The bigger lies you’ve been told in denial of Muslim women’s oppression

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I’ve apparently come across this article a few months late. It’s a piece in which a white Western woman, Lauren Rankin, attempts to make the case that it is not Islam that contributes to misogyny and oppression of Muslim women. It is instead patriarchy, and characterizing Islam as a violent, misogynistic religion only contributes to racism against Muslims.

I read this in almost sheer amazement, and floundered through feelings of disbelief, hurt, and frank incredulity at the flimsiness of some if its claims. What struck me the most, however, was that this article was clearly written in goodwill with the desire to protect Muslim women from being racialized and attacked at heart. And I found this, to be truthful, quite ironic.

I’d like to break down some of the most problematic things I found in this piece, and try to present them within the context of the same goals Rankin has in mind: feminist ones, preserving and protecting women’s rights. It’s not some empty criticism, but an earnest evaluation given mutual goals.

I love my feminist allies and friends, but sometimes white Western feminists get things all backwards when they try to speak about the experiences of foreign women of color. Especially if they’re talking about people they’ve never met, places they’ve never lived, religious and legal and patriarchal systems they are unacquainted with, and make broad, sweeping generalizations about those systems. This is such an example. I understand that it might be driven by a reflection of the voices of Muslim women who freely choose and cleave to their religion and rail out against accusations that they are being oppressed–what I do not understand is how the experiences and insights of free women with agency and self-determination can speak to the experiences of their sisters who do not have such freedom–the woman who is free to practice Islam or not, to wear hijab or not–this woman does not speak for me or my ex-Muslim and Muslim friends who suffer under Islamic systems any more than a Western woman does.

To be clear, I applaud the instinct to try to reduce anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. It is the approach here that I think is utterly misguided and frankly dangerous. Rankin is attempting to object to Islam being characterized in a monolithic manner…by characterizing it in a monolithic manner, as something that never contributes to or causes misogyny, rape, and oppression of women in Muslim-majority countries. And while I myself am a champion of trying to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, I believe the strongest and most compassionate way of doing this is by resisting the characterization of Islam as a monolith. What has happened here is that Rankin has engaged in what I say is a dangerous refusal to examine the very real influences and intermingling of religion and patriarchy in violence and oppression against women and children in Muslim-majority countries.

Her reasons seem to be noble: to prevent the stigmatization and racialization of women of color, of viewing them as oppressed and thus shorn of agency, freedom, the capacity to make decisions. However, denying the powerful and pervasive religious influences that cause women to be oppressed is not the way to do this. She herself falls into the same trap that she is condemning: she resists a reduction of Muslim women to a model of oppression–yet she herself seems to buy into the idea that claiming women are oppressed implies they are inadequate to challenge and critique that oppression. But an accurate characterization of Muslim women as oppressed does not bar them from being viewed as agential subjects who battle and engage with that oppression–we do fight back, in whatever ways we can, with a vengeance, and would even more strongly should more resources become available to us. And if such a characterization is accurate,  it is ultimately better to admit it and affirm the efforts of suffering women to challenge and make meaning of their circumstances (and the women speaking about their experiences DO need to be enabled, ex-Muslim and Muslim alike; I am lucky in my capacity to speak out and be heard).

And here are the reasons: Denying our oppression and pain is a much more dangerous brand of shedding us of our agency and voice than it would be to falsely claim that we are oppressed. I acknowledge that this largely relied on context and is thus arguable, but the voices we hear of Muslim feminists resisting the false characterization of their choices as oppression are the voices of women who do not need to be championed–they who are NOT oppressed, who DO have free choices, and who ARE free to assert their choices and their faith. They have the capacity to respond to bigoted, mistaken, unreasoned views against them–they don’t need white women to do it for them. And it’s true: many women in the West DO freely choose to cleave to Islamic practices and hijab up etc. (Many women in Muslim-majority countries claim that similar choices are free, but I will maintain that they are not fully free unless those women are free to choose a non-Islamic path without social, political, and legal repercussion– choosing your only safe and repercussion-free choice is not a choice). The capacity to have that free choice comes with an agency that makes it far less important to assert their ability to self-determine (an ability they largely have) than it is to highlight the struggles and challenges of oppressed women in patriarchal Muslim systems that do not have such freedom.

I feel a lot of what I find to be problematic with Rankins’ article boils down to the same model of argument and inquiry. In attempt to resist Islam being othered and viewed in a monolithic manner, it is called upon to be engaged with in a human manner, Muslim women listened to. However, the implicit suggestion is that once this happens, Islam will be revealed to be monolithic in an opposite way: that the Muslim woman will tell you what her reasons for hijab are and you will discover that it is not Islam that contributes to lack of agency in and oppression of women–as if those reasons and considerations and experiences cited by Muslim women are ever going to be the same, or at least thematically unified enough to reflect Rankin’s main point that Islam is not the problem when it comes to the oppression of Muslim women. Except many women born and raised and socialized of Islam have radically divergent stories that are not happy and do closely examine and challenge the Islamic influences of their oppression–what of the voices of those women? I tell the story of my fifteen-year struggle with forced hijab in the Middle East here–and it is radically different than that of the Muslim hijabi doing her PhD in Rutgers that  Rankin cites, quoting a line that nobody asks Muslim women what they think. Assuming they all think in a positive, free, affirming way about their religious circumstances is just as grave an error as not asking them to reflect upon their choices to begin with.

And I would argue that it is likely this assumption–that negative characterizations of Islam have no bearing on reality and are largely due to misunderstanding–that leads to Rankin making an argument such as the following:

Clearly, something is at play here, if that many women report being sexually harassed. I just don’t think that “something” is Islam. If it was, sexual harassment and rape would be limited to Muslim countries and communities. But as we well know, that is simply not true. Rape, sexual harassment, and violence against women are not isolated to a particular faith, but instead, they exist in every country, religion, and community that is patriarchal. The problem is not Islam; the problem is patriarchy.

It is clearly fallacious to claim that because misogyny happens in contexts, systems, and religions that are not Muslim, then Islam cannot be one cause of such misogyny. But I’d like to think that this is not exactly what Rankin is saying–I’d like to think that Rankin’s argument is not that an effect (misogyny and violence against women) cannot in practice have more than one cause (Islam among others), and that she is not simply falling into this fallacy. What I think she is trying to rather do is create parallels–by showing that similar effects occur in other contexts that contain religious elements but do not happen to be the effects of those religious elements but of a larger and more pervasive problem, namely patriarchy. Two points here:

1. I am confused at the attempt to characterize patriarchy as the problem of misogyny as if it is an outside discrete qualifier with one manifestation that can be added onto a variety of human contexts, instead of a system internally built and structured by the values, nature, and practices of those human contexts (cultural, religious etc). Patriarchy is not born of a vacuum, nor is it monolithic. Values of modesty, honor, chagrin, shame, tribalism, and family can contribute to patriarchy in one part of the world whereas individualistic, rentier economical models can contribute to patriarchy in other parts.  To suggest that patriarchy and Islam are separate in Muslim-majority countries, that they do not intertwine, influence, contribute to, feed into each other–I am unsure how that claim can be anything but devoid of substantial content, because what is the alternative source and fuel for a patriarchal system if not the values embedded in it and structuring it becoming institutionalized, as they are in places where Muslim presence is prevalent and strong enough to lead to its institutionalization.

2. Rankin tries to argue that misogyny and violence to women occurs in all sorts of religious and cultural contexts, and is not thus caused by them. Whether or not this is actually true is moot (for the record, I disagree that religious and political systems other than Islam don’t cause misogyny and violence to women), because it does not then follow that we can extrapolate that this is true of Islam. This is an inductive leap to be sure, so it is not wholly blind, but it is one that is based on perhaps creating false parallels as the basis for induction. The false parallel lies in Rankin’s insistence that Islam is no different from, not unique from other religious and political systems, no more violent than they are, so it should not deserve such forceful condemnation and scrutiny. Except she never backs this up. My argument is that it is in fact true that in general, most manifestations of Islam differ fundamentally from other faiths today, and must be dealt with on par with those differences. I wrote a long blog post justifying this claim if you care to look. At the very least in order to claim the opposite, Rankin must respond to the arguments and reasons for dealing with Islam in a unique manner, if not provide a positive argument of her own for why it in fact should not be done.

3. I believe the model of a simple cause-effect relationship between Islam and misogyny that Rankin takes issue with is one she fails to challenge with a more complex, robust analysis. She instead adheres to a very similar model, and replaces the word ‘patriarchy’ with the word Islam as the cause-effect explanation of misogyny, thus implying that the influences and circumstances of misogyny and violence against women can in fact be hashed in terms of a dynamic that simplistic–only not an Islamic one. She could have, instead of trying to find an alternative (seemingly) unrelated to Islam, ie patriarchy, tried to examine other ways in which Islamic beliefs, values, and practices might enable, contribute to, structure, influence, and otherwise entwine in a larger system of oppression and misogyny as a more complex, nuanced, realistic alternative than either ‘Islam causes misogyny’ or ‘patriarchy causes misogyny’. It would be ultimately more honest and broadly more semantically meaningful.

And this leads me to note: most ironically, Rankin calls for addressing the root problem of patriarchy and examining how and why it contributes to violence against women. Yet she herself makes no real attempt to examine the nature of either particular forms of patriarchy or Islam, or back up the claims she makes about them. She also provides no alternative explanation to the position that critique of Islam will only lead to bigotry against and racialization of Muslims. She does not consider that it may lead to active reform, to the voices of women of color being heard, to robust critiques of oppressive regimes of brown people by brown people, to the building of networks of emotional, material, and legal support for women and apostates seeking help, to positive publicity.

And let me get as anguished as I fucking deserve to be here–gosh, isn’t that astronomically important?  And let me get as personal as I fucking deserve to get here– I think her account is horribly, horribly uncompassionate to the plights of women under Islam who suffer from a system that institutionally oppresses them–an a far more structured and pervasive manner than a lot of free Muslim women in the west face from bigots. Perhaps she honestly believes that women like me and the hundreds of others I know do not or cannot exist, but fuck, I’d like her to face me, to face us, and tell us that the suppression, control, abuse, imprisonment, and torture we endure–justified via religious values and enabled by respected and established religious institutions–had and has nothing to do with Islam, and that our efforts at critique and discussion of them are detrimental lies.

My oppression is not a lie, Ms. Rankin.

-Marwa

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5 thoughts on “The bigger lies you’ve been told in denial of Muslim women’s oppression

  1. This is very well explained, good, salient points. I have to agree with your point that because misogyny exists in many socieities, it does not preclude it also being caused by Islam. An important point to make, I think. Misogyny can have many causes, many roots, and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of labelling everything as a nebulous and intanglible “patriarchy” that cannot be fought.

  2. It’s complicated, and unless people weigh their words very very carefully, it’s hard to say precisely what their meaning is.

    People confuse many different questions. For example, some people say that Islam does not oppress women — but what they actually mean is that in principle, Islam could (like some branches of christianity has) rid itself of the sexist parts, and nevertheless remain islam. (Scandinavian protestants are fairly good on equal-rights for example, but this was not the case a century ago)

    Some people say Islam is not sexist — yet what they mean is that their particular favourite interpretation of the Quran, isn’t sexist. I think it’s pretty hard to read -any- book that old without finding blatant sexism, given that equal rights wasn’t precisely a well-established concept at the time, but nevertheless some people claim this.

    Other people claim that women are not opressed in islam, and mean to say: they *are* barred from doing things that men do, but the gender-division also gives them some things which can be claimed to be advantages, thus it’s fair overall. (I personally find this claim ridiculous, but the claim is made sometimes nevertheless: “Different, but equal-worth”)

    And some people claim that some hypothethical ideal Islam would not be sexist, and that any sexist elements you point to represent “misunderstandings” or “worldly corruption” of the perfect ideals embodied in “true islam”. This is nothing more than an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

  3. I always find it destructive when feminists co-opt the oppression of women for a specific reason. like the misogyny built into Islam, for their larger pattern of attack on the patriarchy. It always feels to me as if they simply want to rebrand the problem so that they can use it in their own “war”. I would like to see someone like Rankin have to honestly discuss how you would remove patriarchy, which she considers the lone villain, from a religion like Islam.

  4. Thanks for such a thorough overview of the issue. It really seems like there are two approaches when it comes to addressing women’s issues in Islam.

    The first one is to implement secularism, in other words, to reduce the influence of shariah on women’s life. And you are absolutely right, this may come across demeaning and anti-Muslim.

    The second one is the attempt to appeal to Islamic commentary and to rethink shariah. And it seems like this approach brings better results for the traditional justice systems. And you’ve made a great point that Islam is not one thing. So those who share this approach try to find more progressive shariah scholars and explain women’s position from a more progressive view. This is a well meaning approach, as you say, attempting to help women with the tools available them and within the local context.

    And, finally, I share your comment that women would fight back better given the resources. I think the effort should be directed to identify these resources and to find ways to deliver these resources in ways that will not jeopardize women’s safety. I only would like to point that people like yourself can provide a great help in delivering the biggest resource that women can possibly obtain – knowledge and empowerment. Sometimes westerners act like elephants in a china store. That’s not because they are all ill-willed. Often they are simply clueless, and try not to come across offensive. And here is your opportunity to help them understand (and I guess you do it already because I am reading your blog and getting a lot of great insights). I teach management and gender, in other words, I bring that knowledge and empowerment to the best of my ability. You may notice my Christian blog leaning, and I personally find a lot of women’s oppression caused by Christian practices as well. There is also gender segregation and silencing of women. And I also address it to the best of my ability. And often when I read your blog, I can surprisingly relate to what you are saying, just substitute ‘muslim’ for ‘christian’ and a lot of what you are saying sounds familiar. Anyway, just wanted to say that I truly enjoy your writing. Thank you!

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