Why is a Muslim woman’s worth symbolized by a headscarf** or the lack thereof?
In Western societies, the lack of a headscarf makes a Muslim woman blend into secular society; whether or not she’s a practicing Muslim is less important. Usually, as long as she looks the part, she is accepted. A lack of a headscarf in the eyes of the West means that she is not oppressed, and that she has found freedom.
However, the West fails to see that their own society confines women also, and that women are treated simply as objects. If a woman wears a bikini on the beach, she’s fine. If a woman wears a bikini on the street, she’s deemed “loose”. If a woman of the right body-type wears a low-cut top, she is seen as sexy; If a heavy woman does the same, she is trashy. There are so many rules to follow, it’s hard to keep up.
“Do I look confident or self-absorbed?” “Do I look strong or do I look overbearing?” “Do I look sexy or do I look slutty?” The lines are drawn according to a woman’s race, body type, socio-economic status, etc. Then a woman might find that the lines are drawn differently in some Western countries, or in some areas of Western countries.
The worth of a woman is often narrowed down to fabric, but that worth was taken away long before anyone saw how she was dressed. Being “Jane” means less opportunity in life, less pay, more risk of being a victim of violence, etc.
Clothing is simply a symbol of how well a woman is fitting into the society that already oppresses her.
What follows is a speech given by Myriam Francois-Cerrah on the problems with feminism as it is viewed from the lense of white middle-class women. Being a white, middle-class woman, a feminist, and a Muslim it feels strange to reblog this. But as Francois-Cerrah says, “If it takes my white privilege to amplify this message, at least it will have served one positive purpose in the broader struggle for human equality”.
This is the transcript of a speech given by Myriam Francois-Cerrah in an Oxford Union debate on 12 Feburary. She was speaking in favour of the successful motion “This House believes that feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women”, alongside Ava Vidal and Linda Bellos OBE. In opposition: Inna Schevchenko from FEMEN, Michael Kaufman and Natalie Bennett (Green Party).
Ladies and Gentleman, it is a pleasure to be here with you this evening.
I know, I know – the apparent irony of my being a white middle class woman who believes feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women will, I’m certain, not be lost on you.
But – it is in many ways a vindication of my case.
After all, I am a minority within my own community – unrepresentative of Muslim women either here or in the global south, in terms of my either socio-economic profile…
Written by Theresa Corbin, co-authored by Saadia Haq
A Voice from the West
Recently I have gotten a lot of heat for identifying as feminist and a Muslim. I did it very publicly so I am not surprised at the response. I am however, surprised that purported feminists had such a problem with my identity they have gone so low as to call me- a fellow woman they have never met or spoken to- a stupid cow (because having and exercising my basic human right to choose my religion makes me a farm animal), a moron, an attention seeking … fill in the blank …
Aaaand these “feminists” have even perpetuated a harmful female stereotype, by saying that my identity is the result of daddy issues, as if everything a woman does must have something to do with a male relationship- there is no emoji that exists that can express how massively I would like to roll my eyes at this.
But the lack of support-and virulent abuse-I received from my fellow “feminist” was so hideous that it made me wonder what exactly they think feminism is. I know for sure they had no idea what being a Muslim meant outside of what they hear about Muslims and Islam on the news, stereotypes, or from Islamophobic talking heads and reductionists (terrible sources, y’all!).
Then I realized that these ladies (and some men) were only upset because I challenged their misconceptions about what it means to be a Muslim woman, what is means to be a feminist, and by doing so I challenged their very identity (we often define ourselves by negation and not being validated pisses insecure people off). I realized this because I understand the rhetoric in American society and Western culture at large that Islam = bad for women.
The reason I realized this was because I too had many of the same misconceptions about Islam that these people have. That was before I knew what Islam is. You see, it is hard not to carry around these misconceptions when on a daily basis you are receiving messages from everywhere that hijab is a tool of oppression, that Muslim men are somehow more violent and domineering than their Western counterparts and that Islam is just more oppression of women under the guise of religion.
While there are problems that women face in terms of dress, male dominance and religion being used as a tool for oppression (that Muslim feminists are addressing), it is a fallacy to think that these things are only Eastern or Muslim problems as we see them play out daily among non-Muslims in the West. But the stereotypes persists and are amplified of late.
The roots of these stereotypes come from Orientalists’ intentionally mutilated understanding of Islam. And its feminist roots were planted by women like Carrie Chapman Catt and Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs, who travelled the world to unite women in the cause of equality and they should be celebrated for their efforts. But these ladies and many women like them couldn’t get over their own superficiality and arrogance. When they saw Muslim women dressing modestly in hijab, they took it as proof that men were using all they could including clothing to control women.
These feminists clung to their Orientalist understanding of Islam (some say it was only propagated to create reasons to colonize Muslim countries. i.e. Christianity good/Islam bad therefore, the more “advanced” Western Christians must “rescue” people from their “backwardness”) and they never once thought to ask the Muslim women why they cover their bodies the way that they do. Or even if it was something that Muslim women wished to do of their own accord. No, they just assumed it was because Muslim women were too weak or feeble-minded to even see how they were being oppressed. (See Unveiling Scheherazade)
These early feminists completely ignored the fact that these Muslim women used the public space and political forum to fight for their causes. These efforts were ignored because Muslim women weren’t fighting for the causes Western women thought they should be fighting for (removal of the veil). So they took it upon themselves to free these “poor” women from the things they didn’t need saving from and ignored the real struggles they faced. This was par for the course in Western colonial dealings with indigenous peoples.
I have felt this attitude and its far reaching effects through time and place in my own life. When I compare how I was treated as an identifiably white women to how I am treated now that I wear hijab, the difference is striking. I was, previous to my Islamic identity, treated like a competent, actualized, thinking human being. I was listened to and even sought out for my opinion. The story is totally opposite now that I am recognizably Muslim. Now I am often treated like a child, talked down to and even flat out ignored. So much so that I often wonder if I am invisible or on mute. I suffer from the legacy these first feminist left to future generations as to how to treat the “other”.
Sure, I know what you are thinking, feminists have moved past this type of thinking and acting. And I would have to agree with you that many modern, Western feminists have gotten past this. Some of my best friends are third-wave feminists. These ladies understand that each women’s struggle is her own and should be heard and dealt with in the way she wishes for her life.
And third-wave feminism arose partly-or largely, depending on whom you speak with- because of the failure of former feminists to understand that women are diversified and that women of all ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds are also entitled to equality and agency in the ways they see fit for their lives.
So why are so many feminist still stuck in first and second wave feminist thinking? It all goes back to what the media is selling and what the masses are buying. Stereotypes that is (definition- where a few cases are taken as representative of the whole. Thought it would be better to clear that up now instead of in the comments.)! They are sold fresh and hot off the presses daily. And this creates a weirdness where feminism is growing and supporting women in their choices, but many still cling to colonial mindsets that says to be actualized you must first be Western, White, and Christian (today that translates to: If not Western then at least westernized. If not white then at least whitewashed. And if not Christian then at least not Muslim). And if you “fall short” in any of those categories, you will be dismissed. It will be assumed that you are not capable.
In the Western culture, we have done little to address this arrogance in our thinking and we see it acted out by groups like FEMEN who wish to “save” and instruct the Muslim woman on what feminism really is. It is this idea that somehow someone else (here: FEMEN-style feminists) has a better understanding of what is best for you (here: Muslim women) than you do, that has a distinct smack of patriarchy by way of feminism.
Muslims women are not now and have never been interested in being told what our struggle is. We are not interested in being spoken for. We are not interested in being rescued.
Because the thing is that Muslim feminists have been doing a lot in terms of bettering our sisters’ lives, the lives of oppressed minorities and humanity at large, from within the framework of our faith. The thing is Muslim feminists have a lot more work to do in terms of being heard, gaining rights and ridding our lives of barbaric cultural practices. We just choose to do so in a way that WE see best.
Our struggle is real. And we understand it better than anyone else. We don’t need anyone adding to our struggle by judging us incapable based on the religion we choose, the hijab we wear or don’t wear, or the color of our skin. We don’t need to be reduced to nothing more than our scarves or dress code (a form of objectification and a huge obstacle within feminism). It makes our efforts ten times harder. How can we engage at all if you treat us as lesser beings? Respect is critical and for all.
So if you are interested in supporting us in our struggle ask us how (see part I). If you are a non-Muslim who wishes to “enlighten” us as to what our religion is, we are not interested in your superficial reading of Islam or your condescension. If you are interested in telling Muslim women we cannot be feminists, understand that you have no right. If you are interested in telling Muslim women how to be feminist, know that you missed the point of feminism.
I happened upon this blog post from Word Turtle entitled, veiled stereotypes: constructing and distorting muslim women. And of course I dropped in for a looky loo, seeing as how this is right in my wheel house. Give it a read, it truly is worth the time.
As a youth, I was first introduced to how the media instructs the populace about who they are, or (more aptly) who they should be. I came out the other side of a Seventeen magazine a crushed shell of a teenage girl. I learned from the media that a woman’s worth is in her attractiveness, and if she does not measure up (or down) she has no worth.
But as I entered college and decided on a career in journalism, I became familiar with the role the media plays and all the tricks they use, and was thankfully introduced to Jean Killbourne and her series “Killing Us Softly“. I became informed and began to heal my self worth.
I knew the detriment the media could bring about, so it was no surprise to me when I realized that I had bought another media myth that Muslim women were oppressed. The media not only tells us what to think about ourselves, it tells us what to think of others. And while it is detrimental for people to walk around with a distorted view of themselves, this is usually curable. Perceptions about oneself can and usually do change.
It is what the media sells us about others that is so harmful. Harmful because we are less likely to change our perceptions about
those who are not in our day to day lives. The media plays a HUGE role in constructing and distorting our ideas of other human beings. Instead of recognizing each other as deeply complex and complicated people with family, history and rich inner lives; we instead take the cues from the media and form stereotypes, concluded prejudices and execute our humanity with hate. People who are other than us become tropes, less than human, and objects to do with what we wish. If there is any other greater avenue to evil, I am not aware of it.
Why the media does this is simple: It sells. The media is selling us a story of our life and times, where we (or at least the majority) are the heroes and the “other” is the villain. Hitler did this in his anti-semitic propaganda campaign very effectively. He sold the Jewish population as the enemy, and the populace bought it. Evil ensued. And even though the media tries to put the world in a box with a pretty ribbon on it, life doesn’t work like this. Evil ensues.
To illustrate how this is done, take a look at this graphic of a pregnant Muslim woman,
and read how Omar, a commenter to the blog post mentioned earlier, has described so perfectly how this -and images like it- are so detrimental.
[Upon seeing the graphic] I immediately thought of the stories in the news of pregnant, Muslim women who have been attacked, including one which resulted in a miscarriage. I feel it important to comment on just how problematic the graphic is and unpack the imagery.
Graphics like this are not simply a statement of some looney person’s opinion, they invoke fear that calls the viewer to action. As Omar puts it,
[…] It invokes action by suggesting pregnancy is not a neutral state irrelevant to the general public, but instead an offensive tactic against the country requiring immediate defensive action – with the urgency highlighted by a lit wick. This poster is not only inciting violence against Muslim women, but taking it to an entirely new level by proposing that the solution to the supposed demographic threat is to attack pregnant, Muslim women.
Not only does this image incite violence against a group of people, a type of speech that is not protected under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech -i.e. this graphic is illegal– it dehumanizes the Muslim women. And once again as the illustrious Omar says, Read more ›