Truth or Propaganda: Muslim Women Need to Be Saved

With so much of American foreign policy being focused on various Muslim countries, it is no surprise that there is a “concern” among conservatives about the issues that Muslim women face in different parts of the Muslim world. I have a wish that their concern is sincere, but when I read essays like Zeyno Baran’s recent tirade on The Huffington Post, I see my wish is futile. Zeyno Baran is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

There are so many wrong assumptions and ethnocentrism in the article that it is hard to know where to begin. One of the most the glaring assumptions in the essay is the idea of a monolithic Islamic society. For a scholar, Baran has no sense of nuance when discussing Muslim societies. Countries such as Iran (which molds its government on Shi’a fiqh) and Pakistan (which has a secular government) are grouped together. Muslim women are discussed as a monolithic group with no socioeconomic or racial diversity.

“The more I learn about the condition of Muslim women, the more I feel embarrassed by how many things I have taken for granted. Unlike so many Muslim girls, I had the opportunity to receive an education — and one that prepared me to be able to follow my dreams from Istanbul to Stanford to Washington — and the freedom to choose what to do with my own body, mind, and intellect.”

You know, Baran’s experience of receiving an education seems to curiously be my experience, too. It also is the experience of other Muslim women I know from around the world. I went to college with Muslimahs from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Malaysia and Bangladesh, to name just a few countries. My goodness! Are we all anomalies among Muslim women or is Baran simply grouping all Muslim together to serve an agenda that has really nothing to do with helping Muslim women at all?

What exactly is the condition of Muslim women? As Baran should know, issues that Muslimahs face in Turkey won’t be exactly the same as issues that women face in, say, Iran. Some issues may overlap, but often issues are different because of the different situations of those countries. In addition, issues that an upper class woman in Iran or Turkey would face won’t be the same as issues that lower class women in those face. Ethnic identity (which is diverse in both countries) will also affect what issues women face in those countries, despite both countries being predominately Muslim. Muslim women in various parts of the world, including America (which Baran thinks is “the one and only country where dreams can truly come true”), have to deal with intersecting issues and those issues aren’t all the same. That’s why it’s frustrating when commentators feel the need to lump all Muslim women together and say that we’re all in the same condition. Clearly, we are not.

Muslim men are all lumped together as well. Reading Baran’s piece, you would think that the only Muslim man who cared for women was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Baran paints Muslim men as brutes who force their women to cover their entire body, stay in the house, be silent and who kill their women if they break any of those rules. Again, Muslim men aren’t a monolithic group. I’m not naive to think that there aren’t Muslim men who think this way, but to paint a broad over all Muslim men is troubling.

Additionally, Baran’s view of Ataturk, as well as gender politics in the Muslim world, is very one-sided. Yes, Ataturk allowed women to vote and run for office but he also took away their right to wear hijab in public spaces. That seems rather paternalistic to me. In fact, the banning of hijab in universities, government offices, schools, etc., is still an issue that Turkish hijabis have to contend with. Also, honor killings are still a major problem in Turkey. Yet, Baran completely glosses over these facts and makes Turkey seem like a utopia for Muslim women.

Additionally, women have the right to vote in a lot of Muslim countries, Pakistan and Iran included. Why didn’t Baran mention this? Would it be because her real agenda is not to discuss issues affecting Muslim women but rather to paint countries like Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and others in as negative a light as possible? Baran appears to be using feminism to serve a neo-conservative agenda rather than sincerely discuss how the U.S. can aid Muslim women in our fight to gain rights and keep the ones we have.

Baran’s ethnocentrism becomes especially apparent in her idea of “freedom” for Muslim women. Baran predictably attacks hijab: “Women are covered and brought under submission — through enforced illiteracy and through a form of veiling: the burqa, niqab or hijab.” Is hijab really comparable to forced illiteracy? Also, why does Baran assume that Muslim women who wear the burqa, niqab or hijab are being subjugated? How many times do hijabis have to say that not all Muslim women are forced to wear hijab and that we wear it for a variety of reasons!? Again, I won’t deny that unfortunately, there are Muslim women who are forced to wear hijab, but Baran makes it seem that Muslim women wear hijab for one reason only.

Additionally, Baran seems to think we’re all unhappy and that for us to be “free” we must be happy. “The biggest threat to those trying to control or kill the spirit is children and women laughing, dancing and singing freely. That is also what is most forbidden in most parts of the Islamic world.” Okay, this sentence is so laughable. Has Baran watched YouTube videos of singer such as Ruby, Veena Malik or Haifa Wahbi? If women singing and dancing freely in most parts of the Islamic world was so forbidden, then why are these singers so popular?

Baran’s idea of how we should be “free” doesn’t seem to be influenced by what Muslim women say, but rather the shallow idea of “freedom” that has propaged by neoconservatives for way too long. In fact, the idea that we have to “freed” by altruistic American politicians is extremely paternalistic. Baran titled her essay “Let the Truth Shine”, but the only thing that shines through in her essay is thinly veiled propaganda.