For almost a decade and a half, Muslim women wearing traditional Islamic headscarves in the Western world have found themselves entrapped at the intersection of religious intolerance, the radicalized fundamentalism, and womanhood in very specific ways. In contrast to their male counterparts, Muslim women encounter extraordinary forms of discrimination not adequately addressed by Muslim civil rights advocacy organizations, champions of civil liberties, and the mainstream feminist agenda. Western societies that watched the cultural explosion as the feminist movement emerged were influenced by them. The women who fought against patriarchy in favor of equal dignity gained rights and improved women’s circumstances, which many benefitted from. But others did not. Feminists historically have dismissed women of creed and color in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. The movement failed to recognize differing latitudes and margins across our planet, as well as capacities that included the cultural agenda of women of different temporalities and circumstances.
White feminism has argued that gender should trump race and creed since its inception. That rhetoric not only erases the experiences of women who march to a different drum, but also alienates many from a movement that claims to want equality for all.
It is easy for people all over the world to have the illusion of knowing what Muslim women are like–from images provided by widespread electronic media to magazines and other forms of literature, or perhaps having met a couple of Muslim women, here or abroad. The struggle has included debunking the stereotype of the content “passive and subjugated woman.” It is far too easy to discount the realities as well as the values of those who live in a different world and gaze out of a different landscape in order to insist that feminism wear only one face.
Through the eyes of the western feminist movement, a Muslim woman is a failed creature unable to define their own goals with regard to what features of her own society and polity should be changed to initiate her own evolution. Commonly, the stereotype of the Muslim woman is far from flattering and has influenced the capacity of the western feminist movement to have any real impact on the Muslim woman, failing to recognize her right to generate her own feminist theories grounded in her experiences. Its position is based on two flawed assumptions about Islam and Muslim women in particular. They assume, firstly, that these women are forced to wear Muslim religious clothing and thus need to be saved and, secondly, that these practices conflict with some predefined understanding of “western values.”
It is gross typecasting to infer that women of the Muslim faith cannot articulate the kind of rights that promote a position of legal and social equality sought in the West. The movement fails to recognize of the distinctive spiritual and cultural environment of Islam throughout the world and the objectives of a Muslim woman cannot be defined in the same way. It pressures Muslim women and other marginalized women of color to consider the norms of western white women as universal and ventures to make the realities of the “other” fit into its own. In short, it attempts to make its female counterparts relocate themselves outside their own particularities.
The aim of the “emancipation” of Muslim women has been used in Western feminist doctrine and political rhetoric for both justifying the prohibition of Islamic dress and starting the war in Afghanistan in 2001. This type of rationalization, however, ignores at least three interconnected aspects of Islamic dress and the women wearing it. Firstly, these women are deprived of their free will. Secondly, the context and history that give meaning to the practices under discussion are ignored. Thirdly, a black-and-white contrast between the situations of women from Western countries and women from Islamic traditions emerges, making one look free and the other in bondage. It would not be incorrect to attribute the urge to save Muslim women is correctly placed in the context America feminism that has reached stagnation at home and is now turned to global feminism as a strategic diversion from a fragmented domestic politics.
The practice of covering oneself, to most Muslim women, is inseparable from their desire to practice Islam and the different types of the Islamic dress help to achieve that. The veil is therefore a symbol of Islamic integrity and freedom, rather than one of oppression and powerlessness.
In recent times, not only are the religious freedoms of Muslim women under attack in ways different from men because the headscarf is unique to women, but she is dehumanized in ideological and political conflicts that profoundly affect her life. Worse than the gender rights debates of the 1990s when Muslim women were talked about rather than talked to, their experiences post-9/11 are totally abandoned by Western feminists or used by Muslim male spokespersons to implement a civil rights agenda tailored to the Muslim male experience. Consequently, disabling her from not only defining her own “identity,” but also from reclaiming it.
She remains trapped in the crosshairs of social conflicts without the kind of meaningful support of advocacy groups who focused solely on defending Muslims, religious rights, or political entitlement.
It is important for the international community to know what it means to be a Muslim woman particularly in opposition with the religion values of Islam, to know the historical and psychological thoughts that have shaped and are shaping her thoughts, which in turn determine the directions of her life and, finally, to acknowledge the actual diversity among women while positioning women to recognize that unity can exist. Divisions are bound to occur, but not necessarily negative divisions. But divisions caused by varying interests and social and political views. For example, unlike their western counterparts, Muslim women realize the interlocking oppressions that affect them and don’t seek to alienate themselves from men because they understand by dividing a community, they lose their power.
Forces of oppression have placed the Muslim woman in a variety of social statuses; the questions often being asked are: What status is of greater importance: sex or ethnicity? Creed or culture? Is it important that someone choose one over the other? In reality it is unreasonable to insist on a choice. Everyday, the impoverished Muslim woman experiences impoverishment and womanhood. At no time is she given an instant option allowing for the elimination of these statuses. That being said, it becomes impossible to choose what oppresses you more—being oppressed is being oppressed.
Muslim American women are fighting to be acknowledged and represented within the national community of women. This group of women could benefit from the assistance of white feminists to aid them in their struggle for religious freedom and against religious racism, but have come to an obstacle created by the very women struggling for the same liberation. Any attempts for solidarity are demolished because white feminists are not receptive to the issues deemed important by the “other.” By action and definition, the ideological protocols of the established feminist movement does not allow for honest inclusion.
If exclusionary feminists acknowledge that women of different creed and color have a place within the larger feminist movement, then they should also acknowledge that, in order for feminism to address all women’s issues, all women should be involved with all of their varying societal struggles addressed. In order for the movement to progress, the majority must invite the minority to a seat at the table by validating the minority’s concerns and taking them on as its own.
The strength of the movement is in grassroots politics, as well as closeness and attentiveness to the problems and needs of marginalized women—a partnership based on trust, mutual respect, and solidarity. Yet, when and where has the movement stepped forward to oppose the rise of unreasonable, unfounded, and irrational bigotry that results from a “clash of civilizations” in which a scarf worn on a woman’s head leads to both verbal and physical assault? Where are the voices of conviction that claim to commit themselves to denouncing the motivations of communities that seek to use racist, anti-faith-based mechanisms with particular focus on Muslim women?
In the last decade, discussions about the necessity of regulating, as well as actually regulating, traditions associated with Islam have become widespread in Western European countries. Examples can be drawn from several places:
• in Belgium, wearing clothing covering one’s face in public was unanimously banned in 2010, citing security reasons;1
• in Germany, 8 out of 16 states introduced restrictions from 2004 on wearing religiously meaningful symbols and clothing, while several of them (e.g. Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) make exceptions for “Christian- Western” clothing and symbols (including nuns’ habits):2
• in France, wearing visible religious symbols (including Islamic head- scarves and “large Christian crosses”) was banned in state schools in 2004, officially for reasons of safeguarding and implementing French secularism: 3
• again in France, a law banning clothing items covering the face and body (i.e., niqabs) from schools, hospitals and public transport took effect in 2011, with punishments directed towards both women who do wear the banned clothing and men who (presumably) have forced them into doing so.4
Mainstream feminism treats both race and religious values as secondary features in social organization and fails to address the intersectional inequalities arising from race, religion, class, and gender that cause differences in experiences among women. They inadequately explain and factor the ways of life, values, customs, and problems of women in prescribed subordinate classes that are derivatives of suppression and render them invisible, without mechanisms of social and political self-defense.
The political voices of women of creed and color change the dynamics of the movement and expose all forms of oppression exercised by not only men but by exclusionist feminists as well, who find it difficult to share their power and position. Decision-making cannot be correctly fashioned by those who are unaffected and eliminate social inclusion of those relegated to the fringe of the societies in which they exist.
Muslim women have struggled to find their voices in the world of feminist ideology, which has itself failed, in practice, to recognize the full equality of all women. Their struggle has been vastly ignored and rendered invisible. The feminist majority may attest to making progress, but what does that mean to the marginalized within the movement, who cannot experience the progress of others within their own realities and aspirations. As we having been learning since western nations embarked down the slippery slope of Islamophobia, it is one thing to insure a woman a legal right to her sense of Islamic ethics and religious symbolism, but it is another to provide assurances to a marginalized woman against denied employment, education, and other entitlements many take for granted.
A challenge remains for Muslim women worldwide who yearn to be heard and recognized for the strength and spiritual integrity that motivate their role in a movement meant to overcome social transgressions of religious apartheid in a voice that is uniquely theirs.
1. Belgian lawmakers pass burka ban. BBC. 30.04.2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ 8652861.stm>, (15.05.2011).
2. Human Rights Watch. 2009. Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality. <http://www.hrw. org/en/node/80829>, (17.05.2011). Here section IV.
3. French headscarf ban opens rifts. BBC. 11.02.2004. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ europe/3478895.stm>, (15.05.2011).
4. French Senate votes to ban Islamic full veil in public. BBC. 14.09.2010. <http://www. bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11305033>, (15.05.2011).