The Sound of a Broken Record: Alibhai-Brown’s Essay for The Independent

The Sound of a Broken Record: Alibhai-Brown’s Essay for The Independent May 13, 2009

Reading Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s commentary in The Independent reminded me a bit of a group of people that Khaled Abou El Fadl mentioned in his introduction to Amina Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad. The group of people I refer to are “self-hating Muslims” with “tormented soul(s)” who seem all too eager to assuage the bigoted view of hateful Islamophobes when it comes to Muslim women and Muslims in general. Perhaps self-hating is a strong term for Alibhai-Brown, but reading her commentary, but I wondered if she had any hope for Muslims in regard to gender equality, considering that she views Muslims as being in a “dark age”.

The title of Alibhai-Brown’s essay, “Who’d be female under Islamic law?” is rather misleading. She speaks little of actual Islamic laws. I suppose this is a good thing, since Islamic law itself is not monolithic. Although it is a bit troubling since there could have been potential for Alibhai-Brown to discuss the efforts of Muslim scholars, male and female, as well as Muslim activists who wholeheartedly believe that the answer to Alibhai-Brown’s query is that all Muslim women, including her, have the right to be treated as human beings under Islamic law.

Instead, Alibhai-Brown uses her commentary to serve as a mostly Islamophobic rant filled with various Orientalist and racist cliches about Muslim women in mostly Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She starts off her essay with an all too familiar stereotype of the “liberated” Muslim woman. She tells us how she is “free” and “independent”, styling and coloring her hair, wearing perfume, appearing on “public platforms” with men not related to her, shaking their hands and (gasp!) embracing some of them.

This has to be one of the most tired cliches of the liberated Muslim woman I’ve seen. It really is not a big deal that she style or colors her hair. Plenty of Muslim women do the same thing. I’m one of them and I see a few of them everyday at my job. I also shake the hands of men, non-Muslim men at least. Yet, I don’t do these things as a badge of honor or to show how “liberated” I am and how “oppressed” other Muslim woman are. I have a friend who never shakes men’s hands, yet she works and travels across the country, often by herself. Would Alibhai-Brown consider her free and independent as well? Or would she be considered oppressed because she doesn’t shake men’s hands? Alibhai-Brown’s idea of oppression and liberation, especially in regard to Muslim women are simple, limited and based on Western ideals of what women should and shouldn’t do.

Alibhai-Brown’s picture of the “free” Muslim women may be limited, but it feels that her idea of Islam and Muslims is even more limited. To support her idea that “Muslim states” are in such a depressive dark age, Alibhai-Brown looks at disparate cases in four different Muslim countries. The countries–Saudia Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan–are Muslim countries usually targeted by those who wish to paint a broad brush stroke across all Muslims. It also rather curious that these are all countries that the U.S., Britain, and other Western powers have a very vested interest in. Putting aside this observation, it is troubling that 1) Muslim countries are usually represented by one of these four countries and 2) women and human rights activists in these countries are often ignored or barely focused upon. The Muslim world is diverse and for Alibhai-Brown to speak of Muslim states as a huge monolith displays a surprising ignorance on her end. It also aligns her with the the same reactionaries that Alibhai-Brown so loathes because they both see Muslims as a huge monolithic entity.

Once Alibhai-Brown is done presenting the usual “oppressed” portrait of women in those four countries, she goes on to criticize Muslim women in Western societies who do not conform to her notion of what a Muslim woman should be. Alibhai-Brown is concerned about Muslim women in the West who are “embracing backward practices”. Among other things these include dressing little girls in hijab. While I do not think that I could personally dress a daughter of mine in hijab as a child, I wonder why this causes such distress for Alibhai-Brown. Shouldn’t she be more concerned about women have equal and adequate access to mosques or women being on the boards of influential mosques and Muslim organizations? This is absent from her list of concerns. She also mentions Muslim women in Western societies “who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals”. I have yet to meet any Muslim woman who justify honor killings, forced marriage and especially inequality. As far as polygamy goes, this issue is not as black and white as Alibhai-Brown believes it to be.

After asking why so many large numbers of Muslim men are “so terrorized by the female body and spirit” (because this is definitely only an issue among Muslim men *rolls eyes*), we get the biggest cliche of them all when it comes to Muslim women:

I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others.

This is one of the most tired cliches of Muslim women. It completely ignores one of the basic rights that feminists, whether in Britain or Saudi Arabia have fought for, which is that women be able to dress as they please without being judged. This doesn’t just include the right of women to dress in anything but hijab, niqab or burqa. Is it really so hard to believe that there are some Muslim women who truly want to wear niqab and that wearing a niqab or burqa does not prevent them from having a life or from being happy, functional human beings?

I don’t want to sound as if I am dismissing legitimate concerns that Alibhai-Brown raises. Of course we must speak out against gender inequality done in the name of Islam and human right abuses done in predominately Muslim societies. However, this can be done without stereotyping Muslim women or setting up a false dichotomy of liberal Western ideals versus oppressive Muslim ideals. If we are truly attempting to bring about gender equality, this type of thinking will have to go.

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