I’ve been exchanging notes with a novelist in America, Carolyn Cohagan, who has written a very interesting Young Adult novel called Time Zero. In a New York Times article for Women in the World, she describes her book as a dystopian novel for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism. In an email, she asked me, “Do you think people in Pakistan realize that the US has fundamentalist communities with polygamy, forced marriages, and restricted rights for women? What do you think their reaction would be?”
Cohagan was inspired by the Taliban’s draconian rules for girls and women during their rule in Afghanistan. In her novel, Cohagan writes about an America taken over by fundamentalists, and her protagonist is a 15 year old girl, Mina Clark. But in her NYT article, Cohagan refers to not just Muslim communities in the US, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and fundamentalist Christian communities such as evangelical and Mormon ones, immigrant and non-immigrant families. These are where American girls are subject to many of the same rules and practices you might see under the Taliban, or authoritarian regimes or extremist societies in the developing world.
Cohagan’s work (and this is why it’s so important that we talk to each other, especially when we’re from different sides of the world, to see what’s common and experienced universally) reaffirms my own explorations of these subjects. I’ve come to the conclusion that patriarchy is a powerful religion in its own right. Powerful because it is able to subsume so many of our established religions, whether Abrahamic or polytheistic, or non-theistic, and to subvert the roles of women to its own agenda, which is to establish a world order in which women are a type of slave class in servitude to men.
Patriarchy is also intricately linked to capitalism, which requires the servitude of women, minorities, people from developing nations, and ranks them as inferior to a ruling class made up mostly of men. There’s no surprise in the fact that men own most of the property on the planet, most of the land, lead most of the companies and the means of production.
This paragraph in Cohagan’s essay stood out for me.
As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”
These days, Muslim women are struggling mightily for empowerment in their lives and in their countries and communities. But their work, in their own contexts and on their own terms, runs the risk of being hijacked by those with other agendas. I’m not talking about ex-Muslims, who have their own struggle and many valuable things to say about the state of affairs in the rotten Denmarks we live in, both in the Muslim countries and elsewhere. Nor am I talking about secularists and humanists, who have been invaluable in pushing the agenda of human rights and of tolerance of all people, regardless of faith (This is why I very much respect Taslima Nasreen, for example, because she’s been through it all and her perspective is important, even if her atheism is in direct opposition to my practice).
I’m talking about the male “allies” who think they’re freeing Muslim women, when all they’re really doing is replacing the patriarchy of religion, and the religion of patriarchy, with the religion of the future: technology, science, and the self – which can be as oppressive to women as religion can, when all three fields are dominated by men. (Take a look at this article from NatGeo which tells us that most of the world’s secularists are white men). Women, and especially women of color, have no seat at any of these tables.
These “allies” claim to care for the plight of Muslim women, and they firmly believe that without their help, Muslim women will never be “free”. They’re the ones that continue to insist Muslim women cannot free themselves without male stewardship. They show their care by “by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures” as grad student Hari Prasad put it:
Less violently, but no less insidiously, they choose who can and can’t speak for Muslim women. They lionize certain spokespeople while demonizing others. They decide what Muslim women should and shouldn’t wear. When Muslim women protest, or insist that they should be the ones with choice, these “allies” declare Muslim women brainwashed, terrorists, apologists, sympathizers, and slaves.
Witness how Mona Eltahawy was pilloried on Twitter when she said (and she doesn’t mince her words) that if you aren’t a Muslim woman, or non-white, you need to “shut up” and “listen”, instead of attempting to call the shots in this movement. The howls of anger were loudest from “allies” who couldn’t believe they were being told they couldn’t take the lead in this revolution. She went on to say “I don’t care about Western feminists. This is a fight for us, Muslim feminists, to have.” (And then she called everyone “fuckboys” which really made the fur fly)
Non-Muslims can certainly be allies to Muslim women in their struggle for empowerment, freedom, and equality. Western feminists, too, can be allies to Muslim women. But they need to take the back seat in this revolution. They need to listen to Muslim women talk about what they want for themselves. As Malik Ali tweeted, “Even the privileged (within Pakistan), unless they’re active or have ground experience can’t fully relate to the struggles of the oppressed. So it’s challenging for those ten thousand miles away, whether they’re expats, ex-Muslims, etc. If you’re sincere, research local activists and social workers, listen to what they say and support them.” (You are wise indeed, and a full ally of this movement)
The moment “allies” impose themselves on this struggle, dictating to Muslim women what’s good and bad for them, and decide what the end result of that struggle looks like (“Give up Islam!” is the biggest refrain which certainly doesn’t help anyone), they cease to become allies. And when men do this, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, eastern or western, they are simply continuing the tradition of patriarchy – only under different rulers.
There’s a great term for these allies, which comes from grammar: “false friends”. They are words “in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.” In this case, these “allies” of Muslim women are actually false friends who want you to choose them and their way of life over the one that you want for yourself. They want to convince you that you don’t actually know what’s best for you because you’ve been so brainwashed or intimidated or oppressed by the men of your community. Their agenda is to prove that their way of life is superior to yours, and they need to hold your hand and lead you to it.
Don’t fall for it.
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