Once again my religion has been hijacked- this time not by gun-toting lunatics or explosives experts, but by boobs and banners.
The now infamous ‘Breast-Fest’2013 staged by members of FEMEN outside masajid throughout Europe, caused a stirring in the Islamic community worldwide. Our dear Sister, Sofia Ahmed, reacted to the misguided misrepresentation of Muslim women in Western society by organizing a peaceful counter-campaign supported in large part by Hijab-clad, placard-holding Muslimahs. I did not join the fight.
We have a real problem here
I have no concern that women who know nothing about my religion speak against and misrepresent it. Any minority group seeking inclusion or equal consideration must be prepared to be vilified by some and misunderstood by others. What concerns me is that we as women are more outraged by breasts than by the oppression of other women.
Disputed reports of the Tunisian sister, Amina Tyler, imprisoned for scribbling anti-moral slogans across her bare breasts, did not, in my opinion, have the effect they should have on women. Per our training we immediately fixated on her lack of morals and proper conduct as the source of her troubles and entirely ignored the absurdity of the system that drove her to it then jailed her for it.
I was nauseated by Facebook statuses approving her incarceration in which she was taunted “maybe some time in jail is just what she needs. Maybe that will make her think next time.” The sickening part was that these statements were made by sisters who have removed their hijab for personal reasons- an act that would have them in a cell right next to Sr. Amina in some countries. Only a fool rejoices when his neighbor is in trouble and only a foolish woman laughs at the oppression of another. Whether you agree with her methods or not you should know that, if it can happen to her, it can happen to you. What are we, as women, going to do about the fact that in nearly every corner of the world men can abuse, belittle, imprison and execute women for any behavior they find offensive?- which is anything they do not dictate or decree.
The booby trap
As with any issue, those who benefit from the oppression of women will perpetuate drama around a controversial person or action. We have two groups, the chaste and the unchaste, appearing to be mutually exclusive who have been polarized around a lesser issue to distract from the larger one. As long as we continue to focus on what makes us different, the misogynists win. You attack my Hijab, I attack your nakedness and we never unite. Those who would maintain the status quo are betting on our inability to get beyond our differences and focus on equality for all women in all places at all times- the worthy goal. Please recognize the booby trap and don’t fall in. Stop fighting other women for equality!
The Muslim male response to FEMEN has been a little more than amusing to me. Men, who are largely quiet about Hijab except to criticize those who don’t wear it or do so poorly, are now praising Hijabis for our virtue. We are now righteous, pious, modest champions of Islam. Sadly, this male attention is enough to win the hearts and minds of some sisters. A steady enough stream of ego stroking and pats on the head will fill the need for validation and I fear we will accept this paltry offering and give up striving for the real prize. Hijab is for the sake of Allah only. While I have no doubt some brothers truly love and support Hijabis, approval of man is not secondary; it is not even a consideration.
FEMEN does not speak for us. Will we speak for ourselves?
After the circus is over and FEMEN has found a new reason to take it all off, what will be the fate of oppressed Muslimahs? They do exist. Despite the minimizing and out-right denial, some Muslimahs are oppressed and the oppression goes far beyond clothing. Prior to the FEMEN hype, I penned an open letter to American Imams on the topic of female oppression. Before I could post it, Topless Jihad brought the issue to the forefront.
Depending on location, Muslim women are oppressed to varying degrees even in America. This is not a function of religion. Islam forbids oppression. Oppression exists wherever there are persons who wish to oppress, people who are willing to remain oppressed or feel powerless to oppose oppression and a system which supports it.
Personally, I do not feel oppressed, but there was a time when I did. I won’t go into great detail, but suffice it to say that when I chose to leave an abusive marriage, I went to my Imam seeking assistance and was told what all other Muslimahs are told- “be patient”. I was accused of being emotional (abuse brings out the calmer side of a person’s nature) and it was suggested that I might feel differently in 6 months’ time. Huh? Meanwhile my husband was free to assuage his displeasure with my assertiveness by marrying another woman.
As any Muslim knows this was in direct violation of Islamic principles, but it happens every day. Why?-Because men are not held accountable to the same degree as women. While our religion teaches men to be good to wives, it is still interpreted to suit men. Women’s issues are largely ignored unless they result in unwanted attention from the outside. We are oppressed in that we can never bring to bear any consequence for a man’s actions in any meaningful way unless we go outside the community and seek help with the Kafir (unbeliever) legal system. There are dozens of ways available to the man to make our lives painful, our existence bitter.
I am now married to a wonderful man and I am an equal partner in our marriage, but I recognize how tenuous my situation is. I only enjoy this level of comfort because my husband has chosen to be a good man. Should he ever choose otherwise, I will have little to no recourse within the Islamic community. This is where our work as Muslimahs should begin. Instead of protesting FEMEN (I think they learned their lesson), we should be outside our own masajid demanding that Imams use their knowledge to ensure that Islam is practiced the way it was revealed by all members of the community as far as possible- not just by sisters.
And now a word to FEMEN
I understand when you removed your shirts and bras, scribbled confrontational jargons across your mamms and stormed masajid, you were speaking up for oppressed women in the most effective manner you could think of. Thank you. However, you are terribly misguided. I recognize your right to bare your breasts, dress anyway you choose and oppose religion. I believe in a person’s right to self-determination and do not believe you should ever be man-handled and thrown into jail for speaking out. However, when you named your protest “Topless Jihad”, you crossed a line. It is nearly impossible for me to believe that you truly care for me and my sisters in Islam who are oppressed when you insult us in the process of liberating us.
A better use of energy would be to learn as much about the people you want to help (preferably from the group members themselves), form relationships with them and cultivate the cause in cooperation with them. I did not join the “Muslim women against FEMEN” movement because I’m not against you. I actually admire your work tremendously. When I read your history, I was impressed that such young women without prior politcal experience or connections were able to accomplish so much in so little time. I cannot take issue with your desire to protect women from sex trade, human trafficking and marginalization.
My one request is that you learn the difference between Islamism and Islam. There is a difference and the reason your campaign fell flat in our community is you set out to target radicals, but instead, attacked peaceful worshippers. I’m willing to give you another chance because I can’t believe you’re all that bad (please do not prove me wrong), but you must come with something different. No one likes a one-trick pony so in the future, I believe you will garner more support from women in general and Muslimahs specifically if in addition to breasts, you show us something else. Hint: it can’t be your vaginas. We know how you roll. Wink.
There can be no improvement in the lives of women if we remain divided against ourselves. Let us move beyond the hijab argument. My hijab does not oppress me nor does it liberate me. I am liberated because my mind is free and I live in a country where anything my mind can conceive my body is free to carry out.
As Muslimahs, we cannot partake in a topless campaign, but we can partner with feminist groups and form our own in the struggle to lift the weight of oppression off the neck of our sisters in Islam and humanity the world over.