Would the Real Muslim Woman Please Stand Up?

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Yasmin Ali.  I apologise for not including her name when this was originally posted. – Krista

I recently attended a symposium on Islamophobia at American Islamic College titled “Facing Religious Intolerance: Islamophobia in the 21st Century .” Panel members included Nathan Lean as well as Ahmed Rehab and Dr. Farid Hafez.  The panel was moderated by Laith Al-Saud, who is a professor of Islamic World Studies at DePaul University.   Nathan Lean is a scholar on Middle East studies and editor-in-chief of Aslan Media.  He has contributed to PolicyMic and co-authored Iran, Israel, and the United States: Regime Security vs. Political Legitimacy.  Ahmed Rehab is Executive Director of CAIR- Chicago and has a national media presence with appearances on TV and radio.  Dr. Farid Hafez was invited from the Department for the Philosophy of Law, Law of Religion, and Culture at the University of Vienna.

Having attended seminars and speeches in the past that also dealt with this leviathan of a topic, I expected the same references, but hoped for a newer perspective on a phenomenon that has been criticized and analyzed in many ways.

For although I believe that many theories and arguments have hit the nail on the head on how Islamophobia has spread and how it affects us, I have begun to wonder where the women have gone from the argument.  It was with this issue in my mind that I attended the symposium and heard three leading Muslim minds analyze, question and deliver poignant facts about the rhetoric of Islamophobia. 

I heard Nathan Lean discuss the ways Islamophobia has been fed to the masses, and how recent marketing campaigns like CAIR’s MyJihad have begun to successfully change the feelings associated with Islamic terminology that has been miscast.  Dr. Farid Hafez successfully linked the opposing tides in America with his experiences in Austria, yet it was the speech delivered by Ahmed Rehab that most caught my interest.

“Islamophobia is more than the fear caused by the actions of bigots,” he stated, “It is the very action itself.”  He went on to explain the nature of Islamophobia as operational and active.  It was this act that had three main characteristics.

Panelists at a symposium on Islamophobia, hosted by the American Islamic College.

1.)    Misattribution:  The act of criticizing Islam for the action of one

2.)    Generalization:  Extending a belief held about one person to the entire community

3.)    Reductionism: To reduce the wealth of identity a community holds to a few simplistic, erroneous bullet points, thereby erasing their identity to replace it with your own misheld beliefs.

The question that formed in my mind while I was listening to these speeches, the subsequent panel and questions was this:

What role have the representations of women played in the perpetration of Islamophobia?  In the arguments against Islam, women have always played central roles, and I am not stating that we haven’t fought back to remove those stereotypes.  We have.

However, I believe understanding the problem fully is the first step towards curing it.  And we haven’t understood Islamophobia if we believe that women have not been one of the main targets of it.

Fortunately, as I listened to Ahmed Rehab, he unknowingly addressed the questions in my mind.  According to Ahmed Rehab, Misattribution, Generalization and Reductionism are three separate components of Islamophobia.

Yet I would go one step further to say that women have been the central rallying cry for Islamophobes who have used those this three pronged approach to miscast us as Oppressed Muslim Women.  Pamela Geller, on her blog Atlas Shrugs, recently wrote an article about honor killings in Britain.  Criticizing the BBC for not attributing these deaths to Islam, Geller takes it one step further to call accurate reporting “propaganda.”    On the other hand, Geller makes no mention of the many movements and organizations within Islam that combat Domestic Violence, such as Project Sakinah.

Have we responded? Yes, however not in kind and perhaps not knowingly enough.  As an artist, I have struggled against the image of what a proper Muslim woman should look like and do – and by no means is this blog post aiming to provide a peek behind the veil at the Real Muslim Woman, because there is no such thing.  Muslim woman are as diverse as Muslims at large.  If the larger community has begun to accept the immense degree of diversity our faith holds, they should also strive to recognize that in those diverse communities are the diverse women of the faith, as well.  There is no mold that women have to fit through to be considered a Muslim woman.   To make our argument against Islamophobia comprehensive, we need to include honest representations of the Muslim women in our community.

How does this play into Islamophobia?  As the recent CAIR campaign MyJihad illustrates, it is important to take ownership of the terms and ideologies that we hold sacred.  Holding onto the personal meanings of what Jihad is to all of us is crucial, as is beginning to fix the broken foundations of how Muslim women are viewed.

I believe many people still don’t understand what life is like as a Muslim woman, and that Islamophobic attempts to miscast us as ignorant, docile creatures have worked to a frightening degree.  We don’t even recognize how deep the fracture has gone, we’ve just gotten used to stepping over the cracks on a daily basis.  What is most frightening of all is when I go to lectures on Islamophobia and never hear how female representation has played such a huge part.

By not recognizing this trend as part and parcel of Islamophobia as one global Muslim community, we are attempting to treat a disease by getting rid of a symptom.  Women have long been the central focus for those who have wished to miscast the religion as oppressive and demeaning – operational bigotry at its best.   We responded in kind to Pamela Geller’s bus station initiatives to ‘defeat Jihad’ by clarifying what Jihad was.

Yet we are still struggling to clarify who a Muslim woman is.

When we, as women, are held up to be the unknowing victims who play into a game created to trap us, it reduces our identities to be nothing more than a trope.  And this trope is one that has been considered a criticism of Islam, yet the dialogue in our Muslim world is sorely lacking the address this criticism deserves and demands.

In order for this to occur, we need to be willing to take a fresh look at how we address Islamophobia.

I recently met with Madhu Krishnamurthy, Staff Writer for the Daily Herald, to talk about the changing nature of media these days.   As we talked about social media and the evolving nature of information, I asked her what she saw as the reason why people still depended on traditional news sources.

“There will always be a need for well researched, objective media.”

As bloggers, ‘experts’ and TV hosts ignite the social media world with inflammatory statements, we need to counter that with what we know to be true.  We need a marketing campaign for the everyday Muslim woman who takes ownership of her religion and what it means to her.  MyJihad? I say, MyIslam.

And at the end of day, sometimes we just need to say it how it is.  Put simply in Ahmed Rehab’s words:  “We have to be able to call it how it is.  We have to call it stupid.”


  • Maryam Hajar

    Shukran for this article. As a American Muslim woman, who is also a convert, I find Islamophobia more tolerable than the sexism, gender biase, role expectations, ghettoization of women and children in the masjids when we are delegated to a dingy basement just because of our gender, etc. within the Muslim community. Just take a look at Muslim FB pages; it looks like a Boy’s Club with a Boy’s Club mentality, where Muslim men are seen luxuriating at the feet of scholars and speaking at conferences, etc–when all the while women are no where to be seen at these functions. Where are they learning and finding the support as Muslims, as men receive? I have been looking, but dont see it all. It really sickens me and makes me wonder what I am doing in this religion. But, as always am fortified by Allah, the Quran, and the sunnah of Our Prophet pbuh; which although vital to being a Muslim, is very lonely for us women in this religion. As a convert, I am perplexed and discouraged, since I left Catholicism for Islam because I was told and believed that Muslim women have more rights are respect under the Shariah, than any other religion; yet I don’t see this put in practice within the Ummah today.

    Of course, Muslimahs face discrimination and Islamophobia everytime we walk out our doors when we dress in Hijab and abaya, but we expect that, and pray Allah protects us. But to experience this feeling of being ostrascized and shunned by the menfolk, for being a woman within the Ummah, is much more painful and disheartening than the physical and verbal assaults I have experienced by ‘strangers’ who hated or were afraid of me because of my garb.


    • nara

      its all due to stupid traditions spread during illeteracy in muslim countries and were connect with islam ..my gradma told me they used to be forced to marry who ever their parents want and then tie that to islam and sence people were illeterate and couldnt read quran or sunnah no body could reject..im living in saudi arabia now and the more knowlege in islam the person have here the more respectful of women he becomes.. many said that learing sunnah and how prophet mohamed delt with women changed their whole treatment to women ..one said he opens the car door for his wife now..its ignorance thats reason for most problems

  • Roya

    I’m afraid an honest portrayal of Muslim women would actually help Islamophobia. It’s a fact that in Islamic countries women are generally abused and mistreated in the name of Islam and Islam itself doesn’t hold a very flattering view of women, unless one’s open to a very liberal interpretation of Koran and hadith.

  • Yasmin Ali

    Maryam, thank you for your comments. I’m sorry to hear that your experience has been so hard, and I agree that there is definitely a double standard in the treatment of men and women in many Muslim communities, however I believe that that is a practice that is against the true Islam. I do see the evidence of Islamic female scholars speaking up to place themselves in the discussions and theories as well, however we are still some space away from establishing our place in scholarly circles.

    Roya, I would disagree. Women are mistreated in every culture and community out there, and in nearly every case, religious or cultural dogma is applied to justify the abuse. Unfortunately, mistreating women is not specific to Islam or Muslim communities.

    The difference, however, is that what is wrong in our community is broadened to hold the entire religion at fault, which is wrong. Islam does hold women in high esteem. It gives them rights, recognizes them as equals and also establishes repercussions for those who take away those rights or mistreats us.

    The strongest female figures in our religion, and those most sacred, were those who fought in wars, conducted successful businesses and were revered as scholars and historians. We have forgotten our own history and the significance of it.

    It is this forgetfulness that Islamophobists have taken advantage of, to paint our religion as one that demeans women and our history as one that does, as well.

  • Roya

    Yasmin, I agree that mistreatment and abuse of women is a worldwide problem and again i agree that in Islamic countries the dominant culture is hugely responsible for what happens to women. but Islam does maintain and strengthen these cultures.even if we remember our glorious days, women still will be considered second class citizens, because Islam never advocates gender equality.almost in all social aspects women must follow men.Sex segregation further weakens women’s status.The most sacred women in Islam were actually the prophet’s wives who were kept away from men’s eyes and ordered to stay home even after his death.My point is that by going back to Koran,hadith and sunnah, the problem of women won’t be solved. Islamophobia won’t go away.If we want a better world for ourselves we should start modernizing many fundamental issues.

  • Janfrans Zuidema

    1.) Misattribution: The act of criticizing Islamophobia for the action of one.
    2.) Generalization: Extending a belief held about one Islamophobe to the entire community of Islamophobes.
    3.) Reductionism: To reduce the wealth of the islamophobic identity an islamophobic community holds to a few simplistic, erroneous bullet points, thereby erasing their Islamophobic identity to replace it with your own misheld beliefs.

    I’m sorry Yasmin, I’m afraid I have to call it how it is. I call it hypocrisy.

  • Yasmin Ali

    Janfrans, I’m afraid you entirely missed my point. My article was not in criticism of Islamophobia (on that point I promise to write much more later).

    It was in criticism of the response to Islamophobia from the Muslim community.

    I am clarifying that women have also been a central target in the movement that has been termed ‘Islamophobia,’ aka – a fear or phobia of Muslims that is not grounded in logic or reason. It is grounded in the propaganda that has been spread about our religion. If you would like be further educated on Islamophobia in particular, and its roots, I would direct you to testimony given by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding before the Senate:

    1.) ISPU Testimony before the Senate: The Threat of Islamophobia to American Muslim Civil Rights – http://www.ispu.org/content/ISPU_Testimony_before_the_Senate_The_Threat_of_Islamophobia_to_American_Muslim_Civil_Rights

    Islamophobia is very much real and to analyze its very real effects is no hypocrisy, it’s right.

    • Janfrans Zuidema

      Hello Yasmin, I’m a master of sociology of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. My master thesis was about negative attitudes against Muslims in the Netherlands. One of the first lessons I learned about prejudice is that the simple formation of groups can lead to the real effects that you are talking about (Google: ‘Robbers cave’ or watch the film ‘The Wave’). These effects can thus be attributed to the formation of all groups. Every single one. So if you really try to take the transcendental stand or the ‘meta-view’, you have to look in the mirror first. Islamophobes or Muslims aren’t better or worse at face value. They are the same. If justice prevails, then they must be treated the same. So, how would you judge your own prejudice (and that of the group you identify with)? Would you say that the prejudice of your in-group is the first thing that needs to be eradicated? What is it about the prejudice of the Islamophobes that makes it so much worse than the prejudice of all other groups?