By Ayesha Fakie
Recently my colleague Khadija Bawa and I wrote about patriarchy, misogyny and chauvinism in the Muslim community. Following its publication, we were asked to do a segment on SAfm (more on that later).
And more recently Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente, an international scholar on women's rights and gender analysis in Islam and a Latina Muslim wrote a companion piece — "Muslim Men and Toxic Masculinity" — in which she dissects male Muslim masculinity, expanding it beyond the Indian community we focused on.
What De la Fuente does is elegantly critique not just Muslim male supremacy in its treatment of women (contra what Islam as social justice is about), but also extend the link we made between problematic South African Muslim masculinity and racism. "I would like to add black and coloured Muslim women," she writes in response to the critique we made of how Muslim men, Indian but not exclusively so, treat black and coloured women — especially domestic and retail workers.
De la Fuente goes on: "As a Latina Muslim, I have experienced racism and belittling due to my ethnicity and culture, I am not always viewed as being good enough to be a match for an Indian man (even if this man has less education, religious wisdom and integrity than me)."
While patriarchy affects women and men in various ways, there are, as we know, women beneficiaries of patriarchy. In Muslim communities, like many others, women who adhere to the patriarchal interpretations and codes of what makes "a good Muslim woman" are enabled to exert power and exclusion over anyone deemed an "other" — even if that "other" is a Muslim.
Because she may be black, Latina, Afro-Latina, outspoken, a critical thinker; her only sin her ethnicity, her race, her culture, herself.
In South Africa, much like most of the world in which Muslim ideological hegemony is bound up with colonialism and racism, the teachings of Islam become perverted. Toxic Muslim masculinity, therefore, emboldens women as oppressors too.
But Muslim men as gatekeepers of the word of God are not just prevalent; it is accepted, making beneficiaries of women who toe the line. In the SAfm show the host, Rowena Baird, took calls and texts. Very quickly my colleague and I heard what we expected. One caller harangued our viewpoints because (I paraphrase) "this is not the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) and women do have equal rights, many rights in Islam, the prophets wives and daughters all had..." etc.
I don't need to go into detail; every Muslim woman and girl who has ever exerted her freedom of mind, of spirituality, of questioning, has heard this lecture before. Far too many times. It is reductive, pointless and exhausting, achieving nothing but tamping down valid questions, a salve to avoid the threat to masculinity's role in Islam. And frankly, it's not even close to a valid rebuttal.
We need to really, truly, move beyond idealised and vaunted spiritual ideology versus what is practised everyday in the name of Islam: genital mutilation, child brides, domestic abuse (including tips on how to hit a woman without leaving evidence), attacking girls for merely wanting to go to school, and so much worse.
These critiques do not mean Islam is a "death cult". This isn't a diatribe in support of alt-right Pepes on image boards, where "it's just a joke" has been used to funnel latent discrimination to virulent hate and Islamophobia through online radicalisation. This is an honest critique of gender and race relations in Islam by Muslims.
I am a Muslim, and my critiques of it are because I see the beauty in it; its value as a force for social justice. But when I and others talk about these things, we not only get the lectures from the "learned" uncles and imams, we also get the alt-right fanboys popping up, gleefully saying "See! See! Your religion is backward, we treat our women better!" — The irony of the possessive escaping them.
But more important than the new-wave alt-righters and their affinity for a badly drawn green frog, I direct my questions at liberal men. Liberal men who are Muslim and those who are not. Good people, nice people, not Nazis with tiki torches. You may not see yourselves as misogynists, sexists, or racists. In fact, you may stand against those things in principle.
But often non-Muslim liberal men will exert their unexamined orientalism and unexamined hubris through claims that Islam is not good for women. That the West is better with all the usual tropes we hear — when in fact the world, irrespective of race, culture, religion, ethnicity and society, is a dangerous, threatening place for women and LGBTI+ people, especially people of colour. This is the other side of male elders inside Islam silencing women.
Muslim women’s' brave voices appear to be a threat to vast swathes on the left-right political continuum. The unsaid commonality speaks volumes.
In Islam's lived reality of its treatment of women and LGBTI+ persons, it needs to ask itself if it can withstand the legitimate criticisms that it directs at the imperialist West from those within Islam. From Muslim women, from gay Muslim men, from a Congolese lesbian woman who wants to be an Imam.
That interrogation needs to happen. It is not one or the other. The global rise in Islamophobia and neo-Nazism cannot and must not prevent us, from within Islam, analysing the ways in which our religion as practised hurts people.
If we fail to do that, then hegemonic masculine Islam behaves just like the white Western imperial man it validly criticises, while doing nothing to not be like him.
Ayesha Fakie is the head of the sustained dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR)