By Maliha Aqueel
2 Jan ‘18
Muslim women inhabit a uniquely marginalised space in a world where the existence of rampant Islamophobia both disregards their voices in the wider world and is also used to justify silencing their voices within Muslim communities – by prioritising the issue of anti-Muslim racism over the struggle against patriarchal oppressions.
Last year I wrote about the honour killing of a Pakistani social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch. Within hours, the article received a barrage of comments, ranging from extremely Islamophobic to people proclaiming articles such as mine promote anti-Muslim racism and therefore shouldn’t be written.
This reaction is familiar to many Muslim women who speak out, write, or activate in public spaces against the patriarchal oppressions and violence they face. The active policing of women’s voices inside Muslim communities and the prejudice and racism faced by us outside of our communities contributes to creating exceptionally testing conditions for Muslim women survivors of violence, activists, and allies.
The prevalent patriarchal order dictates which forms of violence against Muslims are more urgent and demand activism on our part. Under this order, anti-Muslim racism wins many times over before patriarchal oppressions are even discussed. The system that protects male privilege and gender hierarchies goes into overdrive when the reputation at stake is that of prominent Muslim men, such as clerics.
When Muslim women speak up about this, we are accused of creating theatre. Some people add the helpful reminder that “not all Muslim men” behave like this. I grew up in a majority Muslim country; I know not all Muslim men are sexual predators but I also know that many, many men are – in cultures, communities and countries around the world. So I choose to believe women.
Pretending that Muslim women are somehow responsible for Islamophobia if they talk about the violence they face is not just absurd, it is also a glaringly obvious patriarchal power tactic that seeks to prioritise Muslim men and their reputations over women’s issues. When the tactic works, Muslim women and our issues are rendered disposable, and shoved to the back of the line.
Casting Muslim women activists as villains who air the dirty laundry of communities by speaking publicly against injustices speaks to this twisted hierarchy of issues that positions Islamophobia over and above the need to address patriarchal oppressions – even creating a narrative that these two are mutually exclusive struggles. The truth is, we must take all of these oppressions equally seriously if we are to address any of them.
People – especially women – who don’t follow this made-up hierarchy of issues are policed, vehemently attacked on public forums, and, many times, swiftly silenced. The system is effective. One friend told me she had to hide all Facebook posts related to a cleric, accused of sexual predation of women, from her timeline because the interrogation and abuse got too much.
We need to at first recognise the distinctively difficult barriers that Muslim women survivors of patriarchal violence face. There are layers of intersecting oppressions – patriarchy and Islamophobia – that make it particularly difficult for Muslim women to speak out about their experiences. They shouldn’t speak out about their issues as Muslim women, precisely because they are Muslim women.
There is also the strange but not surprising and seemingly shared objective between anti-Muslim racists and people from within Muslim communities who wish to uphold patriarchal structures of oppression, both of whom would rather see Muslim women disappear from public life altogether.
As soon as Muslim women speak, they are met with forces of silence, sometimes outright threats of violence, and vitriol. At other times pressures are cloaked as disbelief, as “rational” voices demanding proof, as “concerned” citizens of the world who worry about the backlash against Muslims.
It’s telling that time and again, the way Muslim men (and women) choose to deal with Islamophobia is by policing the voices of Muslim women within their communities, rather than addressing the colonial structures that uphold anti-Muslim racism, which also includes a legacy of patriarchal violence.
Too often clerics, religious scholars, and men in general are conveniently placed as representatives of the Muslim community. When the voices of men are centred in this way in the Muslim diaspora, this could come at the cost of Muslim women’s voices – particularly Muslim women of colour. If we are to truly address this, we must deliberately seek out, believe, and amplify Muslim women’s voices.
Many Muslim women know they must prepare themselves to be patronised, misrepresented, and tokenised when they speak out. Survivors and activists expertly navigate this tightrope – often at great personal cost – and continue to speak out. It is time we started listening, in silence and solidarity.
• Maliha Aqueel is from Lahore, Pakistan. She is a PhD student at the Gender and Culture studies department at Sydney University