men harass women if they see them alone in public places, but in which country does that sort of thing NOT happen? its bad to put a blanket stereotype on all muslim men.

    I don’t know what its like it Egypt as i have never been there, but where we live, we dont see western women as some sort of open sexual objects, they are just normal, like all other people.

  • az

    i am agree with you but this Islamophobia is result of muslims actions that do anything they want in the name of islam. i live in iran in our country women are forced to wear hijab and have no right to divorce or custody of children .you think it is fault of west?

  • unlissted

    Why does mona eltahawy present herself as some specialist on issue of islam especially hijab ?

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • unlissted

    issues********

  • Dude

    She begins her focus by citing an Egyptian survey stating that 62% of Egyptian men had admitted to harassing women. However, she admits that the survey only questioned 2,000 men. As the population of Egypt is some 76.8 million (UN, 2008), this isn’t quite the damning statistic she thinks it is.

    Actually, if the sampling was done well, 2000 is probably a fairly OK/good sample size in statistics. Feel free to ask any statistician.

    A bigger problem may be how they chose the people they sampled, and the questions they asked them (ambiguous? leading?). But I doubt picking only 2000 is a problem.

  • Kalimaat

    I would not put Eltahawy and Nomani in the same box, their work and aims are different.

  • Judy Bachrach

    Hmmmm.. It might help if you had actually read the article I wrote for World Affairs on Islam and women. I didn’t visit a Muslim country. I lived in it. For a year. II didn’t read about how women were treated (or rather my research was not confined to reading) — I spoke to the women who lived there, yes actually interviewed them; and learned by the way quite a lot.

    Judy Bachrach

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

    Really?

    So if I read it again, I won’t find vast stereotyping of Muslim men, ill- disguised Orientalism and straight out racism?

    I don’t care how long you lived in the Middle East for, you still do not have the right to patronise and demean Muslims. You are talking about a population of a billion people. How on earth can you generalise in such a way?

    Read the comments above. Read how Muslim women are finding your words unbearably patronising and belittling.

    Are you still arrogant enough to claim that you know our lives better then we do?

  • misha

    THank you Safiya for posting about this…great work.

    I think Bachrach’s article is extremely problematic, so much so that it deserves a careful point by point analysis, something I can’t do at this point, but that I hope someone does in the future.

    I do not doubt that Bachrach was cat called or subjected to various kinds of harrassment from men while she lived in Cairo. Bachrach is obviously well traveled, but I am not sure where she grew up or where she goes home to at the end of her travels. For those who have grown up or lived in any American city, this culture of cat calling is par for the course. I lived in Chicago (city, not suburbs) for much of my life, and when I went back recently for a weekend visit, I was joking with some girlfriends about the different ways we cope with the constant attention and ridiculous and often offensive behavior from men passing by. To think that this kind of behavior from men is limited only to cities in the Muslim-majority countries is naïve at best. And by the way, “significantly”, when I am escorted by my husband in Chicago, the jeering stops there as well. Also, perhaps significantly, since Bachrach has no problem making an overall statement about how “foreign women are treated in Islamic nations” I am a white woman who had spent a good deal of time in Muscat, Oman, and Dubai, and I can tell you the level of harassment was at bare minimum, only 1 time blatant enough for me to remember. (as a side note to Ms. Bachrach:, any serious journalist dealing with Muslim-majority countries or communities should really be aware of the larger discourse around rhetoric. Many of the terms you used could have flown in the 1980’s, but at this point, it is hard to take you seriously with constant reference to “The Middle East (which includes Israel btw)” “The Muslim world” or “Islamic countries” as if these are all one monolithic thing. Your antiquated language alone is completely undermining the rest of what you have to say.)

    Bachrach’s article goes on to strategically bolster her point that Muslim men, even those who appear normal at first, are ultimately crazy, waiting to ensnare the innocent Muslim woman, or—god forbid—white female. Here again Bachrach proves her absolute naivety in the field by citing “Not without my daughter” as hard-core empirical evidence of the barbaric Muslim man. (*wince*!!) Again this is an embarrassing journalistic move with huge implications. (Sidenote to Bachrach, if you haven’t heard of Orientalism, that would be a good research point for your next article, seeing as how your current article under review smacks of it.) It is simple just impossible to take Bachrach seriously at this point. “Not without…” follows the classic Orientalist narrative by completely exploiting the trope of the violent, sociopathic Iranian male. Her reference to this movie as some kind of legit supporting evidence to her bogus claims immediately puts her in the orientalist camp whether she realizes it or not.

    There is so much more to be said to unpack this article. I am wondering what I have to do be hired by Vanity Fair and World Affairs Journal, like Bachrach, to write about my experience as a white woman. I mean, seriously. Why am I still at home not getting paid to comment on blog posts like this while women like her get to spread their brand of xenophobia globally?

  • Judy Bachrahc

    In reply to the woman who still doesn’t have a job — and to all those who have written: You are at home not being paid to comment on blogs or indeed anything because you haven’t bothered to research or report on any aspect of what I covered. All you do — all anyone else has done here — is comment and snivel. Try finding out exactly what is happening to women living under Sharia law in theocracies. Try listening. Then write.

  • misha

    To Ms. Bachrach: Your article sarcastically references the people who would challenge your position by pleading “you can’t lump all Muslim men together.” Your tone suggests that this statement is ridiculous. Your particular stance on Muslim men will probably not get very far amongst the group on this blog, all of whom most likely have loved ones—friends or family—who are Muslim men, and who are not able to reduce these men to 2D caricatures. You may have heard of other groups of people throughout time being lumped together and villianized: Black people, Jewish people…. It is sad that you don’t see what you are doing and the agendas it serves.

    The main problems with your article are 1. You are taking various cases of abusive men and conflating them to apply to ALL Muslim men everywhere. 2. You are referencing instances where women’s rights are abused or threatened by government law, and inferring that these issues are a. ALL justified by some static thing called Sharia law and b. practiced by ALL Muslim governments and Muslim people everywhere.

    Sharia law is not static, it’s evolving, and there is a radical difference in how different countries and communities interpret and implement Islamic law, which is also influenced by religious, customary, colonial and secular forces. I would suggest you take your own advice: Do your research.

    If your agenda is to benefit Muslim women, then it would serve you to listen to the critique of your work, rather than alienating people even more by calling their words “snivel.” You are being told that your words enforce very hurtful and unfair stereotypes (that of the demonic misogynist Muslim man and the oppressed, voiceless Muslim female), on a blog that is written by the very people that have to face these stereotypes. Also, it seems that you are quite positional in this, unwilling to see the empirical evidence right before you that would indicate these stereotypes are not accurate, or that there is more complexity to these issues than you understand.

    If you really and truly believe you have a privileged insight into the inner reality of every Muslim man everywhere based on the one year you lived in Cairo and a smattering of interviews (several with folks who are explicitly against Islam), this would be my response: Here in the US, many white supremacists lived not even just a year, but their entire lives in cities with black people in the Antebellum South. They also were convinced of their privileged insights, and were able to make sweeping statements about the “barbaric” culture of ALL black people everywhere. This approach doesn’t sound so acceptable now, does it?

  • Dude

    Try finding out exactly what is happening to women living under Sharia law in theocracies.

    A number of the MMW writers here have lived in such theocracies for over a year as Muslim women. For someone insisting on research, have you even bother to look up the people on this blog?

    And, incidentally, by your own standard, we should reject any article from you that is about a place where you’ve never lived before?

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

    I’m going to take this point by point.

    Firstly, it is deeply saddening that as someone who is paid to write, you’ve managed to misspell your own surname in the comment above.

    You claim that your year living in Egypt was sufficient research into women living under sharia law in theocracies.

    Well, I hate to break this to you, but Egypt is not a theocracy, it’s a secular dictatorship. Most of the legal system dates from colonial times and most newer legislation has sprung from the so-called ‘emergency laws’.

    I am stunned by your hypocrisy. You claim to listen to Muslim women, yet dismiss the detailed analysis of your work, by Muslim women, as ‘sniveling’.

    Why don’t you try listening now?

    Or are you too in love with your own sense of self importance to hear what anyone else has to say?

  • http://www.gwillowwilson.com Willow

    Like so many paleolithic journalists Ms. Bachrach has betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the blogosphere. You don’t just run vanity searches on your name, crash the party, bitch at regular blog authors and commentators, and then leave. This is Not Done. As petty as the anger of these women looks to you, your snide hit-and-run commenting looks pettier.

    Not to mention desperate. If an editor from Vanity Fair is concerned with what is said about a single article on the internet, things must be getting pretty bad up there in the starry echelons of the fourth estate.

    So let’s get down to brass tacks: I am paid to write, I have lived in Egypt (a theocracy? Does the name Nasser ring any bells? No?) and I’m telling you your article is one of the most poorly reasoned, intellectually dishonest, uninformative rants I’ve read in a long time.

    But by all means, continue insulting your readers. You might as well. Among people who have invested real time and energy in the issues facing Muslim women, you don’t have any credibility left to burn.

  • http://www.muslimahcomments.wordpress.com Samira Abdur-Rahman

    Wow! This is truly telling. It seems that Judy Bachrach only cares about Muslim women as long as they are silent, agreeable and submissive. And check it out, she doesn’t even need shariah to work her insulting magic.

    @Kalimaat Yes, I agree that Nomani and Elthawy are two completely different writers. Yet there are specific incidences where they both seek to speak for all Muslim women in ways that actually render Muslim women as invisible and monolithic. For instance in Elthawy’s writing hijab bares the sole burden for the sexual harrassment that Muslim women face in Egypt. For Nomani the wearers of hijab are characterized as vain, richies with no spiritual appreciation for Islam. So while their aims may be different they still in certain arenas lack the nuance that is necessary to render their subjects as living breathing human beings.

    Yet, what I am increasingly more aware of is how gender issues that are regionally specific are universally applied to represent what Islam is and does to women especially in the writings of South Asian and Arab women in the West. And I am not trying to make a tired culture vs Islam argument. I really think it takes a deep level of arrogance and myopia to continue to ignore the fact that one nation/experience/ethnicity does not own Islam. Margari Azizah Hill writes about this on her blog. It expresses some of my sentiments.

    http://azizaizmargari.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/link-between-honor-in-islam/

  • Fiqah

    Safiya, you’re awesome. Misha’s comments covered everything I wanted to say. Well done.

  • http://vsthepomegranate.blogspot.com/ Joseph

    @Safiya
    I probably shouldn’t be, but I am shocked by Judy Bachrach’s on-thread responses to your essay.

    The single-mindedness it takes to announce– on a site for, by and about Muslim women across cultures– that living in an Islamic country for a year (!) qualifies her as an authority on women in Islam is bad enough. But then to be so snide and dismissive of Muslim women whose experiences do not fit within her narrow thesis, and lashing out instead of engaging? Inexcusable. Is this how she represents her profession online?

    She is a walking illustration of why new media is important and valuable–especially for chronically under- and misrepresented populations– rather than the opposite.

    Both your original essay and your responses to her were really well done.

    Thanks.

  • http://islamoblog.blogspot.com Suleman

    This is an excelent rebuttal. But, I think the most important point you made in this article (not that there was a shortage of them) is towards the end when you said, “it animalizes Muslim men and infantalizes Muslim women.”

    That should be the caption for the attitude exhibited by Western people who think they are “standing up for Muslim women”.

    It IS the single best summary of the attitude towards the domestic lives of Muslims I think I’ve ever read.

  • Juanita

    Every time I despair of the way women are treated in Muslim countries—and the few syllables Western leaders and op-ed columnists expend on their humiliations, mutilations, harassments, and, yes, murders—I turn to the Web site of Mona Eltahawy. Eltahawy spent her formative years in Egypt and Saudi Arabia:

    A couple of years after I stopped visiting, a horrific fire broke out in a school in Mecca, home to the Muslim world’s holiest site. Fifteen girls burned to death because morality police standing outside the school wouldn’t let them out of the burning building. Why? Because they weren’t wearing headscarves and abayas, the black cloaks that girls and women must wear in public in Saudi Arabia.

  • Rachael

    Too many women live with violence and are not free to say and do as they wish. The abuses of women in Islamic communities seem to align with mis/interpretation of the Qur’an – so what are your suggestions for improving the lives of these oppressed women?

  • Sobia

    @Rachel:

    Not all violence Muslim women experience has to do with Islam. In fact, not everything a Muslim does has to do with Islam. Having said that, you are right that there are many who justify violence against women using Islam.

    There needs to be a strong effort to educate both Muslim men and women of the alternate and non-sexist interpretation of the particular verse that has been used. The commonly believed interpretation (even if one was to believe the “misvak” version, that’s still pretty sexist). This is an uphill challenge indeed and unfortunately. Men have a hard time giving up their power over women. Look at North America. Men still haven’t allowed women equality here.

    Education is the key. How to get that education to people, I’m not sure. Once they know its not Islam, then we’ll have to eliminate patriarchy and misogyny.

  • Nissa

    @Juanita- actually those girls died in a stampede when the stairs collapsed in the building, not because they couldn’t get out. I don’t doubt the Mutaween were there being the bastards that they are but there are accounts suggesting a lot of women did get out and it was more a case of the authorities being incompetent than the mutaween’s actions.

    @Sobia…I don’t think the miswak interpretation is sexist…what the point of it is that it limits a man’s anger. It is saying that the most angry you can get is to hit your wife with a misvak and not on the face and not so it leaves a mark…so what would be the point of that anyway?….
    of course men are not told it from that way….they just see it in its literal sense so I totally agree, education is the key. Women need to know what their rights are and they need backing to assert them.
    It is a zero sum game for men to give up even a little power but its time they realised that power is not going to help in front of Allah (swt).

  • Sobia

    @Nissa:

    But why does a man need to hit his wife at all? With anything? Why would a woman, and not a man, deserve to be hit, even if very lightly or symbolically? That’s extremely patronizing and thus sexist to me. I would never want my partner to hit me with anything to “discipline” or “punish” me as if I were a young child he was responsible for molding and raising. Even my parents wouldn’t do that.

    “It is saying that the most angry you can get is to hit your wife with a misvak and not on the face and not so it leaves a mark…so what would be the point of that anyway?”

    So what’s the point of hitting someone if you can’t leave a mark? Interesting comment. You can hit someone pretty hard without leaving a mark.

    I prefer Leila Bakhtiar’s interpretation of this verse. The misvak one is a very weak one.


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