Discussing Muslim Women in Australia: An Interview With Joumanah El Matrah

Recently, Australia’s ABC National Radio show, The Religion Report, covered the issue of racism experienced by Muslim women. In light of a recent Australian report entitled “Race, Faith and Gender” published by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria that assessed the impact of racism on Muslim women, host David Rutledge interviewed Joumanah El Matra, the Executive Director of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria about the issue. You can listen to the interview and read the transcript here.

Joumanah El Matrah - Image via 2002 Women's Global Leadership Institute

Joumanah El Matrah - Image via 2002 Women's Global Leadership Institute

The report, as El Matra explains, demonstrates that many non-Muslim Victorians (sixty percent) “associate Muslim women with poor treatment, with oppression and with submissiveness” and tended to see “Muslim women as really lacking any sort of human agency.” The report also sadly indicated that Muslim women themselves were hesitant to approach authorities if needed because of lack of response from authorities. The report clearly identifies that racism impacts the lives of Muslim women in Australia in substantive ways.

During the course of the interview some important points were brought up and interesting issues were discussed. We on MMW have often discussed the fine balancing act we perform in addressing the problems within our own community while at the same time trying to defend it against increased stigmatization. Rutledge asks El Matra about this balancing act:

David Rutledge: Well you’ve told me that there are positive attitudes towards Muslims out there in the non-Muslim community, but as you’ve mentioned, many people are – well they’re sympathetic towards Muslim women because they feel that Muslim women are oppressed within their own communities, and I want to ask you if that presents an issue for the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council because on one hand you’re working with women who are experiencing things like domestic violence and discrimination within their own communities, but on the other hand, you I guess, need to defend those communities from the attitudes of non-Muslims who think that all Muslim women are oppressed. How do you negotiate that?

Joumanah El Matrah: Look, sometimes very well, sometimes very badly. It does make it extremely difficult for us, because the vast majority of the community does feel, if you like, under siege and they don’t want any sort of negative information being released about the community, because they feel that it fuels further racism. Nonetheless, those issues are real and I think that our purpose and commitment needs to be to stay committed to those issues and keep reminding people that violence against women is not unique to Muslim communities.

As accurately noted this is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. Problems within the community must be addressed and dealt with, but as a religious and/or ethnic minority, the threat of stigmatization is a real one if problems are highlighted. Therefore, the need to address and deal with problems, while ensuring the protection of the communities’ respect and reputation, becomes of utmost importance. Both must occur simultaneously.

The program also brought up the important issue of who speaks for Muslim women and defensiveness within the Muslim women community.

David Rutledge: You’re right, of course, when you say that these things happen in all communities, but I’m wondering about cross-community or cross-cultural dialogue about this. And it was very interesting I thought in 2006 when the then mufti of Australia made his comments about women and uncovered meat, and he received a lot of support from Muslim women who said, ‘Well yes, this is an issue, but it’s our issue and non-Muslims can butt out’. Now do you think that that’s right, that it is up to Muslims to sort out their problems or is there some way in which non-Muslims can weigh into these debates without being seen as Islamophobic or prejudiced?

Joumanah El Matrah: It is possible, but it requires very different community relations than we currently have at the moment in Australia. Mainstream Australians continue to think of Muslims are more violent than other groups and that the issues they face surrounding the violence are unique and certainly far more frequent than other communities. And until those perceptions move, I don’t think that many in the Muslim community are going to welcome inter-community intervention or support with open arms.

Basically, El Matrah hits on a common concern in Muslim communities – that generalizations about Muslims among non-Muslim communities hinder inter-community dialogue and make Muslims hesitant to accept help from non-Muslims.

However, el-Matrah points out a disadvantage of these distances and this defensiveness among young Muslim women. When asked by Rutledge:

David Rutledge: You and I spoke a few years ago on this program, and we were talking about the issue of self-criticism within Islam, and this is the question we still hear, you know, “where is the reflective, self-critical voice in Islam”? I asked you at the time if you thought that in Australia at least, that women might be emerging as that voice, and you said that they might be, but that we haven’t quite arrived yet. Are we closer, do you think?

Joumanah El Matrah: I think we’re closer, but it’s taken a couple of steps back. I’ve noticed that younger women are more defensive about status and our position in Islam than some of the older women, and I think at the moment, young Muslim women seem to be stuck on defending Islam at all costs. And I can see that with some of the younger women who are so invested in defending themselves, their community and their religion, that they’ve left really no room for analysis, and I don’t know whether that will come with age, or whether it’s a function that many young Muslims now have grown up in the post September 11th environment, and it’s difficult for them to get a grip on what relations were like prior to September 11th. They’ve grown up in an environment where what they value is considered regressive, compared to Australian culture.

El Matrah makes an important point and one which I’ve noticed as well. As someone who clearly remembers a pre-9/11 world in which I faced minimal hostility toward my religion, the value of critical analysis of my own religion and Muslims has always been obvious to me. A critical analysis which was able to occur without worry that all Muslims would be stigmatized as violent. However, as minorities, the threat of stigmatization, little or large, has always been there. This is the reality for all minorities – ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.

Finally, on the issue of Iktimal Hage-Ali, whom we covered on MMW recently, El Matrah was forgiving and sympathetic:

David Rutledge: Do you think this is where Iktimal Hage-Ali ironically, could be seen as a role model, an example of how difficult it is for Muslim women to step forward or to be pushed forward as representative of their communities?

Joumanah El Matrah: Yes, yes, I think she was really a perfect example. What was really interesting about her was that she was I think also condemned by Australian society for falling short of that ideal, you know, that they wanted her to be a liberated Muslim women with absolutely no faults whatsoever, so there’s a lot of attention and support given to her, because she didn’t wear the hijab, she spoke very much about living in Australia and being part of Australian society but she was also idolised as well, and the fact that she was associated with people who were questioned over drugs, in my mind wasn’t actually a big deal, but somehow she disappointed everybody and wasn’t allowed to redeem herself in any way.

David Rutledge: And of course the pressure on her came from elements within the Muslim communities as well, she was vilified and smear campaigns.

Joumanah El Matrah: Absolutely, yes. I think that’s how a lot of Muslim women feel though, that they can’t win if they put themselves forward, that one side or the other or both are going to target them in one way or another.

The interview with El Matrah revealed a great deal about Muslim women in Australia. Issues which Muslim women living as minorities in the Western world deal with were presented. To understand the issues in more detail one would have to read the report, although the interview gave listeners a taste of the report’s findings. The interviewer was able to ask important questions which would be on the minds of many non-Muslims and El Matrah was able to answer them intelligently. Having such dialogue in which those ignorant of the issues are able to ask honest and sincere questions which are then answered in honest and self-respectful ways is beneficial to all parties involved.

Stand Up WITH Muslim Women, Johann

Muslimah Media Watch thanks Thabet for the tip.

In Thursday, October 23rd’s edition of The Independent, journalist Johann Hari asked the question “Dare we stand up for Muslim women?” Hari (pictured below right), a young British journalist with left leanings and who has defended Muslims against the fear mongering of Canadian right-wing writer Mark Steyn, has presented an interesting and compelling case for the need to better the situation of Muslim women in the world. His examples are heartbreaking and elicit sympathy for the suffering women. However, as noble as Hari’s intentions may be in writing the piece he has made one very big, yet sadly extremely common, mistake – he has assumed the worst of Muslim women themselves – and this mistake only further entrenches racism toward Muslims in the East/South and creates a superior-inferior dichotomy.

Johann Hari. Image via Hari's website.

Johann Hari. Image via Hari's website.

Hari begins by presenting us with a graphic depiction of the severely burned face of a 21-year-old Bangladeshi acid-burn victim, Shahnaz, whose husband and brother-in-laws attacked her with acid. Why? According to Hari “[h]er crime was to be a Muslim woman who wanted to be treated as equal to a man.” Shahnaz had wanted to study but her husband disagreed. Hari also reports that the incidences of acid-burning of women has increased in Bangladesh and cites the growing independence of Bangladeshi women as the cause of anger among the men who burn them. “It is just one tactic in a global war to keep Muslim women at heel,” Hari says. He then lists tactics through which other Muslim countries have displayed their misogyny, often in brutal ways.

No one can deny that such horrific incidences occur. No one can deny that many Muslim women live in very difficult situations. However this is not a Muslim problem. Violence against women in many different forms whether it be hitting, slapping, rape, burning, etc., occurs in all countries. There exist men in all cultures and all religions who feel it their right to abuse women. Pointing out occurrences of such behaviour only among Muslims demonizes Muslim men and denies Muslim women their agency (a point to which I will return below). Additionally, in the process of painting this as a Muslim problem, which is what Hari has done, we end up denying that non-Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries suffer similar fates. For instance, if we stay with the region of South Asia, India‘s rates of violence against women are disturbing to many human rights workers. Additionally, this Violence Against Women Fact Sheet would indicate the universality of the problem of violence against women.

However, getting back to the Muslims in Hari’s piece, it is worth noting that Hari writes about the cultural variation in Muslim countries by writing:

We ask nervously: isn’t it just their culture that women are treated differently? Isn’t it a form of cultural imperialism to condemn these practices? The only rational response is to ask: whose culture do you want to respect here? Shahnaz’s culture, or her husband’s? The culture of the little girls learning in a Kandahar classroom, or of the Taliban thug who bursts in and shoots their teacher?…Muslim societies are not a homogenous block – and it is racist to pretend they are.

However, he points out cultural variation not to say, as I would, Muslims are a diverse people, or that the culture does not condone violence against women and that such behaviour is not a part of their diverse cultures but rather a product of ubiquitous patriarchy, the entrenchment of which is in large part a product of international economic and educational injustices. No, he uses this argument to say that there exist two cultures – the male Muslim culture and the female Muslim culture. The male Muslim culture is the brutal, angry and oppressive one, and the female Muslim culture is the subjugated, imperiled and submissive one. The picture that Hari has painted is one of brutal Muslim men and their oppressed Muslim women. It would seem that all Muslim men oppress all Muslim women all the time in every way possible. This message is nothing new and has been a part of Western/Northern discourse regarding the East/South for centuries now. A message used to demonize and to justify invasions of the East/South for centuries, including this one. Afghanistan and Iraq sound familiar?

But no Western/Northern saviour can stop here. It is not enough for those of us in the West/North (and yes I am also Western/Northern) to say “those people are so bad,” but we must, as now we have a contrasting people, say “we are so good.” After all, where there is bad there must also be something good. How else would we know that something is bad? And Hari does just this.

It is here, in our open societies, that the freedom of Muslim women is slowly being born. Last week, Amina Wadud became the first ever woman to lead British Muslims in prayer. All over Europe and the US, Muslim women are pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran and trying to turn many of its ugliest passages into misty metaphor.

It is true that the West/North is seeing the rise of many Muslim women who are “pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran.” We have Amina Wadud, Laleh Bakhtiar and Asma Barlas to name some. However, this is not unique to our part of the world. If the West/North has these women then the East/South has academics like Fatima Mernissi and Nawal El-Saadawi, and not to mention activists like Asma Jehangir, Malalai Joya, Ghada Jamshir, Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, Mukhtaran Bibi, Shirin Ebadi, just to name a few. Hari would have us believe that women living in Muslim countries are so utterly helpless so as to need pity and eagerly await to be rescued from their men by the West/North. However, the evidence states something quite the opposite.

A rally in Afghanistan in support of Malalai Joya, 2007. Image via AP Photo.

A rally in Afghanistan in support of Malalai Joya, 2007. Image via AP Photo.

Women living in Muslim countries can help themselves and are helping themselves. They are working every day to better the conditions of the women in their countries. They are resisting the misogyny of men all the time. Muslim women living in Muslim countries DO have agency and are taking the initiative to better their conditions. If anything is holding them back, if anything is oppressing them, it is the West/North itself (though not alone). Even Hari touches on this issue a little though fails to elaborate, mainly because it would seem that he may not realize that elaboration is an option. Let me try.

Hari rightly criticizes Western/Northern governments who support regimes that oppress women – Saudi Arabia for example. He is right when he says:

While we as a society are addicted to oil, our governments will always put petroleum before feminism. While we suck on the Saudi petrol pump, smearing rhetorical estrogen on to our bombs looks like an ugly trick.

But this is just the contemporary aspect of how the West/North oppresses women in the East/South. Colonization of the East/South by the West/North is a racist part of world history, the legacy of which has lived on in the East/South. The colonizers left, but not without making sure those whom they ruled over were not only thoroughly traumatized but also left with the mess of ethnic rivalries, wealth disparities, and educational discrepancies. The colonizers raped the land then left “her” to die. The result has been ages of high levels of wealth and educational discrepancies – factors which can gravely and greatly impact patriarchy and its strength. Patriarchy exists everywhere, though the strength of it can be impacted by other, namely economic, factors. All this then results in, what seem to be, stronger patriarchies in post-colonial regions. And of course, how can we forget the role the War on Terror has played in oppressing Muslim women, specifically in Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Pakistan. How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their homes are being bombed and their loved ones dying? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their brothers, sons, husbands are being disappeared or killed by occupying forces? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when their food-producing soil is contaminated with chemicals from Western/Northern bombs? How can Muslim women be “liberated” when they have no water, no heating, no shelter?

Finally, as if to prove the freedom of Muslim women in the West/North Hari gives the example of his friend Irshad Manji’s call to the E.U. and U.N. to provide microcredits to Muslim women across the Middle East to help them start their own businesses. But in doing so he completely neglects the fact that the idea of microcredits, or microloans, belongs to a Bangladeshi, Muslim man – Muhammad Yunus – who Manji herself credits. But Hari, for some reason, completely leaves out this glaring fact.

And here we come full circle – from the Bangladeshi Muslim girl who was the victim of her husband’s cruelty, to the Bangladeshi Muslim man who created an economic model to help the poor women of his Muslim majority country. The dichotomy of the “dangerous Muslim man” and the “imperiled Muslim woman” of which Sherene Razack so aptly speaks in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics (read Fatemeh’s review here) just does not exist in Bangladesh it would seem. Or in any other Muslim country for that matter, as simple and compact as that would be.

So then, in the end, what can we do? Hari wants people in the West/North to stand up for Muslim women. As I have already (hopefully) shown, Muslim women are already standing up for our/themselves and the problem is not simply Muslim men (though I hope I did not create the impression that Muslim men never oppress Muslim women – many do but no more than non-Muslim men). To that we say thanks, but no thanks.

What Western/Northern people can do is stand up WITH us. When we say American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq cause Muslim women much suffering, stand with Muslim women as we speak against the occupations. When Muslim women say the War on Terror causes us great suffering because our freedoms are surpressed, the safety of our brothers, fathers, sons, is jepordized, we are terrorized, join us in our criticism of this war of terror. It is in standing WITH Muslim women, not for us, that achievements will be made. It is in solidarity, not appropriation, that healthy progress can take place.