Being a practicing Muslim mother working for a secular domestic violence NGO in London, with a diversity of women from all backgrounds of the world may appear to outsiders to be a status of constant contradiction.
Usually, these apparent contradictions are not felt in my daily routine but at times one does get caught out and instances happen where I am required to either justify or in the least reflect on my choices in values, faith, work etc.
I am lucky to work in a feminist space respectful of diversity in its all forms whether it be religious, ethnic, racial, sexual and gender to name but a few, however there are instances, in places like conferences, professional meetings or other events such as a fundraising rock concert, where my presence brings on a furrowed brow to colleagues’ facial expression. Clearly my appearance, a modest, and if I may add stylishly, hijab clad woman in a space discussing national and local strategies to eliminating violence against women and girls doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. Perhaps they would be more comfortable if they saw me at a mosque or an ‘ethnic’ gathering or a demonstration? Longer encounters where conversations happen reveal ‘benign’ misconceptions of what Islam states and what Muslims believe. Prejudices against Islam and Muslims are alive and well in this sector as in any other.
I have no problem with criticising Islam and the practices of Muslims. Highlighting abuses in the name of Islam and providing powerful examples of respectful and equitable gender attitudes and practices in Islam is something that I do on a daily basis, in fact my rant about the ‘Muslim community’ can be read further down below. What I find difficult to understand is how some feminists and human rights activists particularly in the West can be so relative in their demands for equality, respect and understanding for all races, ethnicities, traditions and in some cases religions, except for Islam and Muslims.
The current geopolitical show down between political Islam and the rest of the world, the demonization of Muslims and their dearly held values as well as the use of women as political footballs, nay canon balls by all in this debate, whether secularists, Islamists, ideologues or even activists feels very disempowering from where I am standing.
Hence the question of “where do people like me fit in?” arises. I am a believer in Islam, its message of universal humanity and its values of justice, equality and fairness. I believe in doing good, treating people good and caring or supporting those who are vulnerable. Such values are not unique to Islam in fact they are universal. You don’t need religion to believe and advocate for such values. I however, choose to understand and express these values in the context of the faith of Islam. I do not recognize the Islam of Taliban or that of Al-Qaeda. I do not understand the values of an Islam that punishes victims of rape or torture or justifies murder and violence. I also cannot see Allah or goodness in advocating hatred of difference and sectarianism. And first and foremost I do not believe in an Islam that justifies unthinking and blind acceptance of tradition, ritual or behaviour in its name. But alas that, with very few exceptions, is what I see all around me whether it be in the media or in my own Muslim community or other Muslim communities in the UK and dare I say in the West.
I at times find myself a lonely faithful believer who believes in equality for women, and if that is what you call feminism than that is what I am, a Muslim feminist who believes sincerely that Islam is about equality and empowerment, of personal enrichment, of freedom from the shackles of uncritical belief and tradition, a system that constantly seeks renewal and relevance in the future rather than a desire to preserve the past just for the sake of purity and an imagined golden era of Islam, instead of this defensive, brutally patriarchal or at times apologetic narrative that has come from Muslim communities.
Perhaps this defensiveness or apologetic attitude is due to the perception of a global war against Islam, a belief that certain devastating interventions in Muslim majority countries are born out of an ideology that sees Islam as inherently threatening, inferior and barbaric, a harking back of the brutal role religion played in Europe in the Middle Ages and a cynical view of manipulating the resources of a resource-rich region? Apart from the latter all the former attitudes are often clumped together to define Islamophobia. The rise of Islamophobia and xenophobic attitudes in Europe and the West in the last 10-15 years has been very well documented and the use of women, Muslim women to justify attacks and prejudices attitudes has been a central part of the Islamophobic discourse as exemplified by the moral panics about hijab, niqab, forced marriage, domestic violence etc.
When considering all of the above interceding factors, how can women like me, from within a minority that is perceived to be under constant attack can be supported to put our heads above the parapet and speak about injustices in the name of our religion without being seen as ‘agents’ of the Western conspiracy against Islam or more importantly dismissed within out communities as those ‘moderate’ Muslims i.e ‘heretics’? How do I improve the state of women in all society, particularly Muslim women, when I am oppressed by my ‘own’ community and stereotyped by the ‘West’? What if I am from ‘the West’? I value my hybrid identity, I worked hard to be comfortable with and nourished my ‘Arabness’, ‘Britishness’ and ‘Muslimness’. The question that I come back to is “where do people like me fit in?”