Islamophobia: More Acceptable When Disguised as Feminism?

Afghanistan_03Since 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.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/public domain

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9 Responses to Islamophobia: More Acceptable When Disguised as Feminism?

  1. Melissa September 23, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Wow. So nicely written!!! I knew that I liked this blog!

  2. Dana September 23, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    My litmus test is, does the woman have a choice? In a lot of Muslim countries, she does, believe it or not. If she is ALLOWED to go around with her head uncovered, but she decides not to, that is just fine with me.

    It was not uncommon in a lot of traditional cultures for women to wear visual signals that said things like, “I’m single and want a husband,” or “I’m married, don’t flirt with me,” or “I’m a child and I’m off limits,” or whatever. I see the veil in the same light. “You are not my relative so you don’t get to see my hair. You have not convinced me you are good husband material,” or, “I’m married, thank you,” as applicable.

    Would I like to see more similar dressing requirements for both men and women? Sure I would. I do have egalitarian tendencies, after all. But the rules have almost *never* been the same no matter what culture you’re looking at. Men and women make themselves look different on purpose and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Third World goat herder or a First World lawyer, that’s still mostly true.

    (In cultures where LGBT were/are acknowledged, they either dressed like women or they had their own thing going entirely.)

    BUT… there *are* modesty requirements for men in Islam. It’s not like they’re all going around naked while the women go around in shrouds.

    And some of the outfits I see Muslim women wearing are positively beautiful. The other day I met one at the library, and she was just a delightful lady, telling jokes and laughing about our kids. Her veil was a style I don’t usually see around here, kind of elaborate, and she had roses sewn on/embroidered at the ends of her sleeves. Just gorgeous. I sometimes find myself wishing white Americans still wore ethnic dress, never mind there’d be at least five or six different kinds out there!

    As to some of the things you’ve written here: So what if someone can’t survive outside their ethnic community? Is the ethnic community abusive of them, does it regularly kill all its membership before age thirty? I don’t think that’s true of most ethnic communities. What’s the alternative? Go out into the world, hope that you’re successful (and not everyone is), be alienated from your family and not fit in anywhere else either. There’s a whole mess of people out there right now who are chronically depressed because they don’t belong anywhere. You want that to happen to more people? Why? What’s the point? It’s very easy to speak of “opportunity” but it’s a myth; once you choose from one of many options, you have just narrowed the field and those other opportunities are gone. You have to choose again and give up your current choice to change that. MOST people in life do not have endless vistas of possibility stretching out before them. But the same folks who claim that we should all have endless possibilities will also lecture us about not making THINGS and STATUS more important than family and friends. Well, when you grow up in an ethnic community, you have instant family and friends. So maybe it’s not such a great idea to run away chasing down the things and status. I dunno, just throwing that out there.

    My dad left home looking for opportunity. He condemned his descendants to never being able to fit in with family and hometown. I have a heritage but I can’t fit into it any longer. And I don’t really “belong” anywhere else either. I feel like an adoptee, if you want to know the truth. My daughter asked me if my dad was a cowboy when she heard his accent (we’re Cajun) and it just broke my heart.

    • Marti Teitelbaum September 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      Very articulate comment, but I don’t really agree with the last couple of paragraphs. What about a woman brought up within a Chassidic community who really isn’t interested in marriage and child after child after child? If her education is severely limited, she may have great trouble breaking out of the community and finding her way into something else.
      As for coverings by choice — I don’t have a problem with that. An adult woman who chooses to cover herself in whatever way she likes is fine. I happen to think the head scarves many Muslim women wear are pretty and very appealing (forget bad hair days!).
      I do, however, have a problem when those restrictions are applied to children and funnel them into a narrow and limited future. But as I say at the end, I don’t have any solutions to this problem.
      I’m sorry you don’t feel like you belong anywhere. Cajun tradition is pretty wonderful and it’s a sad loss. (But by the way — saying that makes you “feel like an adoptee” is a pretty inaccurate comparison. Children who were adopted have a range of fitting in just like biological children — there have been studies showing that.) . But people can be very much part of the larger society and still hang on to the traditions and rituals of their ethnicity or native culture.
      As for your take on opportunity — there I disagree greatly. I tried out a number of professions before I settled down and found what I really loved. Each direction I tried didn’t rule out other directions — it just helped show me what I liked and what I didn’t like. The “ruling out” I experienced came from being a girl growing up in the 50′s. I was very good at math, but it never occurred to me that I could be an engineer or an architect. And in fact — I had teachers who discouraged me from trying.

  3. Joan Cichon September 23, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    You stated, “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.” While I think we should respect all people, there is nothing that requires that all points of view to be respected. IN fact, it is ideas and points of view that need to be scrutinized carefully. Ideas that limit the actions of others due to innate qualities like sex, sexual orientation, race, or physical/mental limitation or illness have no place in a rational, humanistic society. It is our duty to judge these ideas and find them severely lacking. Ass Isaac Asimov said, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” The inability or unwillingness to evaluate ideas is just such ignorance.

    • Martha Teitelbaum
      Martha Teitelbaum September 23, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

      I agree with that. I was referring more to people’s choices that I may find weird or even distasteful. If a woman in our country chooses to wear a burqa, I should respect that — it’s her choice even though it makes no sense to me.
      As I said in the article — I start running into difficulty when it comes to the children of this woman. Does she require her non-adult daughter to also wear a burqa? If so, does her freedom of religion cross the line into coercion when it’s her daughter?

    • Martha Teitelbaum
      Martha Teitelbaum September 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

      p.s. thanks for quoting Asimov. He was one of my favorite authors when a few decades ago.

  4. Ginger September 26, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    “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.”

    And yet throughout this entire piece your utter disdain for the “other” is evident.

    One example, you observe Orthodox Jewish women, “surrounded by the numerous children that a lack of birth control will produce.” Because it wasn’t love that produced those children. No, they are burden forced upon those women by their overbearing and backwards religion. Your observation most certainly isn’t the language of tolerance.

    And then you said about the Amish and the Orthodox Jews and some Islamic communities here in the U.S:

    “But if they grow up in such a community, their likelihood of breaking out of that life is low.” BREAKING OUT. See what you did there? You judged. You don’t break out of a good situation, you break out of a bad situation. Again you clearly feel that your way of life is superior. That’s not tolerance. That’s pity and acceptance of the lifestyles of the “other”…but most certainly you don’t think of them as your equals.

    “but, from my cynical standpoint, it’s because the community doesn’t want them to be able to survive outside of its boundaries.” Pretty negative generalization there.

    To be fair, in the end you did say, “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.”

    So to recap, when you started the post by saying, “They are willing to generalize about Muslims in a way that would infuriate them if it were applied to blacks or women or immigrants.” what you meant is that it was okay to generalize about and denigrate groups people…as long as it is certain TYPES of people.

    Which means you feel superior to them, which isn’t very respectful at all.

  5. Marti Teitelbaum September 27, 2013 at 12:59 am #

    What’s important is that I respect their right to live the way they choose. My view of whether it’s a way I’d like to live is, I’m sure, totally irrelevant to anyone in any of the communities I mentioned. Why should they care what I think?
    As for “you don’t break out of a good situation,” well, of course not! People who are happy with their lives will not want to leave that life and my comments have nothing to do with them.
    My sole concern is for the well-being of people who are unhappy with their lives but who are stuck with it because from childhood they have been kept from learning anything that would help them live a different life. There are a couple of books out recently about members of Chassidic communities who rebel against those communities:
    http://www.amazon.com/Unchosen-Hidden-Hasidic-Rebels-ebook/dp/B0053CUNJ8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1380257705&sr=8-1&keywords=unchosen
    and
    http://www.amazon.com/Unorthodox-Scandalous-Rejection-Hasidic-ebook/dp/B005GG0M60/ref=pd_sim_kstore_3
    and of course the book Infidel about breaking away from a strict Islamic upbringing.

  6. Alicia September 9, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    There is a thriving Muslim Feminist movement, and within this movement there are people who practice their faith in a variety of ways. Some reading:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/177467/rise-islamic-feminists

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/tasneemnashrulla/32-powerful-and-brutally-honest-tweets-from-lifeofamuslimfem#39qj3bn

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