By Amira Elghawaby
Jan. 9, 2019
It would be easy for many of us to shrug nonchalantly at the historic images of two American Muslim women taking their place in the U.S. Congress.
After all, Canadian Muslims have been elected to Parliament over the years, and are currently represented in cabinet and in the Senate. In 2015, Maryam Monsef became the first Muslim woman ever to be appointed to the post of minister. She would be followed by current Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen.
Many people in Canada have nonetheless taken notice of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s wins. Their victories are significant for a variety of reasons that resonate well beyond American politics.
Consider that Muslim women, in particular, have often been silenced, stereotyped, pigeonholed and underestimated since the first Orientalist images of Muslim women began to appear in the salons of Europe centuries ago. Artistic themes often centred around the notion of “white men saving brown women from brown men,” as described by Indian intellectual Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
While Muslim scholars have chronicled a rich feminist history within early Islamic civilization, patriarchal notions of the role of men and women have greatly distorted the faith and have indeed resulted in unjustifiable oppression in some parts of the world, even here. This has led to the popular and long-held Western view that Muslim women are generally oppressed and in need of liberation.
“A moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere, dissolving distinctions between conservatives and liberals, sexists and feminists,” wrote Lila Abu-Lughod, professor at Columbia University and the author of Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
Muslim women themselves have been challenging these notions, taking control of narratives that attempt to frame their experiences within a limited Western understanding. Yet analysis of Western media frequently demonstrates limited representations. One British study in 2016 analyzed 200 articles in the most widely read British newspapers and found that most stories featured Muslim women as passive or submissive and lacking positive representation.
This type of limited coverage has a long pedigree in Canada; academics Katherine Bullock and Gul Joya Jafri concluding as far back as 2000 that “Muslim women are presented as outsiders: as foreign, distant ‘others’, and as members of a religion (Islam) that does not promote ‘Canadian’ values, but anti-Canadian values such as indiscriminate violence and gender oppression.”
While social media has gone a long way in helping to counter mainstream representations, negative perceptions remain. “This one-dimensional image is being stamped on every Muslim woman, all 850 million of us,” wrote photographer Alia Youssef in an introduction last year to her photo collection, the Sisters Project.
The wearing of the hijab in Congress is also a critical milestone. Here in Canada, MP Salma Zahid became the first MP to wear a hijab this past summer, receiving some backlash from far-right commentators. She was forced to explain why she had decided to don it midway through her term in office (she cited her cancer treatment as being the prime reason, though she was clearly taken aback at having to explain herself at all). As Harvard professor Leila Ahmed has pointed out, the veil continues to represent “a sign of irresolvable tension and confrontation between Islam and the West.”
Unsurprisingly, some of the most vicious attacks against both Omar and Tlaib have emerged from Middle Eastern governments. After all, these two women represent a number of important realities that despots want to obscure: that all women can and should have full and equal rights and freely participate in the political sphere; and that Islam and democracy are fully compatible.
Even while Muslim female leaders have long existed within contemporary and historical Muslim societies, these latest achievements reinforce what is possible.
By breaking through the barriers to participation, these women are now able to bring forward progressive policies that reflect what all faiths and beliefs are meant to instil: compassion, humanity, and public service. Their win is a win for all of us who stand for these principles, wherever we are.
Amira Elghawaby is a writer and human rights advocate based in Ottawa.