Milke-ing it: Another Paternalistic Editorial

Looking at the title of Mark Milke’s editorial, “The 21st century-style subjection of women” I have to admit that the first group of people that didn’t come to mind was Muslim women. Maybe it’s because Muslims are usually portrayed as being stuck in the middle ages. However, my first impression was wrong and the editorial was indeed about Muslim women. I guess Muslim subjection of women is both medieval and modern.

Milke’s essay is a throwback to John Stuart Mill’s 1869 essay “The Subjection of Women”. He tries to connect Mill’s essay to the plight of Muslim women but unfortunately spits out a bunch of tired clichés about Muslim women and the “freedom” that we’re denied.

I got the sense that Milke was just insistent on Muslim women being oppressed and downtrodden even when he provided examples to the contrary.

“I’ve taught a number of university classes and the young Muslim women do exceptionally well. I don’t know if that’s because they have parents who push them to succeed, or whether they appreciate Canada’s opportunities. It might be both.”

Muslim women can’t do well because they’re internally motivated to do so. We can only do well when afforded the wonderful opportunities that only exist in great countries like Canada and when we have parents looking over our shoulders making sure that we hit the books. Excuse my sarcasm, but I find it surprising that a professor like Milke didn’t realize how condescending this statement was the moment he typed it. His statement is not a compliment to his students at all but once more reinforces two stereotypes: 1) Muslim women are always under the control of their families 2) Muslim women are infantile and cannot be successful unless they benefit from a benevolent Western society.

In the rest of the essay, which really was not that coherent, Milke goes on about Muslim societies being so horrible to women. Even “liberal” Muslim societies don’t escape blame:

“For instance, one young Muslim woman I know came from a relatively more liberal Muslim country but still prefers to not settle back home. Male attitudes towards her gender are the reason.”

This statement groups all Muslim societies in a monolith while trying not to. In Milke’s mind, all Muslim societies treat women badly. Additionally, this statement, as well as the whole of Milke’s essay, also assumes that Muslim women are immigrants or come from an immigrant perspective. In Milke’s discussion there is no room for black, white, or Native American Canadian converts or their children.

Milke’s editorial isn’t all negative. He does give a shout out to Arab newspapers that print editorial cartoons decrying unequal treatment of women. But he found the cartoons on MEMRI, which makes me wonder if he actually did any real research on grassroots movements to bring about gender equality in Muslim societies. Even Milke’s accolades of Arab editorial cartoonists felt more like a pat on the head than a sincere attempt at solidarity with people genuinely concerned about gender rights

I would have preferred if Milke had highlighted, in addition to the cartoons, the everyday efforts that women in all Muslim societies are making to create more equitable societies for both women and men.  And this is why Milke’s essay ultimately failed. His attitude towards the Muslim women and Muslim activists that he writes about is paternalistic. I felt as if he were looking down upon us, saying, “There, there. I know it’s hard for you Muslim women, but once you and your men accept our enlightened Western ways, you’ll be fine.”

That doesn’t feel like someone sincerely reaching out at all.

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  • Safiyyah

    wow, it has been a bumper week for Muslim women “concern”!

    somehow, its worst when a non-Muslim man writes abt Muslim women than when a mon-Muslim women does. With the women i can at least expect some empathy for shared womanhood

    so even when Muslim women excel at academics, its just can’t be because of their own intelligence and capabilities!! aaaah!

  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Your first paragraph made me snort my tea.

    The ‘appreciate Canada’s opportunities’, is also labeling Muslim women as perpetual foreigners, rather then as actual Canadians.

    As for citing MEMRI as a source – ?! That’s almost as bad as using Fox News.

    I agree with your conclusion: head patting is not reaching out.

  • KC

    Wow… This website is usually rife with double standards, nitpicking and perpetual victimhood but this reaction really takes the prize:

    “Muslim women can’t do well because they’re internally motivated to do so. We can only do well when afforded the wonderful opportunities that only exist in great countries like Canada and when we have parents looking over our shoulders making sure that we hit the books.”

    I believe what the good professor said is that Muslim women do “exceptionally” well. Key word “exceptional”. As in better than other students. The professor didn’t say that Muslim woman couldn’t perform at the level of an average students with their own “internal motivation”. He made the anecdotal observation that they are “exceptional” students and sought to explain their “exceptional[ism]“. If he had equated Muslim women with average students and sought to explain their ability to be average with sociocultural factors then you might have a point but he was theorizing about their “exceptional” academic performance.

  • Tom

    “In Milke’s mind, all Muslim societies treat women badly’

    Out of interest, which Muslim society would you say is the role model for treating women well?

  • Safiyyah

    @ KC – its not whether Muslim women are average or exceptional students that matter, but that they cant be so just on their own credentials that irks me, and i think Krista? Im sure if Muslim women were really bad students he’d blame it on their parents and home countries.

    @ tom – so there isn’t an ideal society that treats Muslim women well, but then again, there isn’t an ideal society that treats all women perfectly either. Muslim societies in the west are really making big strides on women’s rights. not all of us were born in some Muslim country and have come to seek better opportunities in the west you know!

  • KC

    Safiyyah – I think that a benign observation is being politicized here, and what exactly the professor said is quite important. If he had made the statement that Muslim women were just as good student as everyone else and then tried to use socio-cultural explanation then you might have a point. If the question is “why are Muslim women just as good students as any one else”, the appropriate response is “why the heck wouldn’t they be”.

    But i the question is “why are Muslim women exceptional students (i.e. statistically better than average)”, its legitimate to question the social or cultural factors that gave rise to their exceptionalism. Whole ‘groups’ of of people don’t demonstrate statistically significant differences in academic performance when compared the broader population because of their own “credentials”. There is a cause of that difference that usually relates to what differentiates that subgroup from the broader population.

    There is nothing “paternalistic” about that. It is a basic application of research methods.

  • Faith

    Exactly Sobia. Every society has its elements of sexism and outright misogyny. No society should get a gold star for the treatment of women.

  • Sobia

    Considering there is no society at all in this world that is a role model for treating women well, we don’t really know what that kind of society would be like. Therefore, it is hard for us to judge whether a society is a role model or not.