Since 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment has been very open and very loud, often from people who really have no idea what Islam is but are sure it’s responsible for much of the evil they see in the world. They express concern about terrorism, but their rhetoric goes far beyond that, since Muslims are the current “other” in the U.S. In fact, they have supplanted African-Americans for that honor to the point that Barack Obama is not attacked for being black but for being a “secret Muslim” (though apparently his blackness is the evidence of his secret Muslim-ness). These accusations and imprecations are par for the course from this bigoted crew. Their fear of an America that is increasingly composed of minority groups focuses their anger on whoever is the trendy (among their peers) scapegoat, making Muslims an easy target for their fear.
There is now a different stream of anger and criticism coming at the Islamic community, one you won’t find if you examine the bigotry toward any other group. This stream is coming from the left, from people who view themselves as protectors of women’s rights. They are willing to generalize about Muslims in a way that would infuriate them if it were applied to blacks or women or immigrants. But they view the whole of Islam as being anti-women, and every story about horrible things happening to women and girls in Islamic countries fuels their anger.
And here we get to my own personal dilemma. As a liberal and a strong advocate of women’s rights, when I hear about women’s restricted lives in other cultures I feel angry. But as a liberal I am also required to respect the point of view of people who come from other cultures whose traditions are so different from mine.
For example, there was a time when we bought a hand-made basket from an Amish woman selling them near a gas station in Wisconsin. She was there in her bonnet and long dress, with her two blonde children, (daughter also in bonnet and long dress) and her horse and cart. They looked “country and wholesome.” But her life and her children’s lives are set from birth to go in a certain direction along a narrow course. I watch some Orthodox Jewish women in my neighborhood (or in my older daughter’s world of Brooklyn) who have covered their shorn heads with scarves or special turban-like hats, who, even in warm weather, wear long skirts and sleeves that are at least elbow length as they buy their kosher meat and chat with each other surrounded by the numerous children that a lack of birth control will produce. I’m Jewish – but my life is nothing like the lives of these women. My parents opened every door to education and career for me that they could. How would it be to grow up in a world where all those doors are closed and locked by your family and community?
So we come back to Islamophobia. It’s easy to get angry with people who generalize their views to all Muslims. I’ve met Muslims who are no more rigid in their religion than are Reform Jews, and who lead lives not substantially different from mine. Certainly they don’t deserve criticisms of this sort on a progressive website:
I oppose Islam because of the way they treat women and gays. Now, I’m adding child rape (and murder) to my opposition.
(from a comment on a Daily Kos diary about the death of an 8-year-old Yemeni girl after her “wedding night” with her 40-year-old husband).
Nor do more traditionally religious Muslims who are not engaged in behavior that forces women into narrow male-controlled lives deserve the one-size-fits-all attacks on Islam.
But what about the nations that require women to walk about in heavy coverings, their only opening to the outside world through a veil over their eyes? Is this acceptable because it’s a different culture, a different tradition?
My neat solution to this is to say: I oppose any law or government that forces women to be covered like this, or that restricts women from following their own path in occupation, education and marriage. Easy-peasy. Yet we must think back to the Amish and the Orthodox Jews and some Islamic communities here in the U.S. The government and law here are not forcing women into a certain type of dress nor restricting them in their life choices. But if they grow up in such a community, their likelihood of breaking out of that life is low. True, no one is allowed to come after them and arrest them for leaving, but they are ill prepared for living outside of their community. This issue is not just about girls and women: in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, boys are not allowed to get a general education because study of Torah is all important for Jewish men (but, from my cynical standpoint, it’s because the community doesn’t want them to be able to survive outside of its boundaries).
So the way I counter Islamophobia when it comes from people who frame it as their defense of women’s rights, is to do exactly what I did in this article – mention other religions and cultures that are just as bad. Anger, we must say to the attackers of Islam, should not be directed at Muslims generally, many of whom have the same views and political beliefs as the liberals attacking Islam, but should be directed at orthodoxy of any sort – at religious extremism whether that religion is Catholic or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu.
But where does that leave me in societies like ours? I strongly believe in freedom of religion but am torn about what that means in terms of the children growing up in these restrictive and isolating communities. Shouldn’t all children receive a broad education that allows them to make real choices in life? Is it enough to have laws that guarantee personal freedom from religious coercion when we have parents who have the right and power to narrow down their children’s options to a pitiful few? I don’t have an easy answer to this. In fact, I don’t have any answers at all.
Marti Teitelbaum lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the mother of two high-energy girls (a twenty-something future radical social worker and a 13-year-old) and is married to a psychiatrist who devotes half his work life to a child mental health clinic. For almost 20 years, Marti used her degree in public health to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, producing most of their numbers on children’s health, disability, health insurance, Medicaid, and immunization. She has always been a political junkie and a fiber-holic and now, for the first time in her life, has the time to indulge in both of these addictions. Politics and weaving have a lot in common: both take a lot of thought and preparation and both have a lot of complicated entanglements. But the difference is that weaving calms the soul and produces something useful and potentially beautiful. Politics doesn’t.