On a visit to my family late last summer, a close relative raised the subject of Muslims, as she does with some frequency. Over the last decade, in the shadow of various terrorist attacks, this relative has come to view Islam as an inherently violent religion, unsalvageable for its evils. I have told her she can’t lump all Muslims together; there are many interpretations of Islam. That morning, talking as we sat on her patio, she justified her position by citing honor violence. “They stone women who’ve been raped,” she said. “The men throw acid in the faces of women they think are immodestly dressed.” She’s seen pictures and videos, and now, she said, it’s starting to happen in the United States. “Women are being killed by their own fathers and brothers.”
My defenses shot up. I told myself she was exaggerating, bending the facts to further an anti-Muslim agenda. I told her the more we characterize Muslims as villains, the easier it is for U.S. law enforcement to profile and target innocent people as terrorists, and the more vulnerable they’ll be to hate crimes. And besides, Westerners have no right to tell Muslims how to live. I downplayed her argument, and managed to steer the conversation in another direction.
Later that day, when the adrenaline of the exchange had worn off, I was struck by my reaction—rather than condemn the examples of misogyny she raised, I minimized them. This realization left me with a persistent unease and has led to this question: Why aren’t more non-Muslim feminists speaking up about violence against women in Muslim-majority countries?
In searching the Internet I begin to find the vestiges of a discussion of the subject among Leftists, which suggests some reasons why many non-Muslim feminists choose to stay silent. One controversy is to do with an essay Adele Wilde-Blavatsky wrote in 2012 for The Feminist Wire, an online women’s studies journal. Her piece says the hijab is a symbol of male oppression. A storm ensued. One response, signed by 77 academics, writers, and activists, said the essay was an assertion of Wilde-Blavatsky’s “white feminist privilege and power.” Instead of facilitating a discussion, however, The Feminist Wire editorial collective took down the comments, pulling the essay along with them. The collective then published a mea culpa: “We are human beings deeply engaged in feminist, anti-racist work, and sometimes we may call it wrong.”
In a follow-up response from January, the editorial collective reaffirmed its previous decision to shut down the discussion. “Our readers know that we are open to multiple perspectives and we’re not afraid to engage in dialogue,” they wrote. “But here’s what we won’t do: support any endeavor that seeks to maintain white supremacy.”
There are other similar conflicts, including that between Amnesty International and Gita Sahgal, who was head of its Gender Unit. In 2010, AI’s leadership fired her in response to her protest of the group’s partnership for its counterterror campaign with Moazzam Begg. Not long after the war in Afghanistan started, Pakistani and U.S. forces captured Begg, a British national, in Kabul, where he had been living as a Taliban sympathizer. He was held without charge as an enemy combatant for a year at Bagram and another two years at Guantánamo Bay. (At the behest of Tony Blair, Bush released Begg in 2005.) Given the Taliban’s misogyny, Sahgal saw Amnesty’s alliance with Begg as antithetical to its mission and to her work running its “Stop Violence Against Women” campaign. Just because Begg was a victim of human rights violations did not mean he was a defender of human rights, particularly those of women, Sahgal said. In the New York Review of Books she wrote, “Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste to every achievement on women’s equality by Amnesty International in recent years and made a mockery of the universality of rights.”
These episodes reveal how timid—even reactionary—liberals and the Left can be when it comes to defending women’s rights in the shadow of the war on terror.
Where does the equation between critiquing misogyny in Muslim-majority cultures and supporting “white supremacy” leave feminists? In response to a spike in anti-Muslim attacks in the wake of the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery store in Paris last January, liberals and Leftists have called for support of Muslims, affirming that the vast share are not extremists. As a new Center for American Progress report states, if American society fails to reject Islamophobia, “then inequality and injustice will continue in the form of violent attacks and hate crimes, negative public attitudes, and unjust policies” against Muslims. This is precisely the sentiment that seems to leave little room for non-Muslim feminists to criticize misogyny as it can manifest in some Muslim-majority countries and, yes, even in the West. The result is the privileging certain people’s human rights over others’.
According to Juliane Hammer, author of More Than a Prayer: American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism, non-Muslim women have no place in discussions of Muslim cultural practices that appear to be anti-feminist. “That very calling out of oppression of Muslim women was part and parcel of colonialisms,” she says. “And that continues in various forms to this very day.” Deepa Kumar, Rutgers University professor and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, acknowledges that Islam can bring with it misogyny, but she resists affixing responsibility to the religion. “We should have an honest discussion about the kinds of oppression women face in different parts of the world,” she says. Instead of discussing the role of Islam, however big or small, Kumar points to the United States’ hand in the political and economic destabilization of many Muslim-majority countries as a more relevant source of misogyny.
It may seem racist to talk about misogyny in Muslim-majority countries in the context of Islam. But avoiding this discussion in feminist circles doesn’t keep the religion from being used as a tool for justifying and propagating violence and oppression against women.
The Left’s response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born refugee, ex-Muslim, and former Dutch parliamentarian, embodies this tension. She is outspoken against the violation of women’s rights in Muslim-majority countries, where they are required to “sacrifice everything [and] practice strict obedience to their fathers, grandfathers, and husbands,” as she said in a talk at Yale last fall. Despite this sober take, grounded in her own experience of female genital mutilation and fleeing a forced marriage, most non-Muslim feminists dismiss her largely because she traces the misogyny directly back to Islam.
“The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored,” she said in remarks she had planned to deliver upon receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University last spring. She did not give the speech because, responding to pressure from antiracist student groups, the school rescinded its invitation.
In arguing their case, the students cited two interviews with Hirsi Ali in 2007 in which she squarely condemned Islam. “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there is no middle ground in war,” she said in one of the interviews. Although Hirsi Ali hasn’t repeated such sentiments publicly since—she now calls Muslims to leave the faith and for those who stay to vigorously reform it—she has not retracted them. The other sticking point for non-Muslim feminists: Most defenders of the freedoms of women in Muslim-majority countries are affiliated with right-wing politics and organizations, most of which support the racial profiling and destructive foreign policy that Leftists abhor.
Indeed, Hirsi Ali is a visiting scholar at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which has played an influential role in U.S. Middle East policy throughout the war on terror. It is not surprising that Hirsi Ali solicits such sharp criticism from the Left, but that doesn’t mean her defense of women’s rights in Muslim-majority countries is of no value. It appears that, in addition to her first-hand experience of the violence, she is heard precisely because she finds her home on the Right. If there were a real discussion of misogyny in Muslim-majority countries among non-Muslim feminists on the Left, there would be more voices—not just those associated with disastrous U.S. foreign policy and racism at home.
From Hammer’s perspective, if non-Muslim Left feminists more prominently condemned honor violence and strict economic and physical control over women in Muslim-majority countries, the criticism could spin out of control. “This is one of the crucibles we’re in: The more complex a picture you paint, the more difficult it is to do something,” says Hammer, who is also an Islamic Studies associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It’s not just about helping someone, it’s about the further repercussions.”
But if we treat the matter as too complicated to address, we not only cede the floor to those voices affiliated with the Right and its racism, we also abdicate our responsibility as feminists. The question isn’t whether this form of misogyny is religious in origin, because if that were true then all Muslim-majority states would practice female genital mutilation, ban women from education, force girls to marry and routinely commit honor killings. This is not the case. The real question in this context is what role Islam plays in justifying misogyny. That valuable information would help us parse the mechanisms of sexism in these places and use our energy effectively to support women on the ground in their fight.
It is the curtailment of this discussion—rather than the having of it—that keeps Muslim women objectified because their plights remain mysterious. What also stays obscure is the work feminists in Muslim-majority countries are doing to end the oppression.
As for whether non-Muslim feminists should play a role, writer and activist Meredith Tax (also a Tablet contributor) warns against rejecting Enlightenment notions of universal rights. If some women in Muslim-majority countries don’t want change, that doesn’t mean non-Muslim feminists should shut up. “What about the daughters of those women?” Tax asks. “If they want something different, they have to escape. Those are the people I want to support.”
By holding our tongues, non-Muslim feminists turn the question of Muslim cultural misogyny into a zero sum game—either women in Muslim-majority countries suffer, or we support imperialism and racism—instead of opening up new possibilities. That isn’t very feminist of us.
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