By Amal Awad
27 Non. 2013
It may well be that I'm just a product of my educated and progressive generation, but I am consistently amazed that Muslim women still need to trumpet their diversity.
From exhibitions and seminars that tout hackneyed phrases like "beyond the veil" and or calls to feminist arms from western "sisters" who want to free the oppressed Muslim woman, there seems little real interest in the intricacies of the lives of Muslim women. For the most part, these nods to Muslim women's humanity seem piecemeal and tokenistic.
Moreover, there seems to be, despite their widespread participation in society globally, an misunderstanding of Muslim women: they are not a generic product of oppression, but in fact have lives shaped by economic, not just social circumstances.
When activist Mona Eltahawy wrote a scathing assessment of the treatment of Arab women for Foreign Policy magazine last year, it was met with a huge outcry from Arab women themselves. No matter how well-written or accurate her words, Eltahawy's article denied the existence of another kind of story. The Arab world, and with it Muslim women, were simplified to an object of hate by Arab men.
Muslim is synonymous with Arab, even though the "Muslim world" spans nations beyond the Arab world. And, no doubt, we have some problems. But we are not some paint-by-number section of the world, an "other" who needs western relief.
And so it was with great interest that I read a recent piece in Time magazine by Lila Abu-Lughod. The subtitle sums up her argument perfectly: "The Western crusade to rescue Muslim women has reduced them to a simplistic stereotype."
Abu-Loghod begins by saying a "moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere," and she's suggesting that, somewhat perversely, it has united conservatives and liberals, sexists and feminists. After all, there's nothing like a common enemy to unite warring parties.
"The crusade has justified all manner of intervention from the legal to the military, the humanitarian to the sartorial," writes Abu-Loghod. "But it has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics."
Abu-Loghod is an anthropologist who has been researching and living with Muslim women for decades, so she's in a solid position to comment. Unlike the numerous Anglo-woman-travels-to-the-Muslim-world memoirs that capture the spirit of "Muslim women are just like us, except they can't do stuff" shtick, Abu-Loghod acknowledges there's a problem with the way we talk about Muslim women.
"I have found myself increasingly troubled by our obsession with Muslim women," she writes, modestly. She's not the only one. The bulging western obsession with Pakistani activist (and heroine) Malala Yousafzai is testament to the slit-eyed view the West has of the Muslim world. Without any regard for the Islamic position on education for women (we're absolutely supposed to have one), Yousafzai has been adopted as a western darling, as though giving the metaphorical finger to the Taliban is also breaking free from Islam's shackles. I am full of admiration for Yousafzai and, for what it's worth, commend her courage to stand up to what is an oppressive regime that denies her a basic right. But when she's older and starts talking politics and the wider breach of humanitarian values that Muslims - both male and female - are subjected to, it should be interesting to see how well she's received.
In the West, much ink is spilt on the issues of rape culture and equal opportunity for women - we still get paid less than men, and how we dress and behave is discussed feverishly in the public arena. But here, where women's issues are seen as unholy smudges on an otherwise crisp landscape, the issue of a Muslim woman's liberty is dissected from the armchair of an enlightened state.
Years ago, when I was a student working in retail, a co-worker pointed out two veiled women. Knowing I am Muslim, she said: "Do you call that a life?" From what I could see, the women were happily shopping, and having "a life." I told her as much. Her response was something I've come to hear many times over: "That's because they don't know any better."
Suggest that Muslim women have minds, desires and preferences of their own, marked by their personal beliefs, and we're reassuringly and pompously told that they wouldn't feel that way if they could live like their western sisters. Talk about Muslim women as being a diverse, progressive, very human part of the world's population, and you hear an imperialist cry echo throughout the cyberverse.
For my part, and I know other female Muslim writers who experience the same issue, we can't write publicly without being questioned about other Muslim women. I may well be educated and not veiled (as though wearing a headscarf somehow diminishes my credibility and ability to think), but - cue the heightened outrage - Muslim women overseas can't do anything without a man's permission. Did you know that?
This is just not true, and while I'm cyber-honking for Saudi women to be able to drive, I'm more concerned with the fact that socially women around the world are still seen as the addendum to men. Women, everywhere, are a minority. And in the so-called "Muslim world," we need more girls getting educated. But that's not going to be a priority so long as the nations in which they're raised have no infrastructure to support it. It's also their battle to fight.
And anyone who has travelled throughout the Middle East and Asia can testify that Muslim women are stronger and more capable than you think, and they certainly don't need a western hero coming in to save them.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and author of Courting Samira, the tale of a young Muslim woman coming of age. A Palestinian-Australian Muslim, she graduated with an arts/law degree, but following a brief stint in legal practice became an editor and journalist.