The policing of Muslim women’s bodies, and the curtailing of their agency, seems to have gained in both popularity and intensity since the beginning of the war on terror. The rhetoric of “saving the women” in the name of “civilization” is nothing new. In fact, this strategy has been used consistently by European colonial administrations who saw it fit to ban or criticize cultural and religious practices that they regarded as backward, and harmful to women, in their colonial domain.
“The classic example of such a colonizer was Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, as described in Leila Ahmed’s seminal Women and Gender in Islam. Cromer was convinced of the inferiority of Islamic religion and society, and had many critical things to say on the “mind of the Oriental”. But his condemnation was most thunderous on the subject of how Islam treated women. It was Islam’s degradation of women, its insistence on veiling and seclusion, which was the “fatal obstacle” to the Egyptian’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization,” he said. The Egyptians should be “persuaded or forced” to become “civilized” by disposing of the veil.”
The latest burkini debacle in France showcases how, much like in colonial times, the agency of Muslim women, to control their bodies and make decisions pertaining to their lives, continues to be attacked and curtailed under the guise of protecting women’s rights. The feminist narrative is used essentially to justify an open attack on the identity of an entire portion of the French citizenry, while at the same time reiterating the superiority of French values, and the “inherent backwardness of Islam.” In fact the silence of French feminists, on what is essentially an encroachment of the State on the personal freedom of women, has been deafening. Some are even gleefully supporting these intrusive measures as “necessary” in order to protect what “French feminists have accomplished so far in the fight for women’s rights.” Here, the rights of Muslimahs are being framed as inherently contradictory, and even damaging, to the broader rights of women.
As a sociologist, who favours ideological analysis, there is a natural tendency in me to examine any ideology through specific analytical lenses. This topic however, resonates with me on a personal level. As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, I am neither immune nor unaware of the acerbic nature of Islamophobia. Any attack on the rights of Muslim women to freely express their agency is an attack that does not leave me indifferent. I am compelled to use my knowledge to partake in our collective effort to build a counter narrative based on resilience, and commitment toward our faith and identity.
Although Feminism defines itself as an ideology dedicated to the liberation of ALL women, it is undeniable that where Muslim women and women of colour are concerned, feminist ideals often intersect with Western colonialism and white supremacy. However, unravelling such a connection, and examining its repercussions requires more than a mere blog post. To do justice to this complex topic, I have decided to dedicate to it a series of posts titled “The Trouble With Feminism.” Granted, one could say that the title itself is problematic. I would argue however, that the goal here is not to demonize feminism, but rather discuss how certain internal dynamics within feminism itself can end up disempowering Muslim women.
I have noticed that lately a great deal of Muslim women choose to openly identify themselves as feminists. Whether adhering to mainstream feminism (branches of Western feminism) or Islamic feminism, the label of feminist is one they share in common. This is not necessarily a unique phenomenon. Almost every label or category that exists in mainstream society has its duplicate in the Muslim community: Muslim Feminists, progressive Muslims, ex-Muslims, orthodox Muslims, hipster Muslims, etc… Choosing to adhere to feminism, or any other ideology, is a profoundly personal choice. However, the necessity to discuss, examine, and critique an ideology that calls for a reformation of gender construct away from the traditional Islamic understanding, while seeking to redefine the very identity of Muslim women, is a responsibility that befalls the collective. It is important that Muslim women take charge of their own narrative, and lead the discussions pertaining to their lives, choices, and identities.
I hope you will all take part with me in this discussion.