What misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab

Last week, I was on the bus travelling from Gatineau to Ottawa. I was taking that bus line for the first time and wasn’t familiar with the route and stops. Assuming that my stop was coming, I rang the bell, signalling my intention to get off. It turned out that I was wrong and that I was still far from my intended stop. The bus stopped anyway, and I didn’t get off.

A middle-aged man standing beside me asked, “why you didn’t get off?” Taking his question at face value, I replied, “it was a mistake.” To my surprise, he was quick to fire back: “Next time, don’t do it!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The bus driver didn’t say anything to me and here is this man, a simple rider, who feels entitled to talk to me in a patronizing tone to teach me how to behave on the bus. “Don’t talk to me like this,” I replied to him, fuming. “Shut up,” he ordered me angrily. “You shut up,” I replied back. “I am going to report you to the bus driver,” I continued.

In the midst of this heated interaction, a white lady stood up, got closer to me, and moving between me and the man, asked me, “is there anything I can do to help?” The whole dynamic changed. Until then, I was the “isolated” Muslim woman facing her white male bully, and now this white woman decided to break the “domination” relationship and turned it into an allyship. In matter of seconds, a Black woman joined the circle and said, lightly, “what is the problem here? I always make mistakes when requesting bus stops.” Another racialized man, who so far had been watching quietly, became encouraged and said to the white man, “why are you behaving this way?” The white man was isolated and started to retreat.

No longer on the offensive, he started saying he was “just wondering.” “No,” I corrected him, “you were simply mean.” He didn’t say a word. I was still shaken, but because of the solidarity I felt surrounded with, I decided to go to the bus driver and tell him about what happened. He was very cooperative. “If you want me to report him, I can do it immediately; I can even kick him off the bus.” I was not on a power trip. I was just trying to go home. I told the bus driver that this time I will let it go and then I got off. The white and Black ladies who stood by me both got off the bus; I thanked them for their actions and words, and each one of us went on her way.

This incident might look trivial, but shook me to the core, physically and morally. I thought I was much stronger than this but obviously I was not. I thought that words would come more easily to my rescue, but they were trembling and slow. I speak three languages: Arabic, my mother tongue, and French and English. It is known that in tense and emotional circumstances, when a person is at risk or in a situation of fear, she finds it easier to communicate her emotions in her mother tongue. Not only did I have to reply to this man in English but also in a manner that accurately reflected my emotions. I became so overwhelmed. Once at home, I felt I needed to cry.

Crying would help ease the tremendous anger raging inside me but also would bring me to my humanity — the simple humanity I constantly have to prove exists under my hijab.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve felt insecure on the street; I am not exaggerating. As a woman wearing a hijab, I became an easy target for glares, rude behaviour, bigotry, and Islamophobic comments. I don’t claim that I am constantly a victim. Nevertheless, fears are always in the back of my mind, and unconsciously or consciously, they shape my actions and my attitudes, my words and even my silences. The hypervigilant state I am always in drains me emotionally, and nothing can calm me down until I am at home.

Despite who I think I am or describe myself to be, my appearance speaks more quickly than me in public spaces. The decade-long hammering about the question of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec, followed by the failed attempt to ban “religious symbols” specifically targeting women in hijab by then premier Pauline Marois in the 2013 provincial election, later taken over by former prime minister Stephen Harper during his “niqab ban” in 2015, created this atmosphere of a vigilante attitude by some Canadians.

These tactics of identity politics are not merely political experiments that magically disappear once an election is over or after a politician is defeated. They are not merely words that fade away with time; they have a long-lasting impact on people and they can lead inevitably to actions.

The dehumanization that Muslim women are subject to — either through classic Orientalist depictions in paintings like The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix or through stereotypes like the cute Jasmine character in Aladdin by Hollywood — is ingrained in people’s imagination. The common, simplistic and wrong perception that the hijab is a symbol of oppression is still alive and thriving, even though many books have been written by Muslim women to declare otherwise.

I don’t know what exactly pushed that man on the bus to ask me that question and to treat me the way he did. Is it just the fact that I was a woman? That would be misogyny. Or is it the fact that I was wearing a headscarf that invested him with the mission to “teach me a lesson”? I can’t ever know for sure. However, as someone who lived through that experience, looked into his eyes and saw his expression, I have a strong feeling that he wouldn’t have talked to me if I wasn’t a woman wearing a headscarf.

As someone who just read that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform,” I do not have the luxury to give that man the benefit of the doubt. I have every right to feel insecure.

My headscarf “told” him that I was “oppressed” anyway: most likely, my husband, my father or my brother are already oppressing me, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it, too? My hijab allows him to oppress me.

Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist, coined the term “misogynoir” to describe misogyny towards Black women, where race and gender both play a role in bias. “Misogynijab” would perhaps be a term to use in those cases where both misogyny and hijab-wearing meet intersectionally.

I believe that populist politicians, with their simplistic and dangerous rhetoric, empower their bases to act upon their words. The dangers of populist politicians like Donald Trump or Doug Ford are not “simple talk” or “controversial tweets” shared in virtual platforms. The impacts of these politicians are what happens to vulnerable people in the streets, on public transit, or in detention centres. Their words are calls for actions. Their words act as green lights for some to “defend” their territories from people who seem weaker than them.

I have never considered myself oppressed. In fact, I think I am privileged. I came to Canada to pursue my graduate studies. I have a family. I have a house and I drive a car. If I didn’t take the bus that day, this incident wouldn’t have happened to me and I would have thought that the world is still a wonderful place and Canada the most “tolerant” city. But obviously, it is not.

Imagine I was a Syrian refugee or any other hijab-wearing woman who doesn’t speak a lot of English, on the bus in the same place. What would have happened? What if the two women who offered support were not there? What if everyone else behaved like bystanders, felt unconcerned by what was happening? What if the bus driver wasn’t cooperative, or worse, indifferent? Most likely, the white man would have been more empowered and even more invested with missions to defend his “public space.”

When I give presentations about Islamophobia, people wonder how it concretely happens. I usually share statistics with them or refer them to examples from the media. Next time, I will tell them this story.

This blog was published on rabble.ca

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Banning the Burkini in Cannes: Continuing Oppressing Women Under the Name of Liberation

So recently, the mayor of Cannes in France issued a ban on burkinis. Burkinis is a made-up name for special full-body swimming garment: a hybrid between Burqa and Bikini. In reality, a burkini is a swimming suit composed of leggings and a sort of a short dress worn on top of it. Some burkinis have a hoodie attached and with some other you add a hijab that would cover the head.

I didn’t grow up knowing burkinis. I used to go to the beach and wear a bathing suit. Later, when I decided to wear hijab, I used to put a long dress and hijab. In water, this can be so uncomfortable and heavy and when you go to sit on the beach it collects tons of sand and you feel you instantly gained extra pounds of weight.

At some point I decided to stop swimming, as I felt so much annoyed by the sand and the curious looks. An experience that was supposed to be fun and joyful turned to become itchy and embarrassing. I had the impression everyone would like at me.

And then, I started hearing about some nice suits that modestly cover the body but are made of appropriate fabric that wouldn’t keep the water and would dry as soon as you are out of the water. At that time, no body called these suits burkinis. We didn’t have a specific name for them. We just called them bathing suit for hijabis.

I think they first appeared in Turkey and Malaysia ( I also read somewhere that it was originally designed by an Australian designer of Lebanese descent, Aheda Zanetti) and I remember one of my friends borrowed a suit from another friend who bought it from Turkey and took it to a seamstress and asked her to do something similar.

In Tunisia, Burkinis made their appearance in beaches in the early 2000s. Before then, many women swam either in bathing suits; some others in bikini but many women would wear long dresses or didn’t swim at all. The contact of the long dresses with water and by the effect of pressure and water, they inflate like balloons so women have to keep burst these bubbles of air each time they stand up in the water. Needless to say, that with a long dress, you can’t really swim and move fast. You just dip in the water and stay there. Moreover, once outside the water, the wet dress becomes so tight on the body revealing the shape of the woman and thus defeating the purpose of modesty that a full body suit is supposed to achieve.

Burkini came as the ideal creation. It gave women the opportunity to enjoy water, beach, swim with her friends, kids and family without necessarily looking like an alien.

I remember the first time I went to buy a burkini in Tunisia, it was like trying to buy alcohol in Canada when you are underage. It was in 2008, the dictatorship of Ben Ali was still in place and all sign of religious symbols were suspicious to say the least. Burkini, like hijab, was of course considered in Tunisia as a sign of affiliation with Islamic groups and thus selling them would mean for the regime encouraging women to join these mouvements. So I went to the souk and I asked some store about them. The seller would look at me and assess my real intentions and then once I passed the “test”, he would bring from, literally under the table, one or two packages with a burkini inside them so I can see the models.

But after, the Arab Spring, burkinis were freely sold even in large supermarkets and women who whished to buy one, could freely do so.

It is interesting to note that Tunisian beaches today are full of women wearing burkinis. Even some women, who are not wearing hijab, would go for a burkini.

(It must be mentioned here that women in bathing suits are not harassed but it is very common in these societies that men would stare at women so burkinis is a way to keep some of these unwanted stare away or limited. By no means, burkini would become a way to control to opposite sex attitudes, as this is a matter of education that has never been tackled)

Of course, for people who still consider women covering their bodies as a sign of oppression, burkinis joined the list of words and clothing that linked Muslim women to the world of darkness. For many Muslim women who didn’t want other people commenting on their bodies or showing off their skin for public consumption, burkini achieved the total opposite. It combined liberation with modesty: the best of two worlds!

The recent decision of France to ban burkini from the beaches in Nice is another example of anti-Muslim attitudes wrapped under the disguise of women liberation and combatting religious extremism. All what it will do is: to alienate French Muslim women furthermore and of course prevent them from a nice refreshing swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

What bothers me even more is the total silence of Western feminists. Their silence is disappointing for this is a perfect example of male interference with female choices.

When women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, all western feminists would mobilize and stand up (rightly so) to denounce the arbitrariness, abusive and patriarchal nature of such decision. When women in Iran are punished for showing more hair in public or going out with make up, the outrageous reaction of Western feminist is so intense ( and yes we should be outraged) but when Muslim women are banned from going to the beach wearing a burkini, all you hear is silence or whispers. The burkini ban perfectly fits the old equation, so why bother?

Islam= Women oppression

How can a country, considered as a beacon of rights and freedom go so low and do this to its won citizens?

In France, it isn’t a secret that women are allowed to go topless on beaches. There are even some beaches especially designated for nudists. But to prevent women to swim because of the length of their swimming suit is a silly and a simply revengeful reaction. Once again, one of the most vulnerable groups of a society have to pay for the incompetence and failures of the politicians.

At least, and for a small temporary confort, we have some powerful words from Arundhati Roy who commented about the banning of burqa in France in 2010:

“When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It is what allowed the US government to use western feminist groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve their problems.”

 

Orlando Shooting: Using tragedies to push for Anti-Muslim agenda

In 2004, I run as a federal candidate for the New Democratic Party in the Ottawa South riding. I run in the midst of the same-sex marriage debate in Canada. My position was the following: as a religious person, I couldn’t vote for the same-sex legislation but as I human right advocate I couldn’t oppose rights to other groups who have been persecuted and oppressed. So I decided that in case I will be elected, I would abstain from voting.

My decision was harshly criticised from both sides. Within some party supporters, I wasn’t “progressive” and “liberated” enough. I was just a conservative Muslim wrapped in a scarf, some of them even said Burqa, trying insidiously to impose my backward Muslim views to the party and to Canadians. On the other side of the spectrum, for many Muslims (who anyway voted for the Liberal party and forgot that same-sex marriage legislation was introduced by then Prime Minister Paul Martin) I was a traitor to my religion and beliefs, an opportunistic who simply wanted to get elected.

And I wasn’t elected and both sides were relieved, I imagine.

Today, after the gay nightclub shooting in Orlando, once again Muslim religious beliefs are on trial by some media and by some politically motivated groups pushing for their Islamophobic agenda. It seems that each time, there is a violent attack organized by individuals, who happens to be Muslim or have a Muslim name, the whole Muslim religion is on the bench of the accused. After 9/11, the trial was “Islam is inherently violent. It is against freedom and liberty”. After, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015, the trial grew even bigger to include this time “Islam is an angry religion against freedom of expression” and recently after the killing of 49 people in the gay nightclub in Orlando, the newly brought accusation is “Islam is a religion that incites for hate towards homosexuals”. These narratives built on centuries of ignorance about Islam and on deeply entrenched orientalist attitude, quickly become absolute truth and unchallenged especially in some media. As a result, one Muslim representative after another is invited on TV or radio to defend Islam from these stereotypes but the more these defensive reactions are made the more people started to believe the opposite and thus perpetuating the stereotypes.

After 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan was made legitimate on the back of Muslim women wearing Burqa. Georges Bush, his wife and Cheryl Blair, wife of Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, all of them used “feminist arguments” to justify the war in Afghanistan. Everyone became feminist over night when it came to liberate Afghan women from Burqa. Even the most misogynistic groups and individual in the US came to agree with the liberation of women. Not totally, as long as it isn’t affecting some American internal policies like abortion for example. And the US troops were sent to Afghanistan. They killed, women, children and men. They arrested, imprisoned people and tortured them. But definitely, they didn’t liberate women.

After Charlie Hebdo attacks, the hypocrisy of the world reached some unprecedented peaks. In a show of solidarity to the French government and to the sacred French values of liberty and freedom of expression, many dictators attended a solidarity rally to show that they support freedom of expression. It didn’t matter if back home these leaders crushed their own people and whether they restrained their freedom of expression of their own. Once again, higher values like freedom of expression is used to divide the world between the “civilized” and the “barbaric” with Islam on the side of the barbaric. Thus, brushing aside centuries of colonialism and post colonialism. Also, feigning to forget that Muslim communities in France have never been accepted in the mainstream media or political circles and that the ongoing marginalization of the Muslim youth, especially boys and young men, is in big part a reason for them to reject French values and join violent ideologies.

With the Orlando attacks, the acceptance of homosexual rights, which is a legitimate mouvement, became the litmus test for Muslims to pass from the “bad Muslims” camp to the camp of the “good Muslims”. Even if those tests are conducted by groups who have been long time fighting LGBT rights with money and policies and guns. As for women’s rights, many discovered themselves overnight pro-LGBT rights as long as the issue, make Muslims and Islam look homophobic and violent.

Islam is not the only religion that doesn’t accept homosexuality. So why are the calls today are directed exclusively to Islam to re-examine its attitudes? Why aren’t we talking more about the extremists white supremacist Christian groups celebrating the killings of homosexuals or the heavy presence (in numbers and in funding) of US evangelical Christians in Uganda for instance, and their role in passing the “Kill the gay Bill” in 2014?

Using women rights, freedom of expression, LGBT rights, as wedge issues to demonize Islam and Muslim should be questioned as this will serve to only to make some bigots more confortable in their bubbles and speeches and won’t help us to see and get to know all the ongoing discussions and diversity of opinions of Muslims on these issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being an Activist and a Leader

Being an activist and a leader

I grew up in an environment where neither activism or leadership skills are encouraged by the society, or families or schools. Especially when you are a woman and especially if you have different opinions than the ruling party.

I discovered activism and leadership in books. Reading stories of women from different backgrounds taught me a lot. Reading also taught me to be confident and to learn how to argue and how to defend my opinions.

Being an activist in Canada can be seen differently. Depending on what you are advocating for. There are not issues better than others but there are issues that can be easily sold to the public than others.

Defending the rights of individuals accused of being terrorists in an 9/11 aftermath environment is a difficult sell, if not an impossible one.

Defending the right of women wearing their headscarf isn’t an easy sell, even among the liberal feminist circles.

Being an activist and a leader require that you have a platform or to build a platform. Being an activist and leader require also that you have support from groups and other activist. We can’t become an activist if we are isolated and we can’t become a leader if you don’t have moral and financial support from others.

In today’s understanding the word “activist” has sometime a derogatory meaning. Activists are hippie, sometimes accepted but not taken seriously. In mainstream media women activists are depicted like angry woman as if it is not OK or normal to be angry when faced with injustice.

Many women activists are usually depicted as angry, hysterical, utopic and rarely as serious, hard worker, smart and passionate.

Whereas, the word “leader” when it is not used for men, it is used to describe women who are exceptional, like Hilary Clinton or Cheryl Sandberg, the author of “Lean In”.

It is rare when women working hard in their communities or juggling between work and family or Walmart worker, or stay at home mothers are called leaders.

So how can we be at the same time activist and leader and woman? How can we be angry, hysterical, strong, smart, hippie, classy, and continue to be strong and committed to the issues we care about?

Two simple solutions:

  • Solidarity among women: this is an old principle but up to today we lack behind in finding the capacity to work together. We all know The old rule of: “Divide and conquer”, right?

 

Well, it still applies to us today. The rule is applied on several socioeconomic groups, but I can see a lot directed towards women. Many of us keep working in silos. Each one pushing for her own agenda but unfortunately each one ignoring the other. The result is unfortunately that we are all ignored at different levels.

Solidarity doesn’t mean that we have to love each other or not criticize each other. But solidarity means creating bridges when it is very unlikely to have one. Solidarity means partnership and networking with each other. Women know how to build partnership better than men. Even in Afghanistan, the Americans after they justified the war on the back of women pretending to liberate them, they came to admit that the presence of women in the peace negotiation tables bring a different dynamic other and more productive than having only men. Women are not looking to satisfy their egos. Women look for pragmatic solutions so the kids are fed and the country is safe.

 

  • Passion: as women, we are usually accused of being emotional and less rational. We defend ourselves of not being emotional. We define ourselves as the opposite of what our attackers accuse us of. But instead, we should be proud of who we are. If we emotional, why not, let’s be emotional. That means we care, that means we are strong that means we won’t give up. Let’s us define ourselves and not let the other define us. Passion is the best thing that can happen to an activist and a leader.

The path of activism and leadership are so full hurdles and obstacles that only passion can help. But don’t get me wrong here. Passion is not simply caring about an issue. Passion is reading, fighting, advocating, educating others about a particular issues. Passion is not just a job. Passion is long-time involvement and commitment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Marois to Harper, niqab debate plays with xenophobic fire

The election is coming to an end. All the way, I resisted the urge to write about the niqab. Why? I didn’t want to create more controversy and stir the already ugly pot simmering in many people’s minds. But then, it became stronger than me. My brain isn’t as disciplined as my fingers so I found myself typing out thoughts about the niqab.
Who would have thought that “niqab” — a word not well known or used in the Muslim world — would find its way into political debates among party leaders and hundreds of articles in the North American context?! Even the U.S. and U.K. newspapers that covered the Canadian election did so from the perspective of the niqab.
For those who followed the Quebec election in 2013, Pauline Marois and her genius “strategists” (à la Lynton Crosby) introduced the Charter of Values disguised in noble arguments of secularism and gender equality, intended to ban wearing the hijab and the niqab in the public service. Now following the news during this federal election, I had the impression I was watching the same horror movie, this time in English.
The doors of bigotry and xenophobia seem to have been opened and very rare were those who stood up bravely and firmly trying to close them. It’s ironic that during Marois’ failed attempt at banning the niqab, English Canada looked at Quebec with superiority, insinuating that Quebecers were more uncomfortable with diversity and especially with the Muslim religion than the rest of Canadians.
Three years later, the rest of Canada found itself immersed in the same polarized debate à la George Bush: you’re either on the side of the niqabis (and thus you are oppressed, barbaric, misogynistic, archaic, anti-women, for Saudi-Arabia, for the Taliban, for the terrorists) or you side with us (and you are for security, for freedom, for women’s rights, for freedom, for gender equality, for universal human rights).
So Stephen Harper, following in the footsteps of Marois, started talking the niqab language. And all of a sudden, we discovered a “feminist” Stephen Harper who cared about women’s equality and who even set up a hotline for people to report barbaric practices, a.k.a., practices related to Islam.
When we were children, we were told that if we played with matches, we risked being burned. Has Stephen Harper heard this warning? Or maybe he is betting on being a superhero, a sort of inflammable one. He is playing with the fire of Islamophobia and simultaneously refuses to be blamed for it. Actually, he doesn’t even refuse: he ignores the consequences.
In this landscape filled with dangerous games, there is hope. Hope coming from women. These women don’t need men to talk on their behalf; for sure not the likes of Stephen Harper. A group of 538 women from various fields — political, academic, legal, religious, business — issued the statement “Respect Women” to denounce how the niqab issue was used in the election campaign. They stated:
“It troubles us that the current focus on the few instances of women wanting to wear a niqab during their citizenship ceremony has divided Canadians and stigmatized Muslim women. We are alarmed that this appears to have incited discrimination, and even violence, which undermines equality and respect for human rights and ignores the greater issues facing women in Canada.”
The group included prominent names like: the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Alexa McDonough, Sheila Copps, Maureen McTeer, the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, Marlys Edwardh, Dawn Memee Harvard, and hundreds of other women who joined their voices together. Their purpose wasn’t to defend the niqab. Their message was to refocus the debate:
“We are worried about the economic insecurity facing many women as we age in Canada. We are disturbed that women, on average, are not earning at the same level as their male colleagues. And we are troubled at the lack of investment in women’s empowerment and leadership across this great country. It is time to set aside the issue of the niqab and move to the issues that impact the daily lives of most women and girls in Canada.”
The journalists who were so eager to report on the niqab in the last few weeks were not as eager to report on the powerful voices of 538 women. Maybe this is not “hot” enough!

This column was previously published at rabble.ca

Do Muslim Women Need Saving: A book review

Do Muslim women need saving? This is the question author Lila Abu-Lughod tries to answer in her bookpublished by Harvard University Press in 2013.

Abu-Lughod is a trained anthropologist from Columbia University. For several years she lived with Bedouin women in Egypt’s Western Desert. She wrote Veiled Sentiments, a book filled with poems Bedouin women tell about their men, their relationships and their lives. Abu-Lughod kept returning to visit and live with rural Egyptian women for the purposes of her studies, and one can feel throughout the book that these women are not objects of curiosity or pity, or perhaps objects of study — but rather becoming akin to close friends and almost relatives to the author. She compares her own children to theirs, speaks fondly of their attitudes, and tries so hard to understand their struggles and the dynamics of their decisions.

Abu-Lughod constantly questions herself about the reasons that would make these women look oppressed to their Western counterparts. She acknowledges that their lives are economically and socially challenging, but reports that they have never accepted their fate in any way and instead are constantly trying to change things around them at their own pace and on their own terms.

In the West, some authors and popular media make us believe that it is both the culture and/or the Muslim religion that are the causal roots of this “oppression.” But Abu-Lughod claims that her own experience actually showed her the opposite: how culture and religion can sometimes become the real engine behind the strong will of change she frequently encounters with these women.

Abu-Lughod studies in great detail the messages of “pulp nonfiction” books sold in the West, whose dangerous mixture of violence and pornographic content about the lives of Muslim women abused by their families is intended to keep the supposed link between religion and oppression alive.

Abu-Lughod exposes the pattern behind memoirs telling us horrific stories of Muslim women abused by their husbands, fathers or family, who were able to escape and embrace freedom in the West. For instance, the story of Zana Muhsen told in the book Sold is a story of a Birmingham girl who escaped from Yemen with her mother’s help after 13 years of abuse. These books are usually written by ghostwriters, sold by the millions and sometimes turned into movies. These books enter the popular imagination and become the reference points for an avid Western audience already convinced of the moral superiority of their culture and the universality of “freedom.” What Abu-Lughod names as the fantastic world of “pulp nonfiction” is filled with real or sometimes simply “invented” stories that are later used to justify moral and military crusades from the West with the dubious objective to “liberate” Muslim women from the barbarism of their culture and offer them freedom of choice.

Thus, the obsession of the Western media with “honour killing” stories does not always emerge from a genuine desire to help women fight the injustice they face in their own communities but rather from an intrinsic message that their indigenous culture is barbaric, doesn’t permit love, and forces girls to marry men they despise.

Abu-Lughod explains:

“[T]he problem is that when violence occurs in some communities, culture is blamed, in others only the individuals involved are accused or faulted. As Leti Volpp has shown in her classic article called “Blaming Culture,” violent or abusive behaviour gets attributed to culture only when it occurs in minority or alien culture, racial, or national groups.”

So what to do to improve Muslim women’s rights? Abu-Lughod gives two examples of women’s rights groups: the classical Western feminist approach and the new Islamic feminist approach. Abu-Lughod praises some aspects of both approaches but also criticizes their shortcomings. For instance, she points to the danger of the governmentalization of rights where the government would sponsor a sort of elite feminism, especially in urban centres and wouldn’t pay attention to the rest of the population in rural areas.

The emerging movement of Islamic feminism that started in Malaysia can be seen as responding to an increasing need to change the Islamic texts underlying marriage and inheritance. She cites the example of some North African countries where feminist reformers developed a model marriage contract that would build the requirement of consent into a husband’s decision to take a second wife.

Even though she applauds the extensive work done by these initiatives, like the Musawah movement, she criticizes the fact that they “have aligned surprisingly well with the clichéd causes familiar to us through our study of sensational media and pulp nonfiction.”

The strength of Abu-Lughod’s message is the intricate and complex stories of Muslim women that she shares with readers. In these stories, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish between oppression and the consequences of colonialism. On many occasions, the concept of choice, so much cherished in the West, is blurred by poverty, economic and social problems.

So finally, after reading Abu-Lughod’s book, can we answer the question, “Do Muslim women need saving?” The answer isn’t as obvious as some authors, politicians and journalists want us to believe.

Abu-Lughod’s book isn’t a justification for Muslim women’s oppression. It is a plea for the humanity of all women, regardless of their religion or race.

This column was orginally published at rabble.ca

Reclaiming Our Narrative

Edward Said famously argued “the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not”

This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen!”

So how as Muslim women can we make things happen?

Three important steps:

  • Look at our strengths
  • Build networks with other women
  • Reclaim our narrative

As women, we are built to be strong. Physically, emotionally and mentally. However, our environment constantly remind is to sit down and be weak.

When my husband was arrested by the US and sent to Syria to be tortured and imprisoned. People looked at me and whispered “How is she going to do it?” “Fighting a lost cause…” But I did it. How? By looking inside me for strength, by building a network of allies and by reclaiming my own narrative.

When I ran federally in 2004 for the New Democratic Party. Some analysts and journalists said “she is a sacrificial lamb” But I gathered more than 8000 vote in a riding that voted always Liberal and sometimes Conservatives.

For many centuries, Muslim women have been portrayed in books as passive, oppressed, victims of their religion, victims of their traditions or victims of their own men. Today, the stigma is still there. We are still suffering from the same stereotypes. In the media, we are either totally absent or if present we are victims.

Muslim women fate was an alibi before for colonialism and even today it is still used as a justification to go for war.

So how can we “Make it happen?”

By reclaiming our voices. Reclaiming our own narrative. Black women did it before us. Aboriginal women in this country are working hard to do it. So why can’t we do it?

It is about time to be pro-active in shaping all the different Muslim pictures of Muslim women.

Not only the oppressed, the victims, or the absent. But also, the smart, the hard working, the struggling, the activist, the artist, the sensible, the ones who does NOT necessarily need to be saved from some one else.

I am not saying we have to tell the story of THE MUSLIM WOMAN, as it doesn’t exist only ONE story or only ONE woman.

We are different and complementary in our views in our visions in our practice of Islam.

But the challenge is to give our own version of the stories. The challenge is to talk to the other about who we are really are. The challenge is to define ourselves before other do it for us.

This was my speech at the Federation of Muslim Women for International Women’s Day