The most physiologically violent act inflicted by white supremacist patriarchy, like all oppressive systems, is curbing the ability to love freely. The woman of color’s identity is inseparable from her skin, and so her worldview is shaped by it; so that she is aware, grimly, that the shadowy invitation of likeness in her lover is not the inviting indication of a soulmate’s semblance, but the trauma of violence and the flight of resistance that has come to forge both the lover and beloved.
For some time now, I’ve noticed an interesting, and not in the least bit surprising, inclination among male critics of Islamic feminist thought, to appeal to more prominent figures of authority on Islamic feminism, such as Kecia Ali or Amina Wadud, and allege that these prominent scholars would “disapprove” of the views espoused by those of us who read their ideas, remark on them, question them, expand upon them, and incorporate them into our practice. Never mind that we might have personal or professional relationships with these scholars, that they might be our friends or advisers, random male critics know the scholar–and of what she might approve or disapprove–better than those of us who contribute to her efforts.
It’s telling and amusing to see this happening with women who are alive. I’m accustomed, for example, to men alleging that Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, would disapprove of me. But for men to insist I adopt a more dignified tone in the name of Kecia Ali, when I can turn around and ask her to find otherwise, is laughable. Amina Wadud, whom male critics have noted dresses traditionally, has never once conveyed to me that she disapproves of my tulip skirts. I can assure anyone she has more important things to think about. According to a few men who’ve contested the merits of Islamic feminism, however, Amina Wadud spends her days absolutely horrified at what Islamic feminists are wearing.
Dear readers, realize this means that there’s a strong possibility that Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, would not disapprove of you either. These fallacious appeals to respectable authority figures can only survive in religious discourse built on certain incorrect premises: that we care, first of all, and that these opinions and imaginary disapproval are relevant somehow to the purity of our practice.
Apparently, male scholars “disagree” with each other, but female scholars “disapprove” of each other. Male critics can also “disagree” with other men, but must always “disapprove” of women. This is their way of not engaging honestly or intelligently with the substance of your arguments.
On April 23rd, 2012, Mona Eltahawy wrote an article titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” to protest the treatment of women in the Middle East. The article, featured in Foreign Policy magazine, prompted a variety of responses, ranging from admiration for the author’s courage to criticism for her portrayal of Egyptian men. In online Islamic feminist circles, the most frequent and perceptive criticism was that Eltahawy had written the article in English, even though she is a native Arabic-speaker capable of effectively conveying her message in the language of the demographic she critiques. Eltahawy’s decision to protest in English served to partially remove the language barrier between Egyptian feminists and a potentially harmful English-speaking audience. This is significant because it suggests that the language barrier serves a protective purpose in protest. The language barrier does more than specify an audience: it precludes one.
Typically, the language barrier is a source of frustration when there is a desire for interaction across linguistic boundaries, which social media facilitates. However, the choice of language can be utilized advantageously in protest: it is a way to criticize misogyny in the Muslim community and circumvent inciting Islamophobia. When Muslim women critique Muslim men in English, some assume the women’s passions for equality are influenced by colonialism, and proceed to appropriate these critiques to embolden xenophobia. However, when Muslim women write in, for example, Arabic, Pashto, Bangla, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Farsi, not only are their critiques rendered inaccessible to an unintended audience, but that audience is barred from assuming ownership of those critiques. The language barrier deters the piracy of the marginalized voice.
There are ways in which, rather than stifling the effect of protest, the language barrier subtly enhances it by limiting agency to those whose struggles are central to its objective, and by enforcing these limits on social media platforms. In fact, language as a metaphorical shield even predates social media: during the British conquest of India, revolutionary writers, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose rebellion against British colonialism won him the title of “Rebel Poet,” advocated gender equality and protested the bigotry of invaders by calling for independence in Bangla, an indigenous language; subsequently, the colonists were hindered from the immediate identification of a threat because they could not access or read his writing. Eventually, Kazi Nazrul Islam was jailed as the language barrier between Indians and the British began to erode. It was Nazrul Islam’s title as “Rebel Poet” that aroused British suspicions. It is no well-kept secret, furthermore, that when colonists arrived on Turtle Island, they not only sought to eliminate Native cultures but the children’s use of indigenous languages in schools. In the United States there are often workplace policies against the use of non-English languages among employees: in 2010, sixty-nine Filipina immigrants filed a lawsuit against the Delano Regional Medical Center in California for harassment and discrimination due to the hospital’s English-only policy. This is a strong indication that the language barrier has a potential to uproot establishments of power by leaving them out—a potential that those in power recognize.
However, in these examples, the potential object of the speakers’ criticism is the system of power itself, and not the religious interpretations or cultures of those who speak the Othered language. There are several prominent Islamic feminists, such as Asra Nomani, as well as prominent Muslim male writers, such as Haroon Moghul, who’ve used their social media platforms to critique the Muslim communities’ application and practice of Islamic beliefs—in English. A subject of criticism among Islamic feminists is Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s article in The Washington Post titled, “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity”; the article does not—as the title suggests—discourage against cultural appropriation. Instead, it advises non-Muslim women “not [to] wear a headscarf in ‘solidarity’ with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with ‘honor.’ Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.” Although Nomani and Arafa discuss the re-interpretation of “hijab” to mean “headscarf” and argue that this is not the original command of the Qur’an, detailing their struggles against Muslims who’ve harassed women to wear the headscarf—and although these are all points made and supported by other Muslim feminists—the targeted audience of the article, (white) non-Muslim women, questionably repositions non-Muslim feminists into the role of the imposing white savior, from which so many Islamic feminists have fought to remove them.
In the case of Nomani and Arafa, the target audience is made clear even from as early as the title of the article, which blatantly addresses a non-Muslim audience. In most cases, however, it is only implied, and can be deciphered from where the publication appears and its main audience.
Subsequently, the question then arises of where Muslims who speak only English are situated in protesting the inequalities in Muslim communities. Muslims critiquing oppressive power structures in either English or non-English languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in their own languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in English, such as the scholar and Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, for Muslim audiences is protest, and effective. Amina Wadud still operates within a form of the language barrier; since she writes for a Muslim audience, she does not define words that recur in Islamic discourse. Culture is tied very much to language, and the language barrier encompasses a cultural one. However, articles in journals such as The Washington Post and The Guardian don’t cater to a Muslim readership or bare the burden of social responsibility, and become sensationalist. Mona Eltahawy, whose activism has been valuable, fell short with her Foreign Policy article.
Articles written in English are still effective if published on a platform whose audience is aware of not only the injustices which the author protests, but of the injustices affecting the Muslim author herself. An author who critiques gender inequality in the Muslim community is just as subject to Islamophobia from her audience as she is to misogyny from her community. Since language hierarchies exist in most Muslim communities in the United States, with a preference for Arabic above all Others, it is important to find a place for diasphoric Muslims who speak languages other than English or Arabic. This may, after all, facilitate the development of a different facet of feminism, one that is freer from both a white savior complex and Arab exclusivity.
When, in Los Angeles in February of 2015, an all-women’s mosque opened as an alternative space to the oppressive, segregated mosques in the remainder of the country, it was identified at once by male scholars as problematic in prohibiting the attendance of men, even though mosques with barriers—literal barriers—bar (and discourage) female attendance. While disparaging women, scholars like Yasir Qadhi, struck by an opportunistic enlightenment, encouraged their audiences on Facebook to address the “root” of the problem: the unwelcome atmosphere in mainstream mosques. Women who attend the mosque, Qadhi argued, should be treated with a special respect for choosing to attend instead of shopping. He stated that it was natural that women would “counter-react” to feeling unwelcome and that some of those counter-reactions would be “illegitimate.” The implication that an all-women’s mosque was illegitimate would have come as a surprise to Muslims who primarily speak neither English nor Arabic, such as, for example Muslim women in China.
In “Debates over Islamic Feminism and Empowerment in Contemporary China,” Masumi Matsumoto describes all-female madrasas and mosques in China:
“Nüxue, or female madrasas, have been mushrooming in China’s Muslim communities since the beginning of the 1990s. Arabic and Islam are taught there. The government permits them tacitly. Such schools have given Muslim women unexpected gender roles and have supported the growth of China’s Islamic feminism. The female madrasa offers alternative values which Party-controlled public schools cannot provide. Based on the tradition of female mosques and female ahong, nüxue is the result of intense negotiations between Muslims and non-Muslim Chinese society, between Muslim women and men, and between Muslims of different social classes. Islamic feminism in China is aimed at eliminating gender discrimination and traditional patriarchy. However, their notion of gender equality with Islamic characteristics contradicts with the more “masculine” gender equality supported by Western feminists and the CCP, which tend to emphasize materialism, nationalism, and militarism.”
In China, the concept of female imams and religious leaders is not a foreign one. Islamophobia is as rampant in China as it is in the United States, but Chinese Muslim feminists have developed an Islamic feminism that is able to dodge accusations from critics of Western influence—they face, I am sure, different accusations, but this raises an incredible point: if (Western) Muslim feminists are too influenced by Western feminism to attain legitimacy in their own communities, how have Chinese Muslim feminists arrived at the same interpretations for centuries? Muslim men who are concerned about neocolonialism and Islamophobia may have an appropriate fear, though manifested in inappropriate measures, of Westernization (colonialism), but their arguments against Islamic feminism perpetuating neocolonialism are insufficient when Chinese Islamic feminists, who don’t communicate their interpretations primarily in English or any Western language, engage in the same practices, assign the same leadership roles to women, as the “Westernized” Islamic feminist.
From the language barrier erect between Muslim American feminists and Muslim Chinese feminists, we are able to discard the notion that equality is inherently and exclusively a colonialist value—it is, in fact, inherently not. There is a feminism that survives in non-English speaking communities that is worth preserving, because it serves the very people it is meant to serve rather than imposing domineering, incompatible concepts, by precluding colonialist audiences and allowing feminism to develop organically in the community.
This preclusion of colonialist audiences through language is already a subject of amusement on social media. In the beginning of 2016, an image was viral on major social media platforms—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—which read In Bengali we don’t say ‘I love you.’ We say ‘Tui manush na goru,’ which means ‘My heart loses purpose without you,’ and I think that’s beautiful. Of course, tui manush na goru means Are you human or cow? The joke takes a stab at cultural appropriators, who employ languages foreign to them to maneuver through cultural experiences from which they are barred(i.e. the popular question “How do you say ‘I love you’ in your language?”). It is a subtle, and humorous, form of protest—which makes it powerful. Despite popular notions that Muslim cultures require colonialist influences to create a more just and equal society, Nazira Zeineddine, a pioneer of 20th century feminism, addressed a prominent contemporary scholar she criticized for using an interpretation of Islam to perpetuate misogyny, saying,
“You mentioned, my dear Sheikh, that the health and the morality of the Bedouin and the villagers earned them the right to be unveiled. It was a corrupt morality of city dwellers that blighted them with the veil. Excuse me, sir, I’m a village woman living in the city and I have observed both villagers and city dwellers. I have not seen your city sisters and brothers to be inherently less moral than my sisters and brothers from the villages […] Woe to us if we do not join with our men in breaking our chains to seize our freedoms that are gifts from God Almighty. They provide for the welfare, advancement, and happiness of all.” (Unveiling and Veiling, 290)
Zeineddine manages to make a compelling feminist argument within the parameters of Islamic philosophies. When referencing European authors or appealing to concepts popularly attributed to Western thought, Zeineddine strips herself of pretention by communicating her argument in Arabic. She discusses, specifically, the settings in her own country—the village, the city—to formulate her argument against male figures of authority. Because she communicates her point in Arabic, she speaks to the people whom she criticizes, rather than speaking behind them, the conversation is a more honest one.
Ghalayini, Zeineddine’s most frequent subject of critique, published a refutation entitled Views on the Book “Attributed to Miss Nazira Zeineddine” in which he alleged that Unveiling and Veiling had been written not by a woman named Nazira Zeineddine but by a group of men, while simultaneously accusing Zeineddine of treason by connecting her to the French and foreign enemies of Islam who seek to embarrass the religion—subsequently admitting, of course, that his own interpretations were embarrassing to the religion.
When such critiques are written in Arabic or indigenous languages, it provides a larger space for examination and reexamination. It provides a larger space to examine and reexamine freely, but removing external pressures—which is the reason I suspect that al-Ghalayini and men like him reach desperately for the confines of those pressures even when criticism is communicated in their own languages.
There was a time when I used to read the Qur’an daily for about 30 minutes. When I did this, I noticed myself changing and was forced to reduce the reading to twice a week. When I read “too often,” I became calmer, more at peace, and I cared very little about troublesome events or material loss. It was as though I were turning to water. Unfortunately, this all also meant that I was too tranquil when any kind of injustice befell me. I can not afford to be so forgiving. I need to be a fighter.
I was thinking recently, with all of the Islamophobia I’ve seen, with Muslim women harassed, with men showing up at masjids with guns, that the “violent” verses of the Qur’an that used to bother me–don’t anymore. I’ve written an entire series about verses taken out of context, about how they are actually defensive, but even when I knew that, they’d still bothered me a little, because who really wants to see any unashamed advocation of violence anywhere, even if it is in self-defense, especially in their religious texts of Love? And now they don’t. I have always been unapologetic, but I have never been as unapologetic as now. The non-Muslims who present these verses out of context to prove how violent I am have literally driven me to not caring, to thinking “Good. I hope you learn not to oppress those who are coming to worship.” It made me realize that what I thought was a virtue of my character, the sense that these verses were too harsh, was an unkindness to those whose situations I could not understand. What seems like God’s vengeance towards one group of people is in truth God’s mercy toward another.
I’m actually not an incredible fan of anime, in that I’ve never really immersed myself in it, other than–of course–the obligatory elementary school obsession with Sailor Moon. But I’ve had friends who very much were, from elementary into high school. I went to a predominantly Asian and Latinx (thank God) high school rather than a predominantly White one. In fact, my high school was 5% White. Demographically speaking, it was the best. High school speaking, it was the worst, as is expected of any high school experience. Ever.
I’d never seen anime characters as White, and it wasn’t until I happened to walk past a woman I overheard complaining, “Why don’t they”—referring to the Japanese—”draw themselves the way they really look?” For some reason, she sounded annoyed, like she didn’t think a people ought to see themselves with wide eyes or multicolored hair when that’s clearly not how they look to her White gaze. I walked away thinking it was truly bizarre. To me, Japanese characters have looked nothing but Japanese.
The answer to this has everything to do with our default perceptions. After all, on American television, we have a variety of cartoon characters with humanly impossible features, but unless they have specific “markers” defining them as Other, we read them as White. Look at Charlie Brown, for instance. He’s got beady eyes and thin lips. What makes us think he’s whi—actually, never mind, bad example.
It works the same way with sex and gender. If I draw a bunny, it wouldn’t read to a large American audience as a girl unless I made it pink, or added a ribbon. (This is getting incredibly boring, and I’m glad more “modern” cartoons are evolving past it.) Even stick figures are read as male unless they have triangular dresses. The woman asserting the Japanese should draw themselves “how they really look” believes the characters should have (racist) racial markers that read “Asian.” Anime was not, however, made for her. The characters don’t need to be “read” by her, or drawn in a way she would understand. I’m guessing Japanese people in Japan don’t see their anime characters as White. They don’t need racial markers to tell them the characters they draw are Japanese.
After all, why do we have any reason to believe American cartoons are white? Why do we read characters on The Simpsons as white when their skin is yellow and when Marge has a blue afro? If anything, shouldn’t this read as Black hair? But she isn’t Black to the American audience, who learns quickly (as they have known all their lives) that “Others” are defined on the The Simpsons with brown skin, not yellow. Since White is default, there must be an additional marker that acts as an indicator. And unfortunately, the afro has been appropriated and won’t cut it for an American audience. Marge’s hair might not even register as an afro.
It was clear (from this and a few other sentiments) that the woman believed the Japanese had an inflated self-image, to have the audacity to imagine themselves with blue hair and wide eyes. That’s only for Americans like Marge Simpson! It’s shocking, no doubt, to come to the realization that non-white cultures don’t see themselves the same way white supremacists see them. It’s shocking to discover that the white supremacist lens is unnatural, imposing, and entitled.
It’s a great exercise, I think, to realize that non-white characters with traits we perceive to be white, don’t, in fact, look white, and those traits are not white. They do not belong to white people or white culture.
I’ve been flattered by those of you who’ve contacted me to insist that I return to writing as frequently as I used to–unfortunately, I can’t promise that, but I have decided to post at least once a week. I wish I could tell you which day, but that would too closely resemble a schedule, and I am notoriously terrible with schedules.
I have a lot of hair. Piles and piles of hair. It’s gorgeous when I can muster up the energy between work and class and guest lectures and conferences and writing and playing piano and dancing in my bedroom and non-alcoholic pina coladas to take care of it. And there’s so much of it; I’m convinced that I must have the strongest most elegant neck in the world to be able to still lift up my head. My neck must be the envy of gazelles to haul hair this heavy. If I stood on a boat I would surely sink it. It’s exhausting to take care of so much hair. I like to pass the responsibility to someone else. In this case, it’s my hairdresser, Jesus.
Jesus lives around Brentwood, over an hour’s drive from where he works in Palo Alto. I don’t actually know how much Jesus makes, but it could not possibly be enough. When Jesus washed my hair I was amazed at the strength in his hands. He actually asked me if he was scrubbing too hard and I was like, “Oh my God. Harder.” It was as though until this point every strand of my hair had been on fire at the roots, a raging flame fueled by the angry thoughts of patriarchal injustice, smothered with Jesus’s magical tension-releasing hands.
No, my hair has never literally been on fire. Although, I do have enough of it to fuel a fire for centuries. If the sun ever goes out, ask for my hair. I also have enough to bury objects in it, but please don’t tell the TSA.
Not only is it expensive to be a woman, it’s so incredibly dull, in the sense that one must sit for an hour or more in one place just to get her hair done, particularly if she possesses extraordinary amounts of it. As a woman I associate getting ready with necessary discomfort. Waxing legs is painful. Dressing hair is mind-numbing. Sometimes, if either goes on long enough, it’s either painfully mind-numbing or mind-numbingly painful. I’m sure someone will make the claim that these measures don’t need to be taken—but they do. Women don’t do these things because they’re luxuries; we do them to survive.
When I saw Jesus, for the first time a necessary measure was a pleasurable experience. The long round-brush strokes against my head were like a massage. Even the part that is typically the most annoying—which is the hairdresser trying to clip the remaining hair out of the way, because this usually requires at least two attempts due to the thickness and massive amounts—was satisfying, as Jesus would tug, twist, and place like it were meant to be a spa treatment. Jesus tugging at my hair was the best thing that’d happened to me all week. Certainly, Jesus was named after Prophet Isa, who could perform miracles. I’m assuming, of course; maybe he was named after his great grandfather. Either way, someone please give this man a million dollars.
By the way, as a result my hair looked the best it’s ever looked. I looked like a million dollars. I actually never use that phrase, but it was convenient to use in this context, because of the literary connections.
California recently raised the minimum wage to $15/hr, which frankly isn’t enough to live in the Bay. It especially won’t be enough in 2022, which is when the raise actually goes into effect. We should raise the wage for Jesus, who should receive an annual income of exactly one million dollars.
To be clear, I’m not saying the minimum wage should be raised to a living wage because Jesus is awesome (it’s likely he does make a little bit more than that); we should raise the wage because an hour of someone’s time should be valued enough to recognize that they need to be able to live. We should raise the wage for Jesus, my hairdresser, and for the Prophet Isa, who would be opposed to paying people close to nothing for their services—spectacular, or ordinary.
During the time of the Prophet, women were encouraged to engage in housework, but it was seen as a charity, not as an obligation. The woman who cooked and cleaned was viewed as being generous with her labor. I’m not even kidding; you can look this up. Women who didn’t know how to cook (those who were originally upper class but may have married men in a class lower than theirs) were not expected to learn. Their husbands were expected to hire someone to cook and clean for them.
That’s terrific for upper class women–I’m sure you’re all thinking–but the same is true for women who were ill, or otherwise somehow disabled from cooking. A number of jurists came to this conclusion (including Shaykh Mufti Taqi Usmani and Imam al-Mawsili, if you must know which). This is because traditionally a man is expected to provide provisions; for longer than they haven’t been, those provisions were considered prepared/cooked provisions. In other words, you can’t just drop raw meat in front of your wife like, “I HAVE PROVIDED!” and expect her to make a meal out of it. It has to come that way. From you. (Yes, I heard it, no jokes please.)
Fatwas like this are typically followed by a sentiment along the lines of, “But she is encouraged to partake in her religious duty,” or “There are blessings for women who are generous and kind to their husbands, otherwise she is obstinate.” This is because jurists think women are cold-hearted assholes like men, who wouldn’t consider expending themselves a little for sake of mutual understanding in a marriage, and that we would just sit around all day doing nothing at any opportunity. Let’s face it, no woman is going to read this and stop vacuuming. A man might, were it in his favor.
Before you think Jesus Christ, Nahida, who hurt you?!, men actually HAVE stopped vacuuming. Doesn’t, “Sorry, I’m only encouraged to help with housework,” sound familiar? I’m not exaggerating what opportunists men are.
So I don’t need to tell any woman that it would be nice if she picked up some chores anyway; women largely are–and tirelessly. Look, I would be the first to roll my eyes at an upper class woman and think, “Learn to cook, Your Highness.” Okay maybe not the first, I don’t really care, but if she were obnoxious enough I’d do it eventually. Obviously, God has been far more generous. And not just to her. What I’m saying is, working class women, stop exhausting yourselves.
My friend Vanessa (hi Vanessa) said to me once, “In Islam, a woman has the right to work. If her husband discourages her from practicing this right, because he requires full-time maintenance of the household, then she must be compensated for her forfeiture of this right. He must pay her for the money she has lost from not working, out of consideration of him.” She reportedly told this to her female (potential) in-laws, who looked at her as though they’d been conned.
Stay-at-home mothers with children should be contractually employed by their husbands for cooking, cleaning, and childcare services provided and contributed to the household. They should show this salary on their taxes, and, if it is too low, should receive additional compensation/benefits from the government for raising a generation of workers to contribute to the economy. Realistically, most of this is life management; most husbands couldn’t afford all of the work their wives do. The economy would need to change, drastically, to implement something like this. Traditionally “women’s work” would need to be seen as actual work.