Don’t Judge a Woman by her Cover: the Hijab and Unethical Judgments

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Please don’t judge hijabis for reasons pertaining to their hijab.

And I know this is a request that might make us all start with the ‘but theys…’. Let’s hold off on that for a minute.

Because I’ve done it too. I do still, sometimes, and catch myself. Even though I wore the damn thing myself for 15 years and knew what it was to be painted in whole swaths of ugly colors because of it.

It’s just so easy to other.

And no, it’s not a request reducible to ‘you never know; she might be forced into it.’ Yes, that’s some of it– you can’t tell by looking at hijabi if she’s a closeted atheist or a devout Muslim woman or somewhere in between. There are so many problems with saying “what’s on her head is a reflection of what’s in her head”, to say the least because the hijab as such doesn’t reflect one common belief or set of beliefs for all women who wear it.

But that’s not even close to being entirely it at all. It’s about much more than those who are physically forced to wear the hijab. And even that gets tricky, because physical coercion doesn’t preclude ideological conviction. Sure, a hijabi might be beaten or worse for showing some skin. That doesn’t mean she must have any individual desire to independent of that.

It’s about a lot more than conviction in any case.

It might seem like a paradoxical request–after all, the hijab is a publicly coded way a woman arrays herself, seemingly inspiring also-public commentary. It’s the way she is seen in public and only in public, for the eyes of others–a little different than women who fashion their own clothing styles for themselves, whether or not others see them.  It’s a purposely and exclusively public mode of dress (even if particular stylistic choices in conjunction with it are not), perhaps even a statement for some, of belief or identity. You might know hijabi women who have liberal families who wouldn’t impose it upon them. You might know hijabi women who live in countries where they are free to dress as they please. Yes, I’m talking about them too.

I’m also talking about women in some floating in-between place, who wear the hijab but behave and interact in ways that seem to be at odds with the traditional understanding of it. Yes, I am talking about judging them as hypocrites too.

Let’s talk about the in-between cases, because they carry the burdens of both sides of judgment.

Tonight I learned a new term used to denigrate some women who wear hijab in Muslim communities in the West. The term, ‘hoe-jabis’ is used by some to describe girls who wear hijab in public but who will text and snapchat boys without their hijabs in private, or engage in other ‘immodest’ behavior.

And yes, this is offensive to hijabis.

But I also find it offensive to women. What problem is there if a woman who (I assume chooses to) wear hijab in the general public wants to privately show her hair and body to a boy she cares about? The two desires aren’t mutually exclusive for her actions to be hypocritical. After all, we as humans regulate our levels of intimacy and comfort in revealing parts of our hearts and bodies in many, many different ways, including barring the general public from what we reveal in private to those close to us. To suggest that a woman needs to line up her public and private performativity to suit the preferences of those looking at her is a fundamentally controlling and patriarchal viewpoint.

And snapchatting some boy doesn’t make her a ‘hoe’, which is a denigrating, slut-shaming slur you shouldn’t call any woman, regardless of intent (ie saying things like I don’t mean she’s an *actual* slut ffs does not actually absolve you). Dan Fincke over at Camels With Hammers perfectly expresses how and when intent is relevant when it comes to insults and slurs here. I thank him for taking care of that part of this argument so I don’t have to.

And if she wears hijab because others make her in some way, it’s even worse, because she’s basically being denigrated and attacked for trying to have some freedom within difficult and damning constraints, for trying to carve some sort of meaningful connection and expression within an already-limited life.

And let me stress strongly how incredibly unfair and ironic it is that hijabis are judged with harsher standards than everyone else for showing their hair. Non-hijabis aren’t attacked and called ‘hoes’ for walking around with their hair showing, but a hijabi is for snapchatting a boy her hijabless photo? And when hijabis have it all so much harder in terms of the scrutiny to begin with–and yes, they do, even the ones who choose it–that’s just the icing on the cake, isn’t it?

But, you might say, ‘I know these girls. I’m not judging them for their immodesty, I’m not slut-shaming them–I just don’t like hypocrisy, and it’s not like I’m judging them without knowing them. I know that girls X and Y come from liberal Muslim families that don’t make them wear hijab.’

If that is the case, perhaps you should ask yourself why they do it. And indeed you do, you say, well, why are they being fake? Why, why, do they do it, if they seem to care about modesty so little that they’ll snapchat boys in private? Why not just be immodest if that’s who they really are?

Did it not occur to you that they have reasons you are perhaps not privy to?

For one, people are not binaries who are/want only one thing all the time. Public modesty and private exhibitionism are not at odds. In fact, the first might make the latter even more wonderful and exciting. And that’s pretty okay.

But again, I ask, so what if their parents don’t make them?

Well, what does make them mean? Do you mean their parents don’t physically force them? Is physical force the only type of coercion? Is physical safety the only important consideration? If a person can choose to not wear hijab without being physically harmed, does that suddenly make it such that all requirements have been met for a choice to be considered not-coercive, free-enough?

Consider that parental pressure isn’t the only social force governing the quality and worth of a young woman’s life. Consider too that internal family dynamics are often not what they appear to be for the outsider, and you may not know as much as you think you do. 

Consider that there are myriads of ways in which a young woman’s body is scrutinized and controlled by her family that are not expressible in an explicit desire that she cover her hair, but that covering her hair alleviates many of those pressures.

Consider that you may be assuming too much about the options the girls you know have to begin with. Consider that you may be making value judgments as to what they ought to consider important, what they ought to care about. Consider that a young woman in a Muslim community in the West might find herself  better off trading in personal expression for social acceptance, and that she knows best what considerations she’s had to juggle to do that. Consider that there is a marriage crisis among American Muslim communities and stringent spouse competition, and women might choose hijabs because it helps them start a family. Consider that the difference between wearing hijab or not might be the difference between having friends, being loved, being less scrutinized, being more trusted and given more freedoms, being eligible for funding or educational opportunities.

Consider that the women in question are trading some freedoms in for access to rarer or more valuable ones, while trying to secretly salvage some of the freedoms they gave up. Would you blame them for trying to make the most of their circumstances?

Consider that wearing hijab might provide a woman suffering from a body image disorder with a socially-acceptable–even lauded–escape from scrutiny, and that by judging her for snapchatting some boy you might be denigrating her for being able to love and admire her body enough to share it with a few people who make her feel good enough about herself–that you might be denigrating her for becoming healthier, for being in less pain.

Consider that the woman you are shaming might be in transition from a hijabi life to a non-hijabi life, pulling her courage and conviction together bit by bit as humans must sometimes do, because we cannot erase the effects of a lifetime of enclosure on our bodies at the flick of a switch. Consider that by judging her in-between phase, you are making it harder for her to want to show her body to more and more people. Consider how ineffably difficult it is to begin to reveal your skin to other people when it has always been treated with shame and vicious scrutiny. Consider that the very things you blame the hijabi for doing might be tender, new, hesitant explorations at having a body that others can see, and see with kindness.

And oh, as an ex-hijabi, I can only say if only you knew how racking and painful it can be to try to reconnect with a body obscured for a lifetime.

Consider that the woman you are judging might be trying to come to terms with a choice that a younger version of herself made, that she may have felt differently about her hijab at one point in time, but that she made a near-socially-permanent decision branded in other people’s image of her, their treatment of her, and it is slow and difficult for her to build up the courage to break away from it under the massive scrutiny of a society that has already decided what she is and who she can be because of decisions she made in her past.

Consider that some people are ineffably shy, and shyness often manifests according to social norms, and covering might only be natural to a shy person in a Muslim community. Consider that you might be judging a shy, quiet person who is hesitant to let most people close to her body, but would balk at barring all from it, because she, like you, craves intimacy, craves love, craves essential human bonds.

There are ten million million possibilities that you cannot know.

No, even if you wear hijab or wore it, you cannot know. In my 15 years wearing the hijab, with all my intimacy and used-to-it-ness with it, I still encountered situations and environments I couldn’t imagine before they came upon me, that I reacted to in ways that would have surprised a former version of myself.

Consider that for many people, there are things more important than being able to bare your legs to the warmth of the sun and let your hair ripple in the wind, as amazing as those things can be.

Here you might say that, well, even if there are all these pressures, one doesn’t necessarily have to conform to them if they don’t have full conviction. Why cave? Why give in to the demands of society?

Because, dammit, people have to live. And living means a heck of a lot more than food and drink and physical safety. Continuity between ideology and action is a luxury in a misogynistic society.

And really, maybe they do have conviction. Perhaps consider that you are assuming that they don’t have conviction in their version of the hijab just because it doesn’t line up with the traditionally Islamic one, as if people don’t redefine and adjust social and religious norms to their own preferences, or agree with some values and not others, on a regular basis. Consider that the hijab she wears or doesn’t wear sometimes or all the time is *exactly* the practice she might have conviction in, and she’s not being a hypocrite at all. Consider that she might be wearing hijab for reasons other than modesty or averting the male gaze–I have friends who wear hijab for non-modesty reasons, and they are the same friends who are constantly hounded because their hijab is not-modest enough…despite there being no contradiction in having an immodest form of hijab if you’re not wearing it for the modesty.

Consider that even among those who do value modesty, it is quite possible for someone to have recurring but not constant desire for modest expression. Consider that by denigrating these women’s understanding of what they want their hijab to be as hypocritical, you are objecting to the evolution of social norms to more progressive alternatives.

And let me tell you, maybe you should ask yourself why you are so harsh upon those who you see as doing nothing but conforming to social pressure (as if that were an easy, burdenless thing!). Consider that when you denigrate the need for social acceptance, you are denigrating a need that you might not have because you may have never lacked it, or that you might be denigrating a need that is essentially human, that makes us happy and whole and well, connecting to others. Because isolation kills, and that is not a metaphor. Consider that when you denigrate the need for companionship, community, friendship, you are being superior and condescending about those who have less than you.

Even if you were once where they are, and hate who you were or what you did, even if you think you know what it is like to be there, and think that you yourself were a coward, a hypocrite, two-faced–do not project that upon others whose lives and circumstances are not yours, whose stories you don’t know. (And though this is your business alone, perhaps you might consider being kinder to your younger self).

Here you might say, well, can’t they conform in only the most necessary ways, instead of going to certain extremes? After all, even though plenty of non-hijabi Muslim girls are continuously hounded and harassed about the length of their sleeves and the scoop of their necklines, their hair is subject to less scrutiny, so why would they go as far as the hijab?

Well, consider that there are dual purposes for choosing something like the hijab. Hijabing up might immediately remove those harassments and pressures while at the same time filling a niche of acceptance within Muslim communities that is mercifully invisible in ways that a neither-here-nor-there dress code might not be. A woman wearing long pants and long sleeves with a hijab on her head is known to fit an established role,  while a woman who dresses like a hijabi in every way but her hair is likely to stick out, to be subject to puzzlement, scrutiny, and even mockery. Societies have spaces that are well-worn, that are easier to groove into. People who fill those spaces tend to flourish in easier ways than those who straddle in-between, and that is worth a little extra hypocrisy. Again, because people have to live, dammit.

Consider that when you do use these labels as negative value judgments–fake, coward, hypocrite, weak–you are considering submission to power structures a matter of unique moral wrongness in one way or another, when the fact of the matter is that we all adjust our public personas to social norms and expectations all the time–that in various ways, whether we will it or not, we are all hypocrites, we are all pretending, at least a little. And for good reason. It is not practical, efficient, or safe to be all of ourselves to all people all the time. And though you might call this hypocrisy, it is not a shame.

Consider that those women might not want to be all the things you judge them as being–do you think they want to think of themselves as weak or fake or hypocrites? Do you think this is not a struggle for them, that your voice is not one they echo to themselves often? Consider that they choose, for instance, hypocrisy or submission over greater evils, to gain a less difficult life.

Consider that you are denigrating people for, whatever reason, making sacrifices that you don’t have to make, and then condemning them for trying to salvage a little bit of what they gave up in small ways, on their own terms.

Consider that you are participating in an ages-long patriarchal tradition of scrutinizing and labeling women for what they do with their bodies, when, how, and for what reason, and adding on to the labels and scrutiny of others: of the anti-Muslim bigots, the traditional, religious patriarchs slut-shaming even covered women, the hawk-like eyes of society in general.

Consider that when you stop judging her, you help her a bit. You help relieve some of the strain of constant judgment she inevitably suffers from.

It’s a little bit like fat-shaming. Fat people commonly encounter scrutiny and aggression and are even man-handled wherever they go from people who know jack-all about them and their bodily history. It does not help a fat person to be told they are unhealthy and need to lose weight, as if that is some startling revelation instead of being a constant, constant message reinforced at every turn all over media, social media, by friends and family and strangers. Your message is not unique. It is not a revelation. And you’re kidding yourself if you tell yourself it’s out of concern for that person. It is not original, insightful, or helpful. It is nosy, inappropriate, unkind, and often very cruel. Same goes for women wearing hijab in the West, same goes for women slut-shamed in a myriad of ways in the West.

And here’s the thing: it’s none of your business how women clothe their bodies, in public or in private. The publicity of a hijabi woman’s dress does not make it your business. She is not on the street for your perusal. She is on the street to live her damn life.

I understand that it can be very frustrating to see women engaging in dress codes you consider to be socially harmful, because you believe they bolster patriarchal norms of modesty, that they reinforce purity myths, because you lament the state of affairs that pressures women to conform to doctrines that reduce their values to their bodies or that treat an uncovered body as an object of social discord.

And I hear you.

But the enemy is not the woman who conforms to these imposed social norms, or who even chooses them in agreement with their values.  Judging her for her dress not only does nothing to dismantle the purity myth or modesty doctrines–it only reinforces the values behind the patriarchal practice of scrutinizing and policing what women do with their bodies. You want to challenge the power structures that pressure and trap women, not blame women for caving under pressure, for making difficult choices. If you oppose the violation of a woman’s bodily autonomy, then you must oppose it regardless of the reasons that woman has for her bodily choices. There is far greater danger in policing bodies as a means of policing values than there is in preserving the freedoms that allow people to choose even regressive values for themselves.

And yes, I get frustrated too, to see women adhere to modesty doctrines, despite all of my empathy from my own 15 hijabi’d years. I have to fight my frustration sometimes when I see a hijabi on the street (speaking of hypocrisy! I am ashamed), but then I remind myself that I don’t know her story, don’t know her struggle, don’t know her reasons.

She could be me.

The point is that even though the frustration is understandable, it doesn’t justify judgment. It sure as *hell* doesn’t justify slut-shaming.

And you can’t imagine what it is like. It’s not like walking around wearing the hijab, even when you choose it, is easy. It’s not like women who wear the hijab don’t have difficult, challenging lives. Consider that when you judge a woman wearing hijab for being weak, or a follower, you are completely discounting the monumental struggle of it. Wearing the hijab is not borne of weakness. It is taxing far beyond all the judging, in ways that I haven’t the space to articulate, but that you can find here.

But the judgment is a plenty hefty cost on its own. It *isolates* you. It brands you. It turns your body into a beacon that everyone believes they have the right to judge because you arrayed it in a  way that people think is a code for something they understand.

I wore the hijab myself for 15 years and every time I met a new person I admired, all I could do was hope and wish they weren’t judging me for the hijab on my head. Being closeted, it wasn’t exactly a thing that I could bring up to explain. I had to establish rapport, build trust with a few very close people before letting them know, know it all. 

And damn is it difficult walking around with a supreme disconnect between what you are perceived to be and who you are. I feared the judgment of teachers I loved, professors I practically worshiped, department visitors whose talks I went to and had conversations with. People whose esteem and respect I wanted very much, who I didn’t want to be othered by because of an assumption that I held an entirely different worldview. It was one of the biggest struggles I had, trying to be close to people who shared my values while projecting the outward Muslim image and not being able to explain it away for fear of my own safety. And living in sectarian Lebanon, facing college classrooms full of judgy teenagers fueled with sectarian biases and knowing that I had ‘Shia woman’ branded all over me and they were evaluating me according to that information before I even started teaching them– that was almost as bad.

And with a lot of people I met and befriended, I didn’t realize how much anxiety I’d been holding in about the fear of judgment until I was in a position–often YEARS later–to explain it to them. I took a course with Dan Dennett when he was Visiting Prof at the American University of Beirut in 2011, and carried that fear around throughout the semester, although he showed not a smidgen of hostility or discrimination towards me for my hijab (in fact, he was immeasurably kind–one of the kindest professors I’ve ever had. He did me a great favor that semester that I shall always be grateful for–if you are reading, thank you, Dan). But understand, even when people are as welcoming and respectful as they can be, there is still a fraught existential discomfort attached to being compelled to present your body as not only other from what you are, but obscure it, present it in ways you hate–when you are, in the most essential ways, nothing more than your body. And it is constant, overbearing.

Not to mention heavy, heavy. I went on departmental trips, had dinner with Dennett and my other professors, attended an awesome conference on the metaphysics of evolutionary naturalism all without him knowing I wasn’t Muslim. I remember I used to deliberately be more vocal than usual about my agreement with concepts challenging religious values when they came up tangentially in our Philosophy of Biology course. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t a bigot–I wanted everyone to know that. I remember the *huge* anxiety that lifted from my chest when I began corresponding with him about being ex-Muslim and my blog stuff 2 years later. I still almost cry in relief when I get warm emails from him and other friends from that part of my life who finally know who I really am and who love me for it.

And this is important: It is anything but easy, anything but a frivolous choice to present yourself as other than what you are. The costs are weighty, long-lasting–I haven’t even begun to articulate half of the personal costs for me in this blog. I have so many half-written pieces trying to tease it out, but suffice to say that the lines can get fuzzy after years of splitting yourself between a public fictional self and a private true self. Consider that the women you judge might have good reasons for putting themselves through this.

And the isolation is toxic. The isolation of having judgment from both the religious and non-religious sides, of being accepted by neither, of being in-between, of it being extremely difficult to trust anyone and have friends, human connection, intimacy, love….that’s the worst. The worst.

And truly, far too many people are somewhere in that in-between–scrutinized both by the stringent religious powers around them and the critical non-Muslim observers.

So think again, next time you move to judge a hijabi on the street or in your social sphere.

There is so, so much to consider.

-Marwa

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PS: My transition over to the Freethought Blogs is imminent! More soon.

PPS: Thanks to those who took part in our #TwitterTheocracy campaign yesterday. If you haven’t already, please sign our petition against Twitter blocking ‘blasphemous’ tweets from Pakistan. Use a fake address if you must, but SIGN ITTTT!!!!!

PPPS: This will have its own post soon, but I’m going to start an Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Blog soon! It will feature ex-hijabis with awesome hairstyles and tattoos and piercings. Ex-hijabis in bikinis and little black dresses. Ex-hijabis who are femme and ex-hijabis who are butch. Ex-hijabis topless and legsome and all decked out and minimalistic and with long hair and buzzcuts and everything. EVERYTHING. Basically ex-hijabis choosing how THEY want their bodies to look, finally. If you are an ex-hijabi with a desire to be featured, email me at aveilandadarkplace@gmail.com

An Open Letter to Closeted Ex-Muslims

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To my closeted ex-Muslim friends,

It’s summer time, a time when a lot of you have to go back home and into the closet again. And it’s difficult and damning, especially for women and LGBTQ individuals. I have something to say to you in this situation:

I’m sorry for what is happening to you right now. Thank you for reaching out to people like me; I hope you can always find those who will understand what it’s like. Even having been there, it’s hard to imagine how exhausting and difficult it is to be where you are now.

You’re an adult whose agency is being denied constantly, your movements and desires and identities and values hidden like secrets, and the price of secrecy is weighty; it is only dwarfed by the price of the truth being known. You have to hide things to be safe. You have to hide things to continue to enjoy the few freedoms given to you. And the things that you hide are fundamentally the things that you *are*. You are forced to suppress your own *sense of self*, to erase your emotions and expressions, to subdue yourself. These are two too-crucial things to pit against each other, safety and identity. To complicate that, you’re under constant scrutiny from people who have the strange relationship of both having undue power over you and who you may love, feel bonded to.

You have to obscure your body, police your dress, your tone, the content and involvement of your speech. You have to carry out rituals you find repugnant and nonsensical because they are required of you and you are being watched. You have to struggle with hating how you are presenting your body, hating the things you do and say, without hating yourself. You have to consistently lie and hide, lie with your face and your actions and your words, and struggle with the guilt and disgust of having to do that.

You struggle because you are good and you have integrity.

You have to listen to attacks to your sense of self, your value as a person, as a woman, your intellectual beliefs, without talking back. You have to listen to generalized condemnations of people who think and feel like you do, to homophobia, transphobia, ableism, bigotry without talking back. You are treated as a child, you are treated like an object, you are treated with blatant misogyny, and you have to sit down and accept it.

And people wonder why you’re in so much pain.

I want to tell you that I recognize your struggle, that it is powerful, real, and more than anyone should have to bear. I want to tell you that I admire your fortitude, your ability to do all that, and that I find you utterly blameless in whatever choice you make. If you choose the path of least conflict it’s because you know that you’re not obliged to handle the inherently unfair repercussions, it’s because you know what you’re up against and have made your calculations according to information and experiences only you are fit to assess.

I want to tell you that I am sorry that sometimes I grow impatient and exasperated for you, that I realize how out of touch and arrogant it is for me to do that when you are carrying around this level of pain. I am sorry that I have wondered why you cannot be more assertive, why you can’t come out and move on and never go back to that place. I’m ashamed at those instincts, because I have forgotten so quickly what it’s like to be where you are, and how every choice is damning, every choice has supreme costs that you and you alone will have to bear. Even if my impatience comes from a place of love, it does not come from a place of understanding, it does not come from a place of respect for your agency, and I apologize.

And I love you. I love you very much. And I will be here no matter what you decide to do.

-Marwa

Related:

What it’s like to be an Ex-Muslim woman

What it’s like to be a Muslim woman, Part One

What it’s like to be a Muslim woman, Part Two

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Islamophobia? Muslimophobia? Anti-Muslim Bigotry? A discussion between Ex-Muslims on appropriate neologisms

Me and some of my ex-Muslim community during the Women in Secularism con in DC this past weekend. Credit to Bruce F Press Photography: http://www.brucefpressphotography.com/

Me and some of my ex-Muslim community during the Women in Secularism con in DC this past weekend. Credit to Bruce F Press Photography: http://www.brucefpressphotography.com/

Have you ever had the desire for a sneak-peak into ex-Muslim groups to see what we commonly talk about together?

During the last day or so, community members at the Ex-Muslims of North America have been having a discussion regarding the terminology we ought to use to differentiate between undue discrimination against Muslims and reasoned critique of Islam. The idea is that the term ‘Islamophobia’ has become a catch-all phrase used to silence legitimate critique of an ideology in addition to condemning bigotry towards Muslims, and the two concepts need to be differentiated, perhaps deserving their own neologisms.

For the sake of attribution, here are the members who took part in the conversation. Some identities obscured for safety reasons:

  • Abdullah, EXMNA member.
  • Farid Sheikh, EXMNA member. You can find him on Twitter here.
  • Jnt, EXMNA member.
  • Kiran Opal, EXMNA co-founder. You can find her on Twitter here.
  •  Luke Clark, EXMNA member. You can find his blog here.
  • Muhammad Syed, EXMNA co-founder. You can find him on Twitter here, you can email him here.
  • Teslabear, the verified meetup organizer for EXMNA Chicago
  • Me.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. I’m not sure we reached any conclusions, but there were a lot of very intelligent and thoughtful points made that I think merit sharing with the larger atheist/skeptic community and whoever else is interested in the matter. The conversation really gives a sense of just how complex this situation is. I think an ever-recurring question among skeptics and humanists who care about social justice is ‘How can we critique Islam without enabling discrimination towards Muslims?’ This is a very relevant subtopic within that larger conversation.

I would like to note that our community largely operates under the assumption that bigotry towards Muslims is a real and prevalent form of discrimination that we want to condemn. This is not the space for denial of that fact; go elsewhere if that is your objection. I am not obligated to host such comments.

Muhammad asked the original question:

Guys I had a question
We’ve been pushing back against the term Islamophobia
I’ve been using Muslimophobia , over the weekend Marwa was using the term anti-Muslim bigotry, we’ve also used plain old xenophobia.

One issue is that its actually more targeted towards certain perceptions of Muslim, those wearing the hijab or the swarthy bearded dude etc

Any ideas on a catch phrase or word that would encapsulate the concept?

Abdullah :

Why should it only be limited to a certain type of Muslim or look? We’re all affected by it, even ex-Muslims.

Me:

I do like using the term anti-Muslim bigotry because it clearly delineates those attitudes as bigoted, setting them apart from the reasoned critique we try to engage in.

I also think, as Abdullah indicated, that the racism is much less discriminant and more insidious than just extremist stereotypes. I think a mild affiliation is enough. Remember the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs directed at the non-Muslim non-Arab Miss America strutting around in a bikini, because she’s brown? Soraya Chemaly was telling us too that she gets read as from a Muslim background purely because of her name, despite it being a Lebanese Christian family name. One of my friends with the family name Nasrallah, gets stopped in airports regularly because of her last name, despite Nasrallah being a common Christian name in the Levant too. I’m sure there are myriads of other examples.

At this point an anonymous member asks why we don’t refer to it as just xenophobia, because those who are bigoted against people who are or appear to be Muslim are also bigoted towards other minorities and races, so xenophobic would be a more accurate term.

Me:

But why would we want to use a catch-all term such as xenophobia for that sort of racism when we’re talking about it in the context of critiquing Islam? Yes, anti-Muslim bigots are often more broadly xenophobes too, among other things, but we’re specifically trying to address their anti-Muslim attitudes as contrasted with our own discourse.

Teslabear:

I think it’s strange that Ex-Muslims have to come up with terms to separate ourselves from those that are bigoted or xenophobic, in general. I think creating a new term for it is useful for our circles, but it might not be helpful in the long run to create more divisions in terminology.

The gist of the issue seems to remain that if one critiques Muslim behavior or beliefs (Islam, then), one is considered a bigot or racist, which makes absolutely no sense. The issue that really needs to be resolved is that people need to stop equating Muslims with a race. Plenty of Muslims are born into or convert from varied racial backgrounds. Another issue that underlies the problem is that people think religion is somehow absolved of critical analysis, and that one should “respect” religions by not saying anything negative. Da Fuq?

We shouldn’t cater to people being fearful of being called racist/bigots when we are clearly not while criticizing a religious belief.

Me:

It’s not just for us. It’s a problem that exists with anybody whatsoever whose critique can be brushed aside using the Islamophobia accusation. Whether or not it’s unfortunate that this need is there, it’s still there and practical considerations say we address it. Whether it’s fair or not that we’re lumped in with the bigots, we need to address that circumstance by creating and *grounding* the distinction in *mainstream discourse* until it is normalized. There needs to be a better term that creates a distinction between bigoted and reasoned claims or arguments. The concepts within a term [ie, Islamophobia] already used to silence us and people like us need to be separated. The only way we normalize changes to problematic discourse is by creating distinctions, using them, and trying to spread them further. Which is why unified terminology is important; so we’re not all talking about it with different terms. Soon our work is going to be elevated to mainstream secular blogs. We’re also working on getting into mainstream media venues beyond the purely secular.

And I have to disagree that bigotry towards Muslim behavior is not racism. Let’s not forget that lumping ethnicities and cultural practices together because of a pre-conception tied to Islam is racist. Racism lies in generalizations about PoC, and conflation is one of the worst forms of generalization. Racism is almost never a direct discussion of something on explicitly racial grounds. Most racist attitudes are at the surface level not towards explicit races. Racist attitudes about single moms, rap music, food stamps, hoodies, football mascots abound. None of those are races per se. Racist discussions of them are reducible to generalized beliefs regarding the customs and communities of those who engage/partake in them. Anti-Muslim bigotry is very, very much about race. Even discussion of white converts involves concepts of theft and seduction by brown people taking over white values. We do no one favors by hiding behind the ‘Islam is not a race ‘ card as if that was relevant in whether it is or can be discussed in racist ways. Least of all ourselves, because the racism that allows others to assume that we adopt Muslim sentiments or beliefs because of our ethnicities and despite our actions and words is the same racism that Muslims suffer from.

Luke:

Because the anti Muslim sentiment is just window dressing for the bigotry and hatred against those deemed “foreign”; the specific anti-Islam rhetoric is nothing but window dressing. The same people hate brown folks from other parts of the world for the same reason while giving a different bullshit reason for doing so.

I’d be down with calling it racism, too. I just think xenophobia gets around the Islam is not a race card.

Me:

I mean, yes. And I don’t really need to point out that the problem with equating Muslims to a race is that it’s RACIST. And it is prevalent. Brown people and Muslims are often uniformly reduced to stereotypes about Arabs. People don’t fucking know that South Asia and MENA are two completely different geographical areas. Racism of that sort is already there and we need to both condemn it, reclaim our stake in its detriment, and set ourselves apart from it.

Abdullah:

Islam is not Muslims. Islam is not a race; that doesn’t mean Muslims are not a racialized group.

Kiran:

Some Hindus and Sikhs have gotten attacked/harassed by white supremacists (esp. right after 9/11) who thought they were also Muslim (or ‘Paki’ which is a derogatory term in the UK for anyone brownish).

On the other hand, some Hindus (i.e. brown people) also *hate* Muslims (esp. the brown ones) with a passion.

So, this is a very complex issue.

I do think people presume that anyone who is Muslim thinks a certain way, especially if they are wearing hijab and especially if they’re wearing a niqab, a thobe, a salafi-style or long unkempt beard etc. This presumption includes things that even some of us may consider when we first see e.g. a Muslim man in a thobe and a 6 inch beard walking with 2 women in niqabs and 6 children behind him. Does that mean anyone deemed Muslim should be treated as less than anyone deemed non-Muslim in civic matters? No. I don’t think they should. BUT, the fact is, that when *I* see a scene like what I just described above, I DO judge the people involved. I DO think that they are living in a way that is oppressive to women, that is supremacist, that is abusive to LGBTQ people, to religious minorities.

I think similarly when I see e.g. a Hassidic Jewish family, or a group of obvious Mormons walking around.

Does that mean I am Islamophobic, Hassidophobic, Mormonophobic?

I do think that this matter should be made to be *more* complex. We can not simplify this with just finding one right term, unfortunately. I don’t think one word or phrase can do justice to the matter.

I personally use ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ and plain old bigotry/xenophobia when referring to the particular brand of hostility that *anyone presumed to be Muslim* faces at the hands of those who think all “Muslims” are alike or that “once a Muslim always a Muslim” (the latter type of prejudice is what we as Ex-Muslims also face).

Muhammad:

That’s exactly the point I was trying to capture, post 9/11 a sikh man was killed b/c he was ‘perceived’ to be Muslim. Generally speaking yes *it is a complex issue* but for something to get mainstream traction it has to be more sound-bitey, one can then expand on it and highlight how complex the entire issue is.

For example in conversations with a few secularists (including on podcasts) I’ve told them to not use the word Islamophobia but to sub it with Muslimophobia. Even though i’m not convinced that is the right phrase to use.

Luke:

Muslimphobia is a neologism coined on a neologism, inelegant, and non-euphonious. If it is necessary to explicitly delineate anti-Muslim sentiments and actions, as opposed to subsuming them within the terms racism or xenophobia, I think it is better to go with Marwa’s ‘anti-Muslim bigotry.’ That also has the virtue of including Hindu hatred and persecution of Muslims (which is less racist than it is castist, though there are certainly elements of xenophobia in it).

Farid:

I have to agree with Teslabear. Bigotry is bigotry is bigotry. I don’t see how a new term will be helpful – of course I can be convinced if there is a good argument for it.

I like the term xenophobia, and it doesn’t separate us from other groups fighting bigotry/xenophobia – strength in numbers. Plus if we are against xenophobia then we are against all xenophobia not just against us, that kind of goes against the meaning of xenophobia.

This is a complex issue which will have to be explained in detail when we talk about it, doesn’t matter what term we use. My suggestion is to use a term that doesn’t pigeonhole us into the “Muslim/Islam” box. We have to appeal to more people.

Me:

I guess I honestly don’t understand the resistance to using a term specific to the bigotry we’re discussing. Nobody uses just ‘bigotry’ to talk about racism, transphobia, biphobia, ableism, or fatphobia, for instance. The same reason we don’t just say ‘humanism’ for particularly feminist issues, and object to those who would have us do so. I write about this shit a lot and a non-specific term simply will not capture the thrust of the problem. I don’t think we’re pigeon-holing ourselves or limiting our audience by acknowledging the specificity of the bigotry we face and/or are accused of. How else can we talk about it? How do we avoid generalizations ourselves otherwise? I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain the dynamics of what’s going on without highlighting exactly what kind of bigotry it is. I mean, even in this thread there have been insinuations that bigotry against Muslims isn’t about race; without using terms about racism and race-specific terms, for instance, how would one build an argument challenging that? Without acknowledging the Muslim focus of bigotry and the ways it manifests, how do we build arguments around it? At least, I haven’t been able to in my writing. Maybe those of you who write about this stuff too have been able to find a way, but I haven’t.

And yes, we are against all forms of xenophobia, but if our discourse is focused on Islam and atheism and intersectionality in between then we are not in fact addressing worldwide xenophobia. Nor should we. Just because someone has a blog about cats doesn’t mean they don’t like dogs and dogs aren’t important to them; it only means that dogs have marginal space in their blog. Any sensible person would see that.

Luke:

Anti-Muslim bigotry sounds better to me than Muslimphobia.

Muhammad:

One of my main concerns with anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimophobia is it’s playing into the racialization, I understand that the bigotry comes from a place where Muslims are regarded as a monolith by racists but on the flip side Islamists are trying to erase that diversity as well. As always we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

Me:

Yeah, I see how that’s a stickler– which is why I say anti-Muslim bigotry rather than just anti-Muslim racism cuz it is in fact broader than that. It is a difficult subject for sure. But if what we’re hoping to do is replace the term Islamophobia with a more accurate term, should it not be specific enough so that it cannot be distorted to condemn critique of Islam by virtue of its specificity?

I don’t know. There will always be problems with however we choose to look at it.

JnT:

Muslimphobia denotes fear more than anything. And while I believe all bigotry and racism are fear-based, the word lacks the intensity of the hatred AND fear of what they know little to nothing about.

Luke:

I don’t think that ‘Anti-Muslim bigotry’ unduly racializes things. It’s elastic enough to cover Hindu persecution of Muslims and the persecution of the ‘white’ Muslims of Eastern Europe, for example, while still not pretending that the origins of much if not most anti-Muslim sentiment IS racial prejudice.

The discussion sort of died down at that point. But there you have it, a peek into the sorts of discussions we’re interested in having, the ways in which we interact with and relate to each other. Thoughts? Weigh-ins?

-Marwa

PS: Oh hey! I was on the Godless Family Webcast yesterday alongside Heina Dadabhoy to talk about Islam. My technology situation isn’t so great so unfortunately my camera cut out a lot, but the discussions we had were great. Check it out!

Related posts:

The Racism of the White Wolf Who Cried Islamophobia

How Can We Discuss Islam in Better Ways?

4 Mistakes You Make When You Talk About Islam

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4 Things You Should Stop Doing Re: Amal Alamuddin & George Clooney

Amal Alamuddin

Hi! First of all, if you haven’t heard the news about my retiring this blog and moving on, you can read it here.

I don’t usually talk about this stuff, and it’s been some time since the news of their engagement, but these reactions have been accumulating slowly and fallen under my social justice radar frequently enough to warrant a post.

So, here they are: A Lebanese expat’s thoughts on some of the Lebanese culturescape’s reactions to Amal Alamuddin’s engagement to George Clooney:

Thought No. 1: STAHP enabling a culture of honor violence:

According to my mom, there’s a running joke in Lebanon about George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin’s engagement, and it’s not what you think.

Remember the story last year about the Druze girl who broke cultural taboo by eloping with a non-Druze man, who then had his penis severed by her family?

Yeah, so Amal Alamuiddin comes from a Druze family, and there are jokes being made about Clooney losing his genitals. Because that is sooooo freaking hilarious. So goddamn hilarious that people face violence for marrying outside of their religions of birth, that people have to run away to another country to have interfaith ceremonies, and face ostracism, fear, and violence from their societies and families when they come home.

This is how you normalize a culture of honor violence. STAHP. There are a whole lot of things you can make silly jokes about that don’t make light of endemic cultural problems that hurt, damage, and traumatize people. Find a new niche.

Thought no. 2: STAHP fueling sectarian biases:

Because that’s what a lot of Lebanese people are doing in their discussions about Amal Alamuddin when they hash it in terms of where she’s from and what her religious background may or may not be. We can’t, as a collective culture, seem to transcend this uber obsession with everyone’s sect.

It’s not okay that in Lebanon it is the norm for strangers, taxi drivers, teachers, restaurant staff, cashiers, etc to randomly ask where you are from and what your last name is in attempt to find out what sect you are so they can stereotype you, try to evangelize you, set you up with their son, propose to you on the spot, or not-so-subtly critique the politics they assume you hold because of your religion of birth.

I’m tired of everyone’s family thinking it’s okay to similarly examine their friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, for that to be considered acceptable living room conversation.

The first question you should ask about your kid’s new friend should maybe not be about their sect, the first thing you wonder about a person you just met who has a religion-neutral name should maybe not be what their sect is, the first thing you think about a person named Jean or Ali should maybe not be oh they’re Christian or Shia, followed by a series of implicit judgments according to that info.

And I’m tired of the rush to claim affiliation to whatever Lebanese person or person of Lebanese ethnicity is being talked about next. I’m tired of how we use well-known people to fuel sectarian biases– because that is what you’re doing when you wonder where Amal Alamuddin’s family is from.

As a country we need to fucking stop this obsession with each other’s religions and family backgrounds. The way we do it casually, in our everyday lives, keeps sectarian culture thriving. Every Lebanese person under the age of 30 is probably sick of being told to remember the civil war, but there is wisdom to being e aware of what happens when we perpetuate a culture of sectarian bias. We don’t check IDs at checkpoints and kill people based on their religion of birth anymore, but sectarian culture is alive and well so long as our IDs must still proclaim our sects for some reason and we casually use sectarian belonging to judge and appraise people.

STAHP.

Thought no. 3: STAHP contributing to whitewashing and racism within your culture:

That’s what you’re doing by attributing value to people like Amal Alamuddin just because white people like them, or condemning them for the same.

The whole Francophone pride is one thing, but it’s a whole other level of problematic to elevate Lebanese people according to who the West is finding most desirable at the moment. There is, recurringly, huge uproar over whatever person Lebanese ethnicity the West is paying attention to next (from Shakira to Carlos Slim to Rima Fakih), with Lebanese people trying to find a connection between that person and their sect or family or neighborhood, trying to attribute that person’s success to being Lebanese, or, conversely, condemning them because of their sect within Lebanese culture; take your pick. All this when they wouldn’t have cared to begin with if white people didn’t give a shit about that person.

The way a faction of Lebanese society idolizes Westernized and West-connected people and emulates them is no small factor in contributing to the rampant racial oppression that occurs in Lebanon, the subpar living conditions and second-class status of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in our country, the practical slave trade that is the domestic workforce.

The way that another faction of Lebanese society views being Arab or being Shia, etc, as a literal holy God-given gift also contributes to the way they characterize people the consistently interact with according to their ethnicity or religion of origin.

The treatment of refugees and our imported workforce are some of the most egregious violations of human rights we Lebanese people are responsible for, and they occur in part because we look down upon other Arabs, because we look down upon our imported African and South Asian and Southeast Asian workers. Aggression and condescension towards them is so normalized that people tend to not even notice it is occurring. By creating and conforming to a hierarchy of value between the West and the East, in either direction, you are enabling our already cripplingly racist system.

STAHP.

And by extension,

Thought no. 4: STAHP contributing to a culture of misogyny.

This is what you’re doing by reducing an accomplished woman’s value to her relationship with a man.

If you didn’t give a shit about Amal Alamuddin before the West got excited over her, and now you like her because of her sense of style and her handsome, famous star fiance, you are contributing to a culture of misogyny. Especially when someone like Amal Alamuddin is ridiculously accomplished in public ways that would reasonably attract popularity, and much of that is overlooked or brushed aside by her own countrypeople in favor of defining her with respect to a man.

Because defining a woman’s role according to her relationship to the men around her isn’t a problem at all in Lebanese culture, and doesn’t impede viewing and treating women as autonomous human beings with their own value and stakes. /sarcasm/

STAHP.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, these aren’t problems specific to the Amal Alamuddin story at all, nor entirely about it. This is more of a commentary on prevalent cultural memes; ways of thinking and interacting with current events such as the Amal Alamuddin story that continue to perpetuate the culture surrounding many of our problems.

It’s striking, isn’t it, how we are so used to thinking and interacting in the above ways that we can bend even this seemingly benign bit of news in service of our bigotries.

-Marwa

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that I am not claiming that these attitudes are held by all Lebanese people, or that all Lebanese people are responsible for perpetuating the following. My statements about these phenomena are limited to when, how, and where the phenomena do occur.

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I’m retiring Between a Veil and a Dark Place…

…and moving on to the Freethought Blogs network.

My transfer will also mark my official coming out. I will retire the pen name and start blogging under my real name when my new blog is launched.

I’m incredibly excited about this. I will be the sixth ex-Muslim blogger to join the network, alongside Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Tauriq Moosa, Kaveh Mousavi, and Heina Dadabhoy. I’ll also be sharing space with a wonderful group of collegial authors, including giants in the atheist/skeptic community who hardly need an introduction. And of course, a host of other writers who may be less famous but hardly less brilliant, some of whom are very dear friends. I  couldn’t be more honored or in better company.

A giant salute to the Freethought Blogs for continuously being concerned with diverse representation, especially of marginalized community members, hosting international perspectives, atheist voices coming from multiple religious backgrounds, LGBTQ voices, solid feminist thought, and people of color.

 

Atheeyism! Freethought! Words! Arguments! People! Skeptics! Ermahgerrrrrrrddddd!!!

To answer a few FAQ about this transfer:

  1. My new blog will keep the same name. It’s a good name.
  2. Yes, I’m going to keep this site up. I’m going to both transfer my archives to the new site and leave them up here. I’ll keep a big notice front and center for new visitors to BaVaDP, so they know where to find my latest work.
  3. Yes, I will be cross-posting. But not here. I will cross-post everything at the FTB venue to the Ex-Muslim Blogs venue, because I believe that my work has solid stake in both communities at once.
  4. Some marked advantages to moving my blog include: the aforementioned community aspects, expanding my platform to include a built-in audience of skeptics with diverse areas of expertise and concern, and opening up a variety of networking opportunities for greater involvement in the American atheist skeptic movement.
  5. Details regarding updated comment policies, etc, will be available once the blog is launched.
  6. The Freethought Blogs network will provide me with a little bit of ad revenue, but donations will still be welcome from those who earnestly wish to support my work and/or conference travel.
  7. I hope to be blogging with greater frequency and perhaps more focus, and I will attempt to use my new platform to showcase the voices of others who have less opportunities by having a series of guest blogs by ex-Muslim community members and others with valuable input.
  8. The transfer will likely take a few weeks, and I will keep writing here up until the transfer. I have some exciting posts planned.

I think that’s all for now. If you have other worthwhile questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. Just leave them in the comments.

And, finally, I’d like to thank my readers for all of your unquantifiable encouragement, compelling responses to my work, your enthusiastic readership, for all of your lovely mail, which I regret not being able to individually respond to. Especial thanks to the people who’ve dug into their pockets to help a struggling writer whose work they find to be valuable, and to all the people who touched me and have been touched by this blog.

It only gets better from here.

Salamat.

-Marwa

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Bring an ex-Muslim atheist speaker to your university or organization!

 

Hi guys! So I am now on the Center for Inquiry’s Speakers’ List, which means that your university or organization or conference can view my profile and biography below, along with a list of topics of expertise, and book me to come speak:

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/speakers/berro_marwa

I’m incredibly excited about this. I have wanted to speak on all of the topics I deal with in my blog and more at universities and conferences and secular events, but have lacked a larger platform to market my services.

I think getting more ex-Muslims to speak publicly is one step towards our destigmatization, the normalization of our voices and the critique of Islam. I hope that in the near future more  ex-Muslims will qualify to be featured on the list too.

For those of you who don’t already know the badass and brilliant Heina Dadabhoy, who writes at Skepchick and is imminently transitioning over to the Freethought Blogs, she is a seasoned speaker and also an ex-Muslim atheist woman who is available for speaking requests. Here’s her profile with the Secular Student Alliance:

https://www.secularstudents.org/speakers/HeinaDadabhoy

If your SSA or some other department in your university or organization could benefit from an ex-Muslim atheist woman speaker of the secular humanist bent, and has some funds to bring speakers in, you can suggest me or Heina.

Those who request our services will need to fund our travel, as I we can’t afford to travel out of pocket, but we’re not in this to make profits, so will not request a speaker’s fee to come to your campus or organization.

Best wishes. Spread the word.

-Marwa

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“Why do Muslim women accept and believe these things anyway?”

 

There is this question I continually hear, when the inequalities and oppressions rampant in Muslim societies are being discussed, and it is this:

Why do Muslim women accept and believe these things anyway?

This is likely the most important question you can ask, but it can also be disappointingly wrong-headed.

I hear it from liberals, atheists, Westerners who cannot fathom someone in their right mind accepting the provisions many forms of Islam dictate for women. I hear it, too, from people from Muslim backgrounds or countries, who, despite having grown up in cultures normalizing the values they find repulsive, cannot understand their acceptance–something has been missed, for them. Last September, during the ex-Muslim strategy meeting we had in Washington DC with Dawkins and leaders of national secular coalitions, we ex-Muslims stood up and engaged with several discussion points, which included women detailing some of their thoughts and experiences under Islam. And one lady stopped in the middle of describing some of the norms in the culture she came from–interrupted herself mid sentence, as it were, and, as if the question had just occurred to her, she looked up at the panel asked “Why do Muslim women accept and believe in these things anyway?” Dawkins turned the question back onto the crowd, with a you tell me…why did you? sort of gesture.

And we stood up, in turn, we ex-Muslims in the audience, rising from our seats, speaking of the lives of the girls and women we once were, to explain the various forces that governed us, the norms that shaped the social fabric we were embedded in, details regarding ideology and cultures we came from, the influencing power of those things, the limited choices we had, the lives of our mothers, sisters, friends who still were there, who still we loved and strove to understand.

But what struck me was the nature of this question to begin with, the way it was plucked almost out of thin air, a striking inquiry that underscored and invaded a description of the lives women lead under various forms of Islam–how could they let this happen to them? and want it to?

I was struck at the air of bafflement, how mystified the lady asking the question was, how mystified Dawkins was in mirroring her question back to us, how it echoed so many discussions regarding Islam and the Middle East as ineffable, strange, other, unworldly, unholy.  How unable so many people seem to be of conceiving reasons for Muslim women cleaving to Islam, how apparent it is how little they know and understand about the lived experiences of Muslim women–and more importantly, how little they care to.

It continues to strike me how many of the people attempting to talk about Islam don’t attempt to, unless they are faced with people before them speaking about their lives, try to understand what was really going on for women like us, to consider the question from a non-othering place. That the question itself, framed with such an air of bafflement, implying weakness and stupidity on the part of its subjects, that implies also an air of smugness, superiority on the part of its questioner, preempts in its very tone the concept of there being real, compelling reasons outside the scope of the absurdity the question assumes.

Yet it should be the very first question that comes to mind. That such an important, basic question seems to be so hard for so many to conceive of is sobering in many ways. It continues to help me realize oh-so-strongly how so much of the alienation we receive as progressive Muslim and ex-Muslim women–the callous trampling upon the exploration of our stories and experiences, the continuous silencing of our voices in favor of some urgent need to generalize harshly regarding Islam or defend those who do instead of understanding how and why its problems arise–it all converges upon this same tendency to not listen to and thus by extension to not truly care about the people whose conditions and lives are really at stake here. So much of the desire to say bad things about Islam I see is not in service of helping the people who suffer under it, does not serve significant function other than to mock or insult, often in unintentionally othering and racializing manners (eg, making blanket statements that serve little function such as ‘Islam is evil’ and calling Muslim practices barbaric and savage, invoking language steeped in racial stereotype), or to defend popular figures who do the same. And it is very difficult to critique Islam in a humane way without even being concerned with understanding how and why the circumstances of our lives arise, how and why people live as they do.

It goes both ways, to be sure, with Muslim apologists elevating their desire to defend Islam as untouchable over listening to the plights and problems of Muslim women, eg the recent debacle with CAIR and the Honor Diaries, where CAIR prioritizes protesting and shutting down the screenings of a film where 9 Muslim women speak about the problem of honor violence facing women in Muslim-majority countries, choosing blanket defensiveness of Islam over listening to women and their plights, silencing the voices of those women and othering them although those women are self-identifying Muslims. But you know, while I only wish I could hope to expect better of Muslim apologists, I do expect better of skeptics, atheists, and liberals and allies of various faiths, and I do see more hope and promise in the discourse of our circles on this issue, and thus the focus of this post.

The basic question of “Why would X group of people accept or endorse dehumanizing and oppressive things” is one that, to be answered, requires alighting from a perspective of privilege, of never having been put in a position where you had to make a life out of a series of damning choices, and treating it as not an absurd question, not one with a semi-rhetorical implication of “if they had any sense they wouldn’t”. But it is not an absurd question, it is not rhetorical. It requires an answer, and not one that boils down to painting whole swaths of people as weak, brainwashed sheep. It is not one, too, that is a matter of fallaciously reducing deliberate, enforced oppression to lack of mental acuity–the stigmatization of mental illness aside, the ridiculously unscientific manners in which we speak of deliberate, inexcusable horrors as matters of individual people having delusion, idiocy, or impairment aside, such a viewpoint fundamentally lacks grounding in reality. The question is a real one, with an answer in real-world power dynamics. Answering it requires learning and becoming acquainted with the circumstances, doctrines, and systems that structure the lives of the people in question, understanding the competing considerations they must contend with, the limited choices they have–especially women. Understanding too, how other people within that society can completely bypass those choices, whose class or family or insular social web of privilege exempts them from the same problems within the same place, and how their voices are not antithesis, are not counterexample to ours, but speak to the complexity of the entire system, the insular nature of so many parts of it. Answering it, too, requires knowing that it is in fact going to be different from social context to social context, that Muslim cultures have widely varying trappings, and even common norms are perpetrated and reified within varying social structures in different ways, which is why I do not here attempt to answer the question, because it has thousands of answers, told through thousands of stories.

This is why I write posts detailing personal experiences, why my posts ring with the mantra of ‘what it is like to be a…’. what it is like. I believe this is powerful rhetoric, humanizing rhetoric, to consider just what it is like, in the most minute of everyday details, to live these things, for the reader to be forced to imagine, as it were, the experience of all of it, the complexity of the social phenomena and familial dynamics interlacing the choices we have and do not have, and how they can be remedied. This is why I’m always rejuvenated to hear feedback from people in the West, especially women, who feel that there are striking parallels between their own experiences of religious or bigoted persecution and suffering and what I’ve detailed about the lives of women like me. Because it fosters understanding. This is why, in my post regarding growing up in Hezbollah culture, I present my time growing up in Southern Lebanese guerrilla warfare culture in part by drawing parallels to so much of the religious sentiment I’ve seen normalized here in the US, that people are more likely to understand, whose perpetrators and victims are not other, who make up the social fabric of a world we must interact with, relationships we cannot drop by the wayside, because they are complex, mother-daughter, father-daughter, sister-brother, mother-son, employer-neighbor-vendor-supplier-teacher-neighborhoodwatcher and so on. And it helps, at least with some people, at least in some hearts, and that’s where I’m investing. A reader sent me this message recently:

I’ve been reading your blog, and I especially loved the entry on Hezbollah and the comparison to secluded Midwestern culture and how beliefs which seem unbelievable to outsiders are normalized there. As someone from an extremely religious community in the Southern US, I’ve seen how a lot of people believe things outsiders look at and wonder how they could possibly believe, and yet a lot of these people are basically Normal People in other ways, often even with strong ideas about conviviality and family which run weirdly parallel to their particular brand of secluded groupthink and bigotry in other ways. These complications must be understood, as you said, and that kind of nuance is something I think is missing from a lot of discussions in the West about international communities.

So much Yes.

Because I haven’t yet encountered a compelling non-experiential rhetorical method for understanding how dehumanizing and oppressive value systems are constructed and packaged, in powerful ways, within various constraints that, in order to exist and work, almost universally require their victims to view them as not-such or to attribute their source to other diversionary factors. For human beings who have experienced these things to describe their effects and influences in an informed way, for them to use that information to build arguments seems to be the most effective way to me.

Because to try to imagine what it can be like to live in places and under values you don’t know or understand, and how that might dehumanize you, and why, and in what ways, and what options and conditions and constraints feed into that, and how priorities become shifted, how reduced suffering can trump intellectual rigor can trump pride can trump honesty can trump questioning can trump skepticism: No: you cannot speculate on an experience you have not even secondhand knowledge of, and with a lack of that knowledge you cannot assume fault, weakness, or guilt of the people in question to fill the gap between your lack of understanding and reality. You cannot build a pristine dichotomy between perpetrator and victim as if they two live in vacuum instead of being products of the same system that feeds in and out, creating aggressors, normalizing aggression, when the aggressors and normalized aggression are your home and your society and your country and your relationships, your chance at bodily safety, or an education, or feeling free, unencumbered, not lost. Not when these dynamics permeate, at least a little bit, every safe place you know. You cannot assume, either, that victims do not engage with, make meaning and build anew from their oppression–you cannot paint them as drawn-down and weak, as incapable of making meaning of their lives in whatever way they best can, because they are constrained. You cannot build a binary system where the only two options are perpetrator or victim either, where there isn’t a plethora of in-between experiences, and then make claims about the what it is ludicrous and self-evident for these people to believe when your standards of the normal and the absurd are upended in the societies in question.

I read Sam Harris’ Lying, I who lived for years telling massive lies day after day for my own safety, living a double life, lying in the very gestures I made, the prayers I performed, the fasts I took, lying with my smiles, with my clothing, with my very being–how much I just wanted to be straight about everything, to shout what I really felt and thought from the rooftops. And I marveled at how such a book could so aptly exist for certain societies with enough stability and privilege for it to actually possibly be a prioritized social norm to actively consider the accumulated costs of tiny lies–mind blown. And don’t get me a wrong, how wonderful a thing it is that certain human societies have progressed so far, but how unfortunately removed from reality such a book would be in other places, some of them not too far from Sam Harris’ home, within the US. The book would be utterly irrelevant for many people like me back home, because  those very caveats Harris kept making about exceptional circumstances wouldn’t be caveats anymore–not least because they are not exceptional–they would be mainstream, the norm. To think of stories, of experiences that subvert the commonly-accepted standards for normal, for absurd, that recognize the incumbency of reshuffling values and their priorities–this is one step to avoiding dehumanizing othering.

I’ve also heard several of my ex-Muslim  and atheist friends express sentiments that are not so sympathetic to the rhetoric of relating experiences, who insist that critiquing Islam is most relevantly done via an exploration of its tenets, a showing through reasoning that its core theology is untenable, immoral, unjust, and/or unlikely. I think this is a position that does its fair share in perpetuating grossly simplistic forms of eg the “Cultures don’t have rights, people have rights” argument, which prima facie seems to be right on the money, because we avidly want to insist that critiquing cultural norms and the ideologies structuring them is not only fair game, but often necessary–but it can also tend to overlook that there is a point to discourse that attempts not to wholly demonize culture: cultures are composed of people, and people live under the influence of culture such that they cannot just discard its effects, reject it or subvert it to more progressive standards at once, and deconstructing culture should occur in ways that do not end up belittling and othering the very people we are critiquing culture in order to help. And I believe that critique of ideology has its own function, and I do a fair share of it myself here on this blog, but I also believe that dissecting the veracity or morality of an ideology as such does little, on its own, by way of communicating the intensity of social problems and getting people invested in doing things to fix them, and must be paired with accounts of human lives.

I must remark that I’m not speaking of anecdote, because anecdotal evidence, even if it does get people fired up and passionate due to selection bias, is quite demonstrably a shoddy argumentative tool when it claims to speak to a larger phenomena. Clearly there is a difference between mere anecdote and personal experience that reflects, is caused by, an institutionalized system whose problems are to be addressed. I am speaking here of personal stories that address and examine their own influences and causes, that accumulate into a higher social narrative, that are demonstrably supported by a scaffolding of power-privilege and social norms beneath them, that are humanizing instances of a narrative we already have good reason to believe is true, is important.

And I do believe that claims of a similar type, eg from the Muslim apologist end, treating the matters we say harm or dehumanize us as absurd or exaggerated also come from people not knowing what it is like to have those experiences, who’d rather blame the people involved in one way or another. Someone who thinks is absurd that wearing a piece of cloth on your head should lead to suffering has no real knowledge of how being reduced to the shape of your body by other people and having your family’s honor tied up into your skin can dehumanize a person. Similarly, someone who thinks it’s absurd that bullying should lead to suicide has no real knowledge of how bullying can break down a person completely. Someone who thinks it is absurd that complimenting women on the street or finding a certain race particularly attractive can hurt people has no real knowledge of how street harassment and fetishization can dehumanize a person. Someone who thinks is absurd that “mild” sexual molestation of children can lead to PTSD and long-term pain has no real knowledge of what that experience can be like. Someone who thinks it’s absurd that being sad can involuntarily incapacitate you for months has no real knowledge of the debilitating power of depression. Someone who thinks it’s absurd that cultural appropriation can be a problem has no real knowledge of how trivializing the cultural objects used to oppress people enables their further oppression. And of course, it’s not to say that these are necessary results of any of these circumstances–context, context, context–but the problem is that they are treated with the absurdity of being unlikely or impossible instead of the prevalent if not universal phenomena that they are. And from what I have seen, although scientific research and expert commentary can prove, and do prove, things of this sort, they do not have the rhetorical power that describing what it is like does, because people find it much easier to discount statistics and studies entirely, to brush them away, than they do to ignore a personal story with a clear, robust progression.

I love depression comics, like this one, for this reason, because suddenly you’re with a humanized character you can relate to, who is often funny, amiable, incisive, and ridiculously smart, following a struggle through the ‘invisible’ parts of their lives (a giant Fuck You, by the way, to people who think mental illness must undermine intelligence or rationality or moral goodness).

And it’s not just about the understanding–it’s about the understanding as a first step. Understanding what it’s like, to be and do and experience certain things helps understand those things in precisely the ways that enable productive conversations about them. And that understanding can’t come from imagination. We just don’t have that sort of predictive power, as a species yet. We don’t know enough to predict in detail how as humans we will react to things we’ve never known before. For instance I don’t believe any woman who has not worn the hijab day in and day out, from childhood, through school and work and in public and not, understanding and grappling with it in various ways, can imagine the thousands of little bits and pieces of hurt and dehumanization that can come from it. I don’t believe that people growing up in insular white communities can have any real understanding of the pervasiveness of racism in this country, unless they intimately know and love PoC who suffer from this and see the everyday struggles that face them wherever they go–likewise for people who don’t understand the struggles of being queer etc. Some people clearly think these notions absurd, others have had radically different, positive forms of a similar experience. But it’s hard to make arguments regarding these things as they affect real people without listening to these stories, learning the hows and whys of what happens to people.

So do, do ask that question of what makes people cleave to oppressive ideology, and consider it fair, just, enlightened. But ask it seriously, ask it earnestly, ask it because you care about the people it regards–and if you don’t, then go somewhere else. This is a place for those who do.

Related:

What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is

PART TWO: What it is like to be a Muslim woman

What it is like to be an ex-Muslim woman

What it is like to grow up in Hezbollah culture

HI! If you like the work I do here, consider donating a small amount to help keep this blog running, and to help me get to secular humanist conferences! I’ll be at Women in Secularism 3 this month. Come say hi!

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Comment policy: I will not approve comments giving apologetic pseudo-arguments attempting to mitigate the seriousness of sexual harassment, fetishization, bullying, appropriation, mental illness etc, not least because these are examples and tangential to the post at hand, and I will no longer be drawn into debates about tangents, but also because my forum is not a place to give voice to those views, and I am not interested in educating people through their bigotries through that medium.

No, Doc, you are NOT a hero for telling my daddy I’m a virgin

Virginity test doge

 

Hey! Guess what the subject of this blog post is! Virginity tests! Again!!! Joy!

But first, here is a bit of a preamble talking about my tone in this piece and my approach regarding critique of Islam in general. If you don’t want to hear it, you can scroll down to Part Two and read what I have to say about virginity tests. Suffice to know that yup, The Snark™: I am bringing it with this one, because I’m going to talk about my own virginity test, my own trauma, and I will do it on my own terms.

Part One: On Snark, the Tone Police, and Bad Allies

So in the stark majority of my posts I try to regulate my tone lest I am read to be condescending or arrogant while I’m making these arguments regarding the horrors women like me have been through–and I think that’s a good strategy in general, overall, and I will employ it repeatedly, and I advocate its general use. But you know, sometimes, you gotta bring the snark, knowing that there are people who will hate what you have to say anyway, because there are certain things you deserve to be assertive and harsh about–I feel that my virginity test is definitely one of those things.

And it’s kind of a larger issue. Don’t get me wrong, I get a whole lot of beautiful, invigorating support. The support and appreciation of my readers has kept me going when I’ve wanted to quit, and has helped me take care of myself when I’ve been too crippled by PTSD and depression to keep things going. Messages from people who feel supported, validated, who feel hope that I am saying what I say help me keep going too. And of course, I get tons of really civil and reasonable disagreements and requests for clarifications, and compelling challenges to my arguments that don’t unethically misrepresent my positions–that’s all good too. So what I’m talking about now is about a very powerful and systematic minority of responses. Keep that in mind:

There’s a consistent way that the contributions of women like me are treated by these people, from both ends. There’s this weird tone policing from purported allies, this same shit that implies that we have to dissent in exactly the ways that they say we must dissent, to paraphrase a friend of mine who is now suffering severe backlash for her role in The Honor Diaries. Unless we agree with and pander to the opinions of all popular liberal critique of Islam, we’re going to have a hard time. It doesn’t matter how good our reasoning or arguments are–if we are snarky or sarcastic we’re accused of being arrogant and condescending and our views discounted. If we take issue or disagree with or critique some famous guy’s positions or approaches, or even if we fucking ask for more representation instead of being overshadowed by people not as equipped as we to discuss our own experiences and traumas, especially if we use words like ‘white’, ‘liberal’ and ‘racist’ in regard to very specific circumstances and people– then that obviously means we’re saying that other people aren’t allowed to critique Islam, or that critiquing Islam is racist (lol), that we don’t support other people who want to critique Islam, and we are being Bad Critiquers™ of Islam, and we should Feel Bad. If we disagree with that one guy indiscriminately bashing Islam on Twitter or if we moooooostly like Sam Harris but don’t want him to be the driving voice regarding our issues over our own voices, then we are making enemies and we must have such feewwwwww friends, and if we have so few friends to begin with, how can we afford to value nuance and high standards of inquiry? Because a couple of famous guys are the be-all and end-all of critique of Islam, amirite, and our entire thriving, supportive ex-Muslim communities, our progressive Muslim allies, and the liberal skeptic, feminist, and atheist movements that support us don’t count because everyone knows that Brown Friends™ aren’t Real Friends™. I mean, way to prove the point about ex-Muslim and progressive Muslim erasure–the fact that we are so ignored and invisible is the reason I claim that maaaaaayyyyybeeeeeee we need to be given more representation regarding this issue.

And in the majority of my posts, I don’t often talk like this. I make great effort to seriously, carefully examine the issue at hand. The caveats come rolling aplenty. But inevitably a bunch of folks will come along and have a problem with it, in a particularly persistent and exhausting way. If you try to give an even-handed, nuanced account of atrocities that does anything other than give a blanket condemnation of Muslims everywhere, based on you know, your extensive knowledge and lived experience of that sort of thing, then you get these people who come around and in a really laughable condescending way explain how it’s important to critique the treatment of women in Muslim societies and to support evvvverrrrrryyyyyyyyy liberal who does it and enables it too. Like seriously, some people actually try to explain to me how Muslim women are oppressed, totally unaware of how oblivious they appear while doing that–like, while they’re talking to someone who was hunted down by an Islamist organization and whose abuse, assault, and torture was enabled and covered up by it, and who wore hijab against her will for 15 years. Like do you realize how fucked up you sound trying to explain to me that Muslim women suffer. And why? because you take issue with my regard for nuance and my condemnation of the destructive purposelessness of blanket insults to Islam? Get the fuck out of here, for serious.

And yeah, I’m sure that some of the people reading this right now are already really pissed and are totally thinking precisely-not-what-I-saidisms like ‘what, so now we can’t talk about the suffering of women unless we experienced it ourselves?’, ‘what, so now we can’t criticize Islam unless we know everything about it?’ and other straw-manny indignant positions that boil down to “I would like to express my opinion on this subject without anybody critiquing my approach, position, or relevance, without being corrected, challenged, or even considering that I may be silencing the people I claim to be defending while doing it, and be unequivocally received with applause and acclaim for being supportive.” Look, it’s nice that you care about critiquing Islam, and you can say whatever you want about it. I have never claimed that people of any gender, ethnicity, or national belonging can’t or shouldn’t talk about Islam–but I don’t have to think that your methods and knowledge are completely rigorous or adequate, and I don’t have to shower you in thanks for doing the fundamentally non-douchey thing of recognizing that we need to address and critique the causes of blatant human suffering.

And I’m sure others who are reading this are like “but I don’t do any of that! I’ve always expressed kindness and support”–Thank you! I’ll remind you that I’m not talking about you then–(just like I say to the hijabi who says ‘but I wear my hijab out of my own free and proud choice’ that that’s great and all, but I’m not talking about her- I’m talking about the people who are precisely not her). But it all bears repeating. A lot. I said it above, I’m repeating it here, and I’ll repeat it again before long–much love, kudos, and gratefulness to all of my supporters and friends. This is the lesson you learn when you write extensively– that even multiple disclaimers and caveats aren’t enough to clarify to some people that I’m talking about specific things in specific contexts instead of generalizing.

The flipside, of course, is the crowd of condescending Muslim commentators who exhibit a frightening lack of human compassion and integrity, who value defense of an ideology over acknowledging the suffering of real people, who brush over the thousands of words you’ve painstakingly crafted examining the circumstances that oppress women in detail, your condemnations of anti-Muslim bigotry, your attention to specificity and the sources you cite to support the religious nature of the oppression you critique, your attempts to be as fair as you can be, the caveats you keep giving, the way you repeatedly condemn blanket generalizations and all your disclaimers about your experiences not being  universally representative–none of that matters because they have an urgent, compelling need tell you that you’re wrong about everything you know or say, that you don’t understand anything about Islam and you don’t really know what the hijab you wore for 15 years in the Middle East is about. And then there are the  inevitable violent, aggressive, and sexual threats I receive in my various inboxes, pretty much proving all my points. I’d say more about that, but you know, I don’t expect anything other from them–they’re not my purported allies, and they’re going to keep on coming..

None of this is to say that because a powerful minority approaches me in this manner that I should give up my dedication to an even-handed, non-sarcastic, careful mode of writing most of the time, because it is valuable. But there are times when it’s cathartic and empowering to mix the tone up a little bit, and, knowing that the tone policing is going to happen anyway, no matter how careful I am, I’ma say fuck it this time and just bring on the snark and the sarcasm (which incidentally, none of my pseudo-allies have a problem with if I use it against Muslim denialists and apologists). You want to hear it, read on! If you can’t stomach it, away with ye! I’m going to talk about things in as direct and abrasive a manner as I want to.

Shout-out here to the many beautiful, loving fans and allies who don’t do any of the above–you are everything that keeps this blog running, for serious.

TL: DR Today, I’m going to write about my virginity test again, because it’s my trauma, and I don’t have to apologetic and pandering about it, and people are going to comment about how insufferable I sound about the whole thing and GAWSH why can’t I just be GRATEFUL that people are trying to SUPPORT me, but you know *shrug*, who am I to critique the way people talk about the circumstances that oppressed me my whole life, heaven forbid I condescend to those who try to speak over me and explain my own trauma to me.

Part Two: No, Doc, you are NOT a hero for telling my daddy I’m a virgin

So someone linked to this Reddit comment thread in one of my Ex-Muslim groups. The comment being discussed is by an expat doctor in Saudi Arabia talking about how he sometimes has to perform virginity tests on girls getting ready to marry, and he risks his practice by issuing virginity certificates to the girls who don’t ‘pass’ the test, so to speak, in order to try to help and protect them from the shame and backlash of their families. And he has thousands of upvotes, and the whole thread is basically a fest of commentators patting him on the back, talking about what a hero and help he is to these young women, some of whom he described as sobbing in shame during the procedure.

And it really does kind of make me sick, as someone who has been trying to come to terms with the trauma of this forced procedure for the past few years. I’ve frankly just been trying to do my best to just not hate the gynecologist who did it to me. I’m incredibly disheartened that in most of this thread there is little discussion of the procedure itself and of consent, little mention of how a girl being brought by her parents to have this done to her, unless she’s completely on board and desirous of the process herself, is being touched non-consensually, against her will. It’s a humiliating and traumatizing thing to go through, and it is a form of assault. Why are these people not discussing the assault and non-consent aspect of this at all?

It seems to have totally gone over all of their heads that what is problematic about this whole thing is not just how ignorant and bigoted people will treat daughters who are not virgins, that it’s not just about reducing the purity and worth of a woman to a piece of tissue, that it’s not just the bad science and the weird fixation on controlling women’s bodies it entails–that the procedure itself is a non-consensual invasion of women’s bodies, that the procedure itself affects women like us, possibly for years to come. Independent of what happens as a result of it. They haven’t begun to consider what it is like for us, against our will, at the whim and power of our parents who effectively own our bodies, to lay prone and helpless before a stranger who will touch our genitals and examine them in order to judge our purity and worth in an entirely unnecessary and dehumanizing procedure. And did someone on that thread seriously compare the custom of forcing girls to undergo virginity tests with other cultural customs like eating Turkey on Thanksgiving? Fucking cultural relativists, I swear.

Before I express the greatest of my many very strong sentiments regarding this thread and what’s happening in it, let me acknowledge some of the ‘buts’ probably brewing in your brains:

Yes, I recognize that it is likely that this doctor and others in his position have very little choice in conducting these tests–that it is probably impossible for him to just pretend that he did it because family might be present in the room for the procedure (for instance–my mom was there with me during mine–she couldn’t see exactly what the doctor was doing, but even if a doctor is only pretending to touch and probe, being prone and exposed to a stranger against your will is likely traumatic in itself).

Yes, I recognize that if he refused to do it, someone else very likely would, and that someone else might not be willing to lie about a girl’s virginity status to help them. Yes, I recognize it’s a fucked up and difficult choice for anyone to have to make, a supremely unenviable position to be put into, and that he seems to be expressing plenty of regret and empathy and distress at the entire situation, that there are dynamics of control and constraint that are prevalent and inescapable in situations as these, and he’s not from the outside perpetrating the system, but rather pulled into it himself at least in part against his will.

And I’ve been trying to come to terms with my virginity test for years, trying to have compassion and understanding for the doctor who so nonchalantly held me down and touched me. I wrote a blog post trying to explore her reasoning, trying to think of all the difficult constraints she faced, all the limited options she had, trying to remember that she too was caught in the same system that I was, and it was probably difficult, damning for her. I’ve tried, over the years, to recognize that yes, there is much to be said about how hard it is to choose the unequivocally ethical option in such a circumstance, and this doctor in Saudi Arabia–I don’t envy him being in that position.

None of that is to say, though, that he deserves roaring acclaim, that he is a hero to women like me. There’s a far cry between recognizing that someone is in a very difficult position trying to do the best he can and making him seem like a hero and savior to the poor women that pass under his probing tools. But there’s a reason that it’s such a difficult and damning choice to have to make–because there’s no right choice, there’s no easy option–it perpetuates suffering all around–damned if you do, damned if you don’t–and that’s why it’s still a tragedy. That’s why it’s not a matter of heroics. It’s still damned if you don’t–except the praise seems to be coming in because they recognize the potential cost to him and his practice if he’s caught lying about these tests–ie, how he is damned for this–rather than recognizing how damning and fucked up it is for the women who have to undergo the procedure. How blindsided, really.

And not that he asked for all of these people to come along treating him like a savior, but he does seem to be handling the praise with a good amount of complacency, and has made comments about thinking he’s doing good, hasn’t addressed how problematic the procedure is itself, even somewhat unbelievably mentioning the tears of girls undergoing it as a product of shame for not being virgins without thinking of other reasons why someone being examined thus might be distressed–and I’m almost dumbfounded by the complete and utter obliviousness of all these people to what is going on here.

And I’m sitting here reading all these comments from people about the women who’ve had to suffer through this ordeal, calling this doctor a hero to women like us, saying that there’s no way to understand how much a doctor such as this has helped the lives of these young women-and all this while, I’m sitting here with flashbacks of my virginity test and thinking do they not realize that he’s the one doing this traumatic and dehumanizing thing to those women?

[Activate full-on snark]. Like, I fucking have been struggling for years trying not to HATE the gynecologist who somehow found herself capable of doing that shit to me for making such a fucked up choice. She’s not my hero because she told my daddy I’m a virgin. She held me down and touched me without my consent. Fuck this shit. Don’t you fucking act like this guy is some noble savior for agreeing to invade women’s bodies and then keeping his mouth shut about it if they’re not virgins. Don’t fucking act like we must be grateful for this. Don’t fucking act like we’ve been granted a shining boon and we must skip along merrily for it if someone who just finished probing our genitals doesn’t accurately report the state of our torn hymens.  Like, oh, you engaged in this dehumanizing and nonconsensual practice? Let’s fucking give you gold stars and call you a hero because you handed out certificates afterwards.

I mean the *irony* you know? Because the reasoning, presumably, for lying about these women’s virginity is so that they won’t suffer violation at the hands of their families for it. But in order to do so you conduct a procedure that VIOLATES THEM? Like, is it so outside of your fucking radar to not see how you’ve just supremely defeated the purpose by essentially assaulting someone in order to help keep them from harm?

But you know, this isn’t about the women, it really isn’t–what it must be like for them, their lives, their will, their bodies–so little of it is considered or thought about with any measure of sympathy or imagination. The whole thread–it doesn’t focus on the women regarding the procedure in question. It focuses on an othering appraisal of ‘these societies’ and ‘these customs’, talking about us as if we’re specimens in a zoo, and the choice the doctor was faced with and how difficult it is and how magically magnanimous he is and what an experience to have! and he should write a book about it! and be on talkshows!, because our dehumanization is your selling point! and then the whole strain of apologetic defenses of the cultures that perpetrate this bullshit and BLERGH. Talk about the actual living people who go through this and consider the horror of it all to them instead of treating them like curious specimens who are just so supported and helped by this guy–nope, nope. The very implication that I should be grateful to someone who’s done this to me–it makes me want to gag.

To any doctor, no matter how constrained, who performs virginity tests, I say:

No, Doc, you are NOT a hero for telling my daddy I’m a virgin. I am not your oppressed curiosity. You do not get to pat yourself on the back for helping me. You cannot imagine the trauma and pain of any of this. This isn’t about you and the supreme difficulty of the choice you have to make to violate others or be complicit in their violation–forgive us if we don’t melt into ecstatic thanks for the magnanimity of your choosing the somewhat less-shitty option, and appreciate just how much it fucking costs you to have to violate our bodies.

And enough, enough, in general of all of these narratives regarding the treatment of brown women being about those who deal with us and their attempts to help or whatever–it is not about them. It is about us–all of us.

It’s been 7 years for me. It doesn’t just become fixed, voila,  an experience like that, you know, if you tell my dad that I’m a virgin and you explain to my parents that hymens aren’t a reliable marker of virginity to begin with.  It doesn’t erase it. It doesn’t fix it. You’re not a hero, I do not have to be grateful to you, and I don’t need strangers who can’t conceive of what any of this is like talking about its unimaginable how much you’ve helped me. I can try to sympathize with you, though, to understand the difficulty and constraint of your choice, I will try as hard as I can not to blame or condemn you for it-but that is as generous and magnanimous as I can possibly get. I will never forget how you touched me against my will.

-Marwa

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The racism of the white wolf who cried Islamophobia

 

There’s a bee in my bonnet. Let’s talk about the racism of the white wolf who cried Islamophobia.

I’m tired of a certain faction of Western liberals, especially white guys, Westsplaining about how anti-Muslim bigotry and Western colonialism and imperialism and international geopolitics provide *essential context* for understanding the sources of Muslim problems, which don’t come from a vacuum, how there are striking *parallels* between liberal critique of Islam and right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry.

Hey guy, I had no idea that you had such an adept understanding of what it’s like to live in a Muslim culture under the influence of the effects Western colonialism and international geopolitics. Please, tell me more, Westsplain to me, oh white man, how imperialism is responsible for me being forced to wear hijab for 15 years, suffering honor violence, and living a dangerous double life until my escape. Please condescendingly explain to me in the terms of your own culture where my oppression *really* comes from.

Look, I’m not denying that imperialism and geopolitics certainly help this ish along, often significantly. I’m not denying that anti-Muslim bigotry is a pervasive and significant problem. But those things are not an *explanation*. They are contributing factors at best that neither sufficiently explain nor excuse the blatant transgressions of Muslims and the horrible conditions in Muslim-majority countries. There is also an ironic lack of focus on Arab imperialism and the manner in which Islam has been reified, propagated, and been used to justify horrors in the Middle East and South Asia *far preceding* the West dipping its fingers into that mess. Sorry to strip you of credit for this, really, but it’s not the West that created the dehumanizing elements of Muslim cultures. There is also ironic lack of focus on the booming (essentially) slave trade disguised as a migrant worker system exploiting Africans and South and Southeast Asians that is utterly normalized in the Gulf and Levant. This isn’t some big bad monster wrought by the damning hand of Western imperialism and anti-Muslim bigotry. It has well transcended reasonable standards of the acceptable under those constraints, and the prevalence of normalized oppressive sentiment is not some fringe side effect of the injustices of white men. Growing up in Hezbollah culture, it was plain to see how Western-driven war and occupation helped fuel the return to fundamentalist Shia Islam, but it hardly exonerates us South Lebanese and Lebanese-Palestinian mashups from responsibility for the decisions we’ve made since then, for our violence and bigotry, for the culture of control and oppression and we’ve rooted ourselves into in response to these problems. Surely it doesn’t come from a vacuum, but you might have to live and be socialized in a Muslim country under the effects of such imperialism to recognize how fully much of it comes from ourselves, how essentialized scripture and deeply-rooted honor-shame codes fuel Islamism and the grave and rote dehumanization built into our cultures.

Sorry, but the West can’t take credit for this too.

And the supreme irony here? The blatant condescension of this PoV. It really is such a white-centric thing to try to explain the Muslim issue in those terms, to essentialize our problems in terms of your culture’s imperialism. It is also–and I’m not holding my breath for anyone to realize this anytime soon–buying into the same anti-brown racism to continually draw analogies between liberal critiques of Islam and right-wing anti-Muslim bigotries, to present eg the often-racist ignorant spewings of Dawkins and his ilk as the FACE of liberal and atheist discourse regarding the matter so you can self-righteously jump to condemn the obviously condemnable just as you raise it to the level of being representative of the entire liberal and atheist community, ironically completely drowning out and excluding the voices of Ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims, especially women, from the categories of ‘Western’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘atheist discourse’, othering us and contributing to our silence and marginalization. We don’t want Dawkins and Harris to be the driving voices of liberal discourse regarding Islam either. Stop excluding us. Stop alienating us. Stop reducing us to the norms of our home cultures, as if we’re incapable of engaging with them or transcending them, and stop creating a binary between us and our values and liberalism and its values.

Stop making our issues about you and your imperialism. By focusing so long and hard on your condemnation of anti-Muslim bigotry and white savior complexes, you are silencing us. You are othering us. You are explaining things about the very people whose marginalization you decry over and above their own voices and lived experiences. Cut that shit out.

And this is what I hear from you when you continually raise the flag of anti-imperialism above all other concerns regarding the Muslim issues. I hear that you do not think well enough of us as Muslims and Arabs and Persians and Kurds and Turks and South Asians and Africans to grapple with these imperialistic and geopolitical forces without being expected to refrain from falling into dehumanization and violence because of them.

That, because of imperialism, it is okay to hold us to standards that deplete to even the sub-human.

That we cannot or should not be responsible, strong, or aware enough to resist becoming aggressors ourselves because we have been aggressed against.

That Western imperialism is a greater driving force than anything we make, say, or do.

That you do not believe that Muslims and Ex-Muslims and people from Muslim-majority countries speaking on the matter–whether in affirming or critiquing ways–are powerful enough voices to speak to their own experiences, or to be taken as key or representative.

That it is okay for you to refuse to acknowledge our oppression as specifically non-white in source in order to avoid enabling the ‘save the brown women narrative’, because you somehow can’t see anything other than such a white-centric result being possible, as if we do not fucking exist as powerful critiquers of our own cultures, as if acknowledging the oppressive matters of fact of our existence suddenly renders us weak or incapable of engaging with it, as if your refusal to acknowledge our victimhood is anything more noble than a silencing mechanism, because you yourself somehow subscribe to some strange essentializing view that a victimized brown woman is a silent and passive one.

I hear you implying, too, that you have any real experiential knowledge from which to assess the horrors of Western imperialism vs the horrors of Islamist control and misogyny and decide which to decry. That in your transcending fear of enabling the right-wing bigotry that leads to further imperialist force, you can and will make judgments as to what is best for us regarding which of the damning powers contributing to our shitty lives should be enabled or discouraged, that you can and will make judgments as to which of the damning powers holding us down and controlling us is more or less serious or grave.

That, friend, is what is fucking racist.

-Marwa

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UPDATE ABOUT YOUR QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS:

I have had responses to this piece coming from various platforms (email, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit) and two lines of questioning continue to reappear, so I’ll address them here. This will be the final place I will address them *on this post*. This is what I have to say about the subject and I will not approve further comments that ask questions that have already been answered below (including in the pieces I will link to) or that repeat points made by others. I will not approve further comments that misrepresent or misunderstand my position. I will approve comments that ask or point out something new, but I won’t engage with them — please understand that I’ve been responding to questions and explaining my position for a long time and I need a small break. I *will* try to write future posts regarding these things in more detail:

1) Questions about my addressing liberal Westerners and white men and talking about racism regarding Muslims. Some people continue to point out that 1) being white and being Western ought not to determine whether/how Islam can be reasonably talked about, and 2) especially as Muslims can be and are white and Western too. As for the first point, I don’t disagree as a matter of necessity, but I will stress that your background is relevant to the amount of knowledge and experience that informs and strengthens your arguments. As for the second point – YES- that only reinforces my stance. Perhaps some subtleties of my argument above need explaining:

The proponents of the argument that I’m critiquing endorse it *precisely because* they feel, *particularly as* white Westerners who want to acknowledge and grapple with their privilege, it would be racist to critique Islam due to the inluence of the West in Muslim -majority countries worldwide. I’m showing that *in their very attempts* to not be racist towards brown people, who *they* are concerned with as constituting the majority of Muslims worldwide, they are excluding us from the categories of “Western” and “liberal” and silencing us and speaking for us — which is *ironically* racist because their argument to start with is born of an awareness of their whiteness and Westernness and a desire to not be appropriative of others. My piece is in critique of the fundamentally flawed premise that their argument is anti-racist. Thus I’m grappling with the terms the original argument sets out in order to meet it head on. THAT is why racism and being Western and white is relevant. Thus eg the “oh white man” in the second paragraph is used satirically– when white guys consistently say “as a white guy I think we need to not talk about Islam because of how our colonialism and imperialism and islamiphobia leads to these problems for the Muslim world”, it is appropriate to respond by saying “hey white guy, you’re silencing us in your very attempt to not appropriate us”. When being white and Western is the reason *given* for this stance, It’s appropriate to respond according to those terms.

If that’s still unclear maybe I’m just bad at explaining. But if you still dont get what I’m doing in this piece, I’m sorry, I dont really know how to further elaborate.

2) Questions about why/how I am calling Dawkins racist and what problem I have with Harris.

Re: Dawkins. I said Dawkin’s stances are often racist– this has nothing to do with him being white or him critiquing Islam. Let me emphasize: *I want everyone of all backgrounds with adequate knowledge to continue to be free to critique Islam without blame for doing it as such*. It has to do with the racializing and othering *manner* in which I have great reason to believe *Dawkins in particular* does it. Yes, Islam is not a race — but neither are *most things* that are or can be discussed in racist ways, eg rap music, poor working single moms, sports mascots, Halloween costumes, etc. While critique of Islam doesn’t have to be racist, and so much of it is NOT, it certainly can be. So here it is: I find the *manner in which* Dawkins discusses Islam (and to be honest, feminism and sexual harassment too) to be often fundamentally problematic. And to be clear, I’m a fan of a good portion of Dawkins’ work on biology and atheism. I wrote a paper for Dennett’s graduate seminar in defense of the selfish gene theory. So my stance is also not so much regarding either Dawkins himself or the bulk of his work, but regarding particular of his stances on particular subjects he is less adept in.

For a little more detail to why I think Dawkin’s approach is often incredibly problematic, there’s this post (and the post to which it’s replying) that detail a lot of my views regarding critique of Islam. I don’t go into too many specifics of many of his particular stances, choosing instead to comment on his general approach. I suppose I could go into detail in the future, but I’m not super invested because I think there are far important things to devote my limited resources to discussing than critiquing Dawkins, and several people have already written on the matter in compelling ways. But in any case, this post clarifies a lot regarding my standards for reasoned critique of Islam:

https://aveilandadarkplace.com/2013/08/14/how-can-we-discuss-islam-in-better-ways-a-response-to-alex-gabriel-on-dawkins-and-islam/

As for Harris, I *did not* say his stances are often racist as I did about Dawkins, so please don’t conflate the two statements. I love a lot of what he does, especially because he is careful and detailed and freely fearlessly outspoken, and I take far issue with a very few of his stances (except as regarding his encouragement of what is basically racial profiling in airports but I’d have to tackle his detailed argument in detail myself to clarify my stance regarding that)– my statement was rather that I don’t want his voice to be the driving one in liberal discourse regarding Islam I hope to see ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims, who are more knowledgeable and uniquely experienced and can speak first-hand to certain horrors in Muslim-majority countries in articulate, compelling ways– ESPECIALLY women, the largest sufferers under Islamism, have their voices enabled as the leaders of this discourse instead of being consistently overshadowed by famous Western men speaking for them–I hope Harris et al to be strong secondary voices in support of us, in addition to ours, but for us to no longer be silenced in the name of anti-racist liberalism.

I make a strong argument for the adequate representation of ex-Muslim women here:

https://aveilandadarkplace.com/2014/03/19/ex-hijabi-interviews-and-the-underrepesentation-of-ex-muslim-women/

An excerpt:

”To be clear, it is a wonderful thing that we have allies, friends, and supporters championing our causes to highlight and critique the circumstances that have structured our experiences. However, the status quo at the moment in mainstream media has those voices largely overpowering ours when it comes to speaking about our experiences. Despite the fact that this is less than ideal for powerful, effective critique. Why give space to secondary sources when people with more insight and knowledge are easily accessible and readily available to speak for themselves? People who have lived knowledge of the intricacies of the power-privilege and honor-shame dynamics of the societies in question, who were intimately involved in the very religious systems that are being scrutinized? Women are often the greatest sufferers under Islam, and our experiences can be very difficult to adequately imagine and capture indeed. Why forgo the opportunity to let us tell the powerful, compelling, sometimes unbelievable stories of our lives and our critiques of them? Especially when so many of us are so incredibly intelligent and articulate when it comes to these matters. To be clear, secondary sources are a strong asset to support and champion our own–but when they are magnified to our exclusion, there is something quite amiss going on.

… Now imagine if the largest liberal platform regarding this issue was given to Ex-Muslims, who are largely people of color who were socialized and lived enmeshed lives in Muslim-majority countries and societies, who have the requisite knowledge and experience to discuss these matters in informed ways, who are far less likely to fall into mistaken generalizations. Who also cannot be easily discounted as ignorant appropriators–who have incisive, eloquent critiques to give about being marginalized, who refuse to be swept aside using the No True Muslim fallacy. Who will not stand to have their legitimacy to speak about their own lives challenged without powerful retort.”

Thanks for reading. Well wishes.

A Tirade of Snark to My Clueless Muslim Critics

muslimah dogeHerein I unleash the snark. I can’t always wax gently lyrical.

Context: My last blog post was about having conversations regarding sex and virginity with family, a musing exploration of the disconnect in exchanging ideas while trying to understand each other.

This morning I approved a new comment on the blog from a lady who had several objections to it. She seems very earnest, especially as she followed my blog after submitting her comment, so I thought I’d actually reply even though I mostly refrain from addressing comments that are all over the place and so particularly straw-manny (I just don’t have the time, really). But in typing up a reply, I realized that I was rambling pretty fierce, too long for just a comment, but also that I was addressing a lot of stock responses I hear to this sort of thing, and it wasn’t really about one person’s comment, but about a collective mindset–one that, in a supreme and kind of satisfying culmination of irony, corroborates the very offending ideas in my original post about how sex and virginity is dealt with–

–it’s kind of sadly elegant, really.

But the mindset is there, it’s prevalent and rote and you know, sometimes I feel like I wonder if I’m being uncharitable in my positions but there’s such a brewing of disgust within me at the insidious self-righteousness of these sorts of responses that this does not seem at all like a low enough jab but I’ll say it:

You can string out the same tired sentences and stances a thousand and one times and they’ll still be as flawed and dishonest and inhumane as ever, these phrases, ‘oh, Islam grants women her rights, don’t you know, preserves honor, dignity, and doesn’t condone mistreatment’ and seriously, I ask you, do we live in the same world?

I’m cracking my fingers here, getting ready–and I’ll stop to say that this isn’t truly about singling out one comment or one person–I don’t expect the person to even have the stamina to read the whole thing, and I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t feel myself to be reading another iteration of the same exact formula again and again, and I think it’s worth addressing at least in a semi-permanent place at least once, so the next time I receive these responses, I can just *plop* link ‘em all to my response to this, which so eloquently captures much of their spirit. I quote for layered responses–if you don’t have time or energy to read the whole thing, you can just read the responses to the quotes you’re interested in. You can see the full comment as it appears at the original post but I’m shuffling things around to respond to them.

I’ma start with the juicy stuff, the fiery indignation that I even suggest marital rape is condoned by Islam. Oh noes:

“Islam does not permit marital rape, how can you even state that..’One of the Prophet’s companions once asked him, “Messenger of Allah, what is the right the wife of one of us has on him?” he said, “To feed her whenever you feed yourself and to clothe her whenever you clothe yourself; do not slap her across the face, revile her or separate yourself from her except in the house.”(Sunan Abu Daawood: 2142)’ How can that much humbleness approve marital rape..”

Uhm okay, you quote a hadith that has…nothing…to do with marital sex as relevant proof? But before telling you how I can possibly state that Islam permits marital rape… let’s talk about this hadith of “much humbleness”. I find it really striking and somewhat alarming that you think that the bare minimum of food,  clothing, and not slapping a woman on the face (but elsewhere is fine, yes?) are indicators of humbleness. Oh, and don’t revile her or separate yourself from her–unless you’re at home, then it’s okay! Revile her all you want. I mean, honestly? You seem to have very low standards for how your life partner ought to treat you.  Oh what generosity, to consider her worthy of the same food! Nor does her slap her–astounding! I’m frankly utterly disgusted at such arrogance. Fuck you, guy, oh how fucking humble and generous of you to not fucking slap me.

But I don’t know, maybe you think that’s all you deserve. Whatever, it’s your life, and maybe that does something for you. But it’s kind of a far leap to claim that if someone feeds and clothes and doesn’t beat their wife they can’t POSSIBLY coerce her into unwanted sex. I’d be actually very unsurprised if someone who thought themselves magnanimous in showing the most basic dregs of human empathy to their supposed life partner also thought he has some sort of right to her body.

And look, in all seriousness here, because I’m replying to this ish in a meta sort of way, here’s my claim to why I think this non-argument is just so representative: so often we point to these injustices prevalent in Muslim-majority societies, we claim they’re influenced, enforced, legislated, protected by scripture and then the responses end up being a lot of sideways “but look at this other irrelevent piece of scripture over here that presents Muslims as kind or decent or humble or whatever’ nonsense, as if that is some sort of proof that invalidates the real influence of other far more powerful and far more internalized values within the culture-society code. I mean, axe-murderers can pet puppies, you know? pointing incessantly to the puppy is diversionary as hell and an insidious tactic used to drown out a million screams. I don’t really seem much value in a husband who lets his wife fucking eat if he thinks he has some fundamental right to her body, yeesh.

But you know, if you want some scripture on the subject directly instead of this diversionary shit, here are two corroborated hadith that directly address marital sex. I can pull up fatwas from various respected scholars in various denominations, but man I don’t have the stomach to listen to that buffoonery right now:

“Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) said, ” If a husband calls his wife to his bed (i.e. to have sexual relations) and she refuses and causes him to sleep in anger, the angels will curse her till morning.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Vol. 4 Hadith No. 460 & Sahih Muslim Vol. 2 Hadith No. 3368) ————————————————– Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said, ” When a man calls his wife to satisfy his desire she must go to him even if she is occupied at the oven.” (Al Tirmidhi Hadith No. 1160 & Ibn Ma’jah Hadith No. 4165)

(Even if she’s doing something as important as COOKING, good lord! They’ve thought of everything!)

But yeah, to answer the rhetorical-ish question regarding how I can possibly state that Islam condones marital rape. Let’s move from the ahadith to here:

File:Marital rape criminalized map.svg

  Marital rape is criminalized
  Marital rape is criminalized only if the couple is legally separated
  Marital rape is a form of non-criminal domestic violence
  Marital rape is known not to be criminalized
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marital_rape

To begin: these are the Muslim-majority countries in which marital rape is legal: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait,  Morocco, Oman,  Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, South Sudan,  Sudan, Syria, Yemen. Not only are most Muslim countries on this list, most of the countries on the full list are Muslim countries. There are reasons for this statistical correlation: dozens of religious authorities with established scholarship in their sects have substantiated the Islamic right of a husband to his wife’s body whenever he pleases. In my native Lebanon,  draft laws attempting to criminalize marital rape and domestic violence were shot down by the largest Shia and Sunni authorities in the country based in scriptural grounds. Something similar is going on in Pakistan right now. The justification is given on explicitly religious grounds wherever it is given. It can hardly be clearer. Inb4, whether you personally believe these rulings capture the spirit of the Islam you think you know,  they remain the law of the land in most places in which Islam is institutionally practiced.

Marriage to children, too–by definition rape,  as they are incapable of consent–is also justified and approved of in many Muslim-majority societies based on prophetic precedent and a number of corroborated ahadith, and attempts to change legislature in order to protect these children has time and again been met with opposition from religious authorities in multiple countries. So in short, to answer your question, it is the practices and beliefs of Muslims worldwide that lead me to claim marital rape is not considered a crime in Islam.  Perhaps I should have qualified my statement with “most” or “largely” as it’s not a universal belief; for that I apologize. My language would have done well to be more careful (as would yours have).

Moving forward, you have this gem, because it’s a howler:

“In any religion a husband would expect sex from his wife, and when she refuses a fight occurs, and ends in violence and abuse..The husband walks out leaving the wife bruised and crying on the kitchen floor while in search of a quickie… Islam protects us against the anger and hurt that would follow which would end in husband committing adultery and the end result would be divorce…”

Such rights! So protection! Much humanity! Not.

So…you think that a woman should have sex when she doesn’t want to so her husband doesn’t fight with her,  abuse her,  and cheat on her?  And you call this PROTECTION?  I hate to break it to you,  but what you described is the goddamn definition of marital rape.

And give me a moment for every goddamn LOL on the planet to your self righteous indignation at  the suggestion that Islam condones marital rape when you then turn around and explain why a woman should have sex if she doesn’t want to SO SHE CAN STAY SAFE.  As if safety is not a fundamental human right regardless of any goddamn circumstance without all these dehumanizing conditions.

You know what’s really gut-wrenchingly hilarious (in the sense that it makes me goddamn sick to my stomach) about the stark majority of these ‘women’s rights’ claims touted by Muslim apologists like you? They are all fucking conditional, these so-called rights. Hijab up so that you don’t get harassed, raped, so you can be treated like a human being instead of a piece of meat. Get permission to marry, divorce the husband of your ‘choice’, work the job of your ‘choice’. Have fucking sex with your husband when you don’t fucking want to so you don’t get fucking beaten and cheated on and divorced. Here’s a hint: if it’s conditional it’s not a right. It’s not magnanimity or justice to conditionally grant things that are supposed to be inalienable human rights to begin with.

Let’s make something clear.  One should not have to cover her body in order to NOT be assaulted or harassed. One should not have to have sex if she doesn’t feel like it in order to NOT be yelled at, beaten,  or cheated on.

Sex agreed to in order to avoid anger and violence and holding a marriage hostage to it is not consensual sex.  It’s pretty fucked up and totally unacceptable and there’s something seriously wrong with any religious code that condones something like this, yet you someone think it’s expected, you present it is something standard in ‘any religion’.

Expecting sex is a false premise here. If a religious code holds expecting sex as a right then it does not value consent. You do not value or understand consent if you believe this.

Someone who thinks they have even the slightest right to get angry or fight because their wife didn’t want to have sex does not value consent and is frankly a piece of shit.

Someone who finds that to be an acceptable justification for cheating in an agreed-upon monogamous relationship is also a piece of shit.

None of this is okay or a reasonable progression from someone denying sex. You know what not-rape sex is? It’s all informed adult individuals involved having sex because they want to fucking have sex.

Way to corroborate the very claims you found so offensive.

But let me jump back to the beginning:

“I do however disagree with your discreditation of Islam and what it permits and forbids. I’m a muslim female living in a westonized country, my dressing is westonized for which i will be answerable for, however my friends and people I’m acquainted with are dressed in hijaab and niqaab..”

Assuming you mean “Westernized”–

“You stated that conversations with female family members regarding sex and exploration of it would be silenced into a subject change.”

I actually didn’t, but go on….

“That has nothing to with Islam and what it commands, but should be questioned on the bond your family has with you. My family is staunch and very pious but our conversations has no limits..”

So, I’ve written before about the “That’s not the true Islam” argument and other iterations of stances that boil down to “Let’s shed Islam of all responsibility for the practices, beliefs, and interpretations of Muslims.” And this is really what this objection is; a cop-out. Congratulations:  if what you say is true, your family is in the minority among Muslim-majority families and societies, where sex is still incredibly stigmatized. Even Lebanon, which is likely the most liberal Muslim-majority country with a significant Christian population and thriving underground LGBTQ scene, has a huge sex stigma (eg,  http://dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Lifestyle/2014/Apr-02/251979-yallacondoms-keeping-lebanese-safe.ashx). The sex taboo has very much to do with Islam and its commands, seeing how it is religious attitudes and legislature that contribute to the stigmatization and criminalization of sex. And really, this is not so much about you presenting a different experience; it’s not as innocent as that, because if you’d said ‘oh hey those aren’t the beliefs of my Muslim family and my experiences’ that would have been a benign if utterly unremarkable statement (oh wait you mean that different people in different places believe and practice different versions of a religion? No way!!!). But it’s the most self-serving kind of dishonesty that will allow someone to deny ANY influence of the religious codes on sex stigma. I mean honestly? Religious codes that sanctify virginity and that prescribe violent punishment for extramarital sex–you think they has nothing to do with sex stigma?  When in the majority of scholarship-based interpretations of Islam, extramarital sex is viewed as a crime worthy of extreme violence or execution–that is, sex outside of marriage is met with whipping or stoning to death, depending on circumstances in the stark majority of scholarly interpretations of Islam? Yeah, it is kind of sickening for someone to turn around and try to claim that there is no Islamic influence on sex stigma where and when it exists. It’s not only denying a prevalent phenomenon that disadvantages millions of people, it’s considering the defense of an abstract set of ideas to have priority over human lives.

As for your accusations that I’m trying to use my family conversations as statements about Islam and what it commands…. ironically, while you made many blanket generalizations about Islam and what it is and isn’t,  I did not make any essentialist claims about Islam as such in this whole piece, excepting regarding marital rape, instead discussing the prevalent attitudes in the Muslim societies that I was raised in, the beliefs in my family. Surely you can see the difference? This is a distinction I’ve stressed in many blog posts , because there is little use in discussing an abstract, Platonic form of Islam independent of the incredible range and diversity of Muslim lived beliefs, practices, and interpretation.  Thus I’ll ask what you claim to mean when you reference Islam in such a way– are you claiming to present the overall view of all Muslims, as if there is such a unified thing? Or do you mean something else by Islam, something independent of the way in which Muslims practice and legislate? So what do you reference when you say Islam?   Which denomination?  Which interpretation,  practiced in which way by which society? Because your version of Islam is strictly incompatible with a plethora of ways in which Muslims worldwide believe and practice, whose legitimacy you discount as soon as you begin to talk about it in an essentialist way.

And let’s be real here. I write a blog post discussing conversations I have with my family members, where I describe a way of viewing sex and virginity, calling it consistent with the views of the Muslim societies that I grew up in–and even this recognition of the provincial, the localized context of my discussion is not enough to validate the conversation, the weighty ideas it tussles with, the human lives it affects, the women who are victimized, who suffer–because the mere association with a Muslim context renders whatever real human concern it is presenting as immaterial in light of the possibility that Islam is being insulted–the horror. Instead, I am accused of attempting to both characterize and discredit the entirety of Islam, because there are consistent near-militant  reactions (sometimes not-so-near, given the incredible violence of some reactions to critical portrayal of Muslims) to even discussing the problems in Muslim-majority societies in a critical way. And I find that to be incredibly alarming and uncompassionate.

Case in point. You say:

“Had you chosen to be a porn star would be your choice, but making Islam out to be ruthless and uncouth is something I’m disgusted at…”

(first: lol) then: *shrug* times a kajillion. Your disgust is kind of ironic here and it also does not trump the need to discuss real-world problems that don’t disappear just because you think  your personal understanding of Islam doesn’t condone them. When religious codes continue to influence,  structure,  and produce such societies, the need to actively talk about what’s going on trumps any defensive feelings.  In the blog post you so ardently needed to respond to I described the status quo in my own country, but to you even a mere description is offensive because it doesn’t line up with your view of Islam. Tough deal. Maybe you should be disgusted at the the state of things in Muslim-majority societies rather than the fact that someone dares to describe them.

Funny about the porn star comment though–you imply I can choose something like that without there being problems but you object to me even describing Muslim societies where a woman making a choice to even engage in a sexual relationship is forbidden. See, there’s a fundamental disconnect here and it’s clear that you don’t see it. If these religious codes weren’t socially and legally sanctioned, did not actually control the choices of women, then I wouldn’t be here talking about this ish. I don’t care about ‘discrediting’ Islam–I care about keeping it where it belongs, in the private sphere. But you know, you present this binary, my freedom of choice on one hand and then leaving Islam alone on the other, as if it’s some sort of equivalence, as if one of these rights has actually been granted to women like me in Muslim-majority societies order for the other regarding speaking about Islam to be respected. As if it’s even close to being an equivalent trade off, giving women their basic rights versus not having someone criticize your chosen ideology.

But yeah, moving forward:

“As a muslim saying that hijab often entails a desire not to tempt and sway men into transgression, into sin; shows the little you know about the beauty behind the female dress and the rights and protection that has Allah ordained for us..”

I mean, I guess that’s nice for you that you see beauty in these ordained dress codes? That doesn’t really change the fact that in many Muslim-majority societies where covering is a fixed social norm, not tempting men into sin is the core justification for it–I’m not sure if you were disputing that or if you were claiming that this justification is in fact beautiful thing. If it’s the former, then you disputing it doesn’t make it go away. If your view is rather that you think covering up in order to not sway men is a beautiful thing–well, I can’t deny that it surely is presented as such, especially with dehumanizing pearl-in-oyster analogies or whatever where women are compared to pretty objects with no agency. You have strange conceptions of beauty, I suppose, and that’s your right, regarding your own body–but the fact that we disagree about this is only an issue because women like me are forced into complying to these dress codes. It wouldn’t matter what I or anyone else thought about the hijab if it was only and ever a free choice women made for themselves. See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a beautiful thing or not–even beautiful things can be oppressive if coerced. The beauty you see in it is utterly irrelevant.

And this is all really what much of these Muslim apologist criticisms end up boiling down to: an inability to accept any critique as legitimate or allowed (or even fucking informed–every goddamn LOL ever at a woman who doesn’t wear hijab attempting to school me on a thing I lived for 15 years), while at the same time failing to realize that the point of this entire operation is not that we give some essential deep-felt flying fuck about disproving your precious religion; it’s about wanting to reform the conditions in Muslim-majority societies. And I have plenty of Muslim friends and acquaintances who, fuck, I find their beliefs to be utterly ridiculous, as ridiculous as a  belief in pixie dust that gives birth to bluebells every moonset, but they also believe in reform and establishing the freedom of choice for women worldwide that comes with a fundamental recognition of human rights, so their personal beliefs are radically immaterial to me. It is when you begin to paint your religion in any of its forms as absolutely innocent of the blood of millions worldwide, to shed yourself of association to this that I turn back around with the snarling fury the topic deserves.

“A women virginity does belong to her yes, but it is her izat that needs protecting..Izat’s a beautiful arabic word that defines a women’s pride and dignity, not just virginity..Izat is what اAllah commands her mahram( husband) to keep safe and protected from the world, the gossip that should follow , and the label people would create out of envy..”

Sister, do you even Arabic? I mean, give me a second to laugh my ass off at you trying to explain these tired concepts to me in my own native language, which you evidently don’t know. The izat you’re talking about is not Arabic but AFAIK both Hindi and Urdu and also not specific to Islam, and used in other religions practiced in South Asia. We have equivalent notions, of course, but different words. And that’s not what mahram means either, but whatever. I mean, if you’re going to try to be pedantic and repeatedly claim I don’t know what I’m talking about and don’t understand or know Islam well enough, then at least don’t make fuckups with your basic terminology. Meta-analysis, seriously guys: this is just such a prevalent thing, where people bring in their own cultural contextual bits of knowledge, often folk knowledge, of what their version of Islam IS and try to present it as representative (it’s perfectly fine and legitimate to speak to its own context of course) precisely in order to claim that others who are addressing a different and/or broader context are ignorant or misinformed. And often, when without considering that yes, we know all of that tired stuff, we were raised Muslim

But let’s get to the core of your claim: so these norms or laws etc preventing extramarital sex to are meant to protect some dignity-pride-honor thingamajig  so that women don’t have to suffer from the judgment of the world. Yeah…that gossip and labeling and shit doesn’t arise from a vacuum. It’s not the default natural state to look at a woman who has had sex as having lost some precious dignity ish–it’s when you attach this concept to her sexuality that it becomes possible to dehumanize her for having sex. Look, you’re describing is people being assholes about women who have sex and then you’re stipulating that instead of it being the responsibility of others to not be transgressing dicks, a woman should instead limit herself and hide behind her husband. This is utterly backwards. A society that operates on these premises is like one that believes in keeping innocents locked up to protect them instead of expecting criminals to not commit crimes.  And really this is an incredibly common way of thinking in Muslim-majority societies–it’s exactly the same reasoning that thinks a woman should cover her body up in order not to be attacked or disrespected rather than refusing to condone any kind of attack or disrespect regardless of her dress. It is why much of what I’ve described are enmeshed social norms instead of ideas misguided individuals have them. Here’s an alternative idea: people need to be responsible for their own actions towards other people and held accountable for them instead of claiming that people need to be limited and hidden so that others don’t hurt them.  THAT is the basis of an egalitarian society,  not this protection BS.

“I’ve had first hand experiences of school friends engaging in pre marital sex,convinced that their partner would marry them..99 per cent of the time he marries a women who has never been touched..If it does happen that the couple marries, the “bitch” label he tags her with never ceases to get old or wear off..With that label she gets the bonus of frequent doubts of which and how men she been with before him, even though he was the only one..”

*headdesk* Uhhh… you realize that the only reason these assholes think this way and treat their girlfriends like this is due to the same exact misogynistic double-standard patriarchal norms espoused by Abrahamic religions among other value systems? You realize this whole “oh she had sex with me therefore she has lost her pride and dignity and shame and thus am justified in mistreating her” is an attitude wholly supported by your religion,  and the solution again is NOT “therefore women shouldn’t have sex” but rather “therefore we should stop demonizing women who have sex and treating it like some shame and disgrace”? As long as your views maintain that a woman’s sexuality is a matter of pride or dignity or whatever other imaginary concepts that justify shaming and attacking women,  then don’t be surprised when people behave consistently with that. As long as your views present virginity as a virtue and sexuality as a shame, don’t be surprised when people have lousy double standards like the ones you described.  Make no mistake,  the men who will sleep around but only marry virgins or who will doubt their wives for having premarital sex are not behaving so because it’s right or natural;  they’re following a misogynistic social norm and double standard that has been constructed by the very value system you think protects against it.

This may be a novel idea to you,  but it’s possible for women to have fulfilling sex lives,  wear what they want,  and still avoid being shamed,  abandoned,  harassed, or disrespected for those reasons. Instead of trying to put barriers and veils and limitations in order to protect them, you make sure men are taught to treat them as equals and find no shame in their choices.

“Now my question to you is, in the world we live in today, where rape, kidnapping, human trafficking and prostitution holds a large market, what security do you have as female traveling alone, or wanting to roam the streets alone.. How easy is it for you to be carried away and disappear in mid air and not be found, whereas when walking with a male beside you would be much more hazardous and safer?”

This is all backwards again.  The existence of these problems doesn’t mean that having the protection of a man must be the solution.  That’s putting a band-aid over a gaping wound instead of trying to heal it. And frankly, I’m not succumbing to that defeatist ish, like oh fucking well. may as well hide myself away and cling to a man’s shadow so some asshole doesn’t touch me. No, fuck those norms.

I have the RIGHT to travel without being attacked.  I have the RIGHT to walk on the streets alone. It is the responsibility of a society to create the norms that make all of these transgressions unthinkable, not shame and limit its women for acting as if they have the right to safety and freedom.  And truly,  the societies without these norms limiting and hiding and shaming women have the lowest crime rates and harassment rates,  because people are taught and truly believe that they do not have the right to touch each other without permission regardless of what people are wearing and who they are with and what they choose to do with their bodies. I refuse to be told I must hide so I am not attacked or shamed.  And if people think that it is clothing or a man’s presence that gives a woman the right to safety and freedom,  then they don’t really believe she has a default right to either of those things. They don’t believe in a woman’s right or equality. They don’t believe she has fundamental self-worth. They do not have respect for her; they’re only held back from behaving like rabid wild things because something is stopping them.

“No male that would pass you would turn around with the look of lust, and the thought of undressing you when you fully clothed…”

You really believe this, don’t you? That no male would…except that this is actually statistically false.  Harassment rates are through the roof in places where women are veiled.  Here are the stats. All those yellow and red countries with the high rape scales? Muslim-majority countries:

http://womanstats.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/1st-map.png

Source: http://womanstats.org/newmapspage.html

Multiple studies have also demonstrated that there is no direct causal correlation between dress and rape.  You believe a myth.  And it’s really unsurprising that attitudes towards women that place conditions upon whether and how a woman deserves basic safety or freedom actually contribute more to violence towards women than clothing does. There’s a fundamental problem with societies that teach that a woman must be safe if and only if she submits to a husband and dresses in a certain way. So really, the most basic justification given in defense of veiling is based on a statistical falsehood. If covering up is meant to serve to purpose of protecting women, it is failing utterly, miserably, and limiting and controlling women at the same time.

“Islam does not oppress women but protects us, it gives us the choice of whom we want to marry, and never deprives us of what we want and need..”

Yeah, this is a sort of half-hearted iteration of the ‘Islam grants women all her rights’ argument touted again and again, although the conditions in Muslim-majority countries contradict the claim. And I mean, I’m sure the people who say it believe it–you clearly think the limitations ordained upon you are a matter of protection and dignity and other crapola–you clearly think that there is something grand and wonderful in the things Islam allows you to do. And you know, it’s fine that you accept those standards for yourself, I guess, but they’re not human rights. They’re not the inalienable rights that human beings have to life, liberty, access to livelihood, safety, freedom from bodily harm, their own marital and sexual choices without condition. All these things painted as rights in so many mainstream interpretations of Islam are just shadows, pseudo-rights, like the whole husband not slapping his wife thing. Such magnanimity. Wow. And let’s be honest, women have the right to marry who they choose? Really? Even setting child marriage aside, in most sects of Islam the scholarly consensus is that women cannot marry without paternal permission. I hate to break it to you but if you need permission it’s not exactly a free choice.  They also can’t marry non-Muslims or women. I don’t think a paternally pre-approved Muslim groom is much of a choice. If you need permission to work, leave your husband’s home, have people enter your house, get a divorce–again, they’re not rights. Not if all these basic actions need to be approved by your owner, I mean your husband. And I think it’s telling that you present this idea that you can marry who you choose as if it’s some special or novel thing, like not being deprived of your needs is also special or novel… when really it’s the most basic of basic things–what kind of cruelty would it be otherwise? I would hope that a woman was not deprived of her needs and was given the choice to marry who she pleased–anything short of that would be utterly monstrous–oh wait.

You say to me “don’t make Islam something that its not,” which is again, the epitome of irony–because I am not the one who ordained that a woman’s testimony is half of a man’s, her inheritance is half of her brother’s, I did not write that deemed-infallible holy book that prescribes that there is ANY situation in which she can be struck in ANY way with ANY amount of force by her husband, I am not the one who claims that a woman’s sexual conduct justifies her torture or murder, or that a woman must submit to her husband’s sexual desires in exchange for safety from harm and discord. I didn’t make these injustices, set them as law and inviolable social code, watch them consume my life and those of my loved ones. I didn’t attach these concepts of honor and dignity to my body that justify violence against it while simultaneously being the only thing protecting it. And I don’t really know or care how you delude yourself into interpreting all of of these things are goods, and yes, I’ve heard all of the apologetic interpretations and explanations meant to make ‘sense’ out of these things, but whatever sense they make to you, they are not equality, They are not right. They are not just. And they should not be forced upon women who happen to be born or live in the countries where unfortunately they are a matter of legislature or social norm. I’m not going to stop talking about these things until there is no place left on this earth where a woman cannot freely and safely escape this Islam of yours if she so wills. I’m not going to stop talking about these things until I die.

-Marwa

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