Where is the Liberal Support for Feminism in Islam?

I listened to a podcast a couple weeks ago where Sam Harris was interviewing Yasmine Mohammed.  It was a wonderful interview and even emotional.  For those of you who don’t know Yasmine she is an ex-Muslim who immigrated to Canada as a child, and ended up being raised by a very strict Islamist (who incidentally had multiple wives) and was forced to marry a guy who turned out to be a Muslim extremist.  She experienced a lot of abuse from her biological father, adoptive father, and her husband.  Her husband was actually part of ISIS and now supposedly resides in a prison in Egypt although she has been unable to confirm it.  The long and the short of it is, that she has had the full experience of what many women go through in Islamic society as second class citizens.  I would argue that citizens are humans and I am not sure that many women qualify even as human in traditional Islamic communities.  What they go through is absolutely dehumanizing.

But I am not here to talk about the problems with Islam.  What I found really interesting about the interview was the discussion about how in the west, the left rarely criticizes Islam for how it treats women.  We can criticize Christianity’s patriarchal values, have TV shows like Handmaid’s Tale which show just how oppressive Christianity can be, but the rules are different for Islam and how they treat women.  Yasmine finds it despicable that they even try to use the hijab as some sort of symbol of female empowerment in Islam, when that is really not what it is at all.  She says that Muslim women are “othered” in western society, like they are not equally human as white women, that they don’t want the same freedoms that white women have.  And I have to say, that I agree.  I think any practices, whether they be in the context of a religion, culture, or society at large that demean and/or oppress women should be open to criticism.  And women in the west, who enjoy a great deal more freedom than many Muslim women, should be joining Yasmine’s fight again a very patriarchal religion.

However…

So I wanted to support Yasmine and followed her on Twitter where she is fairly active. In many ways it doesn’t make a lot of sense why feminism in the west would be on opposite sides of this battle.  And if I consider myself a feminist, then Yasmine is absolutely correct, she’s just human and humanist values should apply to her.  I see feminism as fitting into the larger umbrella of humanism.  But when I started making comments in support and in defense of her points I noticed something quite interesting.  When I would look at the profiles of many of the people who liked my comments, I was surprised to find that many of them were Trump supporters, conservative white males who consider themselves libertarians, and a lot of people who I would consider to be politically alt-right.  It made me feel uncomfortable.  It made me wonder, what type of person am I supporting here if all these people who I would disagree with on almost about everything else are seeming to be on the same side as me?  So while it doesn’t change my stance that we should be just as critical of patriarchal ideas embedded in any religion, I started to see what the left might be rejecting here.  If supporting an ex-Muslim fighting religious patriarchal values is putting you on the same side as conservative, alt-right racist types, what is the answer to effectively supporting people like Yasmine?

So then the question for me became, okay so what is going on?

  • Is it simply that these people aren’t as racist as they are Christian xenophobes who fear other religions, races, and cultures invading their space? Is it basically just the enemy of the enemy is our friend?
  • Did, as Sam Harris has argued, that the space the left has vacated has simply allowed the right to elevate people like Yasmin in status and use her to spread their more hateful message? We see this phenomena not only in the case of religion here.  But we see women who support men’s issues get support from misogynist members of MRA or incels. Even Sam Harris, who I would argue is at heart liberal, often gets his words used by alt-right people when they want to reinforce Muslim stereotypes.
  • Many white liberal women are of the liberal Christian kind.  They want religious Muslim women to be seen as strong as empowered because they then don’t have to acknowledge the oppressive practices in their own faith?  Would this mean that it’s Yasmine’s atheism that many liberal women are reacting to?
  • Do we have more in common with people who are alt-right than we think?

I don’t really think the last one is true, but I think it’s important to consider the question.  Where do we go from here?  Now I’m not sure whether Yasmine is politically conservative or not.  Certainly I think it’s possible to want equality for women while still supporting fiscally conservative issues, but I would say certainly Yasmine is socially liberal based on what she has said.  Perhaps if more people on the left spoke up in support of Yasmine, all those alt-right followers would flee from her side, not wanting to be allied with us because they would have the same uncomfortable feeling I had!

While I sympathize deeply with what Yasmine Mohammed went through, I do think it’s also a reality in the west that minority races and religion can experience a lot of prejudice and racism, and so in some ways I understand perhaps not wanting to critique a religion that is largely followed by darker skinned people so as to not feed stereotypes that can be used by people that would oppress them.  I also think that if we are concerned with things like freedom of speech, gender equality, LGBQT rights, we have to be constantly fighting against bad ideas, and Islam, just like Christianity has a bunch of bad ones.  Islam is a huge religion and I can only imagine that the amount of women and girls is in the 100s of millions who need liberal voices fighting for their rights in the same way we fight against Christian patriarchal values.  I believe it is possible to fight against both prejudice against Muslims, and also still criticize the oppressive practices that Islam advocates and are practiced daily around the world.

19 thoughts on “Where is the Liberal Support for Feminism in Islam?

  1. Religions which oppress women and repress sexuality are evil, period. The skin color of the people who are mentally enslaved by such religions is completely irrelevant. Using issues of race as squid ink to shrink back from full-throated condemnation of such religions is pure cowardice and should be scorned, not excused.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d say it’s simply because we’re not in contact with the shittiness of Islam as much as we are with the shittiness of Christianity. Only very rarely a Muslim blogger shows up for a comment or two, but they leave quickly.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I disagree. I mean I’ve observed it. Especially among atheist ex Muslims. That’s why I think atheism might be part of the equation here. Maybe things are different in Europe but here in North America criticizing Islam is taboo on the left.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the community which identifies specifically as the political left, that’s often true — but that community is plagued with growing insularity and intellectual stagnation in a variety of ways. Among bloggers and writers whose primary identification is atheist or feminist rather than political-left, criticism of Islam is a lot more common.

      The Middle East is waking up whether the Western left wants to deal with the reality of it or not.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. 1.1% of the US population is Muslim. Do you expect issues relating to that group to get the same attention as issues relating to the 25% of the population who are Catholic, or the 30% who are Evangelical?
      This sounds suspiciously like “Muslims don’t condemn terrorism enough”. I’ve heard a whole lot of that as a gay activist. We don’t criticise Islam enough – but you know what? It’s not Islam that’s affecting most of our lives in the West every day. It’s Christians/Catholics spending tens of millions every year to promote hate. That’s the group who opposed civil unions, then gay marriage. It’s the group that said Aids was divine punishment. It’s the group trying to control, if not eliminate, women’s reproductive rights, and stop transgender people being seen by doctors and using bathrooms. And stop gay people from buying flowers and wedding cakes.
      The American right is only interested in feminism and homophobia when they can use them as weapons to increase their own power and spread their ideology with its undeniable undercurrents of genetic determinism.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Agreed. It seems imperative, especially in these times, to seek to understand the marginalization of certain people in other cultures, not to mention our own! I am just listening right now (Audible) to Horizon by Barry Lopez. He’s a writer I have long admired and resonated with. Can’t recommend this book highly enough. And it is not at all off subject from your post. Take care, Swarn. Glad to read this post by you, I’ve been real sketchy on and off line. Lots going on in our lives right now, all good, but very energy intensive. Wishing you and yours a loving and peaceful holiday season! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jimbo57

    I am a resident of the only jurisdiction in North America to actually ban the hijab. Right now, in the Province of Quebec, if you are a veiled Muslim woman, you can not be hired to hold a “position of authority” in the provincial civil service unless you remove your hijab. Position of authority includes police officer, high school or elementary teacher, or clerk in the Quebec equivalent of the DMV. Now, “to be fair”, the ban also includes Jewish men wearing kippahs and Sikh men wearing turbans, but that’s just by way of pretending this is a “we hate funny hats” law when it is a matter of public record this is a “we hate Muslims” law.

    How does the hijab become a “problem” in a province in a Province where less than 2% of the population is Muslim? Especially when many of these Muslims coming from the Maghreb are fluent in French and highly educated; just the kind of immigrants successive Provincial governments have said they wanted. It becomes a problem when the Province’s rural voters are taught, through a sustained media campaign, to see it as a problem in a Province where decades of nationalist politics have trained the French-speaking majority to see any and all minorities as existential threats.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comments. I couldn’t agree with you more in terms of legislation. I don’t agree with the law, and don’t think legislation is an effective way of liberating women, or increasing secularity.

      My father is Sikh, although he isn’t really religious and dropped the turban some time ago. In general, I can’t believe that a God really cares about our clothing so I think all religious clothing mandates should be challenged in terms of them just being bad ideas. And the philosophy behind women covering themselves in both Christianity and Islam is a patriarchal and oppressive one. As I said, I do not think legislation is the answer to challenging these bad ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

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