Michelle Obama, You Cannot Exploit the Oppression of Muslim Women

Recently, Michelle Obama spoke to a group of young Muslim women in East London. She spoke about how her struggle as a Black woman in America, from the South Side of Chicago, is similar to the struggles of young Muslim girls living in East London. Her speech received a standing ovation.

I was initially inspired by her words, because we rarely get to hear about Muslim women’s struggles in the mainstream. Seldom do we see a human portrayal of Muslim women that doesn’t reduce us to being inherently oppressed under Islam.  The intersection of racism, patriarchy, classism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and other systemic forms of violence translate into living and fighting against multiple forms of oppression for Muslim women, and especially Muslim girls. Hence, having one of the most powerful women in the world directly speak to Muslim girls in East London about attaining power and making it in this world was moving.

But as I reflected upon Mrs. Obama’s words, it troubled me how she used her own experience of marginalization as a Black woman in America to advocate for empowerment of Muslim girls in East London. While no one can deny that Mrs. Obama has lived through formidable challenges, and has achieved success in a society built upon patriarchy and anti-blackness, the rhetoric she used was similar to imperialistic feminist rhetoric. It masked individual empowerment, assimilation, tokenization, and complicity with systems of oppression as the only method of attaining class mobility and empowerment. What is lost is the need for collective liberation, which can uplift Muslim girls living in the most marginalized corners of the world.

We listened to Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, use this crafted speech to further get buy-in for her $200 million Let Girls Learn initiative. This initiative builds upon USAID programs that rarely address systemic barriers and instead continuously place the onus on girls to fix the problem. She also delivered this speech to a group of Muslim girls who are living with poverty, state violence, and marginalization in East London, but aren’t the priority of her $200 million initiative. According to the initiative, the program is going to be launched in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.  What was her motive for using these girls as an audience to discuss her initiative? Why exactly did she select this school to give her speech, while choosing not to meet with Muslim women and girls living with similar conditions in parts of Chicago, New York City, Minnesota, and other places in the U.S.?

In addition, the fact the First Lady omitted any mention of the U.S.-led War on Terror as a structural form of violence that kills, harms, and disenfranchises Muslim women was disingenuous. Any discussion of Muslim women’s empowerment should include the War on Terror, as Muslim women and girls comprise a significant number of the estimated 2 million killed since 9/11. This discussion should also include the ways countering violent extremism and profiling programs impact Muslim women. All of these policies have been further entrenched under President Barack Obama’s administration.

It is also no coincidence that Michelle Obama decided to give her speech at the Mulberry School for Muslim girls in the U.K. The school in London is considered a model program for preventing extremism in the impoverished community. The school’s PREVENT strategy includes curriculums on English law, British citizenship, and British heritage in an attempt to ensure these girls will not become terrorists, extremists, and radicals. The fact that Mrs. Obama gave her speech to a school that is seen as a model program for preventing radicalization speaks to the racist, Islamophobic, and patriarchal components of the War on Terror. Even our young Muslim girls cannot attend school without being seen as susceptible to extremism, while other Muslim girls in the world cannot attend school without the fear of drones killing them.

Written by Darakshan Raja