A few weeks ago, I was invited on to a TV show to discuss the rise of Islamophobia in America. I was introduced as a human rights lawyer who speaks several languages, writes articles and speaks about injustice and inequality, at which point the presenter turned to me with a smile and said, “Well, you don’t sound oppressed at all.” My tight-lipped response was something like “No, I’m not. At least not any more than any other woman who is fighting daily oppression due to gender inequity”.
I have countless examples of being asked this question in some form or another. In another venue, I was delivering a talk about child marriage and trafficking where the facts included statistics from Muslim countries, but were not limited solely to that region. Suddenly, a woman stood up and said, “ What I want to know is how we can help you with your oppression? You women are clearly oppressed. When will you become more like us?”
No-one can do anything about my ‘oppression’ because oppression in and of itself isn’t limited to one religious or ethnic group. If it was, we wouldn’t really have much of a problem would we? If the persecution of women was relegated to the Muslim world, we wouldn’t have needed Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem, the United Nations 2015 Millenium Goals, Emma Watson launching #HeforShe or a myriad of other attempts at establishing a level playing field between the sexes. We wouldn’t need a feminist movement at all really. But here we are, still fighting for equal pay, paid maternity leave, equal healthcare coverage and a host of other problems unique to women only.
It’s easy to say Muslim women are oppressed because we are easily recognisable; our scarves and clothes distinguish us from other women. As a result, people readily assume those very differences must mean we are more oppressed than others. However, if you are truly and sincerely concerned about the oppression of women, then you need to be worried about the oppression of all women in all areas of the world. If you really want to elevate the status of women, then recognise that gender discrimination exists everywhere. As women, we are always fighting some sort of battle, and it doesn’t do the cause any justice when an ‘us versus them’ mentality is adopted. By standing on a makeshift perch of deceptive superiority and pointing to another woman to highlight her oppression is tantamount to hypocrisy when women all around the world haven’t been able to regain the power that is rightly theirs. We are all in this together. There is no ‘you or them’ in this dialogue. There is ‘us’. Together. United.
As far as wearing a headscarf is concerned, it is just as hypocritical to criticise a woman for wearing more clothing as it is to criticise one for wearing less. Perhaps we need to add ‘modesty-shaming’ as a similar phenomenon to ‘slut-shaming’ to the list of disparagements against women. Vilifying a woman for wearing an extra layer of clothing is no better than shaming a woman for wearing a mini-skirt.
I could spend a few minutes here talking about the purpose of covering as a Muslim woman. I could tell you that it is an affirmation of one’s faith in Islam to wear one and yet, at the same time, it is a personal choice. I could talk about empowerment through hijab and about recognising inner beauty over outer appearances. I could say all of these things, but they’ve already been said by others on countless occasions. So I will say this – True feminists would recognise the double standard applied to Muslim women. A Muslim woman’s choice to wear a hijab shouldn’t deprive her of the choice to call herself a feminist or any other term of empowerment.
Farrah Qazi is a human rights lawyer and interfaith activist, specializing in women’s issues, domestic violence and global literacy.