The Islamophobic Right Uses the Muslim “Other” to Obscure Our Own Women’s Rights Record

Every day, a new piece pops up on my radar screen describing positive steps towards women’s rights in an Arab or Islamic context.  (Here’s the most recent as I’m starting this article, from Brian Whitaker on Tunisia.)  At the same time, the Islamophobes keep spouting the same tired rhetoric about how Muslim women are oppressed, using this oppression as a justification for Americans to fear and hate Muslim men.  Recently, I wrote at Gender Across Borders about how shari’a is perverted by the Islamophobes to argue for draconian laws and treatment of Muslims in the US, and why that’s ridiculous.  This fuzzy logic goes far beyond the creeping shari’a argument, however.

Islamophobic pundits have been in the news a lot lately, after the Center for American Progress released its Fear, Inc. report.  These right-wing commentators are doing a lot of harm in a lot of ways, but I’d like to focus today on how they use the idea of a Muslim “Other” to obscure the appalling US record on human rights for women.

If you’re a white middle-class person who was raised in the US, there’s a good chance that a soft form of this Othering rhetoric made it to your ears at some point while you were in school.  We see it all the time in visual depictions of Muslim women for NGO ads as veiled, sad, and repressed.  The veil is used as a powerful rhetorical tool to equalize Muslim women, nevermind the many women who wear the hijab by choice, nevermind the variety of traditions, schools of thought, and types of covering that exist under the broad umbrella of Islam.  Islam is portrayed as an anti-woman monolith, and Muslim women are portrayed as being in great need of benevolent Western help.

Let’s get a few things straight:

  1. Islam is not a monolith.  There are several main schools of thought, and many, many interpretations of specific points within those schools.  Islamic jurisprudence and study is a vast body of work that you can’t even begin to crack with a casual glance.  The interplay of faith, law, and policy is also not identical to the way these things work together in the West.  Nor can you assume that the relationship between Islam and the state, or between the state and the people, is the same in every country.
  2. Islam is not inherently oppressive of women.  Islamophobes do a great disservice to living, breathing women when they make broad claims about how women are being oppressed in the Muslim world without digging deeper.  There are Muslim women who are scholars of Islam and of shari’a.  There are Muslim women in government and politics.  In fact, in some cases, women have more involvement in the public sphere in an Arab country than they do in the US.  Muslim women are doing great things while holding a tremendous faith in the face of difficult challenges.  Many Muslim women who do live in oppressive situations are using Islam as a tool to fight against their oppressors.  This, by the way, includes Muslim women fighting oppression right here in the United States.1
  3. He who lives in a glass house should be really fucking careful about throwing stones.  I could go on for days about how dangerous it is for fundamentalist Protestant Christians to speak on the oppression women face under another religious system.  Instead, I’m just going to link one of many examples, and also recommend the book Quiverfull and the blog Are Women Human?  An Us vs. Them mentality on women’s rights, where fundamentalists in the US claim the high ground, is frankly ridiculous.  It’s also important to note that the US has typically lagged behind when it comes to support for international human rights, including women’s rights.  Instead of trying to be the world’s savior through our imperialism, perhaps we should turn inward and look at how women are being oppressed right here at home.

It’s always a good idea to be suspicious when a pundit paints an “Other” with a broad brush, whether that’s Muslim women, black mothers, immigrants, “LGBTs,” or any other group.  It’s convenient to use “do you know how they treat their women over there?” so-called humanitarian statements to pull the spotlight off abuses at home.  As activists, we need to be alert for these claims and quick to provide examples of how they harm rather than help.

1It would be impossible to list all the amazing Muslim women and organizations that are doing work in the US and in the Arab world.  However, I thought it would be helpful for this post to crowdsource a list.  Here are just a few people and groups, some picked by me, some suggested by others, to illustrate the points made above (alphabetical by country):


Dr. Sima Samar, chair of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, founder and director of Shuhada Organization in Pakistan.


Cherifa Kheddar, outspoken president and founder of Djazairouna Association, which provides support to victims of the Algerian civil war, and 2009 winner of the International Service Human Rights Award for the Defense of Human Rights of Women


Waris Dirie, Somali-Austrian women’s rights activist and former international supermodel, best-selling author, appointed UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, founded several organizations including the Waris Dirie Foundation to raise FGM awareness, builds awareness around the fact that Islam does not require FGM


Amira Al Hussaini, journalist and Regional Editor for the Middle East and North Africa at Global Voices Online


Sheikha Hasina Wazed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh and president of the Awami League, focused on poverty reduction, daughter of the first president of Bangladesh


Mahinur Ozdemir, Europe’s first hijab-wearing minister of Parliament, member of Christian Democrat party


Rebiya Kadeer, de factor leader of the Uighur social justice movement, formerly a successful businesswoman, now in exile in the US and publicizes the plight of the Uighurs in the US and Europe


Jihan Al Halafawi, first female political candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood (ran for Egyptian Parliament in 2000 and 2002—the Muslim Brotherhood has long accepted women as members, but more recently has made gender equality a major concern)

Ethar El-Katatney, award-winning journalist and author, former staff writer for Egypt Today, promotes dialogue between religions and cultures


Dr. Tuti Alawiyaah, former Minister of Women’s Empowerment, current dean of As Syafi’iyah University, one of Indonesia’s oldest and most prominent Islamic educational institutions, prolific preacher who appears on almost all TV channels in Indonesia

Siti Musdah Mulia, chair of the women’s branch of the enormous Indonesian Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama, Muslimat Nahdlatul Uluma, first female professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (1999), helped produce the Counter Legal Draft, which would have revised the Islamic legal code to ban polygamy and child marriage

Lily Zakiyah Munir, founder and director of Centre for Pesantren and Democracy Studies, which educates Islamic boarding schools about human rights and political participation, only woman and only Muslim to serve on Monitoring Commission for the Afghan elections

Hajjah Maria Ulfah, internationally acclaimed reciter of the Qur’an and first woman to win an international Qur’an recitation competition, popularized Egyptian style of recitation, director of women’s department at the Institute for Qur’an Study in Indonesia


Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder of Children’s Rights Support Association, supports rights of women and children and lectures on human rights in Iran, has a liberal view of Islam that many Muslim feminists appreciate

Dr. Masoumeh Ebtekar, first female Vice President of Iran, founding member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front and has been at the center of the revolutionary movement in Iran since 1979

Faezeh Hashemi, Iranian politician and social activist, Majlis representative, advocate of relaxing the dress code in Iran (though she wears the chador herself), and younger daughter of powerful politician and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Zahra Rahnavard, author, political advisor under Khatami, first female chancellor of Alzahra University, staunch critic of Ahmadinejad, and first woman to campaign in Iran (with her husband Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009)


Queen Raina Al Abdullah, recognized for philanthropic work in the areas of education reform and microfinance, runs very popular YouTube channel and website


Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri, artist and curator who incorporates Chinese brush style with Arabic calligraphy, also outspoken social activist who founded Sisters in Islam to focus on gender issues and increase respect for women

Zaynah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam, journalist, and author of a book about Islam in Malaysia


Aminetou El Mokhtar, human rights lawyer, president of L’Association des Femmes Chefs de Famillie, and chair of the African Democracy Forum


Fatema Mernissi, feminist writer and sociologist; has done sociological research for UNESCO, the ILO, and Moroccan authorities; currently lecturer and research scholar at Mohammed V University of Rabat, her work is lauded by Muslim feminists

Nadia Yassine, head of the women’s branch of Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane (the most powerful Islamist movement in Morocco), has promoted the movement in Europe, recently prosecuted for criticizing the monarchy in a weekly newspaper

Naima Zitan, playwright and drama teacher in the Faculty of Education and Professor of Animation at the National Museum of Science and Archaeological Heritage, president of Theatre Aquarium (organization that publicizes role of Muslim women in Moroccan society), and advisor to the Global Fund for Women


Dodo Aichatou Mindaoudou, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation, and African Integrity, has written extensively about economic development and women’s issues, one of the most senior women politicians in West Africa


Mukhtaran Bibi, aka Mukhtar Mai, founded the Mukhtaran Mai Women’s Welfare Organization to educate young girls about women’s rights and honor killings after her own publicized sexual assault, which brought media focus to the issue of women’s rights; author of a best-selling memoir; featured in a documentary on sexual violence

Dr. Maleeha Lodi, journalist and diplomat, previously served on the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Affairs and as ambassador to the US and Britain, received President’s Award of Hilal-e-Imtiaz for public service

Tanveer Kausar Naim, director of Science, Technology Research and Training Institute of the OIC standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH), member of UNESCO Gender Advisory Board and UNESCO International Advisory Board for Reform of Higher Education and Science and Technology in Nigeria



Khouloud El Faqeeh, first female judge in Palestine and one of the first female judges in the Islamic world for a shari’a-based court


Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, advocate for women and children’s rights, was the driving force behind Education City and Al Jazeera Children Channel, wife of the ruler of Qatar

Saudi Arabia

Muna Abu-Sulayman, executive director of Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation, founding co-host of a popular TV show, and first Saudi woman appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador (2005)

Norah Abdallah Al Faiz, deputy minister for women’s education and first woman to serve on the Saudi Council of Ministers, former principal of a girls’ school and director of the women’s section at the Institute of Public Administration in Riyadh

Wajeha Al Huwaider, feminist author, poet, and journalist who is a staunch critic of Saudi policies on women and was banned from Saudi media in 2003; she has led high-profile human rights protests including against the driving ban

Lubna Olayan, Saudi Arabia’s top businesswoman, leading investor in the Saudi economy, and CEO of Olayan Financing Company; one of the most influential businesswomen in the world


Hibaaq Osman, Muslim and women’s rights activist, Special Representative to Africa for V-Day, founder of Karama, founding CEO of the Arab Women’s Fund, and founder of the Center for Strategic Initiatives for Women (CISW)



Houda al-Habash, subject of an upcoming documentary, founded an operates a women’s Qur’anic school in Syria that empowers women intellectually and socially


Hayrünnisa Gül, first Turkish First Lady to wear the hijab, appealed to the ECHR in the 1990s to overturn Turkey’s hijab ban, most visible headscarf-wearing person in Turkey

United Arab Emirates

Princess Haya bint al Hussain, wife of the Prime Minister, has developed initiatives in humanitarianism, sports, health science, culture, and business and advanced the Millennium Development Goals on hunger and poverty

Dalia Mogahed, director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center and Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think

United Kingdom

Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a campaign and support charity dedicated to ending gender-based violence and female genital mutilation

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, British writer and commentator acclaimed for her blog spirit21, influential in British media as a commentator on religion and gender, author of popular book Love in a Headscarf, which demystified Muslim life to a non-Muslim audience as well as being very popular among Muslims

Irene Zubaida Khan, first woman and first Muslim to serve as Secretary General of Amnesty International, initiated a campaign against gender-based violence, also served in high positions for the UNHCR in Macedonia and India

Ruwayda Mustafah, British-Kurdish feminist freelance writer and contributor to the Huffington Post, writes on Kurdish rights as well as women’s rights and religion


United States


Assilmi Amina, president of the International Union of Muslim Women, was involved in a custody case that resulted in a change in Colorado state law to keep individuals from being denied custody based on religion, lobbied for an Eid US stamp in 1996

Sabina England, Deaf punk Muslim playwright and performer

Mona Eltahawy, award-winning columnist and international speaker on Arab and Muslim issues (website)

Fatemeh Fakhraie, editor of Muslimah Media Watch and contributor to I Speak For Myself who writes about Islamic feminism, Islam, and race for a number of different outlets

Suheir Hammad, Palestinian-American poet and performer (described by the person who recommended her to me as “Kick. Ass.”  Clearly you should check her out!)

Dr. Merve Kavakçi, barred from Turkish Parliament in 1999 for refusing to remove the hijab, is a symbolic figure for the headscarf issue in Turkey and an adovcate for Muslim women’s rights, lecturer on culture and international affairs at GW, has memorized the Qur’an

Irshad Manji, founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU, creator of the Emmy-nominated film Faith Without Fear, and an advocate for reform within Islam

Ingrid Mattson, first woman and first convert to be president of ISNA, the largest Muslim organization in North America, also director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program and professor at Hartford Seminary

Dalia Mogahed, executive director and senior analyst at Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, director of the Muslim-West Facts Initiative, appointed by Obama to serve on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think

Robina Niaz, executive director of Turning Point for Women & Families, active participant in interfaith and women’s rights events in New York

Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities, charged with executing Secretary Clinton’s vision for engagement with Muslims worldwide

Amanda Quraishi, writer, blogger, interfaith activist, technology professional, and creator of the 365 Muslim smartphone app (bio)

Asifa Quraishi, legal scholar specializing in comparative Islamic and U.S. constitutional law, writes on shari’a and feminism, former Public Delegate on the US delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Nadia Roumani, co-founder and director of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute (AMCLI) at USC

Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC), and community activist on issues including immigration, women’s issues, domestic policy, and the Middle East

Ilyasah Al Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, president and trustee of the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial, Educational, and Cultural Center, involved in New York community service and has a position of authority among black Muslims

Asma T. Uddin, founder of Altmuslimah, legal fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), and international law attorney for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (profile)

Amina Waudud, an imam (Muslim scholar) who led an assembly of mixed-gender Muslims in prayer at an historical service and has done extensive work on gender studies in Islam (Wiki)

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on October 9, 2011, in religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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