Written by Saadia Haq, a Pakistani Human Rights worker, author at The Human Lens, and Muslim Feminist. Co-authored by Theresa Corbin
I find it very enlightening when Non-Muslims are frequently shocked at my ability to laugh loud, shout in public protests and say outlandish things, and be who I really am – Pakistani feminist Saadia Haq
A Voice from the East:
Women across the world are still fighting for rights, as basic as the acceptance that women too are human beings. Be it American women, Ethiopian, Pakistani, and Cambodian and so on. Yes, white women are fighting for equal rights, likewise Muslim women are fighting for equal rights; but why can’t we work together?
We haven’t been able to work together because of the corrosive history within feminism itself. A big issue is mainstream feminism enforcing the one-size-fits–all feminist narrative on us all. (See part II for more on this history)
Now most dominant mainstream feminists enjoy a luxurious position that makes them feel a responsibility and in some cases-gulp- the right to speak for the silenced and oppressed women where a lot of focus is placed on “Muslim women.” The saving of Muslim Women syndrome is very much alive. And policing bodies of the “OTHER” that is “Muslim Women” is not new.
This I tell you from my own experiences of being a woman of color (brown), Pakistani, Muslim woman and feminist. To begin, with women of color feminists are quite rightly exhausted with the mainstream feminism’s tactics of controlling our bodies and life choices. Given the reality of this dismissive behaviour of leading mainstream feminists towards what we have made in bringing positive emancipatory changes in Muslim communities is a sign of arrogance that we can do without. We have been vocal with withering criticism for this “deliberate silencing” of our voices.
Secondly, it would not be wrong to tell you that many women of color and Muslim feminists are aware that love and respect is for white women only. We aren’t white and therefore we aren’t meant to be worthy of love and respect. We are relegated to fetishes and see all sorts of stereotypical imagery and media portrayal telling us so.
As a feminist that has been associated and struggled with several initiatives, I realized the nuances of religion, race, color and citizenship within feminism. There have been times when my Western feminist colleagues totally disregarded my opinions as if I had no mind of my own. And the icing on the cake has been the repeated dismissal and disbelief in my gender based research work, just because I am not white and I don’t have a fancy degree from Harvard.
Let me narrate an incident from 2008 while in Jordan where I represented Pakistan on a global assembly of ending violence against women. My paper focused on how cultural and socio-economic issues work behind honor related crimes in my country. Now this was an event where extremely distinguished and visionary academics were also a part of the panel.
After my successful presentation, which was applauded by dignitaries and acedemics and followed by an equally interesting Q/A round, things went down hill for me personally. I was questioned and interrogated on my research paper by several Western feminist participants. It was as if I was in a court hearing for some unknown crime that I had committed. At the end, I was made to understand that if this work had been presented by a white, Western feminist, it would have been acceptable.
This was not the first time this sort of thing happened to me and it wasn’t the last. But I did start thinking about the mainstream processes through which white women are created as social actors primed to reproduce racism within the feminist movement.
Another issue that comes across very strongly is the sleeping elephant known as “Third World Women” syndrome that systematically makes feminism bound within class and privileged. How so? The feministic theory all women are equal and all women deserve equal rights and benefits only works well for equality amongst white feminism.
I know for a fact that in all my time within the movement, I’ve worked with a variety of white-dominated feminist organizations where most white feminists held power and decision making positions. That also meant following without questions the campaigns decided by those in power, again a brutal reminder that we as Muslim feminists co-workers weren’t supposed to think and voice suggestions. I can safely say that the days of meekly following a dictator have long gone.
Then there are those who want my “token presence” in campaigns designed by them, and all I am supposed to do is fit in where they tell me. The fact that I don’t wear the hijab is another gleeful moment for my Western comrades. But after calling out FEMEN’s topless hijab “solidarity” controversy, I was dished out toxicity for months and remained a target of hate messages. But, you know I do have a mind of my own.
Honestly, I have sidelined myself from such “solidarity” because it doesn’t treat me equal and a lot of it does happen because of the color of my skin, even if people want to negate that. Mind it, Muslim women have a history of our own and this is ignored by many Western eyes.
Within the whole debate of “Leaning In” towards the mainstream feminism doesn’t settle well with Muslim feminism because despite being the same gender, there are other diversities at work. And how can we engage if we are treated as lesser beings? Respect is a two-way street.
I no longer feel comfortable to work with people who view me and other Muslim women as backward, helpless, and useless. It’s time we become more sensitive and inclusive of women to continue this battle for equal rights.
If Islamic Feminism and Muslim feminists are lagging behind and have short comings, this void is NOT going to be filled by mainstream feminism. One has to take into account that Islamic feminism is certainly reacting and broadening its horizons with critiques and the needs of Muslim women across the globe. It’s within itself too diverse to be lumped into one frame work.
Muslim feminism is continuing to react towards the traditional, non-historical understanding of Islam, which is refusing to recognize the more diverse, progressive and alternative understanding of Islam on women issues. And that is not all; Islamic feminism is also reacting to popular dominant Western feminist trends, according to which to be a feminist you have to be secular.
While we are battling on all turfs, home and globally we also acknowledge that there is a long history and current exclusion of the Muslim woman in feminist spaces.
Being a Pakistani feminist and outspoken critique on issues related to women and religion, I can give you what I think means to be an ally to us.
Number One: Do not pity me or construct me as a victim and refrain from doing this to other Muslim women too. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s early portrayal was made to look like she was a victim of the bad religion Islam, and that she was provided “wings of freedom” in the West.
Number Two: Let us, Muslim women define what liberation means to us, instead of coming down with the usual heavy whitesplaining and condescending. You see us walking away from FEMEN’s topless jihad for those very reasons.
Number Three: Don’t at any stage of time assume that you have the right to speak out on some one else’s behalf. Yes, if I and others asked you to speak, please do it keeping in mind what we feel is best for us, instead of what you feel is best and right for us. Recall the problematic “the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa” – Afghani Sharbat Gula’s photograph.
Number Four: And I cannot stress enough on this. Accept me as an equal despite the differences in our colors, religion and citizenships. Think again, authors Patricia Reott and Martin Reott’s book; Sharia Law: How to Control Women is quite an eye opener.
Number Five: Again there is no compromise on this one. Please don’t force me to accept your arrogance and objectification of my body because it suits your purpose and because you have the power to get away with doing so. Shuddering at Lady Gaga’s “solidarity” in the form of “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover?”
Number Six: Finally, don’t take away my agency and presume to dismiss my credentials because I am not into mainstream power positions. Recently, atheist academic Richard Dawkins spent devotional feminist energy in his white knight crusade against Islam and not allowing a Muslim feminist to be equal to him. After all, he belongs to a world, where Muslim women “need” Richard Dawkins to “rescue” the damsels in distress.