Despite the seeming ubiquity of ambient feminism and the increased number of American women who are both speaking out and being heard, the fact is America is still ruled by powerful, entitled white men. During the 2016 campaign, there was a real possibility that Donald Trump’s histrionic campaign would mark the beginning of the end of America’s indignant machismo problem. That didn’t happen. What has happened, however, is that the Trump administration has resurfaced misanthropic anxieties about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones. ‘Making America Great Again’ has proven to be far more than a winning campaign slogan; it is the reemergence of America’s culture wars.
Recently, a Washington Post article revealed that Vice President Mike Pence will not eat a meal alone with any female colleagues. Pence’s attempts to avoid sexual temptation has lit a fire in recent public discourse. Popular media responses fall along typically polarized political lines: disdain and horror from the left contrasted by empathy from the right. Dig a little deeper though and strange new political bedfellows emerge.
Sympathies for Pence’s policy are being extended by men (and some women) of faith, even from communities that otherwise are largely uncomfortable with many of the Trump administration’s policies. American Muslims are one such community joining conservatives on the far right to commend Pence’s ‘moral fortitude’ and modesty. You’ll find plenty of Muslim men who applaud his refusal to dine “alone” in public settings with female colleagues.
Critics, on the other hand, claim that Pence’s Christian-right-influenced policy is rooted less in immutable, religious principles than it is in patriarchy. Analyze the net effect of this ‘moral’ policy—when men in positions of leadership exclude women from important professional and mentorship opportunities, it ends up being harmful to women. The barring of women does not merely result in short term losses for individual women; it reveals insidious systemic barriers for all women in their professional lives.
By failing to include women in these social and professional contexts, females remain merely sexualized beings even at work. So while men benefit from women’s abilities and efforts in the office, an individual woman’s potential will always be relegated to a risk assessment of her sexual threat level. Rather than distrusting women, we need to work on fostering work cultures that do not treat women as if they are invading spaces that belong to men. So, what then, makes this so difficult to do?
While the core values of most faiths, including Islam, uphold human rights and dignity, people often confuse traditional gender norms with sacrosanct religious truths. Any challenge to the traditional role of women in society is all too often interpreted as a challenge to Islam itself. As it relates to navigating gender norms in professional and collegial contexts, some Muslims invoke a popularly referenced hadith to impose the exclusion of women: “When a man and woman are alone together, Satan is with them.”
Whether this hadith is applicable or not in this context remains largely unexamined. What we do know is that in its application, the principle is enforced unequally upon women and men. There is a strong tendency amongst some Muslims to emphasize the segregation of women rather than the segregation of men. In a professional situation, this has dire consequences. Perhaps then the more operative principle here is that God has forbidden injustice. Zulm is haram. Unpack the context behind many of the reactive responses to gender relation norms in public spaces and these “tradition-laden” responses become less about worship and service to God and more about an attempt to uphold male privilege.
What makes these discussions about women’s visibility and presence particularly difficult are the traditional roles women are assigned as cultural and ‘religious’ signifiers. Many Muslim communities share Pence’s worldview: women are either virginal beacons of morality, desexualized mothers/wives, or hyper-sexualized temptresses. Even in public, even while at work. Women in this view are anything but complete beings with complicated, multifaceted lives. Rather, women are simultaneously reduced and overwhelmed by an assessment that solely measures each woman’s capacity for cultural degradation versus capitulation.
Luckily as Muslim women’s scholarship and public leadership is entering a period of revival, we are witnessing a fearless and necessary exegesis. The project of feminism in American Islam is not an innovation. It is a humble act of restoration rather than dismantlement. The difficult work of negotiating competing ideals is happening and is not aided by adhering to archaic principles that are more befitting the Trump Administration than faith communities committed to enjoining justice and building equitable societies.
In an America that continues to be ruled by powerful, entitled men, the colossal power of the American state is marshaled to put women and girls in their place. Yet, we tell our daughters that the pathways before them are boundless and their choices are theirs to make. There is another way forward and that involves the choices that men, and particularly men of faith, make. Men in this moment can either choose to hide behind norms that perpetuate injustice or they can listen and understand that ethics and morality are not limited or made inauthentic by simply and actually seeing women as they truly are — as being fully human, and fully complex. As in America, Islam and Islamic values are not compromised by promoting justice. Choose your political bedfellows wisely.
Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member. You can follow her on Twitter @samarkaukab.