Earlier this month, Shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah wreaked havoc on International Women’s Day (IWD) after posting a series of painfully sexist comments on Twitter and Facebook. Reactions were virtually instant and plentiful. Among the more interesting responses, Hind Makki started using #MuslimMaleAllies on Twitter. That the hashtag became widely popular raises questions about the expectations (or lack thereof) we have for Muslim men within our communities.
For those that haven’t been following, here’s the quick recap: Abu Eesa is a British Imam and lecturer known for his stereotypically dry, dark English sense of humour. He, however, took it much too far on IWD. Abu Eesa’s posts included a tweet that “Int’l Women’s Day is great, but starting tomorrow, it’s 364 International Men’s Day again, so stick that in your oven and cook it. #IWD.” He also made a meme posted on his Facebook page featuring his own picture that read “Don’t try to understand women. Women understand women and hate each other.” A subsequent “apology” was arguably worse, making light of rape culture and domestic violence.
The reactions were swift, with an onslaught of condemnations ensuing for days. In her AltMuslimah post, Rabia Chaudry courageously referred to the personal impacts of Abu Eesa’s comments, recalling her experiences in an abusive marriage and fears for her two young daughters. In “The Shaykh and the F Word,” Sana Saeed looked critically at feminism in the context of Islam. Omid Safi offered “What a Real Apology from Abu Eesa Should Look Like.” Hind Makki, of the brilliant Side Entrance blog, responded on Twitter and suggested fellow Tweeps use #MuslimMaleAllies to shift focus away from the misogynistic Abu Essa and name Muslim men that uphold the dignity of women. The hashtag has since taken a life of its own, trended strongly through most of IWD, and filled my twitter feed with anecdotes of men we know and love. (For those that want to read the breath of reactions to Abu Essa’s comments, Makki has a great post that catalogs these links here.)
I didn’t contribute to the hashtag and, fortunately, that wasn’t at all related to a deficit of Muslim men that I tremendously admire. I was concerned, however, that we find it necessary to highlight behaviour that should be status quo. Fathers should be caring in ways that enable their daughters to be strong and independent. We should not be shocked that women in heterosexual relationships can build genuinely equitable, loving partnerships with their husbands/boyfriends/partners. Our leaders should be expected to be unequivocal in their support for women, particularly in reaction to comments like those of Abu Eesa. To expect any less simply sets low and, frankly speaking, unacceptable standards of behaviour from all men, Muslim or otherwise. Moreover, applauding what should be otherwise normal implies we think little of the capacities within the men of our communities; that we’re somehow surprised when they do the right thing.
Yet, I understand the tremendous inclination to use #MuslimMaleAllies, even on a day like IWD. As Muslims in the West, we’re worried about the backlash from Abu Eesa’s comments. We’ve seen lightening-rod news stories, like the “honour killing” of Aqsa Parvez, that force our communities into awkward, defensive positions. Abu Eesa’s posts make us nervous because we know his misogynistic comments perpetuate stereotypes that Muslimahs are oppressed and that these kinds of incidents can ignite the West’s saviour complex. I spend enough time trying to convince friends, acquaintances, and colleagues that I’m not a Muslim woman who needs any saving. Abu Eesa’s posts made that more difficult. #MuslimMaleAllies tried to alleviate that.
The hashtag is trying to show that we have good men within the community. The insinuation becomes, however, that men who are explicitly named are the exception, not the rule. We, as women, often spend enormous amounts of time digging for each miniscule Quranic ayah, hadith, and sunnah that is supportive of women’s empowerment as proof to the world and other Muslims of the equity inherent to Islam. I understand the purpose of that process: that it’s a means of getting to know our faith and use the scriptures to guide our ways of life. But I’m simultaneously disheartened; I find myself feeling that we’re thumping the Quran because we, as Muslimahs, are grappling with the realities that we are not equals within the faith.
We can better grapple with the sexism within Muslim communities by acknowledging that sexism isn’t endemic to just Islam. Sexism is a normative process within most cultural contexts in the world, Western or Eastern, First-World or Third-World, Muslim or not. As I wrote in “Mosques and Marriages: Manifestations of Patriarchy and Misogyny in a Western, Muslim Context,” sexism manifests itself within our religious and cultural spaces in ways that are different from non-Muslim ones. Not necessarily better or worse. Just different. In other words, we have to acknowledge that sexism exists within most Islamic cultural contexts. We deal with those inequities by applying solutions that are relevant to their respective contexts, not by using one-size-fits-all approaches to women’s empowerment prescribed from Western perspectives.
I understand why #MuslimMaleAllies trended so strongly on Twitter. But I also know that I deserve equity across all of my relationships. We can and should be asking more from men. That’s the entire point of having an International Women’s Day.