Muslim Women and Feminism

“Equal rights for men and women”; that is the main goal of feminism around the world, or at least, that is what we are told.

Some people have said that Feminism is not advocating for equality and that feminists actually want more power over men. “We do not want a patriarchal government” is what one of my girlfriends tells me when trying to convince me to participate in Feminist marches with her. I do not want to be oppressed by men of course, but I do not want other women imposing their ideologies on me as well. In the same way, some western feminists should reflect on their behavior towards Muslim women. The idea of “saving Muslim women” by western feminists make to seem Muslim women as poor little creatures that are in need of a desperate help and portrays women of the West as powerful women whom have figured everything out and whom are more capacitated to address this Feminist movement than Muslim Women themselves, which is not true at all.

Although Muslim women can face some problems in their countries that does not mean that they need saving from the West. Many women in America have been subject to believe what other women in powerful position or the media have said to us about Muslim Women. The exposure of Muslim women and some of their struggles spread in the media have created a negative macro-narrative in western women. Bush, Laura in “The Weekly Address Delivered by the First Lady” on November 17 of 2001 is a great example of this. She said, “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking in horror—not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us”. She is clearly establishing trough these words that we (Americans) are civilized people and Muslims are not. She is creating a bias adopted by many people at that time in which most of us were scared due to 9/11. Abu-Lughod Lila, in “Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others”, writes, “Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place?” Abu-Lughod professes the same request that many Muslim women want, to stop being seen as those who need saving by others.

If Western women can save Muslim women, does it mean that they have more power and are better than them?

I dare to disagree. It is true that Western women have rights or better said, we can do things that some Muslim women cannot. Nonetheless, that does not mean we have more power or freedom. It depends on the way you see it. What should be highlighted here is that Western Women and Muslim Women belong to different idiosyncrasies and that is why we happen to behave and be different in some aspects more than others.

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I have done fieldwork in Egypt over more than 20 years

and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S. women. Women who they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God (Abu-Lughod 788).

According to Abu-Lughod Western women are not seen as a good example of powerful women by Muslim Women in Egypt, at least not by those who she met there. Again, Western women should try to understand and comprehend that Muslim women belong to a different culture and that if they behave in some way—as the use of the hijab by some—is simply because they want to do it in respect of their customs, in this case for their religion or devotion to God. Even though it might cause some kind of shock to us, there are some women that accept to live in a certain way that perhaps many of us would not accept. However, as long as these women are not feeling oppressed by doing this, why would western women be in need of saving those who do not need “saving?” Let us get over it.

Besides, now that we do know Muslim women do not need saving and we are not better than them just different, even though it might be hard to digest. Western feminists must focus on achieve their main purpose; equal rights. Not only western feminists but Muslim feminists as well. Abu-Lughod, in the book review of “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today”, says,

"Another critical point, emphasized by the authors, is the West’s perception of Muslim women being oppressed, denied rights and lacking freedom of choice. While the authors do not necessarily deny that these issues may be true in some instances, they succeed in pointing out that Islam, since its conception centuries ago, has granted women, among other things, their rights to education, to conduct business, and keep their names even after they’re married; rights that Western women ironically have struggled and fought hard to attain in their own society.”

According to what she says, Islam has helped Muslim women to acquire some of the rights they possess now. On the other hand, some of those rights have been reached in the West thanks to the immense work and protests that many women have done. We may agree in something here, women in general have the desire to have rights that allow them to have a better quality of life; therefore, our main focus, whether we consider ourselves as feminists or not, is to achieve a desired position that do not make us seem or be less valued or respected than men. Western feminists have to keep fighting for equal rights than men, such as to get an equal salary when hired in the same position as a man. As Saber, Latifa states, “As a Muslim and a feminist, I advocate against this macho-culture. This macho-culture that does not only exist in Arab countries but also countries in the West” (“Yes, I’m a Muslim AND a Feminist!”). We all as women are in the same path if we desire equality around the world, no matter the labels people use in us.

To sum up, the idea of some Western women about saving Muslim women is not appropriate and it is wrong.

So many misconceptions thanks to women in power and the media have made us believe that we are better off than Muslim women and that we can be a role model or their saviors. Muslim and Western women are just different because they belong to different idiosyncrasies. Rather than having the misconception of saving them, women, whether feminists or not, should focus on common interests as the achievement of equal rights than men in our societies. Feminism in general is about having the same opportunities and rights than men. At the end, that is something all women (or most of us) dream about in order to have a better quality of life.

By Josselyn Delgado - San Francisco, CA

Chadwick Burnaw