There is a lot of conversation about gender justice, feminism, and sexual politics driven by a large number of forces, voices, and agendas. Some of these are friendly to Islam. They aim to reclaim the tradition of Islam from patriarchy and misogyny that contradict the sunnah.
The concept that people are judged by their piety — not by their gender — is simple, straightforward, and Islamic. However, there are people who have attacked Islam with their agendas of feminism. Often called “White Savior Feminism,” there are countless ways that women’s rights movements have been used to oppress Muslim women. One of the major recent historical examples of this is the invasion of Afghanistan, where the U.S. government justified military intervention that was in the interest of U.S. oil companies and military agendas with the false front of helping Afghan women.
In fact, colonialism generally was justified by what Europeans claimed was the inferior treatment of Muslim women relative to the status of women in Europe. This is not supported in any way historically, as there were ample examples of Muslim women who had immense status in the Muslim world, from teachers, rulers, scholars, poets, and saints, while women in Europe were viewed as second class citizens, if they were citizens at all.
Feminism and sexual politics have been used to justify war, state-sponsored violence, and anti-immigration policies that have targeted Muslims.
While this critique of Western feminism has been leveled abundantly by Muslim women, it is also present in the writing of non-Muslim women who object to the use of feminism to oppress Muslim women.
Judith Butler writes, in criticism of “the framing of sexual and feminist politics in the service of the war effort”:
“Sexually progressive conceptions of feminist rights or sexual freedoms have been mobilized not only to rationalize wars against predominantly Muslim populations, but also to argue for limits to immigration to Europe from predominantly Muslim countries…A coalition of those who oppose illegitimate coercion and violence, and who oppose racisms of all kinds ( non-differentially,) would certainly also imply a sexual politics that adamantly refuses to be appropriated as the spurious rationale for the current wars.” (Judith Butler, Frames of War, 2016, pages 27-28)
She concludes the chapter calling for an alliance that is focused on opposition to state violence that “would not require agreement on all questions of desire or belief or self-identification. It would be a movement sheltering certain kinds of ongoing antagonisms among its participants, valuing such persistent and animating differences as the sign and substance of a radical democratic politics.” (Butler, page 32)
The above quotations make several points, primarily:
- Feminism and sexual politics have been used to justify war, state-sponsored violence, and anti-immigration policies that have targeted Muslims.
- A coalition that draws together those who oppose wars and violence and those who believe in gender justice is possible.
- This coalition would draw together a diverse group of people with a variety of beliefs about gender justice and sexual politics in unified resistance to the appropriation of issues of gender and sexuality as a justification for violence, particularly state-sponsored violence.
- The diversity of the beliefs of this coalition would itself be a sign of its radical democratic values, and its loyalty to people and human rights in general, over and against totalitarianism, neo-colonialism, fascism, and imperialism.
Butler’s points about a coalition of people who support feminism and gender justice and who oppose these principles being appropriated for the war efforts against Islam is an important point for all people who hold these values. If we talk about gender justice, we need to make sure that our ideas and ideals are not subverted to oppress people, or endorse acts of violence against them at any level — personal, communal, or political.
So, just to make this all the more clear, the following is a brief list of statements that allowed feminism to be weaponized:
- Justifying the war in Afghanistan with statements such as “It was in the best interest of oppressed Muslim women.”
- Colonialism generally is beneficial to Muslim women.
- Resistance to hijab at the level of legal bans and prohibitions, believing that this somehow liberates or protects Muslim women.
- Justifying bans against burkinis or modest swimwear in public places, again erroneously believing that this somehow frees women.
- Prioritizing attention to honor killings, despite the fact that three women a day are murdered as a result of domestic violence in the United States alone. Keep in mind that the true statistics regarding domestic violence are likely higher, due to survivors being afraid to report it.
- Prioritizing the discussion about LGBTQ+ incessantly in Muslim communities and with Muslims with the implicit assumption that Muslims need to explain away our apparent homophobia in a way that singles us out as the identified “other” in the conversation about sexual politics.
Feminism as a tool of colonialism and imperialism is centuries old. However, the use of sexual politics particularly has become more pronounced as the LGBTQ+ community gains traction in its efforts to normalize LGTBQ+ lifestyles globally. One of the ongoing problems of the conversation about sexual politics is that generally when the LGBTQ+ community confronts more conservative Muslims, there is an embedded assumption that the conversation can and should be oriented around a set of definitions that the Muslim community does not control. The concept that acting on homosexuality is a sin is widely accepted in Islam. However, this issue is highlighted in the conversation about LGBTQ+ communities in a way that marginalizes Muslim values in the interest of undermining the dialogue before it even begins.
If we talk about gender justice, we need to make sure that our ideas and ideals are not subverted to oppress people, or endorse acts of violence against them at any level — personal, communal, or political.
Jasbir Puar, in his book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, talks about the militarization of the public sector around issues of sexual politics, what he calls “militarized bodies.” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, page 152).
He states, “As a response to the age of terrorism, and the war on terrorism, metrosexuality in its American incarnation stages its own form of terrorism, manifested through penetrating and all-encompassing queer aesthetics, even as it capitulates to the regime of homonationalism through the dilution of queer politics…In this imaginative geography, the dovetailing of two claims of US exceptionalism- of superior counter-terrorism intelligence and technology and of the greatest sexual freedom and tolerance- come together” (Puar, page 69).
Personally, I live with this tension in my life, as do so many of us, and I think we need to continue to come together as Muslims to speak out for gender justice and against the appropriation of feminist and sexual politics by Islamophobic voices and forces who use them against Islam and against Muslims.
One of his points from the book is that the general public has become mobilized against Islam through claims of U.S. exceptionalism around sexual politics, and has engaged in its own forms of self-condoned violence that never become questioned, or investigated, as they are enshrined in the veils of patriotism and resistance to violence, claims that never take into account historical populations of racial minorities, or Indigenous peoples who have been the victims of the unquestioned violence perpetrated by white supremacy. Never questioning the conflation of feminism with colonialism and imperialism, the masses of the U.S. public associate the oppression of Muslims with the issues of women’s rights against misogyny in a bizarre justification of killing people to save them.
White savior feminism, weaponized feminism, militarized public bodies…all these manifestations of the war on Islam — and on Muslim women in particular — need to be called out on an ongoing basis.
Personally, I live with this tension in my life, as do so many of us, and I think we need to continue to come together as Muslims to speak out for gender justice and against the appropriation of feminist and sexual politics by Islamophobic voices and forces who use them against Islam and against Muslims. These two issues, our belief in women’s rights, so central to the sunnah of our Prophet (PBUH) and the resistance to neo-colonial themes of the misogynistic Muslim “other” as weapons of war, can unite us, in spite of, over and above, our different opinions of what gender justice, the politicization of sexual politics at the level of law and society, and women’s rights should look in practice in the Muslim community around the world.
Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God in her free time. She is currently working on a book on Sufism, mindfulness and recovery from co-occurring disorders and on an album with her band EYETestify.