Women’s History Month may be coming to an end, but we can’t end it without turning our focus to Muslim Women’s Day (Mar. 27). You might be wondering why Muslim women need their own day when International Women’s Day already exists, but carving out our own day has never been more important. And it’s something that I wished existed when I was a young girl first coming to terms with the world of feminism and social justice. To see women who looked like me fighting the fight.
Ensuring that our feminism is intersectional and inclusive of all women is arguably more urgent than ever, particularly given the continued dominance of white feminism in the West, and especially in the media. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to write my book, The Othered Woman: How White Feminism Harms Muslim Women. I wanted to look into the ways white feminism specifically excludes Muslim women through the myths and stereotypes it has created and upheld for decades. My hope is to help break down those myths, and doing my part to help and platform the work that Muslim women around the world do every single day.
White feminism tends to focus on and prioritise the experiences of white, middle-class, cis women, and therefore is inherently exclusionary. It operates under the assumptions that their wants and needs for gender equality are the same for all women, and once white women make progress in society then that will open up doors for other communities of women. A problematic assumption, to say the least.
This type of feminism completely neglects and ignores how structural issues – such as racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia – intersect with misogyny. But by now we know women will experience very different challenges and barriers in their lives. Barriers that white women have simply not had to face in their lives, right? When talking about racism, I’ve noticed a tendency for white women to evoke “colour blindness” or become defensive when challenged. And it happens in so many different forms; from the outright and blatant, to the more surreptitious and far more insidious ways. Like that tweet a few weeks ago where Angela Bassett’s reaction to her Oscars loss was effectively policed, with complaints that she was a “sore loser” because she wasn’t jumping for joy that another actor won. Or when Labour MP Dawn Butler and Conservative MP Laura Trott appeared on the same panel for BBC Politics Live. Butler called out the then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “racist remarks” and Trott proceeded to call Butler “rude” and “offensive,” whilst continuously talking over Butler. Trott completely centred herself in this narrative and even goes as far as to attempt to explain racism to a Black woman.
And then there was the BBC Woman’s Hour interview between host Emma Barnett and the then-newly elected General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, Zara Mohammed. In the 2021 interview that should’ve been about Mohammed’s historic appointment, Barnett instead questioned her about female imams. Even when Mohammed said she didn’t know the answer, Barnett persisted with her questions which seemed intent on reinforcing negative Muslim stereotypes. (The interview was rightly criticised by more than 100 prominent figures in an open letter that said Barnett “appeared intent on reinforcing damaging and prejudicial tropes” about Islam, as reported by gal-dem.)
There’s also the saviour complex of white feminism to contend with, especially when it comes to how it sees and interacts with Muslim women. This is a feminism that views Islam as “backwards”, violent, and ultimately, an anti-feminist religion. It perpetuates the myths that all Muslim women are inherently oppressed, controlled, and need to be saved from their religion. This kind of language and narrative is then used to justify “saving” Muslim women through colonial and imperial violence, like when the U.S. and UK invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Speaking in November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush spoke about the lives of Afghan women under Taliban rule, praising the U.S. military for its gains that she claimed meant “women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.” She also goes on to say that the “fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Cherie Blair made similar remarks at the time, saying that the UK had to “lift the veil and show what has been happening to women in Afghanistan under the Taliban.”
But what a lot of the conversation around Afghanistan was missing (and still is, in mainstream media) is the voices of Afghan women themselves and what their own liberation looks like; not white feminism and the West’s version of liberation imposed upon them. As Munazza Ebtikar writes, “this understanding assumes that gender relations and women’s rights are more advanced in ‘the West’ and need to be imparted on non-Western women as agentless objects of unchanging patriarchal systems.” Afghan women have been fighting for their rights and freedom for years, but we don’t always hear about them because it doesn’t fit in with the narrative the Western world has created around Muslims.
There’s also a hypocrisy to white feminism’s narrative of Muslims in the Global South as in many European nations where the hijab has effectively become criminalised. The wearing of the hijab in certain contexts has been banned in France, where as the burqa has been banned in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland, to name just a few. These bans are removing Muslim women’s ability to choose — a central tenet of feminism — and infringing on their bodily autonomy. But, where white feminism is extremely vocal about the lives of Afghan women, on a whole, it’s pretty silent on the issues of hijab bans. Here is an opportunity to stand in solidarity with Muslim women on an issue that they’ve been fighting against for years.
Yes, Muslim women experience misogyny and gender inequality in different ways to other groups of women, but our feminism is most effective when we can recognise these differences and ensure they are included and heard in the fight for gender equality. As Maya Angelou said, “no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”
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