Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Triple Threats and Double Troubles for Muslim Women

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie, originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

You’ve probably heard about the recent ruling given to a Saudi gang-rape victim: 110 lashes added onto the original sentence of 90 lashes because she protested her sentence to the media. It’s a horrible and vindictive sentence, and the callous treatment this woman has received as a victim is insulting to her, Saudi Arabia, and Islam.

Why Islam? What does her ruling have to do with Islam? Well, nothing really. Technically, the judge who sentenced her went by Shari’a law, but he added those extra lashes from his own judgment because she spoke out about her case. So he punished her.

But every reactionary blog poster, conservative news network, and Western women’s rights group has condemned this action as an Islamic one. So Muslim women around the world have a choice: do we defend ourselves against Islamophobia, against racism, or against misogyny?

This “triple threat” is one we often face as Muslim women (especially if we are also women of color). We always seem to be battling against one (or more) of these three issues: racism (for Muslim women who are also non-white), Islamophobia, or misogyny (not just from our own Muslim communities, but also from non-Muslim communities who think they know what’s best for us).

Being on the defensive all the time creates reactionary behavior. We always feel like we have to keep our guards up to defend our faith and our choices, and it gets tiring. Most Muslims don’t necessarily mind explaining stuff (that is, if you’re genuinely interested in understanding instead of starting an argument), but we can’t all be Encyclopedia Islamicas all the time.

Some of this “damage control” keeps us from having dialogues within our communities. Muslim women face a lot of problems within our communities as well as outside, but we’re afraid to talk about it because it can potentially be used against us. People in our own communities this power: for example, feminists in Iran are accused of being too “Westernized” by compatriots who have no interest in changing the status quo for women. Many women who seek their fair share are given this load of crap in order to guilt them into shutting up, because Westernization is equated with undesirable qualities in the Muslim world. Or, if we try to speak out to a non-Muslim audience, we are accused of “betraying” Islam or our communities by airing out our “dirty laundry.”

And this is a legitimate fear. We don’t want to reinforce negative ideas about Islam, Muslim men and women, or Muslims of any race. But if our own communities won’t listen to us or engage in a dialogue to raise awareness and potentially enact change (phew, a lot of buzzwords in there!), what else are we supposed to do?

Our voices can be used against us by a non-Muslim audience as well. Muslim women feel like we can’t use the word “oppression” because we’re always trying to counteract the stereotype that we’re all oppressed. Guess what? Forcing anything on someone else is oppression: that includes less-than-equal pay and sex appeal, not just headscarves. Not every woman of every faith, nationality, or ethnicity is 100% “not oppressed”, and we often fall into that category ourselves, just like every other woman on the planet.

The reason we can’t force ourselves to use the word “oppressed” is because we’re afraid of reinforcing those Orientalist assumptions that non-Muslims have about us. “Hijab isn’t always a choice for every Muslim woman on the planet? I KNEW it! You’re ALL oppressed!”

And with the explosion of literature about Islam and Muslims (much of it biased and incorrect), everybody who’s ever read an article or watched a special about Islam thinks they’re an expert. “I can’t believe that you only have one wife! I watched this special on CNN that said polygamy is rising in American Muslim communities!”

Being ignored/condemned by the Muslim community and ignored/condemned by the non-Muslim community is “double trouble” for Muslim women. This “double trouble” causes us to keep our mouths shut, leading everyone in Muslim community to think that there’s never anything wrong, and leading everyone in the non-Muslim community to think that we’re oppressed and can’t speak for ourselves. This is a problem as well, and it rears its ugly head when something like this 200 lashes thing comes up. It’s a veritable elephant in the room, and everyone’s waiting for us to talk about it. But if we think that our dialogue will be twisted, ignored, or condemned…why should we talk about it?

I’m writing this to—you guessed it—raise awareness and enact change. We have to talk instead of condemn. Muslim communities need to be willing to look at women’s issues as Islamic issues instead of Trojan horses of “evil” Westernization. Non-Muslim communities need to be willing to listen to what we have to say without judging our situation and accept that we know what’s best for ourselves.