This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2020

The Exhaustion of Empowerment

Muslim women shouldn't be required to act superhuman to avoid being seen as weak

Sidrah Ahmad-Chan

I am tired of the narrative of the Empowered Muslim Woman™. I find it exhausting.

As a visibly Muslim woman, a large portion of my daily life involves attending to a strange kind of image management. I’m aware of the stereotypes that might fill the air when I walk into a room, so I take it upon myself to disprove them. Stereotype-disproving is an undercurrent of my day, embedded in my way of thinking. It’s almost like I work as an unpaid PR agent for my community as I interact with the “outside world.” Through my work, activism, and persona, I demonstrate that Muslim women are not oppressed—that we are, in fact, empowered.

This work is never-ending, but that is not why I am exhausted by it. What has drained me to the point of despair is the feeling of being trapped in a black-and-white conversation that doesn’t ring true. The binary of “Muslim women are strong and empowered” versus “Muslim women are weak and oppressed” doesn’t reflect the nuance or complexity of real women’s lives. Of course it doesn’t. And yet these two opposing narratives about Muslim women are cycled back and forth in a never-ending stream of simplistic sound bites. I, too, have offered these kinds of sound bites in response to harmful stereotypes and far-right rhetoric I’ve encountered, as if I am reading off talking points provided to me by an anti- Islamophobia marketing team designed to improve the brand of Muslim Women and Girls™.

And I am tired of it.

My stereotype-busting-Muslim-girl PR job started in 1995. My first day of Grade 6 was also my first day wearing hijab to school, and I was the only kid in my central Toronto elementary school who did so at the time. When I walked into the classroom with my head covered that day, my teacher asked me to stand up and explain my hijab to the rest of the class. I remember sweating as I described the meaning of hijab to my classmates to the best of my 12-year-old ability, trying to ensure that they all understood that wearing hijab was my choice—that I was empowered. By that age, I knew all too well the stereotypes that circulated about Muslims: that we were terrorists, that we were backwards, and—the gendered stereotype most relevant to me—that Muslim women and girls were oppressed, helpless, victims.

It was my job to disprove those ideas—and disprove I did, for many years.

Throughout middle school and high school, disproving gendered Islamophobic stereotypes was easy for me, because my natural interests and passions went against dominant expectations for Muslim women and girls. I was loud and outspoken in my classes, sharing many opinions about the books we were assigned and engaging in fiery debates about current events. I played basketball and soccer with the boys at lunch and after school, and joined the girls’ rugby team, relishing rolling around in the dirt and fighting hard to score a try (the rugby term for “touchdown”) in tournaments. Yet although I presented an assertive, athletic image, there were nonetheless areas of my life where I didn’t feel strength; where I felt frightened, vulnerable and—dare I say—disempowered. But I couldn’t share those feelings. There was no space for them. They were stuffed down for the sake of maintaining the strong image I felt compelled to uphold. The task of shattering Islamophobic stereotypes felt most urgent to me, and so it took priority.

I was not alone in choosing this priority. Muslim communities in Canada, and in the West in general, have a lot invested in challenging the stereotype of the “oppressed Muslim woman”—a figure that haunts the colonial imagination and fuels immeasurable harm against Muslim communities. Indeed, the single, stereotyped story about Muslim women isn’t just personally hurtful; it is weaponized against Muslim communities across the globe. The image of the “oppressed Muslim woman” has been used to justify the colonization of Muslim-majority countries and even to justify imperial wars. For example, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was in large part justified to the public through the idea of liberating the Muslim women who lived there. Yet more than 38,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, including the very same Muslim women that the invasion was promising to save.

In addition to these global impacts, the stereotype of the “oppressed Muslim woman” also fuels violence against Muslim women living here in Canada. In 2016, I carried out a study with Muslim women survivors of Islamophobic violence for my master’s thesis. In this study, I spoke with 21 Muslim women across the Greater Toronto Area. Collectively, these women told me about over 30 incidents of violence they were targeted for because of their Muslim identity. These incidents included attempted murder, physical assault, sexual assault, and verbal harassment. Several participants told me that they believed they were targeted for this hate-motivated violence because of the stereotype that Muslim women are passive, demure, and oppressed. As one participant said, “the idea that Muslim women are weak, they can’t speak up, they’re subdued, they’re scared, they’re oppressed, and somehow we have to liberate them, makes us ‘easy targets.’” Many other participants echoed similar sentiments: they believed that their attackers were motivated by the belief that Muslim women are oppressed; in their minds, since Muslim women were already “damaged goods,” this made it okay to perpetrate violence against them.

In light of how central the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman is to Islamophobia, and how it fuels violence against Muslims, it makes sense that I, and so many others, set ourselves about the task of disproving this harmful narrative. Progressive media outlets trying to support this cause sometimes try to rehabilitate the image of Muslim women by featuring triumphant stories about Muslim women athletes, politicians, engineers, scientists, activists, and soldiers; these articles are then shared by well-intentioned people in the hopes of poking holes in what sometimes feels like an immutable and fixed story about Muslim women’s helplessness.

See? We collectively declare through these stereotype-shattering stories. Muslim women are not oppressed. They are empowered!

Don’t get me wrong: these kinds of stories are vital, and myth-busting is important work. After all, we are living in a time of rampant and growing Islamophobia in Canada and across the globe. It has been troubling to witness how the spread of white supremacist ideologies and the political scapegoating of Muslims and refugees have whipped up a new far-right white nationalist identity in Canada. Indeed, the far-right uses talking points regarding Muslim women’s oppression to argue that Muslims don’t belong in the West, and to push for closing our borders to refugees and immigrants. And as this kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric has been spreading, there has been a parallel precipitous rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, not the least of which was the massacre at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City on January 29, 2017, which left six Muslim men dead and injured 19 others. We’ve also seen Bill 21 pass in Quebec, which targets Muslim women (and other religious minorities) by banning people from wearing religious symbols if they want to be hired to teach in a classroom or engage in other public service jobs.

In this hostile social and political environment, it is vital to dismantle the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman. But in doing so, we risk erasing and dismissing Muslim women and girls who don’t serve this goal: those who aren’t breaking barriers and whose lives don’t provide a compelling counterpoint to the far right’s rhetoric. What’s more, by fixating on shattering stereotypes, we can get stuck in a reactionary and defensive mode, clinging to slogans instead of responding to nuance and complexity. We risk becoming PR agents when what is needed is thoughtful conversation and truth.

The truth is that Muslim women in Canada are neither inherently oppressed nor empowered, whatever each of those terms mean. Just like everyone else, Muslim women’s lives are full of both good and bad, and contain messy contradictions. Some are survivors of Islamophobic hate crimes. Others are survivors of abuse within their families and communities. Some fall in love with the hijab and wear it out of choice. Others are pressured or coerced to do so. Some grow up to become doctors or political leaders and are celebrated by their communities. Others struggle with addictions and need support. I personally know Muslim women who have been through all of these things at different points in their lives. Just like any other real, three-dimensional human beings, our lives are not caricatures that fit into neat boxes, whether those boxes be far-right stereotypes or progressive stereotype-disproving. Yet as Muslim women live out their real, multi-faceted lives, many still feel the pressure to tell a single, hyper-empowered story about themselves in order to keep up appearances and combat Islamophobia.

Perhaps the most significant tension lies in situations of gender-based violence and abuse. Abuse happens across all communities, and Muslim communities are no exception—we are no more prone to abuse than other communities, nor are we immune to it. Yet when Muslim women survivors of abuse come forward, and if the perpetrator is also Muslim, the entire community is stigmatized as barbaric and the survivors’ stories risk being co-opted to fuel racist agendas. Muslim women survivors aren’t afforded the benefit of being seen as individual women who were targeted by violent men; instead, their abuse story is racialized and generalized to the entire community. See? They’re all like that.

In this way, Islamophobia makes talking about abuse harder for Muslim women. Because of this fraught dynamic, many Muslim women who are survivors of abuse choose to remain silent. Those who do come forward often have to walk a tightrope: they face the prospect of their abuse story being used to demonize their entire community and further Islamophobic policies and violence against Muslims. At the same time, they face potential backlash from abusers and enablers within the Muslim community, who may accuse them of bringing further stigma to the community by coming forward with their truth.

Muslim women survivors of violence are not alone in feeling silenced because of systemic discrimination. Last January, jaye simpson, an Oji-Cree Saulteaux non-binary Two-Spirit trans woman, wrote in GUTS magazine that they would not name abusers within Indigenous communities because they are “not willing to provide a blade for non-Indigenous people to use to cut us.” Similarly, Lindsay Nixon, a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux writer, wrote in the Walrus in December 2018 that they have “held secrets for Indigenous men for years, fearful of the repercussions that might result if I told those truths.” For Nixon, those potential repercussions include Canadian settlers and administrators painting their whole community as “corrupt Indians with troubled communities who can’t, and don’t deserve the right to, manage our resources.” These are high stakes, placing enormous pressure on survivors to keep secrets. Nixon and simpson’s pieces demonstrate that a broader conversation needs to happen in Canada around how colonialism and racism contribute to silencing Indigenous survivors of abuse.

Survivors from Muslim communities are also speaking out and writing about the impossible dilemma that systemic racism and discrimination places them in. In February 2018, Nour Naas, a Muslim American woman whose mother was killed by her father after years of domestic abuse, wrote a personal essay for The Establishment in February 2018, in which she shared that “Islamophobia informed my mother’s silence, and mine.” She drew a clear link to Islamophobia as a barrier for Muslim women who want to speak up about abuse they are living with. “If Muslim women are to be vocal about their abuse,” Naas wrote, “the inimical culture of Islamophobia cannot exist.”

Thanks to the voices of Naas and others, I believe that the tide is turning within Muslim communities in North America. Last August, in a landmark case in the U.S., Imam Zia ul-Haque Sheikh of the Islamic Center of Irving was ordered to pay $2.5 million to Jane Doe, whom he groomed through a counselling relationship from the age of 13 and allegedly sexually coerced after she turned 18. Facing Abuse in Community Environments, a Muslim women-led non-profit organization aimed at holding abusive Muslim religious leaders accountable, discovered that prior to this incident, Zia ul-Haque Sheikh had been fired from other mosques due to his inappropriate conduct with Muslim women. Jane Doe’s fight demonstrates that powerful members of the community can be held accountable and that religiosity should not be used as a shield for abusers.

In light of Nour Naas and Jane Doe’s stories, I hope that a new narrative of Muslim women’s empowerment will emerge: one that doesn’t require hiding or denying abuse that occurs in Muslim families and communities in order to break stereotypes and combat far-right propaganda. I hope that leaders and influencers within Muslim communities in Canada and the U.S. will realize that we can hold abusers in our communities accountable, while fighting systemic Islamophobia. We don’t need to respond to far-right sound bites with oversimplified sound bites of our own. Indeed, putting the onus on Muslim women and girls to disprove stereotypes by insisting that they are Empowered™ has consequences. It subtly tells Muslim women and girls who are living with abuse or oppression that their stories are not welcome.

I hope that one day, Muslim women and girls who are living with abuse can come forward without fearing how their story will be used, or what the impact will be on their already-targeted community. I also hope that our society at large will begin to see through the tactics of the far-right when they co-opt Muslim women’s stories of abuse in order to fuel racist and xenophobic agendas.

Most of all, I hope that the day arrives where Muslim women and girls don’t have to prove that we are Empowered™ at all. That we can all resign from the job of PR agents, and just live out our regular lives, with all of their messy contradictions, and figure things out for ourselves.

Show Comments