Western feminists should not assume everyone’s struggle mirrors their own – their obsession with the burqa has a patronising whiff.
“Did you wear a burqa when you lived in Saudi Arabia?” a young woman I met at a party recently asked. I responded in the affirmative, upon which she inquired again: “But weren’t you outraged?” “Not particularly,” I said. Fixing me with an earnest stare she declared, “Well if you weren’t then I am outraged on your behalf!”
It’s tricky to respond to this with equanimity. The sentiment behind the utterance is undoubtedly a sincere and genuine one, free of any deliberate intent to patronise, but it was patronising nonetheless. This seems to be the initial turn-off when western feminism comes to the rescue, the blanket assumption that the victim has no volition nor can respond to adversity with the commensurate degree of outrage because she is so accustomed and desensitised to her own subjugation. It is a strange mix of protective sororal sympathy and smugness.
I could have launched into all the reasons why outrage would have been futile, why, while the burqa wasn’t particularly comfortable, it was the least of my concerns in a country of institutionalised misogyny. Besides, there seems to be an assumption that the salvation of Muslim women must mirror that of western women. Inordinate focus on sartorial garb for example misses the point and assumes that all women should want to dress a particular hijab-free way when what we should be trying to ensure is that the choice to do so or not is what is protected. While this very process of choice is murky and itself subject to its own conditions and social pressures, it can be argued that the same applies to women in the west and that we can do little beyond ensuring that the right to choose is not circumscribed by law.
Although basic rights and dignities are universal, there are ways of enshrining them without perfectly emulating a western experience. That is not to say that Muslim women should be left alone and be allowed to choose to be repressed because it is their right, but in deeply traditional societies, women choose their battles and make distinctions between wants and needs.
In addition, treating all Muslim women’s problems as monolithically attributable to their religion is a cul-de-sac. There are vast cultural differences and influences that go beyond the simplistic attention-grabbing headlines. Even in diaspora, Muslims tend to perpetuate cultural strands of religious practice; thus engaging with communities, as opposed to with some faceless religious body, might be more productive and focus efforts.
The endeavour to help Muslim women is also undermined and treated with increased cynicism when it is morally hijacked in order to underwrite less idealistic campaigns. The latest developments in Afghanistan prove how easily women’s rights can be relegated even under western sponsorship. Is female education, the violin that accompanied the drum beats of war in Afghanistan, no less universal a right than freedom from sexual terrorism?
Western feminism needs to divorce and distance itself from high-profile military campaigns in order to win back goodwill. Neo-colonialist sensitivities run deep in Muslim societies and many a fruitful joint venture can be sabotaged due to such prickliness. Finding local partners and supporting indigenous role models can minimise this effect. While working briefly at the UN mission in Khartoum, I realised that the most influential figure in a campaign to promote contraception and sexual health was a middle aged Sudanese female member of parliament. Young women listened to her, and their patrons, older women and the men in their families, were not alienated and thus allowed her access to their homes. Any whiff of visible western practical support for Lubna Hussein for example, would have robbed her campaign of most of its credibility.
What will help Muslim women is spending less time and effort being outraged on our behalf and more on differentiating the different faces and needs behind the burqa.
Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer and commentator who lives in London and works in the financial sector. This article previously appeared at the Guardian’s Comment is Free and is published here with the author’s kind permission.