We have some voices in the western Muslim community, both online and in real life, with well-intentioned but ultimately vacuous ideas about Muslim women, ideas that play right into the hands of the very Islamophobes they are trying to fight.
This type of mindset is especially visible on social media. Some Muslim men see the stigma that Muslim women face in the West, and their reaction is an attempt to “fight the stereotypes.”
How do they try to do this?
By highlighting Muslim career women and essentially pleading: “See! Muslim women are NOT oppressed.”
This is really cringeworthy.
Why is this not an intelligent strategy?
Because when we attempt to prove the empowerment and lack of oppression of Muslim women with the appeal to “but hijabis are in so many science and tech careers!” it’s a losing battle.
First, this line of thinking is not really going to convince your ideological enemies. If they are dead set on the belief that Islam oppresses women, showing them pictures of Muslim female engineers and mathematicians ultimately won’t sway them. Their hatred of Islam is too deep-seated for a few pictures to dislodge, so their mind will remain made up. They’ll simply come back with, “Well, fine, these particular Muslim females may not be oppressed, but there are countless others who in fact are. The hijab itself, as a concept, is oppressive because it’s worn by women. Islam is a gendered religion, so it’s patriarchal and misogynistic.”
So hijabi scientist glamour shots don’t really address that central claim.
Secondly, this type of strategy concedes too much. It overcompensates. By highlighting the stereotypical “empowered” and “independent” career woman, it de-emphasizes and undermines the other side: the wife and mother who makes the home. She is the backbone of the family, and therefore, of society. A healthy society is comprised of healthy families, and a healthy family has at its heart a strong and grounded Muslim woman at home. She grounds her family, anchors it. Without her in this important role, there is a noticeable void, a gap, a deficit. There is an obvious and historically documented link between women entering the workforce en masse and the breakdown of the traditional family unit. We pretend that we don’t know this when we adopt a strategy of showcasing career women, in a bid to make our case for women’s empowerment in Islam.
Thirdly, the very strategy of displaying Muslim women in the public sphere is ironic to anyone who has studied the history of non-Muslim colonization in the Muslim world. The hijab and seclusion of Muslim women in Algeria proved to be an obstacle against the French colonial powers. Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born psychiatrist and anti-colonial intellectual, described the French colonial doctrine thus:
“If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.”
In contrast with secular non-Muslim insistence that women be readily visible and on public display, Islam guards the privacy and honor of a woman by shielding her from the gaze of strange men. By establishing a healthy separation between the genders and not making women readily accessible in the public sphere, Islam also maintains the purity of the hearts of individuals as well as the health of society overall. Diametrically opposed to this is plastering Muslim women’s photos on social media, where thousands of strange men can pull up their photos and stare into their faces as long as they desire. This is gross.
Fourthly, this method of showing the empowerment of Muslim women by showcasing them doing “great things” in science and tech (STEM) fields smacks of inferiority complex. It accepts and takes for granted the non-Muslim framework. Instead of questioning the standards set by the opposing side, it simply tries to conform to them. The other side, held by non-Muslims and Islamophobes, holds a specific set of assumptions:
1. Women must work for financial compensation in order to be considered “successful” and “useful to society” and “bettering the world.”
2. The most prestigious careers are in STEM, which are dominated by men. Women ought to be encouraged to enter them.
3. Women must do the same work as men in the same way in order to be seen as “empowered” and “liberated.”
4. The higher up the corporate ladder a woman has climbed and the more educational degrees she has collected, the better off she is.
All of these premises are false. We as Muslims do not hold these views, nor do we submit to them.
We as Muslims submit to the superior values revealed to us within Islam about the genders, their roles, their natures, and how these two genders work together and complement one another in order for society, and humanity, to thrive.
We understand that:
1. There are many other modes of work that are immensely valuable — and utterly irreplaceable — that don’t come with a paycheck from an employer. Highlighting employment as proof of empowerment and success is simply buying into the false claim that careerism is empowerment. Why should we blindly accept this when so many women in the corporate world express high levels of dissatisfaction with their lives? Why should we blindly accept this when all the data proves that women in the West have become less happy the more “empowered” they have become?
2. If a woman is forced to work outside the home, either due to financial need or other pressing circumstances, why should we assume that STEM careers are the best for her? Reflexively pushing women to enter male-dominated fields in order to prove a point about “empowerment” is not wise. These demanding and competitive fields often require women to spends many years on schooling to get graduate degrees. And then, the careers themselves are not always conducive to the best career-life balance, much less balance for a Muslim family. In many cases, a Muslim woman has to sacrifice the possibility of family altogether in order to advance in many STEM jobs.
3. The notion that a woman must prove her merit by striving to compete with men and beat them at their own game is just sad. Feminism pushes women to try to be the same as men, entering the same fields, working the same long hours, having the same level of promiscuity, and falsely promises that women will have the same outcome as men do. Women and men have vastly different needs and natures, and running in the same hamster wheel as men just to prove that she can brings no real happiness to a woman, but she discovers this only when it’s too late. By the time most women realize the futility of competing with men in their spheres, it’s too late to rewind and do it differently. The window for what does bring most women true happiness, namely children and a stable family, has closed, and it’s too late to go back for it.
4. Women who are perpetual students and/ or careerists tend to do so at the expense of family. Feminism promises women that they do it all and have it all: they can climb up the corporate ladder and get multiple PhD’s while also having a husband, starting a family, and mothering children. This is a fantasy that does not play out this way in reality. Countless working women with big careers tend to have dysfunctional relationships and family lives, simply because they put career first. Family gets the leftovers. Even women who are not high-profile lawyers or have other unusually-demanding jobs, statistics reveal that their mental health suffers from the constant stress of being pulled in too many different directions. Unable to focus fully on their professional life but also unable to dedicate themselves fully to home, family, or children, they suffer from feelings of overwhelming depression and chronic anxiety. They try to do everything but simply cannot, exhausting themselves in the process.
Is this what we want for our sisters, when Islam teaches us a better way?
To the Islamophobes who want to say that Muslim women are oppressed, we simply don’t need to play their game. We can just turn the tables on them and respond, “Actually, it is Western women who are suffering the highest levels of dissatisfaction and depression despite their supposedly empowered lives. Instead of worrying about Muslim women, maybe clean up your own house first. And if you need any tips from us Muslims, we are more than happy to help!”