The problem is that at times, instead of asking Muslim women why they choose to cover up or do whatever they do, there’s stigma that makes generalizations and assumptions, which is sad because that way, we stick to our own prejudgments and never open our minds to new perspectives, including those about feminism.
I was in a different college class when my new Spanish lecturer walked in. She announced to the class that she was a feminist. At that time, being a young 19-year-old, I had a false view on what feminism was. I thought it meant Western women telling the rest of “us” (I used to group women of colour and of diverse cultures as “my people”) what to do and what not to. I used to think feminists are these extreme women who want all women to be like them, to dress like them and to think like them.
My lecturer, once, singled me out in class as being “oppressed” when there was a discussion about how people view things differently. At that time, I was surprised. Admittedly, I was sporting a baggy shirt with a scarf that covered my hair, but I still felt very uncomfortable to have been categorized as the odd one out just because of my outfit. Also, she never asked for my point of view about my own choice of clothing. That’s when it hit me. She had labelled me as “oppressed” without even asking my opinion on how I feel about how I dress. I did understand why she would have thought that I am a victim of oppression, as there’s always a news story about women being forced to wear certain coverings in the Middle East, but I wasn’t from the Middle East and nor was I oppressed. In fact, I remember thinking that I was being “oppressed” by her because she was labelling me unfairly without even asking me what I thought of the issue that was about me, and not her. It is no one’s right to speak on my behalf, I can speak for myself. Feminists have fought for centuries so that men don’t speak on their behalf, and the same way, I did not need someone who didn’t bother to know what I thought, to speak for me. That incident really impacted my life and I still remember how I felt this lack of belonging, just because of who I was – a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf.
I feel this way nowadays too, but in a different context. With years, my knowledge on feminism expanded and I realized it was about women’s struggle for equal rights and not what I had thought earlier. I started identifying myself as a feminist because I have always been proud of being a woman. But then I noticed that mainstream westernized feminists such as the European Feminist movement, FEMEN, would not recognize me as a feminist. In fact, I would be someone they would be protesting against. All because I was a practising Muslim woman and for a lot of them, that cannot coexist with being a feminist. But I choose to differ, for who defines what it means to be a feminist? There are many branches within feminism such as intersectionality which fights for the struggles of non-white women of a lower economic class and recognizes that different women may have variations of struggle due to being of a specific gender, race and class. So my struggles as a Muslim woman may be different to that of a French FEMEN protestor, but in the end of the day, aren’t we all women fighting for the same principle, which is for all genders to be treated equally? Why, then, is there an inequality of some mainstream feminists in regards to treating other feminists who may have “different” belief systems and ways of dressing? Because as a feminist, I believe every woman has a right to do what she wants, out of her own choice and if I as a woman choose to practise my religion and cover my body, that is my own choice and no one has a right to judge it just the way I do not have any right to judge anyone who chooses to practise differently.
Unfortunately, a lot of women who come from minority backgrounds such as Muslim women feel left on the side lines by mainstream feminism due to differences in belief systems, which should not be the main concern. I mentioned the incident with my Spanish lecturer because she identified herself as a strong feminist, but ironically she did not let me have a say regarding myself and stereotyped me instead of letting me feel equal to everyone else and respecting my viewpoint, even if it may differ to hers. Being in the umbrella of feminism should mean to include everyone no matter what their belief or dress code, and respecting each other’s way of living as well as fighting for the same cause of equality. But if within the umbrella, amongst the feminists themselves, if there’s a conflict because one labels another and thinks they are the “right” kind of feminists (although there is no “right” type), then we cannot unify and struggle for equality.
Let’s face it, being a feminist in itself is kind of tough, as we are struggling against media representations of women and not getting an equal pay check to being called “feminazis” on social media. But being a Muslim feminist is even tougher, because not only do we go through all the above, but sometimes also have to face prejudice from our fellow feminists as many of them want to ban the head veil that Muslims wear but no one asks the Muslim women what they want and thus cause resistance from Muslim women like me who are comfortable with what they wear. The problem is that at times, instead of asking Muslim women why they choose to cover up or do whatever they do, there’s stigma that makes generalizations and assumptions, which is sad because that way, we stick to our own prejudgments and never open our minds to new perspectives. And because of that, some Muslim women such as Nadia Chan do not like to identify themselves as feminists even though they may be advocating for women’s rights.
Nadia, a London based Muslim-prisoner’s rights and anti-racism campaigner as well as a women’s rights advocate, states that she does not like to be classified as feminist as she believes its very Eurocentric. “With regards to mainstream feminists, engaging with them on any level is a struggle for me, ultimately they don’t recognise their privilege and hypocrisy and for that reason I do not engage with them” she says. She campaigns for women’s rights but feels attacked by mainstream feminists because of her religion.
“As a Muslim woman, I’m frustrated that we are continuously faced with attacks from the white feminists – whether it’s other dress sense/dress code, or our fundamental beliefs. White feminists can be very ignorant” states Nadia. She believes that mainstream feminism has been used as a tool to promote “every possible imperialist agenda like bombing brown women so they’re “safe” and make it seem okay to preach racist stereotypes about Muslims under the banner of feminism. Nadia also feels that she does not need mainstream feminism in order to empower her, as she believes her faith already has.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Nadia and the like, the main issue is that her view of feminism was formed in a negative light due to seeing mainstream feminists protesting to “liberate” Muslim women but not letting Muslim women have any say and making assumptions that generalize all Muslim women without recognizing their individuality, freedom of choice and personal opinion. Ironically, this is the opposite of “liberation” as it is forcing women to do what they may not be willing to do whilst the whole point of liberation is to give someone a choice to do whatever they want to. And this is a struggle for Muslim feminists like me, who passionately want to be included into the feminist club but keep being left out because we are seen as “different” and our perspectives don’t seem to count. Instead of being welcomed, it seems like we are the ones under attack of letting our beliefs and dress-code “oppress” us. But who is a better judge of how oppressed one is, if not they themselves? And if one doesn’t feel oppressed (may be even empowered like Nadia claims) by what they believe in, no one else can keep pushing a label of oppression over their heads because that in itself is the chief injustice. To think that your way is better than another’s and to keep pressuring the other person to think your way.
The important thing to remember is that no matter what religion one is from, or what kind of clothing one wears, or what culture they practise, we all fall under the banner of equality and all have our own right to choose whatever we want to do. So my advice is that next time you see a Muslim woman, you may go up to her and ask her what her views are about women and whatnot, before labelling her anything. You never know, you may end up realizing that she and you may have different ways of doing things, but share a similar goal.
Zeynab Ladak is currently a second year Bachelors in Media, Communication, and Culture student at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa.