Muslim women don’t need saving from their religion

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion originally appeared at Religion News Service.

In an average week, I deliver presentations to hundreds of people on various topics related to Islam and Muslims. Oftentimes, such presentations yield real changes in public perception of Muslims, but almost as often, I’m confronted with antiquated, negative stereotypes.

I recently spoke to a group of 80 college-educated, mostly liberal women in Silicon Valley, certainly one of the most progressive regions of the United States. I was astonished to find that, despite revelations of widespread sexual harassment of women in Hollywood, the tech industry and other professions in the United States that have spawned the #MeToo movement, what concerned these women most was “saving” American Muslim women — from Islam.

Given that most American Muslims are immigrants or first-generation Americans, the attitudes displayed bore a disquieting resemblance to the xenophobic and anti-immigrant attitudes that are poisoning our body politic today.

In Silicon Valley, I gave a brief introduction on the diversity of Muslim women in the United States and around the world in more than 50 Muslim-majority countries, and how the status of women in education, employment and society is determined less by religion and more by location. But the barrage of questions that followed my talk reflected polling that shows most Americans still believe it’s Islam that poses the greatest danger to women’s rights — despite the revelation of deeply rooted attitudes of male privilege right here in the U.S.

In response to these questions, I sought to demonstrate that issues concerning the status of women are not unique to Muslims but are at least equally problematic in the U.S. generally. For example:

On the question of Islam and child marriages, I pointed out that while this problem continues to exist in regions of some Muslim-majority countries, it also exists right here in the United States, where it’s still legal in many states to marry underage with parental or judicial consent, resulting in thousands of legal child marriages. According to an advocacy group called Unchained At Last that is working to outlaw marriage before the age of 18, more than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S. in the last 15 years.

The group found that this was mainly a phenomenon with rural, poor families, not middle-class or wealthy ones — not unlike in Muslim-majority countries.

On the question of Islam and women’s political rights, I pointed out the number of Muslim women in political positions, including 13 heads of state — past and present — in 12 countries. Contrast that with the U.S., where we have yet to elect a female president. And 20 percent of Congress and yet 50 percent of the population are women. That’s comparable to the elective bodies of Muslim-majority countries.

On the education of Muslim women, I pointed out the number of Muslim-majority countries where women are studying at universities in greater numbers than men —including Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Mauritius, Malaysia, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. And a 2009 Gallup poll shows that Muslim women are the second-most educated group of women in the U.S., next to Jewish women.

On Shariah, or Muslim religious law, as a force holding women back, I pointed out that many of these educated Muslim women in the United States — including me — practice Shariah daily, and that Shariah, like Halakha for Jews, addresses rituals, values and principles on topics such as visiting the sick, caring for parents and visiting a neighbor. It should not be conflated with the oppressive laws that one might find in some Muslim-majority nations.

On hijab or modest dress, and the idea that the headscarf is oppressive to women, I pointed out that aside from Iran and Saudi Arabia, where hijab is still legally required (although those laws are being relaxed), women in the rest of the 50-plus Muslim-majority nations have the choice to wear or not to wear hijab, and that women like me who dress modestly do so out of self-respect and pride in their identity.

In keeping with the aims of the #MeToo movement, it is high time that we have a national conversation about the oppression of having to look a certain way (like an air-brushed model) to be pleasing and acceptable to men and society.

My responses clearly threw some of the Silicon Valley women into cognitive dissonance, manifested by the consistent refrain, “No, no, we want you to talk about your problems, not ours,” and the sincere and well-intentioned but patronizing question, “How can we help you?”

I would respond with equal sincerity by giving three pieces of advice:

  1. Start by questioning your biases and stereotypes concerning Muslims, and pay attention to the shared problems that all women — including American women — face in today’s world. When we consider that 1 in every 3 to 4 women in the United States is a victim of domestic violence and that women continue to be sexualized in all spheres of life in this country, it becomes clear that the human rights of women are violated on all continents.
  2. Divest yourself of the idea of “American exceptionalism,” the idea — now quite openly promoted by political forces that for the most part are diametrically opposed to women’s interests — that American freedom and democracy establish a moral superiority. Certainly we should treasure (and be vigilant to preserve) our freedom, democracy and prosperity. But we can’t overlook our serious internal problems of racism, sexism, inequality and the questionable foreign policies that contradict our ideals and principles and have all too often wrought havoc and the deaths of many thousands of innocent people. There are many women (and men) in our own country who need “saving” as much as the most oppressed of Muslim women.
  3. Recognize that Muslims, including Muslim women, in this country make vital contributions in many areas. Muslims in America strongly uphold the fundamental American values of family, religion and hard work that much of America seems to be losing sight of. Muslims are your doctors, dentists, professors and attorneys. They are business leaders and entrepreneurs, like the founders of Chobani Yogurt and Edible Arrangements. They defend this nation as members of the military. They are entertainers and musicians, and they are your cabdrivers and your restaurant owners. They are Americans, and part of the American mainstream.

Since the very first Muslims landed on this continent as enslaved Africans, Muslims, like other immigrants, have been part of the history of America. And today they refuse to be limited by misconceived ideas about them. Those who spread such ideas, and those who unthinkingly subscribe to them, are in fact harming America.

Those who want to “save” Muslim women, or those of other minority groups, should recognize the contributions that those minorities make and turn their attention and energy to working side-by-side with them to help our country live up to the ideals that we all profess.