The War on Muslim Women’s Bodies: A Critique of Western Feminism

January 17, 2022 by Maheen Haq

I was warming up when I saw my coach debating fiercely with the referee from the corner of my eye. My coach had a look of defeat and suddenly called me over. He told me the referee would not let me play unless I took off my hijab. The referee gave me two options: strip or get kicked out of the basketball game. I was only twelve years old. My throat tightened in disbelief as tears welled in my eyes. I went to the bathroom and took off my scarf. I looked at the cloth in my hands. Something I considered the crown upon my head, was made into a noose around my neck. I still remember my mother’s words that day, “This scarf makes you the flag bearers of Islam. Hold us up high.” It was a step of defiance when I walked back to that court with my scarf wrapped tightly around my head as I sat on the bench and watched the starting spot I had worked for all season be taken by someone else.

A step of defiance against what? One man? One Islamophobic man? No. Defiance against Western feminism. An imperialist ideology that has led to the policing, harassment, and loss of agency for thousands of Muslim women. My story is not a fluke, but a story amongst millions of Muslim women.  Just two months ago, on October 4, 2021, a seven-year-old girl had her hijab ripped from her head by her teacher in New Jersey who told her “that her hair was beautiful and she did not have to wear hijab to school anymore.”

Aisha, who was a student in Mantes-la-Jolie, France, found herself in front of a disciplinary council because she refused to take off her hijab. She was required to come to school every week where she was forcibly detained, and unable to go to class with her hijab, mix with any children, or eat with others. She stated that she felt violated by the command to undress and had to lose her opportunity for an education.

Noura, a University researcher and a mother of three in Paris, was an active volunteer at her son’s school and wanted to help at her eight-year-old son’s school field trip. On the day she arrived to assist with the trip, the headteacher was livid and told her she needed to leave saying, “You need to understand, we are in a republic here . . . and, if you don’t like it, go home.” Noura asked for a letter outlining why she was being asked to leave. The headteacher then called the police (she assumed the headteacher told the police she was threatening her). Multiple police officers came and demanded that Noura leave. Noura began to cry and felt utterly humiliated. All of the teachers, students, and parent volunteers witnessed her humiliation, including her son. One of the mothers told her to put on a hat and to stop “making a scene” and “traumatizing” the students. It is critical to point out that the onus is put on Muslim women to appease others even when they are actively being harassed and discriminated against. Muslim women are told they are oppressed, forced to strip, and are deemed responsible for any disruption institutional Islamophobia creates. After, Noura went to several human rights groups to bring charges, but they all refused to defend her. Her son was so shaken from the experience that he did not want to go to school anymore.

These may just be stories to you but to us, these stories are our lives. Imagine that trauma. Imagine being Noura’s eight-year-old son and watching your mother be harassed and forced to take off her hijab. Imagine being denied an education because of your hijab like Aisha. Imagine being a seven-year-old girl and your teacher snatching clothing off parts of your body that you want to keep covered. Imagine not being able to play a sport that you love.

So, what does white feminism do for us? This “empowering” movement trying to “liberate” Muslim women? It takes away our agency. It denies us the opportunities to function as mothers, athletes, and students. It puts fear in our hearts just to walk down the street. It makes every interaction a battleground for our identity. Choose between being an athlete or practicing your religion; choose between an education or practicing your religion; choose between being a good mom or practicing your religion.

I recall the first time I decided to wear a hijab. No woman in my family, aside from my grandmother, wore a hijab. None of my aunts or cousins wore it either. I was the first. I was only ten years old when I told my parents I wanted to start wearing it and they were extremely concerned. They sat me down and kept trying to convince me to take it off. It was 2008, only seven years after 9/11 and anti-Muslim hate crimes were prevalent where I lived. We had previously received letters and paraphernalia from the Ku Klax Klan (KKK) advocating for murdering “barbaric Muslims.” My parents’ fear was characterized by the climate I was in and paternal instincts to keep me safe. But for me, my hijab was a symbol of resistance. It was something to hold onto as I navigated the pressures of cultural imperialism and Islamophobia.

The Muslim woman’s clothing was a particular target of Islamaphobes because of how easy it is to identify the Muslim woman. There is hardly anyone else who dresses like us (aside from nuns who are easily identifiable as Christian and thus safe). This makes a Muslim woman covering a symbol of resistance and authenticity. When my parents sat me down that day, it was one of the many instances where Islamophobia and white feminism played a part in attempting to take away my agency.

White feminism argues that the hijab oppresses Muslim women and that we somehow need their liberation. When in reality, this narrative creates social dynamics and policies that actively take away our right to exist with agency. Western feminism is a movement that claims to protect, uplift, and fight for us while it really subjugates us even further.

Unveiling the Muslim Woman: A Colonial Project

The colonial project is one that centers around the body of the Muslim woman and uses her and her narrative to gain unwarranted control of a people. As Attiya Latif puts it:

To establish an effective colonial enterprise, colonisers need to validate that their relationship with the people they wished to occupy was one of justifiable power over justifiable subservience. To validate this constructed imbalance, colonisers turned to the invention of the Orient-the notion of an Eastern other entirely different, barbaric, and inferior to the Occident, or the West.[1]

Leila Ahmed explains the use of women of color in the colonial project as:

The idea that other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples.

By creating the narrative of the helpless Muslim woman in need, colonizers could justify their violent imperialist project through a seemingly moral reason. Ahmed further explains that colonial feminism is feminism “as used against other cultures in the service of colonialism.” She states it was “shaped into a variety of similar constructs, each tailored to fit the particular subculture that was the immediate target of domination.” Unveiling of the Muslim woman’s body was used to justify domination and was also later used as a benchmark for the success of the colonial project.

In A Dying Colonialism, Franz Fanon emphasizes the psychology of colonization. In discussing the French colonial project in Algeria, he argues that colonialism is not just a physical battle of land but a psychological battle. And, at the center of that battle, is Muslim women. Destroying the covering of the Muslim woman was a critical part of the imperialist and colonial battle in Algeria and remains a method of domination today. This was a calculated political doctrine based on the research of distinguished sociologists and ethnologists. If French colonists wanted to advance their imperialist project, to destroy the structure of Algerian society and its capacity for resistance, they would need to target Muslim women and specifically, their veils.

This was based on an analysis of colonists which found the importance, power, and status of the Muslim women. “Beneath the patrilineal pattern of Algerian society, the specialists described a structure of matrilineal essence . . . Behind the visible, manifest patriarchy, the more significant existence of a basic matriarchy was affirmed.” This analysis of Algerian society created the framework of this political doctrine. It is the women in the majority of Muslim countries that embody the power and culture of the community. For example, in Morocco, citizenship is gained through matriarchal lineage. Another example of this is demonstrated by a famous narration when a man came to the Prophet (pbuh) and asked, “Who is most deserving of my good treatment?” The Prophet (pbuh) responded and said, “your mother.” The man asked who after that? And the Prophet (pbuh) again replied, your mother. The man asked again, and the Prophet (pbuh) responded again, your mother. Finally, on the fourth time the man asked, the Prophet (pbuh) responded, your father. This effectively made the status of the mother three times as important as that of the father. Because of the high honor of women, French colonists, and Western imperialists today, targeted Muslim women. Targeting Muslim women and demanding that they adhere to Western notions of “civilized” clothing and gender roles proved to be an effective way for colonizers to destabilize the fundamental structures of Islamic societies.

The campaign of the French colonists is inextricably tied to the imperialist white feminism we see today. The Algerian man was demonized, dehumanized, and painted as barbaric. Aid groups filled with Western women appeared to create solidarity and help this poor, humiliated woman. The French colonists took an oath to heroically defend the Algerian woman from these “barbaric” men and used that as a justification for the brutal colonization and occupation of Algeria. In the modern world, this is similar to the white feminist justifications to invade and occupy Afghanistan in the so-called “War on Terror” for years. The narrative that Afghani women needed saving paved the way for the imperialist agenda of the United States. Rana Abdelhamid, a Muslim woman running for Congress, wrote on Twitter about Representative Carolyn Maloney, “I was 9 years old when I watched my Congresswoman wear a burqa in Congress to justify the invasion of Afghanistan. For the rest of my life, I knew that as a Muslim woman my identity would be weaponized to justify American wars.” Representative Mahoney did this stunt in an effort to legitimize the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan and argue that the veil and a Muslim woman’s decision to cover is inherently oppressive. So inherently oppressive that she thought it would be a persuasive technique to justify a multi-trillion-dollar war. Again, the Muslim woman’s choice to cover was spun as a narrative of oppression and used to justify imperialist violence.

The United States and other colonizing powers in Muslim countries claimed a moral high ground as justification for violent colonization. However, they almost always campaigned on a false promise of aid.[2] This hypocrisy demonstrated the immutable fact that their goals were never truly to help Muslim women. Ahmed explains that:

even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men’s oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward other men and the cultures of other men.

Employing selective feminism and gender politics has long been used as justifications for occupations while simultaneously 1) working against feminist causes at home and 2) employing barriers to women’s rights in the Muslim lands being occupied. For example, during the British occupation in 1882, colonizers like Lord Cromer used women’s rights as a tool to further colonial agendas while actively fighting against the feminist movement in Britain. While justifying the British colonial project in Egypt, Lord Cromer argued that Egyptian women needed the British to liberate them from the oppression of Islam. However, during the British occupation, he charged fees for schools that prevented young girls from attending class because he believed that “providing subsidized education was not the province of the government.” While Lord Cromer was taking away Egyptian women’s rights to education, he was also founding the “Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage” in England. Lord Cromer justified his violent colonial projects through performative feminism while simultaneously harming Muslim Egyptian women.

As Latif writes:

These men aimed not to save oppressed women, but rather to replace their foreign Oriental forms of oppression with a familiar European patriarchy that was easier to use to manipulate these communities.[3]

Colonizers use the vehicle of feminism without having any intention to fulfill a vision of gender equality. It is this hypocrisy that was present in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. This hypocrisy is also why Bush could launch a war against the Taliban and commence one of the longest occupations in modern history while simultaneously having the U.S. administration support a secret oil pipeline deal between the Taliban and the U.S. multinational Unocal. It was never about protecting Muslim women; it was always about domination and control.

In colonized Algeria, Fanon argues that:

the Algerian, it was assured, would not stir, would resist the task of cultural destruction undertaken by the occupier, would oppose assimilation, so long as his woman had not reversed the stream. Converting the woman, winning her over to the foreign values, wrenching her free from her status, was at the same time achieving a real power over the man and attaining a practical effective means of destructuring Algerian culture.

This proved to be so true in Algeria that when female revolutionaries who delivered intel and carried weapons under their modest traditional clothing for the revolution began getting caught, the female revolutionaries decided to dress unveiled like the French.

Carrying revolvers, grenades, hundreds of false identity cards or bombs, the unveiled Algerian woman moves like a fish in the Western waters. The soldiers, the French patrols, smile to her as she passes…but no one suspects that her suitcases contain the automatic pistol which will presently mow down four or five members of one of the patrols.

It is important to emphasize the trusting nature of colonizers, also applicable to modern day imperialists, to unveiled Muslim women. As noted before, the veil of a woman is so inherently tied to our culture, traditions, and resistance, that taking it off automatically gained the trust of the oppressing power. They felt as if the battle had been won. The war against the Muslim woman is a psychological war. It was baffling that a woman could still have her revolutionary spirit, could still be actively resisting the oppressing power, if she took off her veil and started to dress like her oppressors. Our hijab is not just a religious practice now, it is a symbol against cultural imperialism. Today, when Muslim women unveil, white feminists will praise her and she gains a sense of legitimacy that she did not have before. However, even now, Muslim women who choose to unveil are not necessarily giving up on the cultural and political resistance of oppressors against Muslims, but are just exercising their agency in taking it off for personal reasons. However, the sense of trust gained by the white feminist community is still ever-present.

This concept of the hijab’s inextricable association with resistance is present in my story as a child. My mother told me, “This scarf makes you the flag bearers of Islam. Hold us up high.” My mother never told me to keep my hijab on because of religion, to please God, etc. (although those are all legitimate reasons to keep it on). Her main focus and concern was that I do not submit to the cultural imperialism that was trying to push me onto my knees. I started wearing hijab when I was ten years old of my own accord and as the only woman in my direct and extended family who wore the hijab, I did not start praying and practicing Islam myself until I was sixteen years old. For the first six years of wearing hijab, I wore it not for religious reasons, but as a symbol of resistance against the cultural imperialism and white feminism that plagued every aspect of my life. Fanon writes that:

Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is barring her secret, breaking her resistance, making her available for adventure…There is in it (the European relation with the Algerian woman) the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession. This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity. She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself.

To this day, Muslim women keeping on their hijabs is a symbol of resistance, a refusal to be an object of possession, and a refusal to be undertaken by our oppressors.

The battle to unveil the Muslim woman is not only a physical battle but also a psychological battle. Fanon writes that during French colonization, colonizers would push the narrative of the oppressiveness of Muslim women’s modesty with whatever platform or means they could. An incredible amount of money was invested into this campaign and alongside any aid that was given, specifically to poor Muslim women, there was a dose of how the hijab was undignified, oppressive, backwards, etc.  This campaign against Muslim women is alive and well today. Islamophobia and Media Portrayals of Muslim Women, a study based on thirty-five years of New York Times and Washington Post reports, found that journalists are more likely to report on women living in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries if their rights are violated but are more likely to report on women in other societies when their rights are respected. Additionally, the study found that stories about Muslim women emphasize the theme of women’s rights violations and gender inequality even for countries with relatively good records of women’s rights. Stories from other countries that have similar standards of gender equality about non-Muslim women emphasize other topics. The study ultimately revealed that U.S. news media propagate that Muslims are distinctly sexist.

There is a psychological campaign against the hijab of Muslim women contending that it is oppressive. This campaign is present in virtually all forms of media consumption and has created a battle of identity for the Muslim woman. To keep the hijab on, we must take the time to explicitly and cognitively delegitimize the narrative that we encounter in our schools, in our social circles, on our sports teams and clubs, on our social media, and on the news. This delegitimization is our fight against the psychological warfare of colonization and imperialism. It is present in every facet of life and as a minority group it takes an incredible amount of resilience, courage, intellectual thought, and effort to delegitimize. The hijab becomes a part of our identity and it is a part of the imperialist battle. And for many years, I kept my hijab on not because I wanted to, not because I was being forced to, not because I wanted to please God, but only because I’d be damned if I lost that battle.

The Fallacy of Sexuality as Empowerment

In 2016, Trevor Noah from The Daily Show held an interview with Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim woman and the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. In her discussion of hijab with Trevor Noah, she dismantled the association of hijab as oppressive through a sexual lens. She first started by defining oppression as taking away someone’s power and asserted that hijab essentially privatizes women’s sexuality. She then goes on to ask, “what are we saying when we say that by taking away or privatizing a woman’s sexuality we are taking oppressing her? . . . What does that say about the source of a woman’s power?” She concluded her argument by asserting that through this line of reasoning we are essentially saying that the strength of women is based on their sexuality and to be seen as strong, that sexuality must be made public. Western feminists call forcing us to strip our clothing liberation, when in reality it is oppression. In all of its cloaking in “feminism,” this narrative still expects women to dress for the male gaze and allows empowerment to turn on whether our sexuality can be publicly consumed by men. This narrative is thus, inherently patriarchal. As Frantz Fanon said, “[t]his woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer.” The attempt to take the Muslim woman’s clothing, is also an effort to make her an object of possession.

Think of any strong female lead in marvel superhero movies. They are almost always hyper-sexualized. One of the biggest hit movies in 2017, Wonder Woman, demonstrates this (pictured here).

Wonder woman’s armor is hyper-sexualized and does not make logical sense. What officer of the army have you ever seen wearing a one piece with so much exposed skin susceptible to attack? The armor that Wonder Woman wears is inherently sexualized and entirely impractical. It further associates sexuality with empowerment.

What does this do to Muslim women who wants to cover but also want to be empowered? It tells us that it is simply not possible. It tells us that to be strong is to be uncovered and that is inherently not what we are. There have been so many times where I have wanted to wear modest clothing, but I knew it would make me look less empowered and I would be taken less seriously. If the pressures of sexuality as empowerment didn’t exist as strongly as they do today, I am sure that I would dress very differently. It is something that I am battling against but also something that is so ingrained into my psyche.

I want to be clear that I am not implying that women who prefer to wear less clothing are inherently dressing for the male gaze. I am also not trying to police these women or imply that there is anything wrong with sexual empowerment. Rather, I am bringing attention to the way sexuality has been used as a whip against Muslim women. The relentless association of modesty with oppression and sexuality with strength by Western feminists has created a social condition that does not allow for the growth and empowerment of Muslim women. Sexuality is not necessarily or per se empowerment. The forced sexuality of Muslim women is in fact oppression.

The Double Bind

At the end of my 1L year I applied to the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law University Center. I wrote about my work in rural Pakistan where I assisted and advocated for women who were victims of domestic violence, specifically victims of acid crime and women set on fire. After I submitted my application, I felt nauseated and felt an immense sense of guilt settle over me. I found myself thinking that I had sold out my community by emphasizing the gender-based violence in Pakistan. I did not want to feed into the narrative that Muslim women are inherently oppressed. Any reference to the subjugation of women in Islamic societies is automatically usurped to further that narrative and ultimately foster physical and cultural imperialism. I have been in so many white spaces where women refer to me as “one of the good ones” or someone fighting “against Islam.” Their characterization of me as someone who is different from my community and that being the reason why I care about basic human rights for women was incredibly degrading and reinforced harmful stereotypes. It perpetuated the idea that basic human rights for women was at odds with Islam and my community which is entirely untrue. When I submitted my application, I assumed my story would be misconstrued and I would be tokenized as “one of the good Muslims.”

Feminism is so deeply entrenched in imperialism and western saviorism that Muslim women also cannot speak about the issues of patriarchy within our cultures and communities without it being hijacked and used against us. Our narratives, hardships, and activism are usurped by imperialists who will regularly invoke the issue of gender injustice to demonize Muslim societies and further their own social and political ambitions. Abu-Lughod describes how activists who condemn gender injustice in their own communities can be seen as doing so because it “provides a badge of distinction for them, asserting that modernity and the liberalism that it has come to signify are achievable even in the East marking them as carriers of these ideals.” Muslims who call out gender injustice are presented as elites in Muslim communities who are distinguishing themselves from their local “backwards” compatriots to gain new opportunities. Western feminism makes it so that one cannot have an honest critique of her own community without it immediately being hijacked to serve an imperialist and white supremacist agenda. This also disallows Muslim women from having authentic intersectional allyship with other women, further taking away our agency.

In Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflection on Cultural Relativism and Its Others, Abu-Lughod discusses the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). The work of activist women in Afghanistan on the ground who highlighted the mistreatment of women, was used to support cultural and physical imperialism, Western supremacy, and was praised only for its fight against the Taliban. RAWA was instrumental in bringing the United States’ attention to the excesses of the Taliban. However, RAWA still always opposed the imperialist project of the United States from the onset of U.S. contact with Afghan soil. They opposed the U.S. bombings seeing it only as increasing the hardship, loss, and trauma of Afghan women. They called for peacekeeping, disarmament, and the expulsion of U.S. armed forces. RAWA warned that U.S. troops would confuse governmental employees with Afghan people and confuse the Taliban with innocent Afghan civilians. RAWA repeatedly argued that military policies of the United States were being organized around oil interests, arms industry, and the international drug trade. The U.S. administration even supported a secret oil pipeline deal between the Taliban and the U.S. multinational Unocal showing that this was not a war of morality but political and economic interests. Nonetheless, RAWA was only praised and used in the West for one thing: the narrative that Muslim women were oppressed and needed saving. The United States cherrypicked what they wanted to hear from RAWA and it was only the stories and research that could be manipulated to serve the Western imperialist agenda.

This is what Terman refers to as the “double bind” in Islamophobia, Feminism and the Politics of Critique.  The double bind is the relation between Islamophobia and gender injustice that occurs by presenting women’s rights activism as not just complicit in imperialism but as inescapably imperialist and Islamophobic. He notes that by privileging the critique of western feminists in discussions of violence against women in Muslim contexts the work of Muslim women activists on the ground is belittled and diminished. He further argues that this critique is grounded in a Euro/American experience of Islamophobia post-9/11 that is projected in an ahistorical and politically counterproductive way onto local Muslim and Arab communities. Terman calls the result of this a “theology of an anti-imperialism” that presents women’s rights activism not just as complicit in imperialism and Islamophobia but as foundationally imperialist and Islamophobic. Terman goes on to describe that this double bind takes away the opportunity to create political possibilities and discussions of advancement. It cannot be the case that any concern with gender injustice in Muslim contexts is coterminous with toxic Western feminism, imperialism, militarism, Islamophobia, and bigotry. I do not suggest this but rather contend that Western feminism is inextricably and inescapably tied to imperialism and Islamophobia.

This does not mean that Muslim countries are beyond critique. Rather, while maintaining our critique and activism for gender justice, we must remain conscious of 1) the imperialist agenda of many of the critiques founded in an imperialist feminism and thus 2) prioritize and empower Indigenous Muslim women activists on the ground. We must actively reject the western savior complex that the United States aggressively adheres to that only recognizes one form of empowerment as legitimate and demonizes others. We must recognize that some women are empowered differently and just because it does not inherently prescribe to the western ideal of feminism does not make it illegitimate. Legitimacy is not based on western approval and the idea that a form of women empowerment needs western approval is inherently paternalistic and imperialistic.  Women empowerment has long been seen as something that is distinctive of and owned by the west. Any other community working for these ideals is seen as “copying” the West which is simply not true.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

The narrative that Muslim women need saving is inherently paternalistic and reinforces a global supremacy framework with Western colonizers at the top. As Abu-Lughod explains:

When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners.

To grapple with the patronizing nature of the narrative of “saving women,” just think about how this sounds to other disadvantaged women in the United States. Does the United States create political campaigns where white women are “saving” disadvantaged Black women, Latina women, or working class women? No. Because we recognize that women of color and working-class women may seem “disadvantaged” not because of any inherent wrong but because of the social, economic, and political violence that has shaped their conditions. Because of the social and political discourse around Muslim women and their plight, the social, economic, and political violence that characterizes their lives is ignored. The history of colonization in Muslim countries is ignored, the economic conditions that were created and continue to be reinforced by capitalism and forced neoliberal policies is ignored, and the violent imperialist projects of the United States are completely ignored. This ignorance allows feminists in the West to feel as if they are not complicit in any of the conditions that were developed by the United States. It allows them to just be observers hoping to save “these poor women” instead of taxpayers complicit in the narratives and crimes of the United States (including facilitating the creation of the Taliban and providing them millions of tax-payer dollars). Alongside these conditions being ignored, the actual calls of Muslim feminists on the ground are also ignored.

The modern-day approach of western feminism is akin to the approach of nineteenth century Christian missionary women who devoted their lives to “saving” their Muslim “sisters.” Missionary women in A Cry of Need from the Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It talk about the plight of Muslim women and the responsibility of missionary women to make Muslim women’s voices heard. Ironically, and indicative of their stupidity, the introduction of the book begins by stating, “They will never cry for themselves, for they are down under the yoke of centuries of oppression.” This approach takes away the agency of Muslim women entirely. Their approach first argues that they need to make Muslim women’s voices heard and then states that they will never cry for themselves. This insinuates that Muslim women are too disoriented and lost in their own oppression that there is no possible way that they could have agency for themselves. This is similar to the approach that Western feminists take today. Like the previous example of RAWA, the arguments of Muslim women on the ground are ignored and tossed aside if they do not foster the imperialist and capitalist system.

Muslim Women Have No Need for Approval

Alongside the plethora of issues Western feminism has created for Muslim women, Muslim women also must defend their very reasoning for functioning within an Islamic context when advocating for women’s rights. Muslim women are perpetually dismissed in feminist academia when they advocate for women’s rights while also maintaining their Muslim identity. Hammer writes that:

It is safe to say that the majority of American feminists were secularists, if not outright antireligious in their sentiments, seeing religions as one of the main tools for patriarchal domination of women . . . American Muslim women who insisted on religious frameworks . . . had to defend their approaches and argue against the general rejection of their religious tradition.

The culture of feminism in the United States is so inherently secularized, that Muslim women advocating for Islamic feminism can never be accepted as a true feminist. As Attiya Latif puts it, the Muslim woman is seen as “one attempting to reconcile and justify a religion that . . . is increasingly associated with fear, violence, and an irreconcilable oppression of women.”[4] Hammer stated, in the case of Muslim women scholars, their faith commitments may be perceived as diminishing their scholarly authority, while their “feminist” and academic commitments may simultaneously be perceived as diminishing or even negating their religious authority in the eyes of their communities. For example, Asma Barlas, a Muslim feminist scholar, was rejected by the American feminist community. Barlas, when reflecting on her rejection by non-Muslim feminists, believed that it was because of their expectations of the Muslim woman “other” as silent or conforming to preconceived notions of “proper” feminist expression. Thus, regardless of the academic standing and content of intellectual thought of Muslim feminists, they will always be perceived as illegitimate. Further, their thoughts will always be dismissed because Western feminists can never see them as anything but oppressed beings, incapable of empowering and independent thought. The voice of the Muslim woman is even further suppressed because instead of focusing on the actual issues that Muslim women raise, a debate erupts about Islam inherently oppressing women and whether her voice can carry any legitimacy.

Abu-Lughod uses the work of the Egyptian scholar Saba Mahmood to demonstrate this. Mahmood has exemplified this in discussing the disturbing response that occurs when one argues for a respect for other traditions.

She notes that there seems to be a difference in the political demands made on those who work on, or are trying to understand Muslims . . . and those who work on secular-humanist projects. She, who studies the piety movement in Egypt, is consistently pressed to denounce all the harm done by Islamic movements around the world—otherwise she is accused of being an apologist. But there never seems to be a parallel demand for those who study secular humanism and its projects, despite the terrible violences that have been associated with it over the last couple of centuries, from world wars to colonialism, from genocides to slavery.

Muslim women face the bind of not being accepted into feminist discourse, face the pressure to denounce terrorism and justify their dedication to their faith, face the imperialist projects that hijack our narratives to justify the murder and occupation of our people, and have to resist being characterized as the “elite” Muslim who is seen as atypical of her barbaric community. It is clear that the American feminist community will never see Muslim feminists as legitimate or accept our forms of empowerment.

However, as Muslim women, we do not need the approval of an imperialist western feminism that has consistently oppressed us and other women of color. Any desire for approval is indicative of internalized inferiority that needs to be dismantled. Muslim women do not need anyone’s approval or permission to take our power. It is inherent in us and runs through our veins. Our revolutionary spirit is something that goes back generations to the onset of Islam. Fatima Gailani, an advisor to a U.S. delegation in Afghanistan said herself, “If I go to Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on the promise to bring them secularism, they are going to tell me to go to hell.” Afghan women are documented to actually look to Iran for inspiration on how to fight for equality within an Islamic framework. Muslim women are not seeking the “empowerment” and feminist structure that Western feminism is shoving down our throats. Speaking on her fieldwork in Egypt, Abu-Lughod stated that in her 20 years of work in Egypt:

I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S. women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.

Muslim women do not care and should not care for the approval of white women in the West. So where do we go for strength, inspiration, and models of empowerment? Our history.

There is rich Islamic history of women in powerful positions of scholarship, finance, and military that far pre-dates the modern western feminist movement. It is laughable that women were only allowed to go to school in Britain in the 1920s and France in the 1880s while the first university ever created and recorded in modern history was founded by a Muslim woman. Fatima-al Fihri founded al-Qarawiyyin University in 859 A.D. in Fez, Morocco. Fatima came from a very religious family who invested heavily in her education and instilled in her the importance of scholarship.

Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a Muslim woman who was one of the greatest female warriors this world has ever known. She led armies of other Muslim women in battle. She was once captured with other Muslim women and when they had lost hope, she inspired them to fight back armed only with the pole of the tent they were captive in. With one pole she managed to defeat five fully armed Byzantine warriors and lead a prison break.  Since the inception of Islam in 610 A.D., women fought as warriors. Compare that to the United States, a country that only allowed women to serve as full members of all branches of the Armed Forces in 1948.

The wife of the Prophet (pbuh), Khadijah (pbuh), was a successful and wealthy merchant that actually employed the Prophet (pbuh). She proposed to him and when they married, he moved into her home and they lived under her economic leadership.

The first female admiral in the world was also a Muslim woman. As a warrior and admiral, Mahayati led thousands of women to fight against the ships and forts of the Netherlands in 1599.

We have stories upon stories of inspirational women that we can draw upon. We have the capacity, strength, passion, and fire to pave our own paths of empowerment while also practicing our religion. There is an Islamic Feminist framework that we can draw upon that allows us to maintain our beliefs and fight for our liberation on our terms.


“Because you’re a girl.” These words were the only justification I got when I asked why I had to quit playing soccer. I remember the feeling so vividly. Feelings of anger, pain, and a deep sorrow. Soccer had come to be the one space I felt safe. I grew up in a town where I was verbally harassed and called a terrorist on a daily basis. My family used to receive KKK paraphernalia in our mailbox threatening to kill Muslims. Existing as a Muslim woman was a daily battle. But when I was on a soccer field, everything was so simple. It did not matter that I was covered or that I was Muslim—all that mattered was how fast I could get to the ball and how skilled I was. I remember going outside and sitting in the car to cry and at one point, kicking our windshield so hard that the glass shattered. It was a loss and sorrow I had never felt before, and one that I mourn to this day.

When my white peers asked me why I could not play, I never told them. They already had such a barbaric representation of Islam as oppressive to women that I knew my story would only be used to confirm their prejudices against Islam. I found myself bound. Bound and unable to get out.

In Fall of 2021, I watched my baby cousin run onto the field on her senior night. It was a field of white girls and then my cousin, wearing her hijab with her chin up high. I remember tearing up watching her. It was a moment of pride and honor that words cannot explain. I never got to have a senior night. I never got to play soccer past the ninth grade. But when it was time for my younger cousin to go to high school, my parents and her parents pushed her to play. My family recognized the fundamental role that being an athlete played in my development, confidence, and discipline. I remember my mother and aunt calling me and frantically telling me to convince my younger cousin to play.

Muslim women, we find ourselves bound from so many places. We are oppressed by general Islamophobia that prejudices every facet of our existence. We are oppressed by imperialist white feminism. We are oppressed by a general patriarchy in the West but also patriarchal ideals from our own cultures. And when we speak on our oppression within our cultures, we are plagued by the fear that our narrative will most definitely be usurped and used to perpetuate prejudices and imperialist ideologies.

I do not have the solution. All I know is that Muslim women, we are fighters. And perhaps that is the solution. It is resisting in every way we know how; from hijabis continuing to show up to school after getting kicked out of class simply for their hijab to crying and breaking the windshield of a car when denied an opportunity simply for being a woman. Every tear we shed, every word we write of our own stories, and every time we show up authentically and unapologetically, is resistance.


So that one day

A hundred years from now

Another sister will not have to

Dry her tears wondering

Where in history

She lost her voice.

— Jasmin Kaur

I know that my screams, my tears, and my pain mattered when I saw my cousin running onto that field. When I look into her eyes and I see her fight, her passion, and her relentless resistance to the overwhelming oppression that surrounds Muslim women, I am filled with pride. We are the seeds of the Islamic matriarchy. And we need permission from no one.


[1] Attiya Latif, Muslim Women Under a Microscope: The Pressures on Feminism in American Muslim Communities (forthcoming in University of Oxford Humanities Division)

[2] Latif, Muslim Women Under a Microscope (forthcoming)

[3] Latif, Muslim Women Under a Microscope (forthcoming)

[4] Latif, Muslim Women Under a Microscope (forthcoming)