How To Be An Ally To Muslim Women & Truly Embrace Intersectional Feminism
In Donald Trump's America, few groups are as demonized as Muslims — and women worldwide are always oppressed based on their gender. But given the current president's past comments about Islam, Muslim women will suffer the double-edged sword of Islamophobia and misogyny, and if they are Black or darker-skinned, they will experience discrimination as well. Intersectional feminists need to show up for Muslim women in the face of these dueling axes of oppression, because we cannot push for the rights of some without working towards the rights of all.
In recent years, feminists have begun to wise up to the intra-movement issues they share with Muslim women. Not to mention, intersectionality got a major boost with Linda Sarsour's inclusion in the organization of the Women's March. In March, Muslim women got an even bigger boost with the first annual International Muslim Women's Day founded by MuslimGirl's Editor-in-Chief Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.
While these advents are great, they're far from the full representation needed within a feminist movement that recognizes, celebrates, and defends the intersections of race, class, gender identity, sexuality, and religion. Muslim women can't be generalized or lumped into one group. They are members of so many majority and minority groups, and there's much that feminists committed to intersectionality can do to ally themselves with them in these troubling times.
1. Recognize Muslim Women's Diversity
Similarly to how there is no singular "female experience," the category of "Muslim woman" is far from neat or precise. Instead, they are as diverse as any other group — there are Muslim women of every race, queer and trans Muslim women, Muslim women who do and don't cover, and Muslim women who occupy every class. In short, they are as diverse a group as "women" overall, and you need to recognize this if you aim to help them lead safe and peaceful lives.
2. Don't Assume You Know The Types Of Lives They've Led
With their diversity comes a plethora of individual lived experiences. My story as a white-passing queer Muslim woman who was raised Unitarian Universalist and only recently came back to Islam is vastly different from a Black Muslim hijabi (woman who wears hijab), or from a recent Pakistani immigrant. Never assume that you know what our lives as Muslims or as women have entailed, and please never, ever assume that we've been "oppressed" by the men in our lives.
3. Fight Islamophobia When You See Or Hear It
Like every other form of bigotry, Islamophobic misogyny is carried out in casual as well as overt ways. For every major, attention-grabbing act of violence, harassment, or discrimination against a Muslim woman, there are thousands of much smaller micro-aggressions against Muslims and against Islam in general that fly under the radar. Next time you see or hear someone decrying "Islamic terrorism," fight back with your voice. Make it clear to the offender that you are willing to defend innocent Muslims (who, of course, make up the vast majority of adherents in the United States and around the world) against their bigotry.
4. Remember That "Muslim" Does Not Equal "Arab"
With media hyper-focused on Arab extremists for decades, many people believe that all Muslims are Arabs (and that all Arabs are Muslims). This couldn't be further from the truth — the majority of the world's Muslims live in the Asian-Pacific region of the world, roughly 19 percent of them live in North Africa and the Middle East, and a mere 0.2 percent live in North America. There are Christian and Jewish minorities in the Arab world as well, and many Arabs living in the United States are Christian. Equating Islam with Arabs does a disservice to Muslim women's diversity, and is likely to turn away non-Arab Muslim women with whom you're attempting to ally.
5. Ask Muslim Women What They Need
The biggest thing about allyship is that people undertake it to help oppressed people — but far too often, "allies" act without input from those they wish to help. One of the simplest and most powerful ways to help Muslim women (and members of all oppressed groups) is just to ask what you can do or what Muslim women need. Whether you're asking your Muslim friend what she or he needs on an interpersonal level, asking Muslim activists you know what their group needs, or looking into what Muslim women themselves want and need from allies, it's important to take those requests to heart.
6. Leave Your Preconceived Notions At The Door
People assume a lot of things about women in Islam — that they are oppressed, that the men in their lives are misogynists, that they come from specific countries and adhere to specific cultural practices, and many others. While it's true that there are Muslim women who do experience some or all of the above, that's true of women worldwide — and moreover, those notions are based in harmful myths and stereotypes about religion and cultures that are part and parcel of Islamophobia. Islam is as multi-faceted, nuanced, and complicated as every other religion, and the preconceived notions built on Western stereotypes of Muslims are almost always wrong.
7. Question Your Biases
As anyone committed to intersectionality should know, bias comes in many multi-faceted, shifting forms. Because Muslim women are not represented by a single cohesive racial, class, or sexuality based group, there are many ways people can be overtly and inadvertently biased towards them. Questioning and challenging all your biases is critical to being an intersectional feminist, and doubly so if you want to ally yourself with Muslim women.
8. Remember That They're Women, Too
When discussing the unique experiences Muslim women have, it's important to remember that they're all still women. They can still be the victims of street harassment, still survive sexual abuse and assault, still need access to reproductive healthcare, and still experience workplace discrimination based on their genders. Their being Muslim does not negate their womanhood, and keeping that shared experience in mind when working to relate to and ally with Muslim women is essential in not making them feel othered.
9. Learn About Islam
One of the biggest Islamophobic myths out there is that Islam is oppressive towards women — and the only way to counter this false stereotype is to learn about Islam itself. Unfortunately, finding unbiased information about the religion is difficult, but there are a few great resources out there, including the International Association of Religious Journalists' primer on Islam. Last year, Bustle did a great video interviewing Muslim women about what they want non-Muslims to know about their religion, and it's a great place to start.
10. Learn Their History
Learning about the many badass Muslim women who've made history in their countries and throughout the world is another great way to educate yourself about why they're so great. Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's first female president (who was tragically assassinated in 2007) and Ibtihaj Muhammed, the American Muslim fencer who made waves by donning her hijab at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, are just a couple of examples. The world's first Muslim was a woman — the prophet Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, was a businesswoman who was older than the prophet when they met, and she was the first person to become a Muslim. Muslim women are seriously incredible, and learning about their history negates the harmful myths that perpetuate Islamophobia.
In these troubling times, being a woman is hard enough. Add in being a Muslim (and, for many Muslim women, covering their hair, wearing hijab, and/or being an immigrant) and life gets infinitely more intense. Luckily, I can attest to the fact that they have their own vibrant communities both on and offline, and you can do your part to make sure people see them as the nuanced and ultimately normal people that they are in this polarizing political climate.