We must challenge stereotypes to destroy sexist core of islamophobia
Being both a Muslim and a feminist is still inconceivable to many. That’s why today, on Muslim Women’s Day, women all over the world are sharing their personal stories of empowerment over social media to promote female, diverse, Islamic voices.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, from New Jersey via Jordan, began the campaign in 2017 and it quickly went viral. She is also the founder of MuslimGirl, a blog she started in 2009 as a response to the rise in Islamophobia and the misrepresentation of Muslims in the media.
The misconceptions are many, including the clichés of women as either victims or terrorists, the catch-all label of Islam as an extremist movement, and the refusal to accept that feminism and Islam are not mutually exclusive. At the same time we are experiencing peak Islamophobia, which particularly affects women – Nazmin Akthar, Chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, explains that women are more likely to face abuse in the streets and the workplace. “Muslim women can face triple discrimination due to their gender, ethnicity and faith. This goes to show the very racist and very sexist core of Islamophobia.”
Nazmin believes that generally role-modelling and awareness raising initiatives are crucial to challenging stereotypes and fighting discrimination, provided they are inclusive and truly reflective. “Women are always attributed with the ability to multi-task and it seems Muslim women have excelled at this in particular when you hear all the misconceptions.”
“On the one hand Muslim women are seen as oppressed, submissive, unable to think for themselves and in need of saving, this can then impact their employment prospects and progression up the career ladder because who would want to hire or have someone like that as a manager? At the same time Muslim women are seen as trouble-makers, violent or even linked to extremism, who will impose their ways on you, cause friction and may also be a danger.”
The campaign encourages supporters to use #MuslimWomensDay to share stories that celebrate diversity and inclusivity. A brief glance at Twitter today shows Muslim women of all colours and backgrounds tweeting about their reproductive rights, political views and relationships with their bodies, while celebrities and brands like Vogue are backing the initiative.
“I think this belief that you cannot be both Muslim and a feminist stems from a misunderstanding of what feminism is in the first place” Nazmin says. “Broadly speaking it is simply about ensuring that women are treated equally in society, what is so scary about that? And how exactly is striving for equality un-Islamic?”
With help from western politicians and rightwing media, since 9/11 the concept of Islam has become interchangeable with jihad, violence and the enslavement of women, otherwise known as the beliefs of the fundamentalist group Isis. Muslim culture embodies equal rights to education, marriage, work, property and law, along with plenty of empowered women (just look up businesswomen Khadija and Shaffa bint Abdullah), but suffers when those with patriarchal, extremist and critical motives imbue it with different meanings.
Those following a patriarchal agenda use these selective interpretations to undermine women’s rights, Nazmin says, which is contrary to the spirit of Islam.
“As Muslim feminists we are going back to the source to challenge the misinterpretations which are already in existence and which are causing harm and injustice across the world” says. “We highlight the differences between what is said in the Koran, what is said in secondary sources and male opinions on the issues.”
“What we constantly see through our network, MWN Helpline and outreach activities, is that Muslim women are being denied their rights, suffering abuse and are having decisions imposed on them, and are being told that all this has been sanctioned by Islam. We are quite simply empowering these women by providing them with the information that their oppressors will not want them to see and highlighting that in actual fact, their faith does not sanction such abuse and discrimination.”