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Woe is the Muslim Woman: Ditching the Pity Committee

By Kawsar Ali.

As an assertive and headstrong feminist, I can unfortunately say that to a degree, I can be stereotyped. In my case, as an Egyptian-Lebanese Muslim woman who has actively thrown herself into the feminist discourse, not only have I been limited to mere generalisations, but for a long time, been casted as the ‘Other’ in order to advance Western Supremacy.

“I don’t get it, how are you a feminist if you’re a Muslim? Doesn’t Islam thrive off of women being inferior?”

Honestly, myopic statements such as the one above used to really get to me. Now they just baffle me. After performing both primary and secondary research for two years on colonial feminism and Muslim women in western societies, I can speak on behalf of my sisters in Islam globally. I am confident when I say that our oppression is not our headscarves. Mainstream feminists will be reluctant to point out most Muslim women donning headscarves are not forced into wearing it. I think it is quite ironic that a piece of clothing is viewed as liberation, as if the sheer, silk or shawls covering our hair is something that makes or breaks our level of emancipation. Our tyranny is not our husbands. We do not need a case of “white women saving brown women from brown men”, to quote Gayatri Spivak. It is not our religion – Sharia law or cultured societies. Rather, the real oppression is the limiting views which portray us as ‘damsels in distress’ needing rescuing from the superior west.

Through analysing Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ theory, interviewing countless academics and professors from Australian Universities and reading over eighty academic solid resources on the topic, I like to think I am some sort of a young expert in this area. I have compiled extensive research on the topic and was recently awarded a medal of excellence for my proven hypothesis. That is that the ethnocentric nature of western feminism denies Muslim women an active role in feminism, limiting them to a victimised stereotype.

Through the years so-called mainstream feminists have failed to create an inclusive environment, one that caters for cultural differences that cannot be neatly packaged into a singular agenda. This is much the case for Muslim women, whereby many Western feminists have actually reinforced stereotypes about Muslim women accentuating their ‘otherness’, resulting in the polarisation of feminism placing the possibility of female liberation solely in Western societies. Western feminism has long excluded Muslim women, imperialistically speaking on their behalf and has caused an identity conflict for Muslim women who regard themselves as feminists. Apparently Muslim women have to choose between their religion and their feminist ideals simply because some Western feminists think it is oxymoronic to be both.

One important feature of Islamophobia is to caricaturize Islam as misogynistic and oppressive to women and thus to advance imperialist hegemony.  This is a truth clearly seen in the comparison of the Western woman in comparison to the Eastern woman, supported with Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ theory. Said argues binary oppositions of what the West and East entail have resulted in a division of characteristics associated with both sides. Said coined the word Orientalism to analyse the way that Western scholarship reflected a distorted image of the East. He argued that the work of imperialists was rooted in the limitations of their experiences of the East.

The Muslim woman represents the oppressed and backwards woman, who is undoing the work that has been done for her abroad. The quest is noble, for the Western woman to then help the Muslim woman out of her barbaric heritage and help liberate her.  This patronizing rhetoric belittles Muslim woman, illustrating that they are unable to bring about their own emancipation without conforming to Western values – Muslim women will continue to face oppression from their own culture. This ethnocentric view supports the monoculture nature of feminism, which is to say that women’s liberation is only apparent in Western countries.

This ‘Othering’ in turn resulted in a deeply rooted belief that the Orientals (Muslim women) could progress, within their limited abilities, only if they looked to the Occident (Western women).  Clearly Orientalism is not merely part of a forgotten past; it remains very much at the core of the current history of race and gender in the West and current wars in the Middle East.  Orientalism has led to a Western tendency of dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient, constructing Easterners as ‘other’ to justify conquest and colonialism for over two centuries.  This is not new; Orientalism has been at the roots of colonisation for a long time.

In the discourse of othering Muslim women, Muslim women have been used as a measurement of progress of gender equality. Muslim women have been regarded as an oppressed minority, in comparison to Western women who are the ideal candidates in terms of female liberation. This rhetoric advances Western Supremacy, while ‘throwing Muslim women under the bus’, reinforcing oriental dichotomies of East = barbaric and West = advanced. Essentially, Muslim women have been homogenised as backward and in need of direction and intervention by Western powers. Many in the West denigrate and stereotype Islamic teachings and brand them as oppressive to women in order to establish “an essentialist bifurcation of ‘egalitarian West’ versus ‘oppressive Islam’.  This discourse characterises Islam as misogynistic, a feature that the liberated women of the West would never entail.

This ignores that women were key figures in Islam – not just supporting characters but as independent women. It ignores that women in the Middle East have fought battles both against local cultures and customs, and against Western imperialism.  This reaffirms that ignorance about women’s actual status in Islam is quite widespread. Islam brought radical changes regarding women and society, despite the deeply entrenched patriarchy of seventh-century Arabia. The Qur’ān (Islamic sacred text) provides women with explicit rights to inheritance, independent property, divorce and the right to testify in a court of law. It prohibits wanton violence towards women and girls and is against duress in marriage and community affairs. Women and men are equally required to fulfill all religious duties, and are equally eligible for punishment for misdemeanours.

Ultimately, oriental attitudes regarding ‘saving Muslim women’ robs them of their agency, relegates them to caricatures and justifies imperial policies that continue their subjugation.

The idea of a Muslim feminist is not oxymoronic – it is tangible and real.