“I Am Not Oppressed”

This is what Laila Alawa, Muslim American activist, blogger and supposed feminist has to say in response to Amina Tyler’s  images of her bare breasts in defiance to the religious patriarchy oppressing her in her native Tunisia and the support she received from the feminist organization FEMEN this past month (FEMEN is often billed as a “radical” feminist organization, even though they have not engaged in any kind of activity that would terrorize or hurt people. Demanding equality, fighting for it boldly and exposing flesh are hardly radical, unless you have an issue with the female body). Anyway, Alawa says:

I am a proud Muslim-American woman, and I am tired. I am tired of being told that I am oppressed. That I have no voice. That I need to be liberated.

I am tired, and I am speaking out for the rights of my and other fellow Muslim sisters to be able to dress and be how they wish to be.”

She continues alleging that FEMEN was doing nothing but engaging in shameless Islamophobia with “sex appeal” and that she feels “offended and disgusted” by the outpouring of support for not only Amina but oppressed and subjugated women in all Muslim countries.

Well, it’s a good thing to know that after all the death and rape threats Amina has received this far, Alawa is disgusted by her bare breasts essentially.

In her article, Alawa goes on stating that FEMEN’s protests “display a blatant expression of orientalism and colonialism in their belief that there is only one way to be free: through the utter disrobing of all garments covering the body.” She assures us that men in the Islamic faith are sweet [and] supportive” and that rape and sexual violence are practically unheard of in her home country of Syria.

She, further,  insists that Muslim men do not hold women “back from speaking out” and goes on to reduce FEMEN’s and Amina’s activities to just the actions of a bunch of “condescending protesters, all skinny, white and fitting squarely into the acceptable media paradigm of ‘true beauty‘” trying to tell her what to do.  She concludes by stating that “[Her] choice to cover is [her] own.”

Indeed. The operative word here being choice.

Memo to Ms. Alawa: Yes, you do have a choice and are not oppressed because you are a Muslim-American practicing lite-Islam.

If you were a Muslim-Saudi, or a Muslim Iranian, or a Muslim-[insert oppressive Islamic state here] you’d be singing a different tune.

Or would you? It seems as if Laila Alawa, including all the critics of FEMEN and Amina, completely missed the point, namely that this is about choice.

As Inna Shevchenko, the leader of FEMEN stated “you can put as many scarves as you want if you are free tomorrow to take it off and to put it back the next day.”

On Choice

By definition, choice is “an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.”

Since when do Muslim women have an option to not wear the hijab?

Fact is that women in Islamic countries do not have a choice with respect to the hijab (and much less anything else for that matter). If they do not wear it, they get in trouble. It’s the law of the land. It is not optional.

If you have no choice but to wear the hijab then how can you, with good conscience, insist that you have a choice?

And more to the point, if you do not even grasp the concept of choice how can you proclaim to the world that you have one?

The difference between Alawa and Muslim women actually living in Muslim countries is that Alawa has a choice and they do not.  For her to speak out of a position of privilege – and having a choice is a huge privilege – and think she is speaking for all Muslim women or even a fraction thereof or that she represents the typical pro hijab standpoint is deeply problematic.

See that’s the thing with unexamined privilege: it assures you that things are good for everyone, when they really are just good for you. Alawa has relative privilege compared to other members of her community.  As her HP profile write up states, she is “a graduate of Wellesley College where she received her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in education studies and currently works as a research associate at Princeton University. During her time at Wellesley, she conducted and presented on a breakthrough social psychology study examining the gendered stereotypical perceptions of science careers.”

She is planning to pursue a graduate degree, is a fundraising chair and social media advisor, as well as the head of the alumni committee for the Muzslim Public Affairs Council Young Leaders. She also has a blog and you tube channel.

This does not sound like an oppressed woman to me.

It is also interesting to note that with all her (false) comparison of FEMEN to imperialist tools of the West, she is currently living in such a country and enjoying the freedoms that were fought for so hard.

Furthermore, Alawa sounds like a woman who has the choice to  do whatever she likes, such as get a higher education, hold leadership positions,  be an activist for controversial issues and even have her own you tube channel where she can show her face expressing her opinions, support as well as criticism for various political and social and cultural causes. I do wonder if she would be able to lead the same kind of life, and pursue the same kind of endeavors, if she were living in her native Syria.

No one, no one, can tell me that women in Muslim countries have a choice to not wear the hijab (for the sake of discussion we’ll disregard for a moment here that even her choice to want to wear the hijab is a result of her having been manipulated and conditioned into the patriarchy since day one).

FEMEN = Respects Choice. Islam = Does NOT Respect Choice

The difference between FEMEN/Amina and the regimes of Muslim countries is that FEMEN does not take away a woman’s choice to wear hijab or be nude, nor does it force anyone to do either.

The position of muslim countries, on the other hand, forbids women to be bare and makes them wear hijab.

There is a world of difference.

FEMEN’s position expands freedom; the Islamic regime/patriarchy limits it or takes it away completely.

The FEMEN position treats women as autonomous, rights-bearing human beings deserving of full equality; the Islamic regime/patriarchy treats women’s bodies as state property and women as second-class human beings, not just citizens.

FEMEN expands freedoms and autonomy, the regimes and governments if Islamic countries limit and take them away.

One of the hallmarks of oppression is the lack of choice. When you do not have choice – regarding many things in your life but especially as pertaining to your own body –  then you do not have a voice. When you do not have a voice, you are not free.

Oppression occurs when established laws, customs, and practices systematically reflect and produce inequities based on one’s membership in social identity groups, such as being a woman. Oppressive consequences can be institutional in the form of laws, customs, or practices – such as wearing hijab and else having no say and autonomy over one’s own body and life.

Do women have a choice not to wear hijab in Saudi Arabia? In Iran? In Syria? In Lebanon? No. Then they are not not oppressed.

Choice is a fundamental aspect of freedom. If you don’t have a choice then you are not free and if you are not free you are in shackles.

For Alawa or any Muslim woman to state that, despite all of the above –  which we all know to be true in all Muslim countries –  she is, in fact, not oppressed is mind blowingly ignorant and a testament to the extent of her manipulation and conditioning by said oppressors.

Alawa can cloak herself in chains or paint as far as I am concerned, but it has to be her choice. When I see women like Alawa and other Muslim women insist that they do not feel oppressed given that, unlike their fellow Muslim sisters in Islamic countries, they can choose to not wear the hijab, it really makes me wonder if they ever actually understood the point Amina was making, which is not just the showing of bear tits like this was porn, but to state that she should be able to do with her body whatever she wants, be it to expose herself or cover up every inch with cloth.  

Disgusted by FEMEN?

It is also very sad and somewhat unsettling to see Alawa be insulted, infuriated, and disgusted by FEMEN and naked, female body parts when Amina has been the one receiving death and rape threats from the so-called gentle muslim men Alawa insists populate all Islamic countries; where holy men like Tunisian imam Adel Almi, chair of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (a commission solely put in place to control women, not men)  proclaimed that Tyler “deserves to be whipped or stoned to death”.  

If I was an Islamic leader relieving myself on women’s rights on a daily basis and issuing death threats against Amina and I saw the outpouring of support for my cause essentially by Muslim women around the world, including Alawa, I sure as hell would not feel inclined to change my position and make women be anything else but subjugated, third class human beings deserving of only the things the patriarchy I perpetuate permits them to have.

Instead of standing in solidarity with FEMEN and Amina, recognizing the symbolism and meaning of their protests, these women are just shooting themselves in the foot by taking the side of their oppressors.

What is More Offensive: Breasts or Stoning?

So I ask you Laila Alawa and esteemed readers, what in the rational world is more offensive, a young lady baring her breasts or a man that calls for her to be stoned to death?

Is it more offensive to be born gay or to be killed for being gay?  Is it more offensive to be raped or having to marry your rapist?  Is it more offensive to write a few lines rejecting the faith imposed on you by your parents and culture or is it more offensive for 100,000 people to march calling for your death?

Is it more offensive to drive a car or be whipped for driving a car?  Is it more offensive to uncover your hair or to be imprisoned for it?  Is it more offensive to talk to a man in public who isn’t related to you or to receive 100 lashes and imprisonment if you do? Is it more offensive for a 14 year old to have a couple of boyfriends or being executed for it? Is it more offensive to make a film or to be killed for making it?

I have no beef with Alawa and Muslim women or anyone who chooses to wear hijab. I do, however, have a problem with someone claiming that they, in fact, have a choice, when clearly they don’t. I also have a problem with people who cannot condemn all of the above atrocities without reservation or hesitation. If you chose to be insulted on behalf of all Muslims, Laila, then you must also defend all punishments and policies in its name.

Alawa’s ignorance and sheer head-in-the-sand approach with respect to her and that of other Muslim women’s predicament  only underscores the need for people like Amina Tyler and FEMEN.  It is unsettling to see someone  visibly carry with herself the symbols and tools of oppression; someone who witnesses her Muslim sisters be subjugated every day to  the tyranny of the religious patriarchy and yet still have the audacity to say that she and her Muslim sisters are not oppressed. 

The manipulation, brainwashing and gas-lighting these women undergo is immense. And it is the ultimate tool of control, namely to really believe that you are not oppressed and that despite all evidence to the contrary the system is working for you and in your favor. 

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  1. #1 by poeticlyric on May 8, 2013 - 2:13 AM

    Re choice: we do have choise: to be a muslim or not. I choose to be a muslim. and a muslim wears hijab:)
    so, by choosing Allah I automatically wear the hijab. And it is my choise:)
    It does make sense, doesn’t it?
    Hijab is constant reminder of who I am and why I am here. it is my connection to God. It is DEEP. It is my statement. It is not just a piece of cloth. And there is sooo much more to this topic…I love my hijab and I don’t wanna take it off. 🙂

    • #2 by popreflection on May 8, 2013 - 8:52 AM

      Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the hijab – which is only required of women and not men – is, in and of itself, an oppressive tool and practice, not to mention the myriad of other things women cannot do, under the law, in Islamic countries simply for being women. The hijab is just the tip of the iceberg. After all, it is not like Muslim women enjoy all freedoms they wish but just have to wear hijab to feel closer to god (for some reason men don’t need to cover up to be close to god? weird). I mean something like “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” is 0only in place to keep women in check, not men.

      And also let us set aside for a moment that religion and god are nothing but make belief created and carried out by the patriarchy and also let us set aside the fact that hisotrically, controlling a woman’s body and sexuality was a way of controlling her…Yes, let’s set all these relevant discussions about the origins of hijab aside and turn this to the question of “choice”.

      Do you really have a choice, in your home country, to not wear the hijab? Can you go out the next day and say “hey, today I am not wearing this” and be fine? No one will bother you? No one will chastise and reprimand you? Family, and friends and strangers will be fine with you and accept you for not wearing the hijab?

      Because that is choice and i guarantee you do not have it.

      See, in order to be able to say you have a choice, you have to 1) really have a choice and 2) understand what choice means. I dont think you understand.

      If you live in the US, by law you are free to not wear anything on your head so I give you that (but then again, if that is the case, then you are not like all Muslim women because they do not live in the US), but what about your family and friends? if you chose tomorrow to not wear the hijab, even if living in the US, would they accept that about you or culturally punish you for having done so? Will there by any consequences to you for not wearing the hijab?

      Again, this is about choice. And you do not even seem to understand that. Equality does not mean men are held to a different standard and are granted freedoms which women are not. That is not equality. And choice spring out from equality.

      You cannot come here and tell me that you have a choice to wear or not wear the hijab when we all know that not wearing the hijab has serious consequences for you.

      I urge you to think deeply and thoroughly about the concept of CHOICE , Not even about the folly and made-up nature of religion – believe in what fairy tale you want – but about choice, autonomy over one’s body as a person and human being and personhood.

      • #3 by poeticlyric on May 9, 2013 - 1:15 AM

        Salaam:) you are right about the patriarchy and culture. I totally agree with you. Humans hv used religions to control our sexuality. I totally agree with you. However, you need to make a distinction between culture ( man made) and spirituality ( connection with God) which I do not even call religion but is referred to as religion.
        Re choice I do have choice. First, The hijab is sthg spiritual. It is a reminder of who you are for God. Not for men. It is a bit deeper than what you just stated. Second, yes it has become a political thing unfortunately but not for us muslimahs. And of course, not knowing anything bout our religion makes you want to use stereotypes. I invite you to read the Qu’ran first and to understand it as well. Third, we do have choice as I stated before. A muslimah cares about Allah. Not about the people. Of course the people talk and judge. Would nobody judge you if you decide to walk naked on the street? Do you hv choice here? Can you wear a bikini in your office? What if everyone was covering and just a few would not? Just change the perspective a bit and see. Only cuz we live in a world where America is trying to homogenize culture and turn it into one culture only,- the American culture- does not mean we are democratic and have choice:) to have choice is to be who you want to be, who you are. And to get there u need guts and dig in your soul:)

    • #4 by popreflection on May 9, 2013 - 10:26 AM

      Comparing wearing a bikini to work or walking around nude to an entire segment of the population (i.e. women) in Muslim countires being oppressed, treated like second class human beings and treated as less than compared to men without equal rights is pure sophistry and a strawman argument at best. I mean, you are not allowed to defecate in public either, but that doesn’t mean you are oppressed. And if someone were to walk with a bikini into the office, they wouldn’t be sent to jail without trial, or lashed and all the other wonderfully, allah loving things muslim countries do to women who don’t play by the oppressive rules.

      Certain dress codes exist for work etc. which have nothing to do with legislated prohibition of certain garments or the forcing of certain garments unto people, by law, in Islamic countries. It is like saying, in 1955 during segregation “so what. Minors are not allowed into bars. Why should black people be? You are just trying to impose your culture on us.” it’s ridiculous.

      Secondly, faith is part of culture and they are intertwined, they are not separate. I am glad you are more spiritual than religious, but we are not talking about your personal anecdotal evidence. Being non-religious or an atheist is not a choice in Muslim countires. In fact as a woman you don’t have much choice regarding anything over there, including what you believe – or don’t believe. (http://www.examiner.com/article/kuwait-atheist-activist-arrested-jailed-for-blasphemy).

      Third, you still have failed to explain why you think you have a choice – and I think that’s because you know that really you don’t have a choice. If you live in the US, you may have a choice, just as Laila Alawa and even then, as I explained above, family and friends may give you a hard time but legally yes you have choices. MUSLIM WOMEN IN MUSLIM COUNTRIES DO NOT HAVE A CHOICE TO NOT WEAR THE HIJAB. Exactly what part of choice do you not understand? If the “choice” you have is either wear hijab or go to prison/receive 50 lashes/be punished etc – then there is no choice. Going to jail is not an option or a choice. Being socially ostracized and called a whore by neighbors and losing your chance to ever get married because no one would want to marry a non-hijab wearing whore is not a choice.

      This is not about the West trying to impose its values on anyone, this is – first and foremost – a human rights issue, then a civil and equal rights one. what if someone’s culture calls for the beheading of the first born girl? (just making it up) or that women are less than men? Do we need to respect that? The practice of hijab and all the other ways women are treated in Islamic countires is degrading, dehumanizing and supremely unjust. Did you know that just a few years ago, in Afghanistan, when the government did the census, women were not counted as part of the population? But cattle was? These are realities you are in denail about, much like an ostrich that sticks its head in the sand.

      There is a bigger canvas here, a broader field, if you so will, that you are missing. This is about freedom and equality. And a culture, society or faith that denies people their humanity and equity is not a good one. Oppression is not a good thing. And a deity that supposedly makes you wrap every inch of your woman hood (which he gave you) is not one revering, but that’s another discussion.

      Human rights and equality is not a Western assumption, that is the Enlightened one; it is a humanitarian principle transcending culture and boundaries. The hijab is not unlike a shackle a slave wears and saying you enjoy your hijab is like a slave saying he enjoys his shackles. Women are treated less than garbage in muslim countries, legally and socially and I am saying this as someone who has done her research. As an atheist you can be assured that I am more than informed about all religions, from Christianity, to judaism, Islam and Mormonism etc. So your attempts to dismiss my arguments by saying I am ignorant about Islam is distracting and inaccurate.

      As stated in the article, it is amazing to me to see death threats being issued against Amina and FEMEN demonized and turned into the problem when, as we speak, it is these very women FEMEN is defending who are being – every day – oppressed and subjugated and treated as less than – simply by being women. Since you do acknowledge the oppression and unequal treatment of women in such countries, it s puzzling to me why in the very next sentence you would keep trying to make excuses for it and quibble over semantics.

      • #5 by poeticlyric on May 9, 2013 - 12:29 PM

        Assalaam alaykom.
        I don t want to impose my view in you and wish you peace. My message is peaceful and not defensive. And I don t Need to make a point. We disagree and agree on many things. Thank you for interacting with me. Assalaam alaykom

        • #6 by poeticlyric on May 9, 2013 - 12:34 PM

          And also, you seem to know everything. That is where “sharing” finishes and “imposing” starts.

      • #7 by popreflection on May 9, 2013 - 1:09 PM

        I responded to you based on the merits of the points you made and I carefully explained to you why your assumptions are false and misguided; why and how you are engaging in sophistry and false comparisons to justify your point and where the mistakes lie (intentionally or not). The thing is, there is unfortunately no clever way to defend as well as justify oppression – which is exactly what this discussion boils down to. The fact that you are trying to do so and it fails is ultimately not my fault. I challenged you to think about this issue outside from the usual “America is telling the world what to do/america is bad/neoimperialism” rhetoric and prism and you do not wish to do that. You agree that the patriarchy and oppression of women in Islamic countires is a fact and “bad” yet you turn around and keep employing the same arguments said patrairchs and oppressors use to justify the subjugation you just agreed with me is bad. This is not about me knowing everything, this is about logically and intelligently arguing ones point (or failing to do so).

        I am not trying to impose anything on you. You can believe in whatever you want and cover yourself up (or not) with whatever you want. However, remember that while you are free to express any opinion and point of view you want, that does not mean that what you are arguing is factual. A whole lot of people mistake having an opinion on something based on subjective criteria with facts that are true no matter what your opinion is on them. You are free to believe you have a choice and that the hijab is not subjugating women and that women in Muslim countries have swell lives and are not oppressed and can choose not to wear the hijab if they wish. But that does not make it true. Sometimes you have to step outside of your familiar cultural boundaries and look at things from a different perspective. There is nothing enticing, understandable, loving and divine about oppression. Anyway good luck. I am glad you live in a country where you are free to say what you like without the fear of persecution. While I am very critical of US foreign policy, being able to speak one’s mind is a rare gift and crucial at that.

  2. #8 by Zahra on May 7, 2013 - 1:22 PM

    Reblogged this on Emboldened Hearts.

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