On September 2001, two fatal events occurred: thousands of lives were tragically lost and it was the day many Muslims were labelled terrorists. According to a USA TODAY /Gallup Poll, 22% of Americans stated they did not want a Muslim as their neighbour. Islamophobia has affected not only Muslims but the progress of Islamic feminism. This has become a growing issue and affects the women who are seen as oppressed individuals entrapped by their religion.
I believe Islamophobia has always been around, but was intensified post 9/11. The fear of Islam has sadly increased over the years and has conditioned citizens in the Western hemisphere to be fearful of the religion. In Pavlov’s 1902 psychological experiment, he discovered, after becoming associated with an object, a previous neutral conscious could come to trigger a specific response. In this case the response is Islamophobia. In the media, news outlets such as Fox News with figures such as Bob Beckel stating, “I am an Islamophobe,” are an example of the damaging contributions that are conditioning citizens, consequently they have conditioned individuals to believe Muslims and terrorism are almost two inseparable concepts. This has caused more damage, not only on Islam as whole,but on its women – particularly feminists.
In 2008 in The Guardian, Asma Barlas speaks about how there are secular feminists who feel the only way to gender equality is through secularism, and any mention of Islam as ‘libratory’ and ‘mind-boggling’, meaning that any form of feminism that does not fit the secular idea of feminism is seen as ‘oppression’. Unfortunately, in 2015 I feel that this is still a dominant way of thinking, however, exposure to individuals such as Malala Yousafzai may help change the way people view Muslim feminists.
Feminism is a very broad term and I feel this is intentional, so that all women can find their own meaning from the movement, including Muslim women. It is meant to be subjective and tailored to every female’s experience, for a lesbian woman who is discriminated because of her sexuality feminism may mean freedom to sexual expression, but for a girl who is not allowed to receive an education, feminism is the freedom to be educated. It is too powerful a term to be condensed down to one fixed western ideal.Therefore, the question I find myself asking is, how can we change this misconception of Muslim feminists?
Ask do not assume. Let us first ask if Muslim feminists even want ‘help’ to begin with and if they do, where can we help? Western feminists ignore the actual wants and needs of Muslim women by assuming that
they ‘feel’ a Muslim feminist needs, rather than what they actually want or need. Despite the exemplified myth of Islam as oppressive and dangerous to its women, many Muslim feminists simply want what feminism asks for: equality, a right to an education, stop to sexual harassment and to stop being viewed by Westerners as oppressed victims, especially those who choose to cover themselves with a hijab.
Individual female freedom fighters internationally have single-handedly fought against patriarchy and male domination, proving that mainstream Western feminism is not the only movement to fight for women. Modern examples of these women can be seen through the works of young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who fights for the educational rights of women after being shot by the Taliban on her way to school; or the women of Syria in the Muslim Women’s Mosque Movement, who fight for all women regardless of wealth or status, to be able to pray in mosques with men.
In Unspeakable Things, British feminist Laurie Penny argues, “the feminism that sells is the sort that can appeal to almost everybody, … and does not talk about poor women, queer women or anybody who fails to fit the mould”. This argument immaculately describes how dismissive mainstream feminism is to Muslim feminists. The lack of coverage on Muslim feminists in the media, not only undermines their struggles or their countless efforts for equality, but it completely disassociates them from feminism. In the media we see the same figures representing feminism.
Not only are Muslim feminists fighting for their women, but now also have to fight against their own feminist counterparts to prove, ‘we are not victims’. Muslim feminists do not need saving, they need enfranchisement within feminism. By educating ourselves to learn about Islam, Western mainstream feminists can directly learn about the history of strong Muslim women who have fought for their rights. By doing this, not only does it destroy the Islamophobia, but it allows feminists around the world to see how to enfranchise Muslim feminists into the movement, it stops the assumption of what Muslim feminists want and tackles the issues of what they need. The first step towards social change is to educate; incorporating world religions into syllabuses in schools is a first step, by educating people in America about other religions such as Islam, this decreases the chances of fear. Fear only arises when there is assumption.
Esther Oluga was born and raised in London and is of Nigerian descent. She is currently undertaking her Undergraduate degree in Sociology at the University of Essex and currently studying at California State University, Monterey Bay for the year. Her interests are in Human Rights and humanitarian aid work.