(Hijab flutter: Dina Badawy)
1. Arrogance and ethnocentrism
The arrogant-but-sometimes-well-meaning “I know what’s best for you” attitude that flies in the face of respect for others’ lifestyles, worldviews, histories, and differences, and ignores or disrespects Muslim women’s personal agency. This is a major barrier and has been dubbed neo-colonialism for a good reason. Decades ago (even centuries), when the British colonized India, Egypt, Algeria, and other regions, the “I know what’s best for you” attitude was what enabled them to oppress men and women (Muslim and others) in these regions.
The idea that another person outside a Muslim woman’s communities and situations knows better about the issues she faces as a Muslim woman or as a woman of a certain ethnicity is impossible. While someone from outside my communities can offer an outsider’s perspective, s/he cannot understand my issues authoritatively enough to know them better than I. And, in constructing strategies for change, assuming someone else’s way (“Western” or secular or “progressive”) is better often ignores the fact that the secular way may not fit into a Muslim woman’s life, or a certain Western feminist model may not offer a Muslim woman constructive way to demand for the changing of laws that hurt her and her family. Refusing to believe that working within an Islamic or cultural framework can help me achieve the liberation I’m looking for isn’t fair to me—this isn’t cultural relativism, this is taking into account different forces that shape and have shaped a Muslim woman’s circumstances, and the different issues that she faces.
Furthermore, speaking for me when I did not ask you to actually takes my voice away. It is oppression just the same when a feminists does it as when, for example, a man speaks for a woman without her consent.
Often in the form of racialized Islamophobia and sexism. The refusal to listen to me or believe me when I tell you that Islam has given me wonderful things. Painting a Muslim woman’s issues as religious when they may really involve class, or patriarchal manifestations in her culture, or race. Demonizing my religion or culture in order to paint me as a victim that must be released from both of these things, no matter how much I love them or how they have positively shaped me.
3. Pity and victim construction
Specifically, the constant victim narrative that Muslim women are forced into. Assuming I am brainwashed because I identify as a Muslim, assuming every woman who wears a headscarf didn’t choose to.
Looking at a woman who involuntarily underwent female genital cutting as a victim does not empower that woman; it is often demeaning because it assumes that she can never be more than what happened to her. Pitying her because of what happened to her doesn’t empower her, either.
Looking at a woman who escaped an abusive marriage as a victim of her religion does not empower that woman. Not only does it mischaracterize the situation (it was her husband who abused her, not Islam), but also it doesn’t get her on the road to rebuilding her life.
Looking at an Iraqi woman as a victim ignores the agency she may exercise; constructing her only as a victim of war erases all her individual personality traits, her memories, and her humanity, leaving her to be nothing but part of a wretched aftermath. No human should be a wretched aftermath.
Pity doesn’t help anyone. And pitying me is just another type of oppression—just another way to construct yourself as better than I.
4. Using the wrong tools to measure liberation
Liberation is not a cookie-cutter deal. It looks different to every single woman in the world, and Muslim women are no different. There are Muslim women for whom liberation looks like a miniskirt, or a headscarf, or a university degree, or a well-paying job, or a husband, or a house, or debt wiped clean, or a divorce, or a reliable source of clean water, or opportunities for her children, or different combinations of these, etc. Forcing one model of liberation on anyone isn’t liberating; it’s just as oppressive as other paternalist or patriarchal forces in a Muslim woman’s life.
The best example of this is clothing, and the symbolizing of clothing as liberation, oftentimes equating choice of clothing with liberation. While I personally believe that women should be able to wear what they themselves want and face no cultural, religious, or other repercussions for it, assuming that changing clothing brings liberation is misguided. Clothing is a symbol of repression for a reason: it is not the cloth itself that oppresses, but the complex legal, social, and economic issues that enforce the cloth. Campaigning for Afghan women to have the right to remove their burqas will not change the issues that stand in their way and enforce a dress code.