Seeking solidarity without reductionism

Non-Muslim women who desire to build a sense of solidarity with Muslim women need to know that it is absolutely possible to speak out against gross human rights violations within global Muslim communities, and yet avoid the multiple traps of cultural reductionism that we are so bombarded with in the mainstream media. Judy Bachrach’s article, Twice Branded: Western Women in Muslim Lands abounds with examples of what not to do when striving for an authentic sense of sisterhood.
Judy Bachrach’s article published recently in World Affairs Journal, Twice Branded: Western Women in Muslim Lands, is written to warn white, Western born, non-Muslim women like myself of the dangers we face when traveling or living abroad in Muslim-majority countries or, in the worst-case scenario, marrying a Muslim man.

Bachrach has personal experience in all but the latter; clearly to her relief, she managed to avoid matrimony with a Muslim. She pities, however, Muslims and non-Muslims alike who haven’t escaped such a fate, and she asserts that any would-be supporter of woman’s rights should absolutely pass judgment on the customs and mores of the “hostile environment” that is all “Islamic nations.”

The problem is, the only way Bachrach offers for us to understand the predicaments of Muslim women is through two-dimensional caricatures and glaring stereotypes. In order to substantiate her claim that even the most admirable seeming Muslim man is really a demonic misogynist in disguise, she turns to the outdated and critically dismissed movie “Not Without My Daughter,” and a discussion with notoriously anti-Islamic feminist Phyllis Chesler.

Drawing upon antiquated rhetoric that references “Muslim lands”, “Islamic nations”, and “the Muslim world” as if these were all one monolithic entity, Bachrach positions herself comfortably in the civilized camp of western civilization, where she looks sadly upon the subordination and silence of Muslim women. Their mutilation, harassment and even murder, Bachrach assures us, should not be surprising: “It is the way men in most Islamic nations prefer things to be.”

Reading through Bachrach’s article, I was absolutely floored that such a blatantly prejudiced approach to her subject matter was passing as legit journalism. I myself consider several Muslim men and women among my close friends, and I have traveled to several “Muslim Lands” (although I haven’t yet been to Dearborn, Michigan). Never have I experienced Bachrach’s assessment that: “The foreigner (read: white woman) without a murderous uncle by her side or a veil over her face is a communal dish.” But instead of pitting my personal experience against hers, I would like to attempt to explore what I believe are the dangerous traps in her brand of cross-cultural critique.

Bachrach’s first trap is that she seems to find it acceptable to lump all Muslim men together, and assumes that the refusal to stereotype the customs and mores of diverse peoples and nations is merely an expression of colonial guilt. Non-Muslim women should know that it is absolutely possible to speak out against gross human rights violations in global Muslim communities, and yet avoid the multiple traps of cultural reductionism that we are so bombarded with in the mainstream media, and in articles like Bachrach’s.

For anyone even mildly aware of the complexity of one’s own culture, the first trap will be easily dealt with: Just because some Muslim men are sexual predators, or physically abusive, does not mean that all Muslim men are. Most women have experienced men in their own culture who are abusive or even sociopathic, and yet they can seamlessly distinguish these men from their male friends, family, and lovers who are not this way. Most women can also understand how men in their lives may struggle with unhealthy attitudes toward women and the driving forces behind such beliefs, cultural or otherwise. However, these same women know not to not take the actions of some as the normative measure of all.

Bachrach insists that “women who must submit to sharia law find themselves in a very bad place.” Her second trap is the propensity to assume there is some static, all-encompassing and inherently oppressive set of rules known as sharia, or Islamic law, and that this one uniform law is practiced by all Muslim governments and Muslim people everywhere. This trap gets complicated in the non-Muslim imagination, where the law against women driving in Saudi Arabia starts to blend in with Karzai’s law supporting marital rape in Afghanistan and the punishments for wearing pants in Sudan. Decades of media relations, movies, literature and art also combine to enforce a homogenized view of how all Muslim people, everywhere, live their lives. Also included in this trap is the inclination to see abusive or misogynist behavior on the part of men as indisputably sanctioned by Islam.

To avoid this trap, we must take it upon ourselves to openly and honestly investigate the way Islamic law functions in diverse Muslim communities globally. Rather than hard and fast rules, the body of Islamic law is more a set of principles. There a radical difference in how different countries and communities interpret and implement sharia, which is highly influenced by religious, customary, and – you guessed it – colonial and secular forces, including decades of political and military intervention from Britiain, France and the US. Nobel Peace Prize winner, human rights lawyer, and devout Muslim Shirin Ebadi explains that indeed, patriarchal men and powerful regimes can interpret sharia in a “regressive manner,” but when interpreted in the spirit of equality, Islam, democracy, and human rights are compatible.

Whether Muslim or non-Muslim, living in the east or the west, we are bound together as one single humanity, and we share a common future. Injustice in its many forms needs to be confronted, for only through justice are we able to build authentic unity. But as we condemn acts of violence against women or government sanctioned abuse – and we should condemn these things – we must struggle against the tendency to reduce the complexity of a large segment of the human population to naive caricatures.

We need to shake free of the outdated “us” versus “them” mentality, a worldview that only justifies violence and oppression. It is not through “othering” and alienation that we will achieve the noblest heights of human development, but through the qualities of understanding and love. Those with a voice in the public sphere, journalists such as Judy Bachrach, have a great responsibility in how they choose to inform their readers. We know all too well the consequences of distortion and polarization.

(Photo: Ray Sabeth)
Misha Maynerick completed her undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and her graduate degree in Conflict Resolution. She recently founded a project to promote dialog between youth from the US and Muslim-majority countries, worldybelongings.com and she also is a regular blogger at findingbibi.com.

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