Muslim and/or Feminist

Photo credit: monaeltahawy.com

I read an interesting article by Mona Eltahaway on AltMuslimah called Me and the Feminists.

Mona is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues, someone I’ve been following for some time on Twitter. I read her articles and blog posts here and there, but I’m not really sure what to think of her. On the one hand I admire her for being an outspoken, thoughtful Muslim feminist, but on the other hand, I am confused with her double standards and bitter rhetoric.

She started off wearing the headscarf when she was 16 in Saudi Arabia, but when she traveled to Egypt to interview feminist icons, their questioning of her choice to wear the headscarf made her decide to take it off. For some reason, it was more important to please her role models than to follow her own beliefs. She supports the face veil ban, but doesn’t support the “xenophobic and bigoted European right wing” either. Don’t those two actions cancel out?

It’s one thing if Mona believed the hijab wasn’t compulsory in Islam or was interpreted wrong, but it’s another if she thinks she won’t be accepted into the feminist club with her head covered. If she thought she was wearing the hijab for other men, then she obviously didn’t understand why she was wearing it in the first place.

Modesty is a contentious issue among women because it can be a source of empowerment and indifference to society’s expectations, while it can also be a tool of suppression and patronization.I understand that to some hijab is a symbol of women having to dress a certain way to protect themselves from men, but you cannot assert that assumption onto everyone.

To me modesty is an enlightening choice, one that has to come from within because otherwise it loses its inherent value. Without the right intention, that modesty can be turned into something detrimental like shame, meekness and poor-self esteem. On the flip side, those same characteristics are pronounced even in women who don’t want to dress modestly, because they are so desperately wanting to gain approval of their bodies and appearance from external sources. That’s why women suffer from eating disorders regardless of their country of origin or religious affiliation. It’s all in the mind.

Maybe Mona didn’t have the time to explain further in the article about her choice to stop wearing the hijab, but I sincerely hope her decision came from her own sound, decision making and not anyone else’s persuasion. I feel there has to be more at play since she said of the 9 years she wore it, she spent 8 struggling with it.

I’m not going to lie and say it’s been an easy journey for me either. It’s now been over a year since I started wearing it and my whole perspective on life has dramatically shifted. I wouldn’t feel any more of a feminist if I didn’t cover my hair. I actually would have never identified myself as one before I started wearing it, because I wasn’t really aware of my gender as I am now. Once you become conscious of how people think you should be, you suddenly have to make a firm decision in establishing your identity to the world. Me and my hijab is a whole different topic though, so back to Mona!

She mentions that taking off the hijab was like walking away from conservatism, but what is conservatism? I don’t consider myself conservative, because the connotation of that is narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and strictness. I’m definitely more liberal, Americanized, hyper-culturally aware college student as I have grown up in the generation of the Internet and multiculturalism, but I believe I am following my religion to no extreme. Islam is by definition a moderate religion, so is Mona saying she is even more moderate than I am?

Isn’t it interesting how we both may hope for the equality and respect for women, we have totally different descriptions of what a hijab-wearing Muslim feminist means? To Mona, the hijab was black mark; to me, it was a golden ticket. The point is no one has authority to say what you have to do or look like in order to be a feminist. Amina Wadud can tell you that.

If she doesn’t feel that the idea of feminism is incompatible with Islam, Mona’s contradictory behavior in taking off the hijab and then arguing with a feminist who said women who wear it are brainwashed sure points to that. The last line she wrote was extremely poignant:

To be a Muslim and a feminist is to stand in the crossfire and yell “Shut the f**k up!” to everyone around you because you know that anything you say can and will be used against you by everyone.

I feel that same frustration too. I understand her sentiments completely. I endured that mixture of criticism from both Muslims and non-Muslims on my now defunct YouTube channel of issues relating to gender, Islam, interfaith relations and other controversial topics and I still endure disagreement when I talk to various family members. It’s an exhausting feeling that you cannot find sympathy with anyone.

But Muslim feminists aren’t the only ones who experience this kind of backlash. Christian Democrats or liberals encounter it too. People seem to measure religiosity against feminism ideals–the more religious you are, the less you should approve of feminist ideals. No one believes that feminism can be found within scriptural text, because feminism is a coined secular term, so it must be ungodly. The funny thing is that there is no one definition of feminism, just as there is no one definition of religion. They could be one and the same for all we know!

At the end of the day, what is important is to separate opinion from fact and religion from culture, because that is the only way you will be able to safely feel comfortable and at peace with the way you live your life. You will feel empty seeking gratification from others, instead of gratification from yourself or from God (since that’s the only reason why Muslims believe you are supposed to dress modestly.) Otherwise, you will be a seriously conflicted voice as Mona seems to be, seeking to please people while at the same time giving them all reason to hate you.

I look forward to listening to Mona’s talk at the TEDWomen conference December 7-8, this Tuesday and Wednesday.

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One thought on “Muslim and/or Feminist

  1. Pingback: American Muslim Hijabi « Conflicted Voices

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