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.