Sexism, transphobia, and Muslim women

Rethinking Islam has an awesome post entitled, “Can Muslim Women Be Sexist?” In it, the blogger dissects a sexist “joke” recently tweeted by a prominent Muslim woman:

“…Why am I dissecting this joke? It’s not that Yasmin Mogahed unwittingly tweeted a joke that’s saturated in sexism. The point is that this sort of sexism and gender stereotyping is very much in line with the type of Islam that Mogahed and many other women promote. This reading of Islam is marked by gender difference: men are (to be) manly and women are (to be) feminine. The stereotype that underlies the joke above – that women are fickle and susceptible to whims – is much at home in this scheme, and in fact would serve (and does serve) as a convenient excuse for male social authority and “guardianship” over women.

Mogahed may not go so far as to say all that, but the stereotype of women being emotional/sensual would fit nicely into her worldview. She not only encourages women to embrace popular ideas about gender difference; she also criticizes women who do not adhere to them. She justifies and naturalizes unequal rights for women by arguing that their lesser rights are really a sign that God sees them as “special”. In her view, women who aspire to equal rights are “degrading” themselves by literally trying to become men:

“Given our privilege as women, we only degrade ourselves by trying to be something we’re not–and in all honesty–don’t want to be: a man. As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.” [emphasis mine–xcwn]


If I had to sum up Mogahed’s message to women about gender relations, I would put it this way:

You are fundamentally different from men, and therefore you should be satisfied with the lot that men/God have apportioned for you. Focus on the things that distinguish you as a woman (like motherhood), and stop hankering after what has been set aside for men. Just think: if you were really satisfied with yourself as a Muslim woman — and by extension with the social fate that male Muslim scholars, a.k.a. God, prescribed for you — you would not “degrade” yourself by obsessing over men’s rights. Don’t you value your womanhood?

As a person who uses gender stereotypes to defend sexual hierarchy, it makes perfect sense for Yasmin Mogahed to enjoy jokes that portray women as silly creatures who require benevolent manipulation. In the eyes of many Muslims, this is basically how Islam’s “social system” works: limitations on women’s rights prevent fitna. Mogahed peppers her speech with feel-good platitudes, but her insistence that women, as women, should not aspire to “men’s” rights is just as sexist as the joke she passed along. It’s disconcerting that so many women seem to share her views.”

Excellent take-down.

And… sigh.

This is all so very, triggeringly familiar.

Mogahed is the sort of woman that my ex and his ethic community approved of: a professional who is educated and has a “good job” but still wears hijab, represents “the community” (aka conservative malestream views of “what Islam is”) articulately, and most importantly, still knows her place as a female. And even more importantly, teaches other women to know their place too.

I remember when I looked at women like her as a “liberating” model, at least sort of. Partly because the idea of a woman having a career and speaking publicly was “too liberal” in some conservative Muslim circles that I was involved in. Partly because she seemed to have found a way to balance all the contradictory demands that were placed on us.

It’s when these “exemplary” conservative Muslim women make comments like this that, well, the mask slips. In the sense that then one gets a glimpse of the sorts of ideas and assumptions that undergird the “separate but equal” approach to gender roles. That supposed “equality” (or “equity,” as some would insist) is not really equal/equitable—it’s based on denigrating and very confining presumptions about what it is to be female.

But because the slippage takes the form of a joke, it becomes difficult to really talk about it. You know that you are supposed to laugh it off, or be dismissed as a “typical” humorless feminist, who gets all upset about nothing. And even more importantly, you know that it isn’t likely that she will be called on it.

Which was how Muslim women’s sexism was constantly reaffirmed and reproduced, in my experience. Women would make absurdly sexist statements about everything from why women’s witness isn’t accepted on par with men’s in some kinds of court cases to why women wear hijab to why women can’t fast or pray on their periods. And it was extremely rare for any other woman to object, or to ask them how they can justify saying things like that.

The larger message that was being reaffirmed was that it’s ok to pretty much say anything that sounds somewhat plausible, no matter how sexist it is, as long as you are supporting received “Islamic” teachings on any subject. As well as the threat that if you didn’t at least outwardly appear to agree with such ideas that you would be labeled as “trying to mimic men.”

There was no place in that world for anyone who didn’t fit neatly into the “masculine male” / “feminine female” gender binary, so such a label meant banishment. Banishment not only from the community, but from the hope of salvation. In that world, it didn’t really take all that much to be tagged as a gender transgressor… and through such rhetoric, we were led to believe that such people had fallen short of really being human. That God had only disgust for people like that.

For people like… me.

This should be called what it is: not just sexism, but transphobia. A supposed affirmation of a certain restrictive model of Muslimwomanhood that relies for its coherence on the ridicule and marginalization of real live human beings who don’t fit this narrow gender binary. This is a type of spiritual violence, in the sense that in the very least, it violates people’s sense of their own humanity and worth before God. It also obviously risks paving the way of acts of physical violence.

Which is why I am so glad to see that at least one blogger is objecting to this kind of discourse. Maybe if this sort of thing gets called out repeatedly, that people will begin to think critically about its implications.


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  1. #1 by A on January 30, 2014 - 8:12 pm

    It’s bullying. I’ve thought about this before and it’s just weird that so many of us can’t even identify our behaviour as bullying. It’s kinda like being tolerant of only people like us and then believing that we’re tolerant.

  2. #2 by xcwn on January 30, 2014 - 9:57 pm

    Yes, it’s bullying. Absolutely.

  3. #3 by kiu on December 22, 2014 - 8:58 am

    Oh my god! The witness thing- I’ve had reasons trotted out from women multi-task and are distracted, so they need reminding to women remember less than men to women can retract their statement. I almost bought it before I realized it was BS. I still get scared thinking it was usually white women who were saying this. It was terrifying of the role they played in their own and others oppression and that it was their opinion(meaning since it was a white woman’s opinion -more legitimate than other peoples) was used to justify this.

    Also her statement implies that women have no inherent worth if they are not mothers or choose not to be mothers.

    • #4 by xcwn on December 22, 2014 - 3:28 pm

      Mogahed is Egyptian, as far as I know.
      But your larger point—that white women converts very often played a leading role in justifying their own and others’ oppression, and this is due to white privilege—is very true. Next post….

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