In her book Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism, Australian Muslim, and lecturer/researcher at Monash University Dr. Susan Carland writes ‘In the Western imagination, the Muslim woman perpetually embodies ‘the other’.’ The phenomenon of othering simultaneously homogenises. Carland argues that feminism, though not necessarily by that name, has always existed in Islam. Since the conception of Islam, even because of the conception of Islam, which raised the status of women to equals of men, Muslim women have been smashing the patriarchy.
Presently, among the many Muslim women and men who fight for gender equality, only some may identify themselves as feminists. Carland suggests a few reasons for this: feminism may be associated with colonialism and imperialism – which is further emphasised in the word being a linguistic import for non-Anglophones – as well as associations with modernity and secularisation. In the Muslim world, Western feminists are ‘viewed with a deep sense of wariness’. Feminist movements prior to the third wave also sought to reject what Muslims hold to be divinely-delegated duties for women, which devalues the work women do at home and in married life. Due to the domination of white feminism, the movement can be perceived by Muslim women as hand-in-hand with Westernisation, whiteness, speaking English, sexual freedom, the devaluing of family values, removing one’s headscarf and antitheism. Feminism, therefore, can often be perceived as non-Islamic and as Carland states, ‘a continuation of colonisation’ due to its ‘enforcement by both non-Muslim and secular authorities in Muslim lands’ when under that particular label.
I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. But I do not and cannot speak for all Muslim women, some of whom, as I have outlined, may reject the label. We are a diverse group nearing one billion in number, of different nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, educational backgrounds, and sexualities. Despite the diversity of the ummah (community), Muslim women are, in the ‘Western’ imagination, Other. We are a caricature of oppression and acquiescence, constructed in opposition of the self: the liberated and outspoken white feminist.
The idea that Western intervention is needed to liberate the ideologically oppressed women of the Muslim world is a misinformed one. One which assumes that sexism against Muslim women is the standard, and that this occurs at all levels – within the family unit, within local communities, nationally, and globally. It is assumed that the lower status of women is naturalised in scripture and in Sharia Law, and exemplified in reprehensible cultural practices such as honour killings, genital mutilation, and child brides. These misogynistic practices do, of course, exist, and the Islamic world is and has always been in the fight against them. Our religion and its dictates on the treatment of women are often the most important weapons.
Muslim women are constantly talked about, but rarely listened to. It is assumed that Muslim women who do experience oppression and misogyny do not speak out against it. It is assumed that for the women who do speak out, it is thanks to the [Anglophone] discourse of secular western feminism which gives these women a voice. Political figures such as Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Malala Yousafzai are perceived as trailblazers in a world in which Muslim women can finally speak. Although the achievements of these women and their contemporaries are immense, the idea that they are breaking new ground in the fight against patriarchal Islam is erroneous. It ignores the legacy of women who fought for their rights from the very beginning. Aisha, one of Muhammad’s (swt) wives, and was an authority in the interpretation of Qur’anic verses pertaining to the rights and treatment of women. She issued fatawa (opinions/verdicts) on many issues and led troops into battle on the back of a camel. In the 7th century, the Qur’an itself granted women many rights that other cultures would not match until hundreds of years later. A married woman had the right to own property, to divorce, to sexual satisfaction. Far from being at odds with Islam, feminist sentiment is both supported by scripture and the history of the interpretive tradition.
Because feminism presents a challenge to patriarchal institutions of power, Muslim women who fight for their rights are often thought to be working in opposition to their husbands, brothers, and fathers. In opposition, even, to the traditionally-minded women of their communities. This is far from the truth. My strongest supporter is, and has always been, my partner, Ahmed. Dr. Carland’s research has shown that this is the case for many of the Muslim activists she has interviewed. Our local community upholds female leadership and emphasises the value of female voices in interpretation. I have met many strong women who I respect greatly, and I have met the men who emphatically support them.
Presently, I do not wear a headscarf. Head coverings exist in many cultures and religions and have a multitude of purposes; but to wear one at this point in time and in Australia would mean visually identifying myself as a Muslim. This should be a positive thing, as the ability to express my identity with my clothing is a source of happiness, sort of like how I can wear a Darth Vader t-shirt to convey to myself and others that I am into pop culture and science fiction. But wearing a headscarf would mean being subject to a multitude of assumptions about my religion and gender. I would be asked if I was forced to wear a hijab, or if my father is ok with me being out so late, or if I’m allowed to talk to men. It would be assumed that I am cisgender, straight, and uncomfortable around LGBT+ people. I would be expected to apologise for the actions of terrorists. I would be I would be harassed verbally, physically, told to go back to my country (I was born in South Perth). Given the current political climate of Australia, I do not wear a headscarf. The women who do, and face this kind of treatment daily, deserve the utmost respect.
For as long as Islam has existed, women have been fighting for their voices to be heard in matters of interpretation, culture and community. This is jihad. Before you talk about Muslim women, speak to one. Listen to her.
Words by Prema Arasu, art by Gabby Loo