Feminism and Islamophobia
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
A non-inclusionary feminist belief lying on debris of assumptions causes nothing but harm. How? Well, the mere fact that it is based upon assumptions means it is not factual or well researched hence can’t be called true. And something that’s far from what’s true, leads one to have misconceptions about any idea. Misconception leads to bias and bias in turn blurs our path to being equal and just.
I believe it is the same bias that blurs the path of mainstream feminism while extending its support to Muslim women. You might secretly confess to yourselves that when it comes to Muslim women we easily believe that they might be oppressed and their rights might be violated not because of any prior knowledge about their circumstances but by the mere status of them being ‘Muslim’. ‘I feel sorry for her; her head is always covered in hijab’ ‘You know she can’t fast during Ramadan when menstruating, how discriminatory’ ‘Isn’t it frustrating to be under a burqa’
We tend to believe that Muslim women can’t be happy because we find their religion to be extremely prohibitive, we further are sure of Muslim men to be conservative for making their women follow such measures. However, we pay absolutely no heed to a central factor in this entire narrative of oppression, being the woman’s will. We are so sure of the fact that women in the Muslim community are ‘made to’ cover themselves, and follow innumerable rules and duties out of fear, that them being religious, or doing things willingly is never a possibility for us.
To be honest, I spoke to a few Muslim women before feeling the need to write this. I remember one of them telling me that according to their holy text Quran, hijab or burqa can never be forced upon a woman, most women wear a hijab only if ‘they’ wish to do so. And it was then I could make sense with the fact that a few of my Muslim friends never wore a Hijab whereas the other few proudly did, both equally proud of their religion.
While most of them agreed that according to the accepted norm in South Asia girls usually didn’t pray at mosques, they also however pointed out that this wasn’t the case in the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East, a few of them proudly recalled that they had prayed in the Mosques of Mecca, something that isn’t possible in India due to a cultural practice of restricting women.
Furthermore, they were never stopped from studying the Quran or their religion. Most families called preachers and encouraged their children to learn about Islam. It’s true that during Ramadan, menstruating women are exempt from fasting but the women who have studied the Quran say that it is because Islam recognizes the toll it takes on a female body to fast during their periods, it doesn’t shame them; it primarily acknowledges what they go through.
After talking to Muslim women, reading accounts of many others, it also struck me that well, being asked to hide our sexuality or hush about our periods is something that no religious text preaches, however, strangely all women are taught to do so. It is a cultural practice. A social conditioning or a cultural understanding of a religion might be very different from what the religion actually preaches. These cultural understandings are dictated by men in power. Cultural patriarchy without a doubt is something that exists both within the Muslim community and outside it. In Hindu tradition too, women have been barred entry at certain temples because they may menstruate, even when there exists in India a temple with a deity of a menstruating woman. So what is right & what is wrong? What can be justified, what can’t? Who answers these questions for women regardless of the religion? There is no rule book in any religion restricting women from being, there exists however, self-proclaimed leaders in each community dictating the norms for each gender, whilst accelerating a power play amongst them to suit their whims and fancies.
Often blinded by this bias towards the Muslim community many people aren’t aware of the fact that Islam has been a very progressive religion since its inception. In Islam women have had the right to vote, to own property and wealth, the right to an education, and the right to work centuries before western feminism jumped into action. I am in no way trying to say that Muslim women do not have issues with the way things are or that they don’t struggle for basic rights and opportunities like the rest of us do, however as feminists it is very important to know what are we fighting against when it comes Muslim Feminism, we aren’t fighting the Burqa or Hijab, this according to me is a very ignorant assumption of their struggle, we automatically tend to assume that if the woman is covered in a Hijab, she must be oppressed. This perspective not only disapproves of the hijab and the burqa by disrespecting the sentiments of the Muslim women towards it but also doesn’t respect the choice of a Muslim woman to practice her religion. Many female Muslim scholars have debated time and again that they too face dilemmas in Islam, however they claim that their religion is flexible enough to give space to women taking a revisionist perspective on the accepted interpretation of its religious texts, scriptures and rulings finding the female perspective and voices that slowly became invisible in it. And this is the kind of flexibility mainstream feminists fall short of.
Mainstream feminism suggests that such personal choices and values can’t exist within its framework- and if I decide to dress in accordance to my faith then I surely must be oppressed or submissive. The time when someone else decides what should be liberating for me is when I feel the most caged. Most often it is this narrow mainstream feminism that plays the role of an oppressor by impressing their ideology of empowerment on other women, not allowing them to interpret empowerment in their own ways. For many Muslim women being able to proudly wear a Hijab is empowerment, and them being not judged for it, is acceptance.
A conversation that should be solely centred on Muslim women and their plight is shifted by outsiders to the assumption of conservative Muslim men and Islam as a restrictive religion, portraying both in a bad light, causing harm that’s beyond repair. When this becomes a pattern it is not difficult to understand how this biased and mainstream feminist approach that sympathizes with the Muslim women feeds to the idea of Islamophobia and harms the entire community.
We have to reframe the feminist thought as we know it, so it can stop building boundaries and instead move forward to nurture a sisterhood of intersectional feminists, accepting to diversity. ‘Intersectionality’, as coined by Kimberle Crenshaw discusses the multiple layers of oppression marginalised people face in regard to their gender, race, ethnicity, class and religion all playing roles in the magnitude of the oppression they face. Our idea of empowerment today needs to include women of colour, trans women and women of faith, supporting their idea of freedom without criminalising their race, sexual preference or religion.