Privilege in Action

Earlier this week, Fatemeh of Muslimah Media Watch wrote an open letter to white non-Muslim Western feminists on Muslimista. Some highlights:

There are those of us who suffer. But don’t speak of us as victims if we are not dead. Don’t deny the agency with which we become survivors and active shapers of our lives. Don’t ignore the fighting we do for ourselves.

We can—and do—speak for ourselves. So stop speaking for us.

I notice a lot of condescension and arrogance when you talk to us or about us. Let me be clear: you do not know more about us than we know about ourselves, our religion, our cultures, our families, or the forces that shape our lives. You do not know what’s best for us more than we do.

If we want help, and ask for it, then do only what you’re asked.

When I read this, I thought back to a post on Feministe about the headscarf ban in Turkey. The focus of the post was on Fatma Benli, a Muslim feminist fighting against the classism, sexism, and Islamophobia behind the ban. Many commenters, though, weren’t interested in solidarity – instead, all they could focus on were the poor backwards Muslim women who were so brainwashed by Islam that they couldn’t cast off their oppressive head coverings and be like us.

You can’t get much clearer than Fatemeh’s words – “You do not know what’s best for us more than we do” – and yet, in the comment thread at Muslimista, two Western men swoop in with the same old tropes. To be clear, they may not be feminists, but rather right-wing trolls. But their sentiments very closely echo things I’ve heard self-identified feminists say. You have the Sweeping Generalization of the World’s Second Largest Religion:

While I understand some of the sentiment in this letter, the position of women in Islam, and Islam itself, is a sorry state of affairs.

Islam as it is currently practiced is so far from its original intention, as to make it almost unrecognizable.

You got your That Thing I Heard About on the News is the Only Thing That Matters:

I hate to break it to you, but we’re going to be continuing to use our freedom of speech given to us by our constitution whether you like it or not. Personally, as someone who stands for basic human rights I have no choice but to speak out against the most extreme, vile, and offensive aspects of (radical?) Islam. I will continue to oppose public stonings as backward and barbaric which they are. I will continue to oppose honor murders, which happen every day and not only in muslim nations but in the USA as well. I will continue to raise awareness for the victims of jihad, both historically and today. And if you don’t like it thats just tough for you.

And in case we didn’t hear him the first time:

I will be offering help to cure the backwardness and evil of radical Islam whether you want to help or not. The most important step is to ban public stonings FOREVER.

(Later in the comments, Krista points out that stonings actually aren’t that common, and this commenter doesn’t have any response to that.)

Finally, throw in a little You’re Just in Denial:

While I understand that there is misplaced criticism and help, whether due to lack of knowledge or organizational agendas, to throw up the “your not Muslim,” and “there are colonial overtones” cards is a really poor excuse. It is just a veil for Islam not wanting to recognize it is no different from the other world religions, and get off its arse and reform itself.

See the pattern here? The actual needs and concerns of real Muslim women are beside the point. The REALLY pressing issue is that I totally heard somewhere that Islam is like bad and stuff, and there’s no way I could possibly be wrong about that! Because I’m white! And (often) male! Tremble before my superior culture! Watch, as I set your agenda for you without ever learning anything about you! Why would I degrade myself by taking orders from a brown woman – can you imagine? – when I could take a token action to save you from yourself? After all, white people are never the problem – brown people are! We’re the saviors, silly!

Another commenter points out that she does listen to the needs of Muslim women, and asks that Fatemeh not lump her in with “cultural imperialist feminists.” I’ll grant that this is a little more complicated. I still remember the sting the first time I heard harsh criticism directed at “white people” – as if we were a hive mind, and none of us were making any attempt to be good allies. So I get that it sucks (and Fatemeh responds very eloquently and effectively).

But there are bigger issues here than our feelings. We’re the ones with the power – locally and globally. If a POC lumps all white people together, a few white people get irritated. If a white person lumps all POC together, POC die. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, but I’m talking about the overall power structure.)

Also, it gets harder and harder to take it personally the more you see the shit they’re up against.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

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