Responses to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

My Facebook news feed has been buzzing with critiques of Mona Eltahawy’s latest article, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  When the original piece was published in “Foreign Policy” magazine, there was a small debate on a friend’s Facebook wall about how Mona continues to frame her work in problematic ways and assumes the role of a native informant for white western audiences.  Critiques of her article have been dismissed by some as mere “debate” or “differences in opinion” without any analysis of how Mona self-appoints herself before western audiences as a spokesperson for all Arab women and confirms simplistic and dangerous Orientalist narratives that play into the larger, racist discourses on Islam, Muslims, and the “Muslim world” (a “reductionist term,” as Dena Al-Adeeb writes, “used to name women from countries ranging from Morocco to Indonesia”).

The vast number of critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women call attention to how Mona’s simplistic analysis and characterization of Arab women as “helpless” plays into larger discourses that have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way the US oppresses racialized people in Muslim-majority countries. This construction of the “helpless woman of color” who must be saved from the “dangerous man of color” has a long history of sexual violence, colonialism, and racism.  As Andrea Smith explains in “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” when European colonizers enslaved Native women, they argued that “they were actually somehow freeing Native women from ‘oppression’ they supposedly faced in Native nations.” When white colonizers would mutilate the bodies of Native men and rape Native women, they proclaimed “Native women can only be free while under the dominion of white men, and both Native and white women have to be protected from Indian men, rather than from white men.”

If we look at the violent US invasion and military occupation in Afghanistan, we see how the legacy of colonialism continues when Afghan women’s struggles against patriarchy and misogyny are used as propaganda to advance war – one that continues to bomb, torture, and rape Afghan men and women. I don’t believe Mona Eltahawy is calling for the west to intervene in struggles against patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, but I present these discourses and histories to show how critiques of her article are not “pointless” or “personal attacks,” but serious and important. Performing as a native informant is dangerous, not only because of the racist stereotypes it reinforces, but also because of the way it silences the countless Arab and Muslim women and men who have been fighting against misogyny and other forms of sexist oppression. Egyptian journalist and activist Gigi Ibrahim, who blogs at “Tahrir & Beyond,” writes the following in her response to Mona:

What is very troubling is her belief that she is the “voice” for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.

Nahed Eltantawy mentions some of the Arab women missing from Mona’s article: “Tawakkul Karman, Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi, and Egypt’s female protesters, from Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim,” and many others who challenge the “weak” and “helpless” western stereotype of Arab women.

As Shaista Patel explains, the Muslim native informant, whether it is Mona Eltahawy, Irshad Manji, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is always “honored and respected by white men and women to silence and shame Muslim women who critique these Muslim native informants.” Just this morning, I was sent a blog post written by a white American man who wrote: “What amazed me is the backlash by Arabs themselves against Eltahawy, and specifically the backlash from Arab women” (I’m not going to link to his post, but you can put this quote into Google and find it). He suggested that the Arab and Muslim women who wrote these critiques had “issues with the actual speaker” (Mona) and that their criticism stemmed from “the fact that the Arab world’s dirty laundry was being aired so openly in front of a Western audience.” Later, he equated his personal experiences, where Arab women told him not to speak for them, with the experiences of Mona being criticized for her article. This example of closely identifying with a native informant in this manner is not too different than the debate that occurred on my friend’s wall, where a white woman proclaimed her “respect” for Mona as a way to dismiss and silence an anti-racist critique from a Muslim woman. By accusing these critiques of making “personal attacks” against Mona or having issues with airing “dirty laundry,” the actual concern of these critiques, such as Mona’s problematic framework, analysis, and simplification of Muslim-majority countries is completely missed.

This isn’t the first time Mona has performed this way either. As many know, Mona strongly advocates for governments to ban the niqab. Her position is not merely about having “different interpretations” of Islam when the debate is showcased on CNN or other western mainstream media outlets. It’s troubling how the images are juxtaposed when we see Mona debate with Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab – the former is seen as the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Such dichotomous thinking is engrained in the US’s oppressive international and domestic policies, which are violent for people in Muslim-majority countries and Muslims in the west. One needs to question how Mona’s anti-niqab stance is seen through the white imperial gaze.

One must also question what many of the critiques have expressed outrage over: the extremely disturbing Orientalist images used in Mona’s article. The pictures, which I have decided not to post (trigger warning if you haven’t seen them already) depict nude women in black body paint with only their eyes left bare. I agree with Roqayah Chamseddine that these images are “arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab” (her response is shared below). What impact do these pictures have on real Muslim bodies who wear the niqab and how are these images viewed by governments that want to police how Muslim women choose to dress?

Speaking as a Pakistani Muslim man, I believe it is important for all men, including myself, to not deny the existence of patriarchy and misogyny, as well as the ways in which we are complicit in participating in sexist oppression, whether it’s done consciously or through the way we’ve internalized and constantly perform sexist socialization. None of the critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women dismiss the reality of patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, and I believe it is important for all men to understand that as well.  These responses are criticizing the oversimplification of patriarchy which relies on a racist construction of “helpless Muslim women” and “dangerous Muslim men” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack), which Mona Eltahawy participates in. They are not saying patriarchy doesn’t exist or that men don’t have any responsibility or that no one should be outraged. Personal attacks against Mona should be condemned and no one should silence or shame anyone for speaking about gender violence within our communities. Patriarchy is not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations – it exists everywhere, including in western nation-states that continue to deflect attention away from its misogyny by focusing on the misogyny of “darker” countries. As I wrote in my previous blog post, so many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated that personal and state violence needs to confronted on both fronts simultaneously, and without relying on the state that wants to destroy marginalized communities. There is a responsible role Muslim men and all men have in dismantling patriarchy, which includes unlearning the sexism we participate in, and I think one of the most important things we can do is listen to these voices.

I’ve shared some excerpts from the responses to Mona’s article below. The first two comments were from an online discussion on a friend’s Facebook wall and are being re-shared with permission:

Shaista Patel:

I think that we need to understand that these debates are entrenched in various power relations. Mona has the backing of the mainstream (read racist) media and society, while somebody like a Sunera Thobani is condemned for giving a speech to a group of feminists in an auditorium. Nobody saw that as a healthy debate when a complaint was filed against her, and her life was under threat. By critiquing Mona and her work, we are not taking away the fact that she was sexually harassed, just like we’ve never wanted to discredit the abuse Irshad Manji’s faced at the hands of her father. It is when a Mona, Irshad Manji and an Ayan Hirsi Ali become the native informants, perform in a way that sits very well with the white Western society’s construction of the ‘Arab world’ and the “Muslim world”, when Bush asks us to watch Nilufer Pazira’s “Qandahar” while bombing Afghanistan and killing and mutilating people that we know that these debates/discourses aren’t necessarily productive for us racialized bodies, especially those whose lives are under threat every single minute of every single day. I have been asked to engage with the Zionists in debates, with the racists in debates but look at who I am and what I have to say and the sheer hostility I would have to and have faced several times from these white folks wanting to sit at the table and have a discussion while people who look like me are being killed every single day. Mona’s work is seductive to white people and some Muslims with liberal and racist politics because of what she has to say, and how she’s supporting the war politics of the West.

Lise Vaugeois:

I want to add more points: Sunera Thobani is vilified every time she opens her mouth. I have great admiration for her persistence in continuing to speak in public in spite of the relentless and attacks on her person. The other people we are talking about here, e.g. Manji and Elthahawy et al, are making a very good living by saying what mainstream financial/political interests want people to believe. Maybe these “pundits” genuinely believe what they are saying but – it sure works in favor of their own careers as well as the larger economic goal of arms manufacturers to create villains (in this case, brown Muslim folks) who can only be contained by mobilizing national militaries to exterminate them. And then there’s the goal to discredit all Middle Eastern governments and their peoples, in order to justify destroying their infrastructures and fully control their natural and human resources. These public relations games all feed into larger political goals that, unfortunately, are difficult to see for those of us who want to believe that genuine debates actually happen in the public domain. Power relations shape all public debates and are thoroughly scripted to make existing power relations appear “reasonable and good.”

This piece makes many good points, regarding disturbing (to say the least) treatment of women’s bodies in the region. The problem, however, is how Mona frames this. This isn’t about a single conglomerate of men working in synch to repress women. And it isn’t about ‘hate’ either — can we confine people who should be made into partners for the fight for gender equality into being the enemy? Additionally, can we say this ‘war’ is particular to the region or part of the great GWOFB — global war on female bodies (cough)? My ultimate issue with this piece (the ..terrible, terrible photos chosen by FP aside) is that it’s in English. It’s to an American audience. The only thing that it is conducive to is further fueling the flames of the plight of ‘poor Muslim women’ and the general perceived weakness women of brown skin, unable to help themselves. This hurts more than it helps. The piece had potential – but in Arabic.

Lastly, the author mentions that the uprisings were sparked by a man and she hopes they will be defined by women. But they are being defined by women (and men too and there’s nothing wrong with that). Some of the most known names and the most fierce personalities to come out of the uprisings have been women: the AlKhawaja sisters of Bahrain, Tawakkul Kamran of Yemen, Asma Mahfouz of Egypt.

The general treatment of women in the so-called Arab world is deplorable, but it is not exclusive to the region and is not merely a social or moral byproduct.

And we cannot, ever, underestimate any woman or group of women’s ability to be able to see the violence and injustices being done unto them. For us to assume so is to be compliant with that violence and injustice.
Roqayah Chamseddine:

The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.

Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another.

It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive ”hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

(read the rest of her response here: Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery)

Sara Salem:

At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.

Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.

My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)

My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?

Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.

Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.

(read more: A response to Mona el Tahawy)

Leila Ahmed:

These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy’s opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.

It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the “war” on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to — of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.

There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children — in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.

(read more: Debating the War on Women)

Samia Errazzouki:

The issue is framing and presenting women in the region as a monolith and pitting their struggles against the backdrop of an argument which points to “hate.” The argument dismisses the role of figures like Tawakul KarmanZainab and Maryam al-Khawaja, and others — women who rose through the revolutions and were present in the public sphere during protests and demonstrations, standing alongside their compatriots demanding change and an end to injustices of all kinds. These women stood up as individuals and not as self-proclaimed representatives of Arab women.

Eltahawy points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:

“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”

Yet, Eltahawy entirely neglects the socioeconomic roots of gender inequality, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a post-colonialist context, the remnants of dehumanization and oppression from colonialism, the systematic exclusion of women from the political system or those who are used as convenient tools for the regime. There is more to gender inequality than just “hate.” Arab women such as Leila Ahmed and Lila Abu-Lughod, among others, have proven this fact time and time again.

The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.

(read more: Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’)

Ayesha Kazmi:

While Muslim women’s discourse has become compromised by politicians who seek to “rescue” Muslim women from Muslim men, it is possible to skilfully highlight the systemic violence and abuse of Muslim women without sensationally fanning the likes of Samuel Huntington. I find it deeply insidious that Mona repeatedly associates the Arab man with the dark ages – the same Arab man that George Bush, Tony Blair and now David Cameron seek to rescue us from. I am fully aware of where I have repeatedly heard this precise conflation – and it reeks of the odious “clash of civilisations” hypothesis. Is it possible that Mona entirely subscribes to the Western definition of who and what she is, or is she involved in a stealthy political game? From here, it is really difficult to tell but the end result of her article, which was to fragment global feminism, is deeply troubling and most unforgivable; irresponsible at best.

(read more: Oh, Mona!)

Dalia Abd El-Hameed:

Failure to contextualize the issues and to take the economic factor into consideration to show that women’s problems in the Middle East is a monolithic tragedy of patriarchy, is reductive to women’s struggle in their multiple lived realities.

Paintings in the article depicting Arab women naked and painted in a black niqab-style, covering all their bodies with black except for their inviting eyes are really disturbing. One quick stop at the “The Colonial Harem” by Malek Aloula and you’ll understand why these images are orientalist and stereotypical; they reinforce the image of weak covered beautiful woman sending a nonverbal message:  “Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked.”

(read more: What 6 Egyptian Women Say About Mona Eltahawy)

Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi:

El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism.

The battle against misogyny does not follow a “men hate women” formula. It cannot be reduced to a generic battle of the sexes spiced with a dose of Islam and culture. It cannot be extracted from the political and economic threads that, together with patriarchy, produce the uneven terrain that men and women together navigate. It is these lessons that one would have to engage before meting out an indictment about the politics of sex, much less envisioning a future of these politics. There is no one answer because there is no single culprit, no single “culture” or “hatred” that we can root out and replace with “tolerance” or “love.” Similarly, the absence of a sustained and critical attention to sex and gender cannot be solved, syllabus style, by a separate glossy special “Sex Issue,” the content and form of which reproduce what it purports to critique.

(read more: Let’s Talk About Sex)

Additional Readings:

Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?

The Hypocrisy of the “Why They Hate Us” Rhetoric of Muslim Native Informants

Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulful al Nidham

My Response to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

Mona el Tahawy or Native Neo-orientalism

Dear Mona Eltahawy – Colonial Feminism

Remembering Malcolm X


Malcolm X was assassinated on this day, February 21st, in 1965.  Like so many people in the world, Malcolm X’s life and commitment to social justice has had a profound impact on my life.  Although Malcolm’s legacy has received recognition in the mainstream, including a 1992 film directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, there is still a great misunderstanding about who he was.

There are still many who go as far as to vilify and demonize him.  Mainstream narratives about the civil rights movement still persist in creating a simplified dichotomy between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr.  The former is regarded as a “black supremacist” and “extremist,” whereas the latter is commemorated as the “peaceful” and “moderate” civil rights leader.  This distortion of history not only vilifies Malcolm, but also de-radicalizes Martin Luther King Jr. and co-opts his legacy for the ruling class.  It is very telling when you see white supremacists quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to justify discriminatory policies that work to silence and criminalize anti-racism.

One of the things that always bothered me about the “X-Men” was how the writers describe the relationship between Magneto and Professor Xavier as analogous to the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  The first “X-Men” film put Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” quote in the mouth of Magneto, the villain mutant, and most recently, Michael Fassbender admitted that the lives of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the story of “X-Men: First Class.”  As much as I could relate to the struggle of the mutants in “X-Men” and saw parallels with Islamophobia (especially in “X-Men 2″), the comic book writers and filmmakers constantly make the mistake in comparing Malcolm X to Magneto, a murderous mutant who wants to violently exterminate all humans.  Many have criticized this offensive allegory and rightfully so.  Anyone who delves into the biography of Malcolm X will know that he never killed anyone nor called for the “annihilation” of “white people.”  Advocating for self-defense, perhaps where Malcolm was misunderstood the most, does not mean one advocates violence.

Even in narratives that commemorate and revere Malcolm X, there are problematic “universalist” statements made about his life. He was a racist, they say, but then he went to Mecca and “saw the light,” i.e. he realized he shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin.  Indeed, when Malcolm went to the holy city of Mecca to perform his hajj, the experience had a profound impact on him. In his famous letter from Mecca, he admitted with humility and sincerity that his interactions with white Muslims, as well as the spiritual knowledge he learned, caused him to “re-arrange” his thoughts. Malcolm still recognized the system of white supremacy and reality of institutionalized racism against African-Americans and other people of color.  To accuse Malcolm of being a “racist” is irresponsible, as it erases the history and reality of racism in the United States, which Malcolm writes about in the letter, too.  Others choose to “water down” Malcolm in this narrative and many have argued that the Spike Lee film didn’t go far enough.  Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture stresses on how the film didn’t depict Malcolm’s visit in Africa and the Middle East, his meetings with African, Arab, and South American leaders, or his anti-Zionist politics.  She also points out that Lee received pressure from Hollywood producers because they were particularly concerned about showing Malcolm’s support of the Palestinians.

Being selective about Malcolm’s life and only focusing on his “post-Hajj” years is to overlook Malcolm’s complexities and how his life journey carries such a meaningful message about self-criticism, among other things. He was committed to learning and, unlike the political “leaders” in the world today, was not afraid to admit his mistakes.  There are still things we need to be critical of, however.  Similar to how bell hooks critiqued Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Aime Cesaire on their male-centered language, the same needs to be said about Malcolm X.   Writing only about male experiences with oppression perpetuates sexism, as it ignores and erases the experiences of women. As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “Such a strategy not only borrows ideological capital from the white patriarchy that has historically demeaned black America, but blunts awareness of how the practice of patriarchy of black men has created another class of victims within black communities.”

I remember when I took an entire class on Malcolm X, the professor, an African-American woman, critiqued Malcolm’s sexist logic throughout the semester and reminded us that much of Malcolm’s legacy has been shaped and defined by men. Malcolm was a strong advocate of women’s education, but many of his  attitudes towards women were also restrictive and rooted in distrust. My professor also spoke a lot about the women who played a significant role in Malcolm’s life, including his wife Betty Shabazz and his mother and sisters who taught him “the importance of race pride and self identity.”

I do find Malcolm’s sexist logic to be in line with traditional patriarchal attitudes that we can find in all communities. In his autobiography, Malcolm explains that Islam teaches true Love because the beauty of the person is found within, not on the outside.  I believe this is true, but the stereotypical gender roles were also present in Malcolm’s interpretation.  As a young Muslim man, I saw Malcolm’s leadership, politics, and courage as an example that was exclusive to men.  I viewed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a similar way. That is, men alone needed to be leaders and role models, whereas women were “followers” and “looked up to us.”

Critiques about masculinity and sexism in Malcolm’s life are important; they have been and are addressed by black feminists and activists. In other narratives, a lot of non-black Muslims try to isolate Malcolm as a Muslim and only a Muslim while ignoring African-American struggle. Through this process, Malcolm’s racial identity gets erased and he becomes an appropriated icon – this appropriation, under the assumption that all marginalized communities “share” the “same” oppression, only contributes to anti-black racism. Although I am not African-American, Malcolm’s speeches about not being ashamed of your skin color or where you come from resonated with me very strongly at a young age. My experiences as a South Asian-American are not the same as African-Americans, but Malcolm’s words helped me see important parallels of internalized racism within my community and, most of all, within myself.

There is a lot to appreciate, admire, and respect about Malcolm. Unlike so many today, he was not afraid to speak his mind and speak truth to power.  He didn’t worry about the way others perceived him and he didn’t change his words to please political parties or the white mainstream. He told it like it is.  Criticizing some of his sexist attitudes does not negate his anti-racist work or his advocacy for women’s rights, but rather keeps us critical of social justice struggles and how we can learn to strengthen efforts for liberation.   It is Malcolm’s self-criticism that has always inspired me and this is something all of us must do.  We must criticize the racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other oppressive norms that we have internalized.  Self-criticism reminds us about the importance of holding ourselves responsible and being mindful of the justice we seek for all communities.  As I have written on this blog so many times, racism and sexism are inseparable – there cannot be any true liberation while oppression still exists.

In closing, I wanted to share this excerpt from one of Malcolm’s final speeches that is so relevant today.  Malcolm comments on the multiple arms of racism and how dangerous the grasp of oppression can be when it transforms the victim into the oppressor, and the oppressor into the victim. An intersectional approach to the speech can help us connect Malcolm’s fierce criticism of victim-blaming racism to the way victims of sexual violence are blamed for oppression as well.  The speech was delivered five days before he was assassinated.  May Allah be pleased with Malcolm and may all of our communities work together to end oppression in all of its forms. Ameen.

We’re not against people because they’re white. But we’re against those who practice racism. We’re against those who drop bombs on people because their color happens to be of a different shade than yours. And because we’re against it, the press says we’re violent. We’re not for violence. We’re for peace.

We’re against those who practice racism. Racism which involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Asia, another form of racism involving a war against the dark-skinned people in the Congo, the same as it involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Rochester, New York.

They accuse us of what they themselves are guilty of. This is what the criminal always does. He’ll bomb you, then accuse you of bombing yourself. He’ll crush your skull, and then accuse you of attacking him. This is what the racists have always done. He’ll practice his criminal action, and then use the press to make it look like the victim is the criminal, and the criminal is the victim.

- Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

Why Eliminating Sexist Language Matters

Contrary to popular belief, it's not always about this guy.

If you’re going to advocate for social justice and organize in your community, you need to be actively resisting the potential reproduction of oppressive hierarchies. In other words, if you’re going to fight against capitalism, for example, don’t create a discriminatory “chain of command” reminiscent of the very system you’re fighting against!  This includes being conscious of offensive and harmful imagery, language, slogans, and so on.  Reproducing racist, sexist, classist, and ableist hierarchies within social justice movements isn’t uncommon, sadly, and if we don’t challenge oppression within organizing, the struggle itself will be undermined.  How can you bring about “revolution” when you’re benefiting off of the people you’ve marginalized, excluded, exploited, and stigmatized?  Where is the “change” when people are still struggling against oppression, even within social justice groups?

It is always discouraging to see oppressive hierarchies surface in our own communities because these are spaces that are supposed to be safe.  Recently, I noticed a status message that shamelessly insulted and degraded Muslim activists who have been criticizing the Obama administration.  It isn’t necessary to name this person, though it is disturbing how some people who claim to be “representing” the Muslim American community feel so comfortable ridiculing others.  The message included sexist, masculinist remarks like, “American Muslims need to grow some balls and join the electoral system,” and “American Muslims need to grow up and stop being cynical,” and “American Muslims need to stop whining and victimizing themselves.”  When I critiqued the sexist language used by this person, I received a reply that didn’t address any of my points.  Unfortunately, the person who wrote the message didn’t take responsibility for his sexism either.  Instead, I was told I “misunderstood” what was meant to be a motivational message to get Muslim Americans to participate in “American democracy” and not “whine” about Islamophobia.

I’m not interested in attacking or denigrating this person. I bring up the discussion only to critique the victim-blaming and heteropatriarchal politics that exists in our community.  Indeed, there is a lot to deconstruct when you hear someone say, “American Muslims need to grow some balls” and accompany the statement with remarks like “grow up” and “stop whining.”  As many feminist critiques have pointed out, sexist language makes women invisible and reinforces heteropatriarchal domination. Telling Muslim critics of the Obama administration to “grow some balls and join the electoral system” removes Muslim women from the discussion and, subsequently, from the voting process.  Furthermore, “grow some balls” means to “man up,” which is code for anti-female directives such as “don’t be/act like a girl” (because girls are inferior to boys and men, so if you act like them, you lose your “manhood,” your “natural inclination” to be “superior”). Since male-centered language asserts problematic universalist ideas such as the term “man” equaling “people” (and vice versa), Muslim critics of US wars only consist of men who “lack the balls” to do “macho” stuff, like voting to get president Obama re-elected.  Subsequently, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist critiques of the administration are characterized as “whiny,” “childish,” “angry,” and “self-victimizing,” which are all code for sexist perceptions of so-called “feminine” traits, i.e. “sissy,” “girly,” “oversensitive,” dwelling in “self-pity,” and so on. Because women are not part of this conversation, the “Muslims for Obama” are “manly” men, whereas Muslims criticizing Obama are the “girly” men.

Unfortunately, anti-racist and anti-war activists are not outside heteropatriarchy either.  bell hooks offers a feminist critique of Paulo Freire’s book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” because of its “tendency to speak of people’s liberation as male liberation.” hooks points out that Freire, like other brilliant political thinkers, including Frantz Fanon, Albert Memni, and Aimi Cesaire, “speak against oppression, but then define liberation in terms that suggest it is only the oppressed ‘men’ who need freedom.”  Missing from their incredibly important works about “colonization, racism, classism, and revolutionary struggle” are anti-sexist politics. By no means is this saying that their works are not important or significant. In fact, as hooks points out, the works are still valued by feminist activists, but with the understanding that focusing exclusively on heterosexual male liberation perpetuates sexist oppression and must end.  Centering analysis and language on men resisting racist, classist oppression erases women’s struggle against racism, colonization, sexual violence, and misogyny (not only within their communities, but also outside).  It is also worth noting that hooks discussed her concerns with Friere, who “supported wholeheartedly this criticism of his work and encouraged me (hooks) to share this with readers.”

Within white-dominated feminist groups, harmful language arises out of failure in resisting discriminatory hierarchies and acknowledging different histories.  AF3IRM, a transnational feminist and anti-imperialist organization, expressed concerns about the “SlutWalk” movement by addressing “the issue of sexual violence and continuing victimization of rape victims by police,the justice system and other agents of authority.”  AF3IRM and other women of color called upon “SlutWalk” to reexamine its use of the term “slut,” which carries a long history of exploiting and oppressing women of color around the world. In their statement to “SlutWalk,” AF3IRM write:

Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly “reclaim” the word “Slut”. It was never ours to begin with. This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

Another recent example of using offensive language in social justice organizing can found in the “occupy” movements that began on Wall Street. Many indigenous communities in North America have stressed in their critiques that the land being “occupied” by anti-capitalist activists is stolen indigenous land and already occupied. Under occupation, racism and sexism are wielded as weapons against the colonized, therefore use of the term “occupy” dismisses histories and realities of those who live under colonial occupation.  Resistance to this criticism, which is meant to make the movement stronger by centering anti-colonial politics, represents the ongoing cultural genocide of Native peoples.  That is, Native peoples are thought to be “extinct,” therefore their struggles against colonialism and sexual violence are “not important enough” to get the white-majority “occupy” activists to reassess the language it uses.   Recently, the “occupy” movement in Albuquerque, New Mexico decided to change its name to “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” out of solidarity for Native communities.  As one writer explained:

For many indigenous people, the term ‘Occupy’ is deeply problematic. For New Mexico’s indigenous people, ‘Occupy’ means five-hundred years of forced occupation of their lands, resources, cultures, power, and voices by the imperial powers of both Spain and the United States. A big chunk of the 99 percent has been served pretty well by that arrangement. A smaller chunk hasn’t.

Beyond the way sexist language reinforces maleness as the “norm,” which is undoubtedly important to critique because it eliminates women from, well, existence, there are connections that need to be made between sexist language and the heteropatriarchal system which is foundational to the United States. Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith argues:

It has been through sexual violence and through the imposition of European relationships on Native communities that Europeans were able to colonize Native peoples in the first place. If we maintain these patriarchal gender systems in place, we are then unable to decolonize and fully assert our sovereignty… Implicit in this analysis is the understanding that heteropatriarchy is essential for the building of US empire. Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy. Just as men are supposed to naturally dominate women on the basis of biology, so too should the social elites of a society naturally rule everyone else through a nation-state form of governance that is constructed through domination, violence, and control (emphasis added).

If we apply an anti-colonial analysis to sexist language and the heteropatriarchal nation-state, we can see how arrogant and pompous statements like “America is the greatest nation on earth” are very masculinist because they promote absolute domination and self-entitlement to rule, invade, bomb, and occupy other countries. When Muslim American community leaders assert that Muslims “proudly” played a role in the “founding” of America, they are aligning themselves with the built-in structures of heteropatriarchy and colonialism, as well as dismissing the fact that many of the Muslims they refer to were African slaves forced to this continent.  What does it mean to be the “greatest” nation on earth?  Who determines “greatness” and why is it so important for America to be the “greatest”?  I am reminded of when a good friend told me, “Women have no country” and that the building of the nation-state is masculinist, as is evident in the way it flexes its military power.

"You want to fight sexism and challenge the nation-state?! What are you, crazy?! Think like a man and be more practical."

With this in mind, it is very telling when certain individuals, particularly those who believe they have more authority than others in their communities, resort to sexist language in effort to defend and deflect criticism of the heteropatriarchal nation-state. When anti-war stances are shot down with degrading insults, it becomes that much easier to brush the person off as some “whiny,” “cynical,” and, um, “ball-less” nuisance.  Sexist language often intertwines with ableist slurs like, “you’re crazy,” “you’re delusional,” or “you’re just being hysterical.”  Because women are perceived in heteropatriarchy as “weak” and “irrational,” ableist words like “crazy,” “delusional,” and “hysterical” are easily assigned to them, and especially more damaging to women with dis-abilities.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is synonymous with being “rational,” “brave,” and “courageous.”  When heterosexual male community organizers ridicule anti-racist feminists and assert themselves as “more practical,” they are reinforcing sexist masculine notions that anyone who disagrees with them is “hysterical” and  an “emotional reactionary.”  They’re not “thinking with their head.”  If these anti-racist feminists are women, the attitude is, “Of course they would say that, they’re women.” If these anti-racist feminists are men, the attitude is, “What a bunch of pussies.”  Interestingly, if being masculine is all about “toughness” and “bravery,” then what is to be said about the countless number of women who often put themselves in danger to fight not only against misogyny and sexual violence, but also against racism and colonialism?  What is to be said about the Native women and other women of color who not only fight sexist oppression in their own communities, but also actively challenge the nation-state itself? As bell hooks says, “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Working within the colonial framework, telling people to “shut up” about their criticism of Obama and join the “voting system” (as if voting ever abolished racism, sexism, classism, etc.) only serves to maintain, not disrupt, established power structures and “secondary marginalization,” which is described by Smith as politics premised on the “most elite class” furthering “their aspirations on the backs of those most marginalized within the community.”

It is understandable if the reality of struggle rarely being safe bothers us because it reveals the lack of support and solidarity. No one should ever feel compelled to put themselves in danger for their God-given human rights. I point it out here to emphasize on heteropatriarchy’s dangerous use of language and how its sexist labeling degrades, vilifies, and erases (rhetorically or violently) anything that doesn’t conform to the heteromasculine status quo. If we are going to fight sexist language, the established hierarchies need to be decolonized, and society must base its principles on interconnectedness, mutual accountability and reciprocity, and liberation for all people.  I recall the words of Cellestine Ware:

Radical feminism is working for the eradication of domination and elitism in all human relationships. This would make self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of society as we know it today.

The downfall of sexist language is very much part of the revolution she calls for.

Link Love: Libya, Decolonial Feminism, and Multiculturalism


1.) Top Ten Ways that Libya 2011 is Iraq 2003

Alexander, of The Ruh of Brown Folks, writes an excellent rebuttal to Juan Cole’s claims that the recent western imperialist invasion of Libya is “different” than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Alexander points out the following:

The same Libyan people that rose up against Qaddafi also railed against foreign intervention. Those that did call for a no-fly zone did not call to be bombed, which is is happening now – and the US military admits it has trouble identifying civilians, which has led to some (like Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League) decrying the invasion for killing Libyan civilians. It’s disingenuous to conflate the popular movement against Qaddafi with a popular movement in support of the US/UN invasion. There were also Iraqis that supported the 2003 invasion, and Saddam was probably opposed by a majority of Iraqis, but the invasion itself was overwhelmingly unpopular.

2.)  Decolonial Feminism & the Privilege of Solidarity

Houria Bouteldja, “the spokesperson for the political party organized by people of color in France called Les Indigenes de la Republique,” stresses on the importance of decolonizing feminism and speaks on the question of Islamic feminism.

How to legitimize Islamic feminism? For me, it legitimizes itself. It doesn’t have to pass a feminist exam. The simple fact that Muslim women have taken it up to demand their rights and their dignity is enough for it to be fully recognized. I know, as result of my intimate knowledge of women from the Maghreb and in the diaspora, that “the-submissive-woman” does not exist. She was invented. I know women that are dominated. Submissive ones are rarer!

3. Dr. Sunera Thobani: Multiculturalism displaces anti-racism, upholds white supremacy

Restructure! highlights on Dr. Sunera Thobani’s important talk on multiculturalism in Canada and how the mainstream discourse on multiculturalism has been very effective in silencing anti-racist politics:

Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities – people of colour – to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways – as static, they will always be that, they have always been that.  Culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an a…nti-racist discourse.

And multiculturalism is the dominant discourse now through which all of us have to, are forced to, articulate our politics. And I think multiculturalism has, in that way, it’s done a big disservice. Because it has just silenced anti-racist discourse and anti-racist politics in this country, which now has been defined as an extreme kind of politics. And meanwhile, the deeply-embedded racial inequalities in Canadian society continue to be reproduced. And multiculturalism masks them, it glosses them over, and it has become a policy of governing and managing communities of colour, so that those politics only get articulated in the name of culture, and culture is defined in highly patriarchal terms.

4.The Absence of “Political Correctness”

Amy, of Daughter of Guidance, writes a fantastic piece on why the term “political correctness” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary. The term is just a pathetic attempt to legitimize racism and bigotry!

Now, verbal attacks on Muslims have become commonplace in today’s political discourse, but the effect of bigotry disguised as truth has spread. Take, for example, the video posted by UCLA student Alexandra Wallace in which she criticizes …the ‘manners’ of her peers (specifically, Asian students in the library.) She starts her rant by saying ‘So we know that I’m not the most politically correct person so don’t take this offensively.’ In other words, she admits that she’s about to be very offensive but defends herself by saying she’s just not politically correct. As if that’s a legitimate excuse. And shouldn’t it be? After all, that’s what so many politicians are doing when they attack Muslims, blacks, or poor people.