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In My Image Illustration by Raj Dhunna.

In My Image

Prejudice often hides behind a secular mask. Fariha Roísín on the silencing of Muslim feminists.

"YOU’RE MUSLIM?” A few months ago, a friend of mine—one who knows all about race politics and inequality—asked me this with exasperation. When I replied yes, her response came through clenched teeth. “You agree with Islam?” Her disapproval was obvious. I gawked, embarrassed and ashamed, and then smiled with reservation. I had naively assumed that people with an awareness of solidarity movements would know better than to be so blatantly and cruelly racist. 

I’ve navigated radical spaces since my youth. Despite their members’ general openness and inclusivity towards most things, I’ve come to find that the supposedly liberal-minded people who flock to these circles can be as bad as bigots when talking about Islam. They criticize without knowing anything about the religion—often spewing citations of decontextualized Quranic lines as evidence for its inherent evil—and with an enraged righteousness. Islam, it seems, is an exception to the rules of inclusivity, understanding and respect.

Western feminism has consistently disengaged with intersectionality, a concept acknowledging that people are discriminated against in different ways. Trans, queer, Muslim women’s and women of colour’s experiences are different than those of white heterosexual women and sometimes riddled with danger. Trans women around the world face higher risk of murder; violence towards women who wear the hijab escalated after 9/11.

In Montreal, this lack of intersectional thinking often manifests in leanings towards France’s anti-religious crusade. The charter of values debate began in September of 2013. Proponents of the charter claimed that religious symbols challenged secular thought and attempted to ban them from public spaces. Though the charter did not pass, earlier this year, a Montreal judge told a woman that she wouldn’t hear her case because she was wearing a hijab. I have witnessed Transportation Security Administration agents at several border control lines manhandle women in hijabs or men with beards in front of me when entering Canada. In the West, white-washing—as in committing to an ideal of a singular identity—hides behind a secularist veil. 

As a woman of colour, I am disturbed by the idea of homogenization. At parties, people have often told me that they “don’t see race” like it’s a political statement. But you should be able to see my race. It defines me. As well as my faith, it has informed the person that I am. My battles with race, the taunting I experienced as a child and the micro-aggressions I’ve experienced as I’ve gotten older have shaped my identity, and they are very specific to being a person of colour. The need to paint everyone with the same brush does nothing to benefit any of us—but it does swiftly silence a meaningful discussion about racial tension and how to properly be an ally. When you remove me of my identity markers, it makes you feel less xenophobic and it strips me of my personhood. 

DON’T READILY FIT into a Muslim archetype that’s seen in newspapers or on television. I do not wear a hijab. Tattoos run up and down my arms.

I am Muslim nonetheless. And so is my family. My mother is a painter and an artist; my father is a Marxist professor of political science (one with an affinity for religion). They raised me with diversity of opinion; I was always encouraged to think outside of myself. I understand that this is my own experience, but I also know that it’s not entirely unique—I am a Muslim woman who has enjoyed being Muslim, an opinion that’s not so often given space in mainstream dialogue.

A Muslim woman’s ability to choose what feminism means for her is removed from her because of the way she wants to represent herself. It never ceases to amaze me how many people presuppose that wearing a hijab is an act of myopia. I’ve often heard the argument that Muslim women can’t be feminist if they wear the hijab (or any other covering). In June, Britain’s the Spectator published an article titled: “Since when was the hijab a feminist statement?”

The Western-imagined stereotype of typical Muslim women is perpetuated by the fact that so many Western feminists aren’t willing to go to the trouble of finding out anything about the female Muslim experience. They will, however, willingly speak for us. This sort of thinking continues the idea that Muslim women are docile and subservient—many do not want to hear from us; they want to speak over our opinions and then criticize us as submissive.

When speaking about my religion, I am often challenged by the question: “But how much do you know?” This suggests that if I knew more about Islam, I wouldn’t be a Muslim. It is offensive: the person assumes that I don’t know enough, but even worse, that they as a non-Muslim know more.

People say that Islam perpetuates misogyny, implying that the secular world doesn’t brim over with double standards: that access to abortion, reproductive rights or even just our privacy as women—as people—isn’t still being challenged every day. 

WE LOVE TO TALK ABOUT FREEDOM and fairness. In Canada, in my city of Montreal, it is raised up as a tenet of our society. But let’s call a thing a thing: the freedom that is talked about in Quebec—the land that proposed the charter of values—is the freedom to live in a society that sometimes alienates anyone different. Sure, the province says it is welcoming of everyone—so long as they cast off their cultures, languages and symbols and take on the province’s. It’s a disownership, a lack of responsibility for the inherent racism embedded under the surface.

In Separate and Dominate, French feminist, writer and theorist Christine Delphy points out, quite aptly, that “freedom implies responsibility”—responsibility to the actual concept of freedom. If we so blithely administer that word in the first place, why not deconstruct what it means for everyone—not just those in power who are propagating and capitalizing off of an agenda?

The big gaping assumption of “liberal mindedness” dismisses the various identities of those who live in the West and do not prescribe to the white, heteronormative standards of the elite. Removing peoples’ religious complexities, sexual nuances and racial proximities silences them. Our Western civilization insinuates that the Other is always phenomenally savage, members of exotified cultures we don’t understand and therefore lesser and unsophisticated. The universalism that many seek to project, of a state of oneness, actually stems from a belief in the West’s profundity, and thus its inherent correctness, which is dangerous. A visual semblance of equality won’t put an end to racism. Self-righteousness, a muscle that Quebec attempted to flex through the charter, just feeds a persecution complex. It encourages a false sense of nationalism and a combative sense of isolation.

We lose not only the authenticity of personhood but also of culture if we demand people cast off certain dimensions of their identity in the service of so-called equality. The individual loses their freedom, the very antithesis of what, as a Western country, we supposedly provide through our principles. In Canada (and Quebec), the talk of diversity is just lip service; we only want certain types of diversity, one image recreated with slightly different shades. Like The Sims, we think we can choose how our society can look. But this isn’t diversity. The far larger, horrifying impact of the enforcement of such theories as the charter of values is that we continue to encourage racism. It festers, creating a bigger gap between people. Especially when it insinuates, by default, that white people have a better way of life.

You can’t know something if you’ve never tried to understand it. By the same token, you do nothing to ensure real resolutions if you don’t take responsibility for backward propaganda. People just want to be accepted—and liked—for who they are. Conforming shouldn’t be an option, nor should it be enforced. 

In order to move towards a place where we can create real, lasting social change—a world without terrorism or inequality—we need to understand that muslims aren’t the problem religion isn’t the problem; hatred is. Human beings are complicated by nature and we need to understand what motivates a person. If we remove a person of their complexities and reduce their actions to religious volatility, what good are we doing in the long run?

In order to relate to Muslims we need to understand the context of being Muslim today. What’s it like navigating a world where you are inherently hated for what you represent—like a memory of violence? In order to understand the psyche of the Muslim population one needs to understand that, by and large, we are people who want to live, to be happy, to experience love.

The poet Eileen Myles wrote in her book of essays The Importance of Being Iceland, “All the pioneers of our time are calling for a culture big enough to contain or embrace or encompass the shapes and needs of all our bodily destinies.” Let’s stop policing the lives of Muslims. For real social change, that’s a good place to start.