Article Op-Ed

How to Speak Up for Muslim Women

How to Speak Up for Muslim Women

Author Nusaiba Mubarak by

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Ben Grey

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This article is not meant to target or offend anyone who is quoted, but to bring attention to a frequent problem that the American Muslim community must be aware of.

I sat in a conference created to empower and educate young women in their lives and in their careers. There was a large Muslim audience, particularly of young women. It was incredibly uplifting until I heard one of the final comments by a panelist, who was a male. He, an Arab American Muslim, said, 'Everyday I see in the news another women on the streets of Cairo is harassed, something that never happens to women in America. Ladies, anyone, tell me if you have ever been harassed in Atlanta while wearing a scarf or for being Muslim.' He did not expect anyone to raise her hand. Three ladies in the room raised their hands, including myself. His comment struck many emotions in me. He engaged many thoughts and drew on false narratives. Immigrants come to the United States to practice their religion freely and, in all honesty, to make a decent living. Thankfully, many immigrants have reached the middle and upper class; yet they often speak of their situation as being the norm, oblivious to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have not made their way to the middle class American dream as the few who did. Instead, the rest are subject to economic and sexual exploitation, oppression, violence, and abuse.

Additionally, he engaged in the stereotype that women in America are more safe and liberated than women in the Middle East, ignorant to the fact that one in every three women is sexually abused or experiences violence in her lifetime, as most people are. I confronted him afterward (since they did not allow any more questions or comments from the crowd), and added that when a woman is raped in India, thousands of women protest on the streets, while when a woman is raped in the U.S., other women slut-shame her, blaming her as if she drew the violence to herself. Although India is not representative of the Middle East, I feel the same would occur there. Men and women would strongly protest and condemn the act. Women in Cairo are politically involved and have had seats in the parliament, and some may argue that women are better represented in Egypt than in the United States. In such ways, women are far safer 'over there' than here.

The panelist also perpetuated a generalization that all women in the Middle East (or, even worse, all Muslim women) are represented by the female victims in Cairo. Women in Egypt are experiencing a very specific situation; there is a horrifying increase in state-sponsored violence and sexual abuse due to the military coup that was not often practiced in the Mubarak-era. We must be very wary of drawing large generalizations of women because they make us ignorant to the geopolitical situation of people, which is crucial to understanding any situation.

As an American Muslim, I told him we must be careful of the language that we partake in, and to not employ the same stereotypes used against us. Years ago, a college professor once told me, 'Well of course Muslim women who came to America would never go back. They are free here unlike over there.' My 16 year-old self could have simply nodded along, yet I knew the real reason why many immigrant Muslim women were not moving back to the countries they were born or raised in. I knew, since then, that such narratives are extremely dangerous and harmful for society.

Firstly, they create an increased divide between the United States and other countries. They also perpetuate ignorance, categorizing the entire vast 'Muslim world' into one group titled 'over there.' These narratives completely deny the existence of thousands of convert / revert American-born Muslims and African American Muslims who forcefully immigrated since slavery. Most importantly, though, they draw on geopolitical strategic narratives that women 'over there' (in Muslim majority countries) are oppressed and need liberation via western ideals of freedom and gender equality. They also employ a deeper ideology that women who cover their skin and hair do so because they are forced to do so, specifically by men; and women who show much of their skin are somehow more liberated than women who cover, and do so out of their own choice. These narratives are what drove former First Lady, Laura Bush, to promote the war in Iraq by telling the nation that Muslim women needed liberation.

If we truly believe in women's freedom, we must recognize that women make choices out of their own agency. However, we must do so with full understanding of societal ideals and pressures and the geopolitical condition of each situation. Let us be clear and educated when we speak of women's issues. Let us be very aware of the politics surrounding women in different countries. Let us educate each other and ourselves. Let us speak up for all women, especially Muslim women, without generalizing, categorizing, or drawing on false narratives. Most importantly (to my fellow women), let us empower ourselves by uniting and standing up for one another.

Nusaiba Mubarak was born and raised in Panama City, FL and moved to Atlanta, GA in 2012. Nusaiba is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Sociology at Georgia State University. She is an activist in her community and promotes dialogue to clear misconceptions about Islam. Nusaiba is involved in organizing and participating in projects to raise awareness on topics such as Muslims in America, Muslim contributions to society, and most importantly, Muslim women.

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