The Western Muslim Woman, Part I: Constructions of Race and Appropriation

I’d like to say that finals are in a couple of weeks, and though the actual testing itself will not be keeping me from this blog (I can’t study even if I try) the number of research papers due by the end certainly will. Entries until mid-December may be uncharacteristically infrequent or brief.

Lately I’ve been thinking of the implications of not identifying with a race in a world festering with racism, and the ways that relates to how I participate in culture; namely, whether I’m participating in “white” culture, especially since qualities of culture that are regarded as white fundamentally aren’t. When while people “borrow” from other cultures (“subcultures”), fetishizing what they’ve taken as “stylish” or “worldly”, they misconstrue what they’ve borrowed and separate it from its origin, and it’s instead eventually viewed as white. However, when a person of color “borrows” from white culture, we are perceived as merely participating in white culture rather than having any entitlement to what we’ve borrowed—even if what we are “borrowing” was originally our own. And when Muslim feminists fight for the participation and leadership of women, we face disparaging accusations of “acting white” even though the origin of our feminism is Islam, which is practiced predominately by people of color and is not confined to a race.

Feminism has always been an excellent example of movements and ideas accredited to white culture when their first appearances were anywhere but among white people. Radical feminism is constructed by white wealthy women, and white women represent even sex-positive mainstream feminism. Obviously, I don’t believe feminism has been appropriated; it’s a universal truth deservedly applicable to all of humanity—until you start lying about to whom it “belongs” and use colonial rhetoric in spreading it to other parts of the world as though these regions, which had once birthed their own feminist movements, have no conception of feminism. It’s exceptionally frustrating when I hear Muslims of color accuse Muslim feminists of “acting white” or “appealing to white culture” and reinstate racist paradigms by submitting to the idea that only white people can strive for things like gender equality; that these attributes of humanity and kindness are white is a belief implanted by white people themselves into the minds of “unenlightened, inferior savages.”

To make complex matters worse is the added element of sexism when a Muslim man tells a Muslim woman that she is “appealing to white men” as though he has any right over her and her choices of participation, as though she “owes” him anything, and as though she is not a whole person in her own right with a characteristically strong sense of humanity and ability to make rational judgments without forcible influence. Instead he views her as something like property or a theory that can be “taken” and appropriated.

A number of things come into play in this situation, but most prominently the sexist and colonialist paradigms that convey both the view of women as property and the reinstatement of racist archetypes by people of color who have internalized them. And these are perpetuated by (1) the prevailing perspective that white people have an entitlement over concepts that they’ve appropriated and (2) the social construct of race itself, in which white culture is ambiguous and undefined and therefore depends on the existence of “subcultures” it can Other (“I don’t know what white culture is but it is definitely Not That–let’s mock it so we feel united and unambiguous!”) and simultaneously attempt to possess through appropriation.

This engulfment itself is destructive, as proven by the historical annihilation of entire peoples whose cultures are viewed as inferior to white culture—as “subcultures” to fetishize and appropriate for entertainment, and not real cultures deserving respect or normalcy. The hierarchy of privileges created by the social construct of race—racism—is detrimental in its systematic oppression and appropriation of underprivileged races. And any attempt by a person of color to respect and normalize an aspect of xir own culture by preventing white people from appropriating it is inevitably viewed as an attack on white culture, because it challenges the way white culture works. You are not allowed to decide what is normal unless you are white, and only what has been appropriated by white culture long enough to be considered white is privileged as American.

At this point when Muslim feminists are accused of “appealing to white feminists” with ideas that aren’t even originally white but have been accredited as such, it makes me so tired as to induce laughter. The dynamics of racism and sexism are unbearable.

I am a Western woman who does not identify with a race, but unfortunately this does not allow me to opt out of racism. I am exposed to the interpretations of others as soon as I step outside, whether I like it or not. And sometimes these racist interpretations come from other minorities; sometimes, they come from other Muslims, who believe that the innovative West is a threat to Islam and that the analyses of a Western woman are invalid.

I don’t need your permission.

I didn’t need your permission before this collision with whiteness, at the beginning of Islam when I was kicking your ass as you tried to tell me where to stay and what to wear, and I certainly don’t need it after, now when the idea of “independent woman” has been conveniently accredited to whiteness as an exploitive patriarchal tool for you to keep me marginalized and attempt to discredit me. I will interpret Islam as Western Muslim woman, and my interpretation will be just as valid—just as Islamic—as your supposedly “objective” purism.

In the next post, I’m hoping to examine with a feminist angle how identity is perceived at this intersection of being a Western Muslim woman, when the significance of race, at least for the individual, has fallen away: the narratives that escape detection from the framework of mainstream culture, even as we participate in it in uniquely customized ways. And I’m hoping to explore this through an analysis of self-presentation.

Oh great. How Muslim women present themselves. Like the world hasn’t heard that a million times. Well there won’t be any hi’jab jokes about “unveiling (ha!) the truth.” I promise.

3 thoughts on “The Western Muslim Woman, Part I: Constructions of Race and Appropriation

  1. Redda

    Reading this post has made me immensly happy, because it is as though you were speaking right to my very own soul. I am first and foremost a muslim ,and as long as I apply Islam’s teachings, I realise, I am free to be apart of any race I want.
    I’m not sure if I have worded myself correctly, but to sum it up I’m with you 100%!


  2. Salam! I feel compelled to comment. Love the blog, but this is spot on — “I will interpret Islam as Western Muslim woman, and my interpretation will be just as valid—just as Islamic—as your supposedly “objective” purism.” Spot on for me, and I am sure for many Muslim women who live in the West. Looking forward to the next part!


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