Two recent incidents remind us of not only the diversity of Muslim women and their experiences, but the myriad ways that both Muslims and non-Muslims attempt to police Muslim women: (1) reactions to newly elected congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s choice of language to refer to President Trump; (2) and the flight of a young Saudi woman to Thailand in an attempt to seek asylum.
At a party celebrating progressive women newly elected to congress, Tlaib stated that she and other members of congress were going to “go in and impeach the mother*cker,” referring to President Trump. The President responded by saying that Tlaib dishonored herself and her family by use of a curse word. His response, as it turns out, plays into the same patriarchal, misogynistic tropes being used by oppressive cultural systems that claim to have Muslim women’s best interests at heart.
When men curse or utilize demeaning language, it’s “locker-room” talk. When women use similar language, it is viewed as shameful. The reaction from Muslims themselves to Tlaib’s language has been split, with some Muslims (both men and women) coming to her defense, and others condemning her words as shameful, often with a theological bent. Comments on social media from Muslims referred to her as an “embarrassment to Muslims” and possessing a “lack of class.”
Some commentators suggested that her use of curse words is incompatible with her faith, others said it is between her and God. A Facebook user responding to an Islamic professor’s post about Tlaib using her own Quran said: “Frankly I was very happy for her when she initially won, but then she opened her mouth and lack of class and lack of God’s word was quite unsettling. I don’t take any woman seriously that can place their hand on the Quaran [sic] one minute and the next to curse like a sailor. Such an embarrassment to Muslims.”
Others had a different view; as another Facebook user on the same thread said: “I think part of the idea behind her profanity is that the emerging generation of Muslimas is not going to be put in a box or told how to be by a patriarchal structure or by women who subscribe to it.”
The fact is, the idea that Muslim women’s honor or their family’s honor is tied to their bodies, behavior, dress, or language, continues to pervade Muslim communities—and the commentary on Tlaib’s language reflects exactly that.
Take another example, this one beyond our borders. Rahaf al-Qunun, a young Saudi woman, fled from her family in Kuwait to Thailand and barricaded herself in a Thai airport hotel room with demands to receive asylum. She said she ran away because of family abuse. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws require Saudi women to have a male guardian (father, brother, husband, or son) who consents to her travel, marriage, doctor appointments, working outside of the home, and enrollment in school, among other things. This consent model is the very definition of policing; Saudi women and their movements are under constant surveillance. After international attention and pressure Thai officials did not deport her as planned, and allowed her access to UNHCR, who are currently working to secure asylum for her in a third country.
Al-Qunun’s case highlights that there are women in Saudi Arabia who aren’t happy living under male guardianship, and that they’re willing to go to extreme measures to escape their predicament. Though Muslim women in other countries do not live under the same extreme level of policing, fear of “shame” and “dishonor” constantly hangs over the heads of Muslim women as a form of psychological inhibition to asserting themselves in schools, workplace, and home life.
The idea that a woman going out on her own and doing what she chooses (working, eating out, etc.) could dishonor her family is a form of control that denies women the same self-determination as their male counterparts. Men are rarely accused of dishonoring their family by cursing, going to college, or having a career in entertainment, whereas constant surveillance of women’s behavior holds them back from achieving their dreams and ambitions. This is true even in educated households and within Muslims living in the West. And it’s not all men’s fault—in many cases, it is other women(mothers, aunts, sisters) who police women and upholding the patriarchal system.
Thankfully, women like newly elected congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and brave women like Rahaf al-Qunun, are challenging these attempts at control and carving out a new, bold path for Muslim women.
Anisah Bagasra is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Kennesaw State University.