For the past couple months, my academic interests – as well as some personal instances – encouraged me to delve into a world which was once foreign to me.
At this point in my life, feminism was simply an ideology one takes up in order to struggle against sexist oppression. Remember those times when, as a kid, you’d ask your mom over and over if you could get that new shiny toy or game? The first couple of times your mom would either stay silent or give you a flat out “no.” However as you became more persistent and your voice wail-like, you suddenly realized a dramatic shift in your mom’s tone and demeanor. My journey towards Feminism is similar to the analogy of a mother snapping. The struggle against sexism & misogyny is one very close to my heart. And although I understood sexist attitudes as unjust and abhorrent, my understanding of the subject was not enough. I felt compelled to take action against the injustice around me. One day something inside me had snapped and I vowed never to stay silent on the issue of oppression, in whatever form it may be, again.
Growing up, I wasn’t entirely unaware of Feminism. Of course, I had always heard of the term — whether through media outlets, during my college years, or through various socio-political movements. However, I had never really probed into the ideology itself, questioned who advocates it, and what its goals were. Why hadn’t people in my South Asian-Muslim community ever talked about Feminism?
And then I realized, the true essence of feminism, the deconstruction of sexist oppression, was not foreign to my community and I at all! It had just manifested itself in different ways throughout my life. Whether it was through seeing women in my personal circle stand strong against misogyny, choosing to wear the hijab regardless of the men in my family encouraging me not to, or realizing the immense privilege and honor my religion bestows upon me, as a woman, I had already been fighting sexist oppression. And I didn’t need any movement which ignores my struggles as a religious and racial minority to dictate “Feminism” to me. Throughout this post, I hope to touch upon why I, as a Muslim and a person of color, don’t subscribe to Feminism. From here on out, I will refer to anti-sexism as the fight to end sexist oppression instead of Feminism.
Feminism: For the Privileged, By the Privileged
While many believe that the Feminist movement is universal in its approach — applicable to women in the farmlands of Iowa to the bustling city streets of Tokyo — my studies & personal experiences have taught me otherwise. The Feminist movement that grew out of the U.S was not inclusive to women of color. Actually, I believe the feminist movement was not inclusive to any woman who did not fit the “White Judaeo-Christian” label. Bell hooks, an amazing activist who wrote quite a bit on “White Feminism”, or feminism as it excludes the feelings and experiences of women of color, discusses how a lot of 20th century feminist literature was not inclusive towards Black women.
“Although the women’s movement motivated hundreds of women to write on the woman question, it failed to generate in depth critical analyses of the black female experience. Most feminists assumed that problems black women faced were caused by racism– not sexism. The assumption that we can divorce the issue of race from sex, or sex from race, has so clouded the vision of American thinkers and writers on the “woman” question that most discussions of sexism, sexist oppression, or woman’s place in society are distorted, biased, and innaccurate. We cannot form an accurate picture of women’s status by simply calling attention to the role assigned females under patriarchy. More specifically, we cannot form an accurate picture of the status of black women by simply focusing on racial hierarchies.”
Although bell hooks’ work primarily speaks to a Black audience, I believe her work is applicable to other women of color as well. The essence of her argument is that issues such as racism and sexism are intertwined. Many initial feminist movements in the US called upon Black women to join the anti-sexist struggle, however were completely silent regarding the immense struggles faced by those same women as a result of racism. Thus, one must realize the intertwined complexities of sex, race, & class in any movement seeking justice from oppression.
Similarly, as an American-Pakistani Muslim growing up in the post 9/11 era, I cannot forget the xenophobic, racist, and Islamophobic treatment my community and I have and continue to receive. To disregard my experiences, as well as countless others’, as a racial, ethnic, and religious minority in America would be hypocritical to an effective anti-sexist movement. Ignoring the vitriolic and hateful experiences Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims have endured is counter-productive as it stems from the same hate that engenders misogyny. For this reason, I refuse to associate myself with a movement that champions anti-sexist work, yet turns a blind eye towards racism. I refuse to join a movement which fails to understand the histories, culture, and struggles of my people, labels us as “uncivilized” and “backwards”, and caters to solely an elite and privileged group of women.
While bell hooks acknowledges the racist tone of early 20th century Feminists, she still adopts ideas from the very movement itself. In her “Feminism is for Everybody”, bell hooks speaks of Conscious Raising (CR) groups which mostly acted as a therapeutic session in which women discuss their rage against misogynistic forces — both in public and private spheres. The aim of these CR sessions was for women to understand the sexism they had internalized before they could confront it. While I don’t doubt the merit of CR groups and the revolutionary impact they had on some women, I do question bell hooks’ sole assistance on such ideas from a movement which perpetuate White Supremacy and racism. She further states:
“…the most powerful intervention made by CR groups was that females confront their internalized sexism, allegiance to patriarchal thinking, & commitment to feminist action.”
The above statement leaves no room for diverse cultural and religious understanding and rather assumes that Feminism should be the dominant presence in every woman’s life. This may be the case in first world countries where there is no fear of war or minimal accessibility to water, housing, food, and electricity; but in some other parts of the world the people’s sole resistance is against remote controlled airplanes, killing their communities one by one. Bell hooks’ statement reveals a western centric approach to anti-sexism, highlighting it as a struggle for the privileged. As such, we must divorce Western exceptionalism from a universal anti-sexist movement. Feminism — which as seen through bell hooks statement — promotes a Western centric “one size fits all” approach, and all it takes is for one to travel outside the US to realize that is certainly not the case.
In addition, bell hooks also speaks of the emergence of women’s studies departments in academic institutions as a “triumph” for the feminist cause. While it is important that educational institutions offer diverse programs such as women and gender studies, the learning that takes place in academic institutions should rather be accessible to all women. Oftentimes, I feel that Feminism makes the argument that the type of work it advocates is solely reserved for academics. Even as a modern day example, the random person on the street will not know much about Feminism. If one were to look at an academic institution; however, the case would be different. I would argue that because of its exclusivity solely towards women who are able to gain an education, women and gender studies programs should not be seen as a “triumph” towards the anti-sexist cause. The fact that terms such as Feminism are solely being used by academics points towards an elitist argument and should not be seen as progress towards an anti-sexist society. As such, I view Feminism as an ideology reserved for the globally dominant, the upper crust of society. A pluralistic anti-sexist movement would provide a welcoming platform to all classes, religions, races, and their respective opinions.
Feminism as a Tool of War and Imperialism
For the past century the Western world powers have dominated essentially every sphere of life. The imperialist, capitalist, and hegemonic set of laws and practices that act as the driving force behind their rule are still present today. This is why “Feminism”, being born out of the West, should be deconstructed through orientalist and despotic lens. “Feminism” should be examined with the current (im)balance of power and struggles today. Who dictates what
“Feminism” is, and why? Why are Western values the yardstick to which other society’s morals and principles are to be judged by?
We can definitely see the discourse of “Feminism” as a tool of modern day imperialism through examining the ongoing “War on Terror”. While the US and its allies use military warfare against those who resist their authoritarian and unconscionable rule, another tactic is cultural warfare, or to alter the “hearts and minds” of its subjects through Imperialist motivated cultural and political centers (Human Rights organizations, Financial Institutions such as the IMF & World Bank, Charity/Educational Organizations such as USAID, etc.). Thus, most of these Western institutions and ideas currently act as an “ideological wing” of the War on Terror. By using “Feminism” to critique the Muslim world, the underlying perception is that the Muslim World is an underdeveloped and uneducated region, consisting of medieval concepts exemplified through treatment of women, and thus are in dire need of a Western and lofty (both adjectives are synonymous) “civilizing mission” in the form of laws, education, religion, culture, and just about everything else. The condescending and disingenuous rhetoric here is absolutely disgusting. Two issues arise here: the colonial and oriental depictions of the “Other” (in this case, Muslims), and the implications of these depictions as they form the pretext for an unjust war.
Journalist Mona Eltahawy’s recent piece titled Why Do They Hate Us? stirred up quite the commotion. To summarize, Mona’s piece is a diatribe against the misogyny embedded in the Middle East, claiming that “The Real War on Women is in the Middle East.” Yes, there are challenges for women in the Middle East. There are also significant challenges for women in the United States. I found many issues with Eltahawy’s piece, however my main concern is with her use of the age-old colonialist tropes of the Middle East. The title of the article itself points to all Arab men as women-hating and oppressive. Not only does this dangerous assumption lead to racism and xenophobia, but by portraying Arab men as inherently backwards, it also gives power to a group which asserts domination over all others. Furthermore, by polarizing the debate as “men vs. women”, Eltahawy’s piece ensures sexist attitudes toward men as well. Misogyny is a very complicated subject, complete with many layers contributing to the issue itself. Assuming that misogyny follows a “men vs. women” framework is an irresponsible oversimplification of the issue. Towards the end of her article, Eltahawy also equates misogynist with Islamist. Does she mean to say that Islam itself advocates the oppression of women? Many women in the Middle East would disagree and argue that the religion instead empowers them. Eltahawy’s irresponsible portrayal of the Middle East certainly adds fuel to the Islamophobic fire raging in America and Europe.
It is then very easy for people to point towards these orientalist stereotypes discussed above and misuse them to create a pretext for a “humanitarian intervention.” Leading up to, and during, the Afghanistan War in 2001, media outlets acting as a mouthpiece for war-mongering neoliberals came out with many articles (such as here, here & here) stereotyping Afghanistan as a backwards nation and Afghani women as oppressed, so much so that they are unable to uplift their conditions.The condition of women in Afghanistan was not par excellence; however, a problem arises when one monopolizes the plight of Afghani women, disingenously abuses it as a pretext for war, and orientalizes the Afghani woman as uneducated, and thus unable to make self-respecting decisions concerning herself.
UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor Saba Mahmood discusses the War on Terror from a Feminist perspective, and how these Feminist groups, believing the inaccurate depictions of Afghani women, were comfortable with subjecting violence and mayhem upon the Afghani people. Because of the ambiguity of their mission, Feminist groups must clarify & define their movement for the just treatment of Afghani women. During the start of the Afghanistan War, Mahmood mentions the example of chummy relationships forming between Feminist groups and US Military officials as they conversed about how to best “liberate” Afghani women. Why do issues of equal employment & education precede continuous warfare, starvation, & military subjugation? This is a problem which Feminist groups have failed to address.In one instance, US bombing in Afghanistan had restricted food aid to roughly 2.2 million victims of a three year drought. Perhaps Mahmood said it best when she said “In the crusade to liberate Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule, there seemed to be no limit of the violence to which Americans were willing to subject the Afghans, women and men alike.”
Mahmood further mentions these Feminist groups failure to connect the dots between the condition of women in Afghanistan and the military and financial assistance the US provided to the most extremist religious militant groups as part of a covert Cold War strategy. It is irresponsible and insincere for Feminist Groups to view the condition of Afghani women through a lens of mere patriarchy and not the continuous warfare and ethnic and tribal violence vis a vis US involvement in the Cold War. When the US funded the mujahideen in Afghanistan as a means to deter Soviet influence, that ultimately led to the monsters present in Afghanistan today. US military & monetary funding during the Cold War allowed easy access of weaponry to the most dangerous of minds. This led to a destabilization of tribal power and soon, Afghanistan became one of the most heavily armed areas in the world. Because the mujahideen were known to be ruthless, no one was spared their wrath — including non-combatants. For example, one of the groups receiving US aid during the Cold War was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a man known to throw acid in the faces of women who refused to veil. When questioned about US support of such a ruthless group, a CIA official responded “Extremists fight better.” It goes without saying that the mujahideen, courtesy US State Department, created the conditions for women what they are today — brutal and disturbing. Afghanistan was spiralling down to a state of lawlessness. Thus, attributing blame to a “Taliban” mentality throughout the region is a dangerous oversimplification of the condition of women in Afghanistan as it takes attention away from US support of violent and extremist groups that created the Taliban we know today.
Not only are the motives behind “liberating” Muslim women disingenuous, but also by bringing Western values to the Muslim world the “Feminist” argument assumes two things: Western values are superior and thus those advocating them have the absolute authority to dictate them, & that Third World societies are so backwards, immoral, and illogical that they are not capable of giving importance to issues such as anti-sexist oppression. Both premises are, without a doubt, laughable & erroneous. Any movement that precedes women’s “right’s” (right’s are in quotation because I believe the term is subjective) over military subjugation, mass violence, and a colonialist hierarchy complex is not one that I want my name attached to.
My Anti-Sexist Movement
But before the problematic issues arising from Feminism, I really don’t need any movement dictating my rights as a woman for me. Islam is a complete way of life for myself, and through this way of life my Creator has bestowed upon me such honor, such privilege…and I’m wholly content with that. When the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) came to a town to introduce the message of Islam, he said ” I have come to free you from the servitude of the slave and bring you to the servitude of the Lord of the slave.”To me, that statement means that Islam frees the soul from all other forms of servitude, all forms of oppression. How beautifully profound. To know that our servitude is only for the one, magnificent Creator. To know that, through serving Him, we are required to stand up for haq, or truth, and strongly oppose dhulm, oppression. Islam teaches us that the best of mankind are those that are the most righteous. Not the ones that bring the biggest paycheck home, or the ones who are physically stronger, or the ones with porcelain skin or of Aryan descent. No. God tells us: “Verily, the most honourable of you with Allâh are those who have piety” (49:13)
Leading their lives by the example of the Qur’an and the Prophet (pbuh), many Muslim women lived and breathed anti-sexist oppression eons before the Feminist movement. Truly a prominent and respectable woman of her time, Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her), the Prophet’s (pbuh) first wife was a wealthy businessmen who handled her own personal and professional affairs. Not only was she a free and independent spirit, but many also argue that Khadija was influential in the initial spread of Islam. Whose comfort did the Prophet (pbuh) seek on that earth-shaking day when first given revelation? Whose money & influence within the community contributed to the spread of Islam? Whose house gave the first Muslims refuge when they were attacked & ridiculed? The Prophet (pbuh) once said of Khadija “She believed in me when no one else did; she accepted Islam when people rejected me; and she helped and comforted me when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand.” Allah knows best, however; where would Islam be today without the influence and comfort of Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with her)?
Another intellectual & renowned woman of her time, Nafisa at-Tahira (b. 145 H.), was seen as a well respected scholar by her community. Sayyida Nafisa is directly related to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through the lineage of Fatima. Not only was she revered for her sound taqwa (piety & God consciousness), but as her nickname suggests — Sayyidat ahl al fatwa, or The leading lady in deriving judicial rulings & verdicts, she was also very much involved in shaping Islamic jurisprudence and was a hafidha, or someone who memorized the Qur’an. Her towering stature was certainly an admirable rarity in a male dominated & centric society. Upon her arrival in Cairo in (193 H.), many natives anxiously spent their nights in tents so they could get a glimpse of the resplendent and majestic light that was Sayyida Nafisa. Because of her immense knowledge, her home in Cairo was an abode to many prominent scholars, including Imam ash-Shaf’i, may Allah have mercy on him. Many people are well versed with Imam ash-Shafi’s work, however how many people know that it was Sayyida Nafisa who taught him his scholarship! Imam ash-Shaf’i revered Sayyida Nafisa so much so that in his will his body to be taken to Sayyida Nafisa’s house so that she could pray the funeral prayer over him.
There are also many modern day examples of empowered and inspiring Muslim women. In response to Mona Eltahawy’s Why Do They Hate us?, Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies Dalia Mogahed mentions that Eltahawy’s piece rather hurts Arab women by playing with the same dangerous stereotypes of the Middle East. Mogahed further mentions that religion is the “dominant social currency” throughout the Arab world; thus, if Arab women want to use religion to engender positive change who are we to stop them? Why should “Feminism” – an idea also employed by Eltahawy -, a foreign and unrelatable concept be used by Arab women? Yasmin Mogahed, an Islamic scholar and Dalia’s sister, has an amazing speech on the empowerment of women from an Islamic perspective. She mentions that while some women find their value and equality in relation to a man, for Muslim women (and men) our standard to submit to is God. Accepting men as the standard to mimic automatically degrades anything remotely feminine. As Muslim women, true liberation lies in the fact that we are accountable to God and God alone.
Muslim women protest Niqab ban in France
But most of all, I find strength in knowing that many other Muslim women and women of color are educating themselves and speaking out against the dangers of oppression. I find strength in our decisions to look towards our religions and our cultures as a source of knowledge, comfort, and empowerment. I find strength in Mukhtaran Mai, a Pakistani woman who was expected to commit suicide after she was gang raped but instead decided to pursue a case against her rapists and became an international icon for anti-sexism. I find strength in my aunt, a single mother of three struggling to pay bills and play a positive role of mother and father for her children. I find strength in the millions of women fighting two simultaneous battles — imperial racism of their communities & the sexism affecting their gender. My strength and inspiration lies in our unity, as women, as mothers, as daughters — standing proud and strong against a common enemy.
The aforementioned prophetic examples & stories are just a minute display of how Islam manifests anti-sexism in not just everyday rhetoric, but practice as well. I don’t need someone to teach me about anti-sexism because my way of life, Islam, has already a liberated me from all types of oppression. “Allah is sufficient for me and is the best trustee of affairs” (3:173). The very fact that I, an American-Pakistani Muslim woman, subscribe to my Creator as my savior, as my source of liberation, contains a very strong message indeed. So thanks but no thanks. I don’t need your laws, your culture, your way of life to “civilize” me. The very fact that I and countless other women of color look to our communities as a source of strength is profound enough.
I would like to end with a thought-provoking quote from Houria Bouteldja, an active member of Indigienous of the Republic — a French political movement battling racial & religious discrimination throughout the country. Bouteldja’s statement, arguing for the self autonomy of Muslim women is certainly fundamental and timely in the face of present day Western Exceptionalism.
“How to legitimize Islamic feminism? For me, it legitimizes itself. It doesn’t have to pass a feminist exam. The simple fact that Muslim women have taken it up to demand their rights and their dignity is enough for it to be fully recognized. I know, as result of my intimate knowledge of women from the Maghreb and in the diaspora, that “the-submissive-woman” does not exist. She was invented. I know women that are dominated. Submissive ones are rarer!”
-Houria Bouteldja, 2010.
Sania Sufi is a writer based in Chicago, Illinois and frequently tweets @saniasufi