Converts, representation and responsibility (1)

Sharrae over at Muslimahmediawatch posted recently about the responsibility that Muslim writers have when they speak on behalf of other women from similar backgrounds. She raises several aspects of this difficult issue that so much ink has been spilled about over the last few decades: being aware of privilege, how to discuss practices that oppress Muslim women while not falling into the trap of reproducing Orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as passive victims awaiting a saviour, how to open up conversations so that a wide range of Muslim woman can tell their own stories in their own words. Her article responds to two recent controversies: the by now notorious article written by Mona Eltahawy in Foreign Affairs, and the less well-known dust-up in British Columbia (Canada) over a Muslim female niqab-wearing student’s photo of a woman wearing a niqab and holding a bra.

These recent controversies as well as Sharrae’s article brought back a lot of memories. My thinking (and acting) on the issues of representation and responsibility have gone through several phases over the years.

Reactive. [early 1980’s]  I am a first-year university student, taking an upper-level class on Marxism. The class is interesting, and I am learning a lot, but I am really feeling out of my depth. Everyone is older—quite a lot older, in some cases—and they seem to know a lot more about everything than I do. A lot of them are city folks. Some have years of activist experience. My few attempts to take part in class discussion haven’t gone well, so I usually keep quiet.

Nearly everyone is white. The majority of students in the class are male, though there are some very outspoken female students. The professor, a white, middle-class, male, makes an effort to foster a more inclusive atmosphere and to avoid speaking on behalf of women by bringing in a (white) female guest speaker to give the (one) lecture devoted to examining Marxism and women.

After she gives the lecture, it’s question time. One of the white male students asks a question about the “Black Muslims” in the US and their future as a liberation movement. She gives several reasons why she doesn’t think that they have the potential to be a liberating force, and then adds, “…and they believe that women are inferior. It’s part of their religion.”

I blurt out, “That’s not true!”

Pin-drop silence. All eyes turn to me. My heart sinks to the pit of my stomach. What on earth had made me do that? I am not the kind of student who shouts things out in class. Especially not in a class that I am petrified of failing. A class in which everyone knows a lot more than I do.

The speaker looked at me, and with a faint sneer, invited me to explain further.

I hardly remember what I said, beyond something about how Muslim women have the right to receive a mahr when they get married, and that this is their own property to use as they please… and some other stuff that I had read in Jamal Badawi’s pamphlet, “The Status of Woman in Islam.” What I remember is my disgust at her arrogance—who the hell did she think she was, dismissing an entire community like that?—coupled with my own intense embarrassment at having to speak in front of a bunch of older students who were clearly not at all convinced by the points I was trying to make.

Now that I look back, I can see how out-to-lunch I must have sounded. What better way to prove the point that Muslims believe that women are inferior than quoting stuff from a conservative pamphlet that defined females entirely in terms of their relationships to their fathers and husbands??

I had taken Badawi’s claim that according to Islam women have the same value as men in the eyes of God as fact. I had assumed that all Muslims have agreed that this is the case historically, and furthermore, that this belief means that Muslims everywhere always act as though women and men have the same human worth. I hadn’t understood that such claims when made by conservative Muslims aren’t intended to support the idea that women should have equal legal status with men. In effect, I had been confused by an example of Muslim-flavoured rhetoric of “soft patriarchy.”

What would I say if I could go back in time and do it again?? How does one even begin to deal with such a sweeping statement—“…and they believe that women are inferior. It’s part of their religion.” The all-seeing, all-judging Privileged White Gaze, that simply assumes that it has the right to survey each and every person and community in the world, past and present, and to pass judgment on their presumed cultural “level.” The Privileged White Gaze of a woman that not only lumps all American “Black Muslims” together, but either can’t see the female half of these groups and communities, or assumes that all these women must also somehow agree with their men’s (presumed) belief that women are inferior. She felt that she could make this statement without offering any evidence—and the entire class apparently saw no problem with that.

Ok—I’m still reacting viscerally to this gaze that I could not then name.

I guess that today, I would say something along the lines of: This is a sweeping statement, that collapses a number of different and distinct groups, ignores the diversity of voices and opinions within them, and implicitly seems to equate the beliefs of “Black Muslims” in the US with views that you are attributing to a handful of their male leaders. But are you using words (such as “inferior”) that these leaders (much less communities) use themselves to describe their beliefs about women? If not, why not?

At that point, I wasn’t even Muslim. I hadn’t read very much about Islam. I knew only a couple of Muslims—and none of them were African-Americans. And, I really didn’t know what I was talking about. I just assumed that “Black Muslims” in the US meant Muslims who happened to be black, because I didn’t know about all the different sects–much less anything about their ideas on gender.

Within five months, however, I would become a Muslim.

Which led to a gradual transition into the next phase… which I now term “negotiating.”

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