This is a dangerous and ambiguous question. Why?
It implicitly assumes that there is one definition of “Muslim’, one understanding for “woman” and one sort of “secular democracy”
In reality, all theses words are evolving today very fast. They can have not one particular meaning but several.
I met many people who drank wine, don’t pray, don’t fast and still consider themselves Muslims.
On the other hand, when you hear in the news that “Muslims” commit terrorist acts, very often, the perpetrators abused their wives, drank wine, were not particularly religious. But still, they are associated with Islam. Their violent actions come to represent Islam.
So who is Muslim and who is not? Is it a question of rituals? Is it more about actions and attitudes? Is there a typical Muslim model that all Muslim should adopt and embrace? I don’t know.
As far as I am concerned, I consider myself a woman. But today, there is an ongoing discussion about gender. What is to be a man and what is to be a woman? Does the sex only define femininity and masculinity? Some people consider themselves “gender neutral”.
For years, women have been calling for equality and for more rights. We still live in a society where women are still behind compared to men in terms of pay equity, job promotion, political representation…
So how can Muslim women fit in these discussions?
Muslim women are only “visible” when it comes to the “scarf” issue or the “veil”. As if they live to represent “oppression” that the rest of the society fought to overcome. But they are rarely included in these discussions affecting women in general.
Our vision about Muslim women in “secular democracy” is still fixated around the hijab as a symbol of oppression.
Meanwhile, Muslim women, at least from what I know from them, in Canada and in North America, who decide to wear the hijab, went beyond “the symbol of oppression”. A hijab is a fashion statement, a political statement, an identity statement, a feminist statement, or all of that at the same time! So why can’t we go beyond the hijab when it comes to Muslim women?
And now, what does we mean by “secular democracy”. Do we really live in “secular” and in “democratic” societies? It is not a secret that the mainstream culture in Canada is influenced by Christianity and Christian symbolism and references. Statuary holidays are inspired by Christianity. So are we really secular? Why is secularism is used today as the saviour of Islam?
Take the example of France, a country that considers itself the champion of secularism or rather “laicité”. France came to ban the scarf to preserve the “laicité” of the school institution. That means restricting individuals rights to save the right of the state.
Is this democratic? A majority imposing laws on a minority, under the name of “laicité”? Is secularism, or laicité, becoming the new “religion” of modern times? I am still wondering.
More and more cracks are appearing today in the meaning of “secular democracy”.
Movements like “Idle No More”, “Occupy Wall Street” or “Black Lives Matter” are showing today how these cracks in the system are growing and becoming fault lines, evidence of “democracy” failure.
Muslim have been accused and constantly put on the defensive by “Orientalists” commentators and pundits to apologize about the actions of terrorists groups.
This is never done to other faiths. Buddhists in Burma who kill Muslims. Israeli who kills Palestinian. Christians in Africa who kills Muslims. No religious communities are held accountable for the actions of what violent groups associated to their faith have committed. Except for Muslims.
We often hear that there must be something inherently violent in Muslim DNA or religion that make Muslims incompatible with democracy.
But, most often these voices tend to forget that all the recent attempts by some Muslim countries to use democracy instead of dictatorship have been defeated by “western” countries. Example: Algeria (1992), Palestine (2006), Egypt (2013) and even as of yesterday Turkey (2016).
Leaving it for most of the Muslim countries to choose either between “ terrorism” or “dictatorship” both experience filled with violence and oppression.
So to go back to the initial question: what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in a secular society?
This means to be constantly looking for answer to all these words. To reflect on all these definitions and not simply accept on side or the other. “Good” versus “bad”, “black” versus “white”, “us” versus “them”. Truth is somewhere in between.
Finding an answer is an act of balance that keeps changing with time, with gender, with economic and social situation, with spirituality.
I shouldn’t be the only person asked to reply to that question. Rather, we should ask ourselves the following question:
“What does it mean to be a secular democracy today?”