The Muslim Woman’s Struggle: Diversity in Feminism Part I

The Muslim Woman’s Struggle: Diversity in Feminism Part I

Part II here

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-fitsall 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?”

  1. 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.


18 thoughts on “The Muslim Woman’s Struggle: Diversity in Feminism Part I

  1. 👍👍👍😊Great post! Great collaboration by great writers! My great sisters! I’ll wait the second part, Insha’Allah. 💕 Thank you very much for bringing up this issue, Sister Saadia, so I get more information about Islamic feminist. I still remember that Sis Corbin ever discussed about it on Facebook. Now, I get it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Here I was wondering whether I will be hurled shoes or totally dismissed for writing this…!Thanks dear sisters in solidarity 😀 but I do hope readers appreciate it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for sharing! This is a great piece, and one that is close to my heart. It seems the rift between people is always present. If it’s not religious, it’s gender-based. If it’s not gender, it’s color. If it’s not color, it’s education. Seemingly, someone, somewhere, is going to find a reason to relegate another person to a lesser position. It’s shameful that women can’t just join together in supporting each others’ causes, be them what they may. I’ve always said feminism isn’t the belief that women are better than men. It’s that they’re equal to men. And Islamic feminism should simply be a variation of this, in my opinion. I think this topic has the makings of a great course — imagine, twenty years from now, teaching Islamic Feminism as a course for life-bound Muslim women. 🙂 Bravo, Sister Sadia!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so very much for taking the time and sharing your feedback, yes I absolutely agree with you and frankly there is a huge tendency within society to think that feminists want to be better then men, instead of just being equal to them. The radical notion that women too are human beings is for me the core of Islam as I have in my limited understanding grasped it. To me, Islam’s first feminist role model was Prophet Muhammad who throughout in his life time’s legacy made this radical notion of “women too are humans like men” a reality with his relationships and his treatment with women.One of my spiritual mentors once said to me that is it not ironic that he came at a time and part of world where female infanticide was the highest, amongst other human rights issues. To him, this is the first reasoning behind his teachings of equality and fairness amongst Muslim men and women. From my understanding of Islam and my positioning as a Muslim feminist, I believe we have truly wasted so much time and energy fighting amongst women and derailing our future, its time to get back on track.
      Corbin, you might be pleased to know that Pakistani feminist notwork has designed a local basic course on Islamic Feminism that is being taught at a Gender Studies University here. In future I believe I want to also design something along those lines while swimming in stormy waters, but I feel I cannot do it alone as it might need several sane heads together. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 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

        This is why you will never get the full support of the Umma.

        The Prophet…was what ??!?!? Please I am begging pick another name for the movement. Please.
        What about those that will say the Prophet was ___ rights activist ? I can’t even right that word ?


      2. I can see that I have managed to annoy usual traditionalists within the Ummah and many of whom are forcing the negative format of Islam on women, in particular where I was born and live so let’s get over our selves and come back to reality with a thud.
        Examples of the wonderful traditional, non- historical understanding of Islam include:
        1. Friday sermons on loud speakers promoting and encouraging to beat wives and this is only one thing they propagate. Did Islam and Prophet teach wife beating? I don’t think so, then why exactly it is being taught by traditionalists and lunatics?
        2. Then shouting and insulting women on roads by bearded loony tunes brigade and stating women’s places at indoors. Did the Prophet and Islam teach that?
        3. Distributing pamphlets with wordings like “those women who won’t wear burka which makes mobility restrictive for women are calling upon themselves to be punished according to SHARIA & will meet very terrible ends.” Did Prophet and Islam promote oppression in such heinous ways? I really don’t think so, but educate me if you can please.
        4. A woman’s will is not required for being married off and a woman’s “YES” during Islamic marriage ceremony is just a “formality” “not needed” “and even if she says NO” it really doesn’t matter for she is married, ACCORDING TO SHARIA. Now you tell me where exactly our beloved Prophet and Islam taught that?
        I can safely tell you that I have enough guts to stand alone, against such atrocities that are being forced on me and on millions of other Pakistani women under the guise of Sharia and Islam. But rest assured there are hundreds with me and that even if I was alone, I had my Allah Al Mighty with me to stand on the side of humanity, justice and compassion.
        I don’t understand the last part really, explain again, Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. traditionalist are ususally more cultural than Muslim and definitely do not have a historical understanding of Islam, but I know you don’t like the word progressive. There has been a revoking of women’s right under the guise of Islam amoung people who call themselves traditionalist, when they are genreally just culturalists. Curious why would picking another name other than feminism help? And what word do you recommend?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Your a lost cause. You undermine your own, very important points, by branding entire traditional approach to religion as retrograde. If the Nabi was NOT like that, then he was the traditionalist, do you understand that ? These bearded idiots are the innovators. If you had any real interest in promoting women’s rights, you would take the traditionalist approach and not some so called laugh progressive Islam ?
        You need definitions and proper self actualization, away from this vs that or now cs past.

        Pakistan is a joke when it comes to Islam. It was NOT a Muslim country from a sharia point of view. It’s core beliefs are secular and religion plays the role of opium, not spiritual astuteness.

        You people like branding the Nabi as fememisnt, now what will stop you from branding him as a gay rights activist (astigfiurullaha). Keep paving the paths to absolute destruction of Islam.


      5. I think the problem we are having is with the labels. What is in a name? Maybe we do seek the real and true traditions of Islam while so called traditionalists distort it with culture and harshness. Maybe the term feminism makes you think we are trying to seek rights that are not granted by Allah, when all we want to do is regain our rights given by Allah and taken away by man. No one has even mentioned gay rights here. Allah has sanctioned those rights and we do not disagree, or at least I do not. We are saying that our feminism is within Islamic guidelines. We are not interested in throwing the baby out with the bath water. We are only saying that like Pakistan, people play with Islam and try to make it into a tool of oppression when it is not. And we need that to change because we all suffer when the rights of women are taken away.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Finally, thanks dear Corbin for pointing out the very obvious — what’s in labels and terminologies? Most Muslim men who were born “into Muslim families” have continued to throw SHARIA AND their warped version of terminologies on women, for decades and decades throughput history.
    I understand that you hate Pakistan and also probably me for being born on this land, but take a good look in the mirror and tell me what you do see. Another Muslim man who is trying to pull the rug out of the feet of a Muslimah/ or group of Muslimahs (including Corbin here with me), is this what you have learned from our beloved Prophet? And yes, we are seeking to find the re emergence of the real and true traditions of Islam.
    As far as gay rights are concerned, we never spoke of them at all. However, I have seen very disturbing opinions within Pak and in other Muslim communities, but I am not sorry to say that I am NOT A JUDGE, IT IS NOT MY JOB TO PENALIZE AND PUNISH gay people Muslim or otherwise. Frankly, it is not exactly hard to understand why so many Muslim people are becoming atheist or leaving religions completely, the amazing shining Ummah with its every second Muslim having loony tuning mind-set of being narrow minded, hardliner mentalities. Have we not understood that we are not the Supreme Being.
    Yes, like Pakistan there are many Muslim countries where being a woman is terrible because of traditionalists and that’s why Muslim feminism is advocating and working to get back our rights sanctioned by Allah.
    I can tell you that our Muslim feminism is not ashamed to seek Islamic justice for women’s issues, because we understand that men won’t do anything at ALL for us.
    Self actualization is a continuous process and we are growing each day.
    For one second stop thinking I am a feminist and just a Muslim woman who is listening to another Muslim woman plight with these words “Being born as Muslim woman is a curse, but being born as a male Muslim man is perfect, because men have all and we nothing.”
    FRANKLY, I have lost count of times I have heard this helplessness and desperate situation of women here and in other Muslim countries where I have been and worked.
    To me this is unacceptable because Islam is not the bogeyman but Muslim men, well that’s another game all together…


    1. Relax. Sit down and have some lassi. I’m not trying to pull the rug out of your feet. And nobody is trying erase you from this planet. Don’t throw a fit please even through you are a feminist.

      “And yes, we are seeking to find the re emergence of the real and true traditions of Islam”…that is lovely 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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