When Men on the Left Refuse to See Their Sexism

leftfailpatriarchy

TRIGGER WARNING: This post cites examples of misogynistic language, gender slurs, sexual objectification, and other forms of sexist oppression.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article on Vice that was oddly titled, “You’re a Pussy If You Think There’s a War on Men.” It seemed clear that the author, Harry Cheadle, was referring to an awful “reverse sexist” and anti-feminist article about “The War on Men,” which asserts that women are to blame for the “dearth of good men” and must “surrender to their nature” while letting “men surrender to theirs.” Cheadle writes in defense of feminism and exposes the absurdity of claiming that men are “oppressed” by women. While I agree with his arguments that men need to stop blaming and fearing women, the sexist use of the word “pussy” in his title couldn’t be overlooked. After a brief conversation with friends who also found it offensive, I decided to write an e-mail to the author. I expressed overall support for his post and agreed that men need to be held accountable for their sexism, but I also pointed out that using the word “pussy” as a slur to characterize men as “cowardly” and “weak” is still misogynistic because it relies on degrading a woman’s body. It reinforces the sexist logic that being called a woman or, in this case, a body part of a woman, is always negative, demeaning, and shameful. It reminds us that in order for men to feel truly insulted, they must be compared to women because women, as heteropatriarchy teaches us, are weaker and inferior to men. I mentioned in my e-mail that I had no problem with calling men out on their laziness, lack of accountability, and insecurities. However, using the word “pussy” to describe their fear of women is counter-productive and perpetuates sexist attitudes.

I never heard back from him, but a few days later, a friend of mine noticed a status update on Cheadle’s public Facebook wall*, which read:

Just got an email from someone who A) assumed I was an ally in the “feminist struggle” B)Took issue with my use of the word “pussy” in my article “You’re a Pussy if You Think There’s a War on Men” and C) informed me that “the term is not only misogynistic, but also inaccurate since the vagina is actually quite tough, not weak.” asldkfjalsjf adlsj foiasj doia e

When it was asked on the comment thread about whether or not he identified as an ally, Cheadle responded, “I just hate whiners and knee-jerk anti-feminists. I don’t really feel that I’m a part of the whole feminist enterprise, and I don’t really want to be.”

Not sure what he meant by “feminist enterprise,” but I was taken aback when I read these comments because I felt that I was being supportive of his article’s overall message. The quote he used from my e-mail (point C) was actually me paraphrasing common anti-sexist responses to those who equate the vagina with “weakness.” I also pointed out in my e-mail that women have done a lot of work on gendered insults and the impact they have on society. What I noticed the most, however, was his refusal to acknowledge the sexism in his title, which he never chose to change.

I share the above as an example of something I want to discuss in a broader context: sexism and misogyny from men in Leftist spaces and their refusal to hold themselves accountable, even when they are called out on it. What does it mean when a man speaks in defense of feminism, but then, after being informed of his sexism, rejects being an ally in order to absolve himself of any accountability? What are the implications for women who self-identify as feminist when men can easily reject feminism or disassociate from it to excuse and normalize their own sexism? In this post, I will discuss how this refusal of accountability contributes to violence against women, beginning with the usage of misogynistic language, then addressing the various manifestations of sexist oppression, and concluding with points on doing work to end this violence.

1. Misogynistic Language

Whether we are men who self-identify as anti-racist, advocate against homophobia, hold leadership positions in radical movements, rightly express outrage against right-wing misogynists and patriarchy at large, write articles that condemn all forms of injustice, or all of the above, none of this gives us a free pass on sexism, including sexist language. Gendered insults like “pussy,” “cunt,” “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” etc. are so normalized and acceptable that we hear them in classrooms, workplaces, activist groups, and from our friends and colleagues. In mainstream media, the frequent and increased use of the “b” word on prime-time TV shows over the past decade only reinforces this acceptability. Even in popular video games like Batman: Arkham City, women characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are repeatedly called the “b” word by both good and bad male characters (and when women gamers address sexism in gaming, many men respond by trivializing the slurs and making misogynistic attacks). The pervasiveness and normalization of misogynistic language is not simply limited to particular movies, games, songs, or novels, but rather reflective of the sexist and patriarchal values that shape society. These sexist values, as bell hooks explains, are “created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

There is a long violent history of these words being used to shame, exploit, persecute, rape, and murder women, especially women of color, who face racism and misogyny simultaneously.  Sikivu Hutchinson explains that linking the word “bitch” with “bad girls” has strong racial connotations since “black women have always been deemed ‘bad’ in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for pornographic exploitation.” Azjones0210 mentions in her blog post that the Oxford dictionary includes a definition that states “bitch” is a “black slang” for “woman.” She elaborates:

[O]ur culture has attached the word “bitch” to the character of a black woman so many times that it deserves to be integrated into our formal language system. Regardless of the word “slang” existing within the definition, it is still there. This is not present for other racial groups in the way it is present for black women. This says to the world that when I walk down the street, and people see me and identify me as black, it is acceptable to connect the word “bitch” to me and everything that it carries way before I even open my mouth or complete any sort of action.

AF3IRM, a feminist and anti-imperialist organization whose membership identifies as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” addressed the history of the word “slut” for women of color and how it continues to be used against them:

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.

When white men and men of color who proclaim to be “progressive” and “anti-oppression” refuse to stop using misogynistic language, they participate in another form of violence against women and end up damaging activist spaces that are supposed to be safe. A typical response is to blame women: “But women say these words, too!” Another excuse is that they were using the “b” word as a “compliment” in a “reclaimed context.” A couple of points need to be addressed here: (1) Some women of color and white women believe in reclaiming gender slurs, and some disagree. (2) Whether or not the women in our lives say these words, men should never say them. A woman saying the “b” word compared to a man saying it is very different. Given the history and present day realities I mentioned above, men are in no position to “reclaim” those words nor do they have any right to tell women not to say them. I’ve seen white men and men of color who self-identify as anti-racist use the “b” word in ways to exert dominance over others, including other men (e.g. “Man up, bitch!”), or to “humorously” refer to a group of male and female friends (e.g. “Got a new phone, send me your numbers, bitches!”) None of this is “ok,” no matter what the “intent” is.

When describing racist and/or homophobic women, there are men with progressive politics, whether white or of color, heterosexual or gay, who somehow think it is permissible to use misogynistic language and slurs. Again, this is unacceptable. We need to go beyond “restraining ourselves” from using these words. Instead, we need to eliminate misogynistic language from our vocabulary and challenge the ways in which this language has shaped our perception and attitudes towards women. This doesn’t negate the activist work we already do nor does it diminish the racism of racist women, but rather calls for us to work against sexist oppression and take responsibility for unlearning the serious ways in which we’ve internalized sexist socialization.

2. Men on the Left Perpetuating Sexist Oppression

In addition to misogynistic language, sexual harassment, rape, and the silencing of women is disturbingly common in Leftist spaces. In a hostile white supremacist and heteropatriarchal climate where many women, especially women of color, cannot call the police because they do not want to strengthen the state or be further victimized by it, working collectively against misogyny and gender violence within activist movements is crucial. If a male activist threatens a woman, or follows her home, or sexually harasses her in a meeting or a rally, or tries to silence and shame her, or rapes her, this man must be held accountable. What’s disturbing is how white men and men of color appoint themselves as “leaders” and use their “activist credibility” or “celebrity” status to hide and excuse their own sexism. On one hand, there are male activists who reject feminism, as discussed above, but then there are men who consciously insert themselves into feminist discourse and assert authority over it. Hugo Schwyzer, for instance, persistently defines himself as a “male feminist,” yet doesn’t see the harm he causes when dismissing his history of engaging in sexual relations with students or writing about how he almost murdered his ex-girlfriend and then made himself the “hero” for not following through with it. Angus Johnston of Student Activism describes this crime as an act of gendered violence and explains that “in all his (Schwyzer’s) writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today.”

When writing about “slutwalk,” Schwyzer described his role as “herding sluts” and then gave racist responses to criticism from women of color. Elsewhere, Schwyzer wrote an outrageous article that tried to justify degrading sex acts against women (read Tiger Beatdown’s important response to his post). By declaring himself a “feminist” and advertising himself (as seen on his website) as an “author, speaker, professor” who “shatters gender myths,” Schwyzer dangerously tries to legitimize his sexism as feminist discourse. Refusing to check his white male privilege and power, which has undoubtedly contributed to his “celebrity” status, Schwyzer allows other men to see his behavior and beliefs as “feminism.” When it is taken into account that Schwyzer proudly sees himself as “paternalistic,” it isn’t surprising that he deflects criticism so defensively. His refusal to see this violence is evident in his own words:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

I have seen similar refusal from white men and men of color that I’ve come in contact with. Last year, I wrote a post, “Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions,” where I mentioned a male photography “activist” who took an invasive, zoomed-in photo of a woman’s body and shared it on his Facebook for public viewing. When white men and men of color left despicable and sexually objectifying comments, I was alarmed to see one of my “friends,” a man of color who asserts himself as a “leader” in his local activist community, participating in this objectification. When I and another male friend/ally wrote to him about this, he responded by denying that anything ever happened. We went back to the photo and noticed that he had deleted his comment. We and a few other friends (women and men) who saw the comment earlier must have been “seeing things” (sarcasm). After confronting him on this, he went on about how his friend, the man who took the photo, is an ally in anti-racist struggle and has even gotten arrested for taking photos of the police. The troubling implication seemed to be that if a man does important social justice work and got arrested several times, it somehow “erases” his misogyny and the harm he caused by sexually objectifying women.

Along with shamelessly lying that he ever commented on the photo, this man never took action against the photographer. Despite the messages my friends and I sent to people in our network and asked them to report the image, it still remained posted. A couple of weeks later, this same man commented on another photo, this time of a woman modeling in a bikini (which appeared on my news feed even though the person who posted it is not on my friend’s list). As men left perverted comments, he encouraged their objectification by saying: “Be careful. some of the puritanical leftists will gouge our eyes out. we must remain serious at all times. after all, we are activists. humor is banned at all times :)” (smiley icon in original).

When friends and I wrote to him and voiced our outrage, we never received a reply. Some of us, including myself, deleted him, but still see his hypocritical “anti-patriarchy” comments posted on mutual friend’s walls. I sent out messages to many of these mutual friends and while some were definitely outraged, others excused his behavior due to his activist work and “leadership” role. So, men who perpetuate sexual objection or other forms of sexist oppression can get away with it just because they do “important work” overall? What does this say about sexism and misogyny? That these issues are “secondary,” “not as important,” and disconnected from struggles against other forms of oppression? What some failed to take into account was how men like him are not unique in Leftist movements.

As my friend Sitara wrote in reference to a white male activist in her community:

What does it mean for our movement that a known abuser (who has REFUSED to address his actions in any meaningful way) has put out a call to form a national revolutionary organization whose platform includes “rejecting patriarchy” in all its forms, including “familial roles”? Answer: nothing good.

In Courtney Desiree Morris’s very important post, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements,” she describes the numerous encounters she had with abusive men:

There were men like this in various organizations I worked with. The one who called his girlfriend a bitch in front of a group of youth of color during a summer encuentro we were hosting. The one who sexually harassed a queer Chicana couple during a trip to México, trying to pressure them into a threesome. The guys who said they would complete a task, didn’t do it, brushed off their compañeras’ demands for accountability, let those women take over the task, and when it was finished took all the credit for someone else’s hard work. The graduate student who hit his partner—and everyone knew he’d done it, but whenever anyone asked, people would just look ashamed and embarrassed and mumble, “It’s complicated.” The ones who constantly demeaned queer folks, even people they organized with. Especially the one who thought it would be a revolutionary act to “kill all these faggots, these niggas on the down low, who are fucking up our children, fucking up our homes, fucking up our world, and fucking up our lives!” The one who would shout you down in a meeting or tell you that you couldn’t be a feminist because you were too pretty. Or the one who thought homosexuality was a disease from Europe.

Yeah, that guy.

While she points out that many of these men were probably not informants, “the work that they do supports the state’s ongoing campaign of terror against social movements and the people who create them.” I suspect that many male readers will read the examples shared above and think, “Well, I’ve never done any of that, so I can’t be sexist.” However, this belief is an “innocence” mindset that fails to address our responsibilities as well as the ways in which we are complicit in reproducing oppression.

3. Accountability

There needs to be clarification that not all men benefit from sexism and heteropatriarchy in the same way. Certainly, the ways in which gender and race intersect must be taken into account.The framework here isn’t “all men are the same” or “men are the enemies,” but rather that white men and men of color need to practice accountability and understand the different, though interconnected, effects interlocking systems of oppression has on them (e.g. heterosexual cis-gendered white men benefit from both white supremacy and patriarchy). Men of color are horribly demonized and victimized by racist forces in society (as are women of color), though this should not absolve them of sexism and misogyny. White women can exert power over men of color and women of color through racism and reinforcing white supremacy, though this doesn’t lessen the importance of dismantling heteropatriarchy (which is interlocked with white supremacy).

As Morris writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do. We all must do the work because the survival of our movements depends on it.” Abusive male activist “leaders” maintain power not only by reproducing heteropatriarchy, but also because they are upheld by those who actively support them, which includes both men and women. This support is not always a result of passive or naive internalization of sexist oppression; there is active participation, too. When this complex process is failed to be understood, men may dismiss how harmful sexual objectification is, for example, and make excuses like, “Well, women were commenting on that photo, too” or “But, women weren’t offended by that photo.” Instead of using other women to justify our sexism, we need to challenge heteropatriarchy and work within a framework of accountability. Another mistake that many men (not just those with radical politics, but also those who consider themselves liberal or progressive) make is think they are “outside of patriarchy” just because they read feminist literature, attend patriarchy workshops, have women friends, etc. When we are called out on sexism, instead of getting defensive and claiming that we are “not sexist,” we should be more concerned about whether or not we are reinforcing sexism, either through our language, our behaviors, actions or non-actions, etc. I believe bell hooks’ words are relevant here:

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another… While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.

This is not about men taking on “savior” roles, but instead taking responsibility for their complicity. We are complicit when we are silent about misogyny within movements; we are complicit when we tell women to ignore sexist oppression;  we are complicit when we laugh at misogynistic “jokes”; we are complicit when we encourage sexual objectification instead of challenging it; we are complicit when we continue friendships with these abusive men despite knowing the damage their misogyny is causing; we are complicit when we make the conscious decision to refuse listening to those who are calling us out on being silent or participants in any of the above.

Responsibility doesn’t mean we should speak for women either. As I was sharing with a friend, I often get tired of calling white people out on their racism all the time and think it’s important to have solidarity from anti-racist white allies. I don’t need white people to speak for me, for instance, though at the same time, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of racism while my white friends just stand around and do nothing. Similarly, it’s not enough for men to simply say, “Oh that’s messed up,” when they see or hear the sexism of male allies. It is important to confront these men, especially if these are men we work with, study with, have friendships with, etc. If we say or do nothing while women are struggling to address these issues, we are only resuming our complicity.

We need to seriously reevaluate and question what is happening in our communities. If a powerfully positioned “leader” in a radical space that strives to end all forms of oppression is a man who uses bullying, shaming, violence, and other oppressive tactics towards members in the group, why is this injustice allowed to continue? Why is he standing on a podium, dominating the mic, and leading a large rally of people who are seeking to end oppressive behaviors like his? Why is he held up as a “representative” for his community, being interviewed by the media, quoted in newspapers, or featured on popular blogs when there are women within the group who are not only fighting against the state’s racist, sexist oppression, but also against the misogyny within their communities? Oddly enough, when men tell women that they should “ignore” sexism or put their experiences with abuse “on hold” for the sake of “the greater good,” there paradoxically is an acknowledgment that abuse is taking place. And yet, despite this recognition of injustice, no action is taken.

We need to stop giving legitimacy to these men and start holding them accountable. We have to stop promoting them as “leaders” and start listening to the voices that matter. There needs to be collective action and communities need to work within a framework that understands that if we do not fight misogyny and heteropatriarchy, especially within our own groups, then our work will amount to nothing. Refusing to address these problems, as Morris crucially reminds us, has dangerous consequences and will work to strengthen the oppressive forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperialism and other systems of violence and domination that seek to destroy us. Whether its men who write articles about women’s rights, men making speeches about ending patriarchy at activist rallies, or men who just think they “cannot be sexist” because they are “nice guys,” our work and words mean nothing if we deliberately refuse to accept and practice accountability. As so many anti-racist women of color and white women activists, academics, and community leaders have articulated in their work, heteropatriarchy and other oppressions cannot be dismantled if we do not also work to eliminate them within ourselves.

Photo Credit: #Leftfail

*I was reluctant to share this status message since I’m not friends with the author, but it was pointed out to me that his Facebook wall is open to the public. After verifying this myself, I decided to re-share.

UPDATE: Other readers have pointed this out already, but I recognize that “Vice” is not a leftist website. I apologize for the confusion and meant to clarify that. Later in the post, I mention that it is not only the sexism and misogyny in leftist spaces that should be a concern, but in all spaces, including on popular websites.

Confronting Personal and State Violence Simultaneously

Within the past month or so, a couple of friends were telling me about the racism and sexism they continue to experience in social justice spaces. Yesterday, another friend was telling me about her experience with abusive “activists” who refuse to take any responsibility for their racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.   I know I have addressed this before on my blog, but what does it say about the power of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy when we constantly face the internalization and reproduction of these oppressive forces within our own communities where we are supposed to be safe?

It is disturbing how misogynist men in particular can carry on with their celebrity “activist” status after being called out on their sexism. It is as if making the choice to march in the street, chant a slogan, and organize rallies and meetings suddenly purifies an individual of their racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The practice of self-labeling as “liberal,” “activist,” “progressive,” or “radical,” especially in this day and age of social media, has come to mean that anyone who takes a stance on a social justice issue is devoid of responsibility and accountability.  Making unwanted advances at women and objectifying them is “ok” just as long as the heterosexual male activist was arrested by the police in the past and, at the end of the day, “does important work.”

There isn’t much I can add because there is already an important article written about this: “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements.” The author highlights on the frightening reality of informants who infiltrate activist movements for the purpose of destabilizing them. She stresses that misogynists make the perfect informants, and whether or not these misogynists are working for the state, they effectively weaken movement building and perpetuate gender violence that only makes marginalized communities even more vulnerable to the state that wants to destroy them.  Here’s an excerpt:

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements.  Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Also, this:

We have a right to be angry when the communities we build that are supposed to be the model for a better, more just world harbor the same kinds of antiqueer, antiwoman, racist violence that pervades society. As radical organizers we must hold each other accountable and not enable misogynists to assert so much power in these spaces. Not allow them to be the faces, voices, and leaders of these movements. Not allow them to rape a compañera and then be on the fucking five o’ clock news. In Brandon Darby’s case, even if no one suspected he was an informant, his domineering and macho behavior should have been all that was needed to call his leadership into question. By not allowing misogyny to take root in our communities and movements, we not only protect ourselves from the efforts of the state to destroy our work but also create stronger movements that cannot be destroyed from within.

I believe these points must be stressed over and over again.  I remember a friend reminding me that our communities cannot survive if our politics don’t confront gender violence, misogyny, and heteropatriarchy. As the author writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do.” This is not a call for men to think of themselves as “saviors” of social justice movements, but rather to look at their own complicity. How have we raised our voices over women and refused to let them speak? How have we interjected ourselves into discussions where we should have shut up and listened?  How have we stood silent when a fellow male activist, whom we respect and admire, got away with sexual objectification, misogyny, disgusting sexist jokes, and sexual assault?  How have we participated in this abuse without holding ourselves accountable?  These questions are important because it is dangerous how misogynist male activists use their power to deflect attention away from their abuses. It is dangerous because these individuals do not think of themselves as sexist or misogynistic, but rather as people who do “important work” that apparently “no one else can do” and therefore must be excused.

I’ve been thinking about all of this with relation to the Muslim community. I was exchanging messages with another Muslim friend and we were talking about a popular article that was being re-posted a lot on Facebook: “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques in Attempt to Reform American Islam.”  I’m not sure if I’ll get into a full critique of it in this post, but my issue with the article didn’t have anything to do with launching gay-friendly or women-led mosques. I support women-led prayers, ending gender segregation in mosques, welcoming LGBT Muslims, and eliminating sexist oppression in our communities. I didn’t take issue with any of that because I believe Islam advocates respect and rights for every person, irrespective of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. All of us have to make our spaces respectful, accepting, and appreciative. Muslim unity means that we acknowledge the vast diversity in our Ummah, and instead of making everyone conform to a singular and narrow interpretation of Islam, we need to learn how to show respect and appreciation for each other. Faith is personal and it is not something that should be policed by any person or by any government.

What I found problematic about the article was how it’s framed in a good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on my blog that got quite popular – one was about ending gender segregation and the other was entitled “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress.” Both posts were critical of Muslim communities, but what bothered me was how many white liberal non-Muslims would link to those posts and make comments like, “Looks like someone is being critical of his culture, good job!” or use my posts to pit me against the rest of the Muslim community. As if I am the “good Muslim” and everyone else is “bad.”  What this reinforces in a society that calls itself a “melting pot” (where people are supposed to assimilate into one identity as opposed to having multiple identities) is an “us versus them” mentality. We don’t need to look any further than the Orientalist wars to see how this plays out: “Good Muslims” are state-friendly, whereas the “bad Muslim” is anyone who isn’t and therefore must be categorized as a potential threat to western civilization as we know it.

I felt the article about progressive Muslims played into that dichotomy and it became apparent when the author would mention a progressive Muslim and then talk about the death threats that particular person received. As if being a “good Muslim” in the eyes of white liberal Americans means you have to pit yourself against your community and be threatened by your fellow Muslims.  If Muslims don’t fit this narrow definition of a “progressive” Muslim, then they are either issuing death threats or they are “regressive” and practicing “draconian ways of Islam.” I don’t deny that death threats are a problem or that it doesn’t happen; what I’m critiquing here is the way this is presented in simplistic ways and within an American-centric, pro-secular narrative. Such framing runs consistent with the logic of white supremacy because the construction of “American Islam” becomes the “superior Islam,” i.e. “superior” to the way the rest of the world practices the faith. Also, secularism is left unchecked, as if secular states are not violent. Secularism doesn’t mean everyone lives in peace; the majority of wars have been secular, and homophobia doesn’t come solely from conservative religious people, it’s part of heteropatriarchal white supremacy. I believe we need to decolonize and build societies that we actually want to live in – based on interrelatedness and mutual reciprocity.

Another thing that stood out to me in the article was how it mentioned Asra Nomani with no criticism at all of how she recently came out in defense of the NYPD-CIA spying on Muslim students. In the past, she has advocated for the United States to “adopt” the “Israeli model” of profiling, and she also supported Peter King’s hearing on the “radicalization of Muslims.” If to be a progressive Muslim means we should advocate gay-friendly and women-led mosques, shouldn’t we also challenge the way Islamophobia has become embedded in state policies, law enforcement, educational institutions, media, etc.?  How will our communities survive if we defend such oppressive practices and laws?

What I’ve noticed for a while now is that Muslims who confront oppressive forces within our community and Muslims who confront Islamophobia and racism often work in isolation from one another. Just wanted to stress here that this is only based my personal experiences, so I don’t want to discredit or ignore those who do confront interpersonal and state oppression simultaneously, but for those who don’t, sometimes it feels as though it is either we talk about one or the other. The challenge then becomes about reconceptualizing how we organize our struggles. How, for instance, can we work together and eliminate oppression within our communities without relying or depending upon the state to help us? A couple of friends recommended the Incite! anthology “Color of Violence” (cover pictured above) to me and I’ve just begun to read it. Perhaps understanding the following strategy developed by “Incite! Women of Color Against Violence” can help us think about connecting our struggles in more effective ways:

There are many organizations that address violence directed at communities (e.g. police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and so on). There are also many organizations that address violence within communities (e.g. sexual/domestic violence). But there are very few organizations that address violence on both fronts simultaneously. The challenge women of color face in combating both personal and state violence is to develop strategies for ending violence that do assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence and do not strengthen our oppressive criminal justice apparatus. Our approaches must always challenge the violence perpetrated through multinational capitalism and the state.

With this in mind, white supremacy impacts marginalized communities in different ways, so the point here isn’t to organize around “shared oppression,” but rather understanding that our struggles are interrelated. We need to fight sexism, misogyny, and homophobia within Muslim communities, and we need to fight racism and Islamophobia directed at us.  Our responses to Islamophobia should address the interlocking systems of oppression and how our own internal struggles (i.e. oppressing women, threatening to kill LGBT Muslims, discriminating against Muslims based upon race, gender, class, etc.) make us weaker, enables state violence against us, and threatens our survival. Informants, like ex-FBI informant Craig Montielh, have used misogynistic tactics, such as pursuing sexual relations with Muslim women, for the sake of obtaining information and reporting to higher authorities. Misogyny not only makes great informants, it is also makes our community more vulnerable to this violence.

The question we have to ask ourselves is when are we going to wake up on sexism and gender violence in our community and how it is so strongly connected to our fight against Islamophobia and racism that targets both women and men?  So many times, I’ve heard and seen racist non-Muslims interject themselves into conversations among progressive Muslims and then vilify anyone who dares to even acknowledge institutionalized oppression against gendered, racialized, and queer bodies (and yes, this includes the non-Muslims who have used my blog posts for racist purposes).  This defense of state oppression is used by misogynists, racists, and homophobes alike who not only want to neatly categorize marginalized communities, but also infiltrate and divide them.

Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions


As 2011 comes to an end, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been on my mind lately.  Due to the dangerous intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other positionalities, it is important to stress on being conscious of these interlocking oppressions.  The term “intersectionality” is invoked a lot, but there is a huge difference between writing about it and understanding it.

Recently, someone who self-identifies as an “activist” exercised his misogyny by taking a paparazzi-style photo of a woman’s body part and shared it with his friends on Facebook.  Over a hundred perverted and horribly sexist comments were made under the image.  All of this happened without the woman knowing that a zoomed-in photo of her body was publicly on display for a bunch of perverts to gawk at and sexually objectify.

Confrontations with the police does not excuse a male activist of being held accountable for his misogyny and violation of a woman’s privacy.  Those who commented in favor of the photo are also complicit in sexist oppression and objectification.  You cannot fight state violence while participating in another form of oppression and not acknowledging how the two are interconnected.  It undermines everything you claim to stand for.

I know there are a lot of men, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are outraged by sexism and misogyny.  However, many of us make the mistake in seeing ourselves as being “outside of patriarchy.”  That is, because we have feminist politics and speak out against sexual violence, sexist exploitation, and patriarchal domination, there is no way we can be sexist.  On the contrary, I am not outside of it and neither are you.  None of us are.  I have read several posts written by men (some of which were recently pointed out to me) who tell this narrative: “I used to be sexist, but after reading feminist literature and making feminist friends, I am cured and better now!”  I have made this mistake as well and I accept that I will make more mistakes in the future. Being called out on your sexism is not always easy, but that is how you learn to unlearn.

Instead of congratulating ourselves or rushing to claim that “we are good men” and “not like those misogynists out there,” we need to understand our responsibility in constantly unlearning the sexist socialization we have internalized. We live in societies where sexist and racist oppression is so deeply engrained and even foundational to the established order, so saying “I’m not sexist” is not enough (likewise, saying “I’m not racist” is not enough for white people). Asserting this claim only puts us on the defensive and overlooks how we benefit from oppressive power structures. We cannot dismantle patriarchy externally if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our complicities and actively confront sexism within ourselves, not just once, but every day, for the rest of our lives.

When a woman is addressing the awful reality of sexual assaults against women that occur in anti-racist spaces, we should not center our attention on thinking that she is only talking about “those men,” i.e. the assailants, the misogynists, the rapists, etc. Such an outlook only makes us perceive ourselves as “innocent” and “not sexist.”  We have to be conscious of the sexism we have internalized and how we exercise sexism in our everyday lives.  We have to take action to ensure we will not maintain and reproduce those power dynamics.  This is not about demonizing men or saying that all of us are monstrous at the core.  This is not about implying that all men will assault women in social justice spaces either.  This is about understanding our responsibility in challenging and eliminating sexism externally and internally.  In movements that are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., if there are people being abused, assaulted, discriminated against, beaten, or excluded, we must work to eliminate that violence.  When you are called out on your sexism, apologize, listen, and hold yourself accountable.   Take responsibility for it and accept the consequences, even if that means you cannot be part of the group anymore or that some people will never be able to trust you again.  Do not get defensive and say that what you did “wasn’t sexist” or “wasn’t patriarchal.”  Don’t make this about you “being a good man” or that “you had good intentions” or that you have women friends who “don’t see you as sexist.”  Don’t attack the “tone” of the people calling you out on it either. Denying your complicity only exposes the sexist masculine power you exercise.

Furthermore, we have to move beyond “accepting” sexist and racist socialization.  Accepting that white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy has programmed us to uphold these interlocking structures of oppression is important, but it does not at all give us an excuse to normalize our sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.  I have come across individuals who say, “Yes, I admit I’m racist, I accept it.” There’s a huge difference between understanding your responsibility in unlearning racism and simply asserting that “everyone is racist,” as if that makes everything “ok.” No, it is not “ok.” We live in a racist society and all us are impacted by it differently (and if you are white, you benefit a great deal from white supremacy). Instead of just sitting back and saying, “I admit I’m racist,” you should be challenging yourself on a daily basis and actively doing something about your racism. Don’t use racist socialization as an excuse to normalize your racism.

Some people, to my own astonishment, have told me to my face that they hate Indians and Pakistanis.  They have told me things like, “I hate Pakistanis. I hope you don’t take offense to that.”  Of course I take offense to it; it is racist and against me, in particular. Others have told me they “hate Indians” and then say, “I admit I’m prejudice against them, but everyone is racist, right?”  What makes them think this is acceptable to say to me or to anyone else is the real indicator of how deeply entrenched racism is. Accepting that we are socialized to be racist and sexist does not make things “ok” because these oppressions have serious effects in the real world.  “I am racist” or “I am sexist” is not something to boast about or repeat shamelessly.  Move beyond accepting the status quo and be responsible.   Apologize for the damage you have caused and do something about it.  Don’t expect your South Asian friend to continue talking to you when you’ve demonized his/her culture and never held yourself accountable for it.  Don’t expect your Arab friends to return your calls when you “jokingly” referred to them as “terrorists” and thought that was cool.  You may have “accepted” your racism or sexism, but your friend may not accept how your racism or sexism targeted him/her, so if you care about preserving that friendship, do something about it.

Challenge yourself in your daily interactions with people.  Challenge yourself when you use racist, sexist, colonial, and/or ableist language.  Challenge the stereotypes you have of certain groups of people when you see/meet them.  Critique yourself and analyze every aspect of your life.   We all make mistakes and we are going to continue making them.  It’s how we respond to those mistakes and actively work to correct them that matters.  Listen to the people you have offended, hurt, discriminated against, marginalized, etc.  Don’t accuse them of being “too angry” or “too mean”  when they condemn what you said or did.  Deconstructing and unlearning racism, sexism, and other oppressions is not something you can accomplish overnight; it is something all of us have to do for our entire lives.  Read the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has already been done, if you have access to the books and discourses.  Write about your resisting oppressive socialization, speak about it, teach about it, educate others about it, call yourself out on it, implement it into your life and work on it everyday. Never excuse yourself of your complicity, never be “ok” with it, but always assume the responsibility to struggle against it.

Imam Hussain, Love, and Social Justice

I know I mentioned to a few friends that I was taking a brief hiatus from blogging, but since it is the month of Muharram, I wanted to share a few thoughts about Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both), and how his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala still carries significance today.

Before I continue, it seems impossible to talk about the events of Karbala without also acknowledging the spiritual diversity within Islam. Unfortunately, Orientalist discourses, particularly on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, have produced many misconceptions and distortions about Islam. It is also disheartening when Muslims internalize these stereotypes and reproduce Orientalist narratives which create barriers towards intra-community dialogue, understanding, and respect.  For instance, whenever discussions arise about “different sects” in Islam, it is often code for anything that is not Sunni.  Sunni Islam, which represents the majority of Muslims worldwide, is not only the dominant and central focus of discourse, but also regarded as the “true” or “authentic” Islam. The implication, whether intended or unintended, becomes about casting non-Sunni Muslims as the groups that “deviated” and splintered off into “their own version” of Islam.

While I was raised Sunni, there was a point in my spiritual journey when my research on Sufism intersected with Shi’ism. For about 3-4 years now, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. I also believe in the infallibility of all God’s messengers and the Panjtan Paak (The Holy Five, or Ahl-ul-Bayt/People of the House), the latter being (1) Prophet Muhammad, (2) his daughter Fatima, (3) his cousin  and son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons (4) Hassan and (5) Hussain (peace and blessings upon them all).  As with Sufism, I didn’t see Shi’ism as a “separate religion,” but rather as an expansion of my knowledge of Islam. Sufism, for example, is a term I use to identify the deeper and mystical teachings in Islam, not something “outside” of Islam (Sufis can be either Sunni or Shia, though there tends to be a lot of overlapping with Shi’ism).

Differences in theology and practice does not stop me from seeing Sunni Muslims, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and others as my brothers and sisters in Islam.  I don’t look at issues confronting Sunni-majority communities or countries and think to myself, “Well, that’s a Sunni issue, I don’t have to worry about.”   I believe in real unity of Muslims. That is, unity based upon understanding, respect, and appreciation of spiritual diversity, not “unity” based on conformity to one monolithic school of thought.  I strongly believe that Faith is very personal, so rather than endlessly debate about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” I believe our communities should not only have discussions rooted in the Islamic teachings of compassion and brother/sisterhood, but also put those teachings of compassion into practice by respecting one another.  As Prophet Muhammad once said, “One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God)” (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari & Muslim).

Despite my not seeing Shi’ism separate from so-called “mainstream Islam,” I also have to understand my privileges because my community identity is still Sunni.  What I mean by this is that when I attend Sunni Mosques or social gatherings with my family, I don’t have to worry about being stigmatized in the same way a Shia family might. I have the privilege to avoid that stigma by not “outing” my Shia beliefs because people know my family is Sunni, therefore I, too, must be Sunni.  Orientalists perpetuate misconceptions about Sunnis and Shias by persistently discussing the “Sunni and Shia” divide within the context of “sectarian violence.”  It is equally important to have this critique while also not glossing over the way Twelver Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups are stigmatized and persecuted by Sunni-majority governments (many of which adopt or are influenced by Wahhabi ideology, not to mention being simultaneously backed and exploited by western imperialist powers). Furthermore, it is easy to say, “All Muslims should just call themselves ‘Muslim,’” when one has never had to deal with the struggles faced by non-Sunni Muslims.  Of course all Muslims self-identify as Muslim, but it is also important to not ignore the reality in which non-Sunni Muslims are treated differently due to their beliefs.  Rather than calling on Muslims to their erase their diverse identities for the sake of a problematic “melting pot” and assimilationist ideal, we should be appreciative and respectful of these differences.

There are a lot of great books and sources available to learn more about the spiritual diversity in Islam, so instead of delving into those rich and complex histories, I will focus on the events of Karbala and the lessons all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can learn from Imam Hussain’s stand against the tyrant Yazid.  Regardless of theological differences, all Muslims recognize that Imam Hussain and his 72 soldiers were brutally massacred by Yazid’s army of 5,000 (some sources report 30,000) on the tenth day of Muharram, known as “The Day of Ashura.” Differences surface in the way Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is commemorated or observed by various Muslim groups, but the stand against Yazid, a man who appointed himself as Caliph without council or election, is remembered as resistance against corruption and oppression.  Despite the insurmountable odds, Imam Hussain stood firmly in the face of tyranny for the sake of reviving the message of Islam and spiritual leadership for all Muslims. In a beautiful manqabat (Sufi devotional poem) written by Pakistani poet Hafeez Jalandhari and sung by the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imam Hussain’s defiance is expressed in vivid detail:

Libaas hai phata hua, ghubaar mein ata hua
Tamaam jism-e-nazneen, chida hua, kata hua
Yeh kon ziwiqaar hai, bala ka shahsawaar hai
Ke hai hazaar qaatilon ke samne data hua

Yeh bilyaqeen Hussain hai
Nabi ka noor-e-ain hai

(Translated from Urdu)

His dress is torn, with mud it is worn
His splendid, delicate body is cut, slashed, and torn
Who is this dignified, master horseman?
Who is standing his ground in front of an army of thousands?

Indeed it is Hussain, it is Hussain
The Light of the Prophet’s eyes, it is Hussain

The poem describes the violent wounds inflicted upon Imam Hussain’s body, yet emerging from all of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of Karbala is praise for the Prophet’s grandson and his unwavering spirit of resistance.  Even though Imam Hussain and his army of 72 were slaughtered, it is their stand against injustice that remains eternal and serves as a reminder for the oppression that exists in our present world.  As it is stated in the Qur’an: “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (3:169).  Indeed, the physical body dies, but it is the soul that lives on. The message of what those individuals stood for lives through the people who follow their example.  In fact, Imam Hussain’s famous quote on the day of Ashura powerfully captures the call for social justice: “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.”  The narration reminds Muslims that injustice is everywhere and that every day must be lived with consciousness of our responsibilities in the constant struggle to end all forms of oppression.  Values such as selflessness, serving humanity, aiding those in need, and trusting in a higher power should be implemented in each day of our lives.   Prior to the Battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain asked fellow Muslims for assistance, but many of them did not help or speak out.  We learn about the importance of being mindful of our privileges and not neglecting or being complicit in the oppression of others.

Since Prophet Muhammad is taught to be the role model for all Muslims, it is interesting to explore how poetic praise of Imam Hussain symbolizes the way he followed the example of the Prophet.  In the poem above, Jalandhari illuminates the intimate relationship between Hussain and his grandfather by referring to the former as the noor (light) of “the Prophet’s eyes.” This special praise for Imam Hussain is not uncommon in Sufi poetry, but there is often a perception that such expressions of Love are shirk (generally translated as idolatry or polytheism). To overcome such unfortunate misunderstandings, which tend to cause judgmental attitudes among Muslims, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that there are infinite ways to show Love and devotion for God.  Because someone glorifies the Prophet’s grandson does not mean they are worshiping Hussain, but rather commemorating and celebrating him. Imam Hussain stood up for the rights of all human beings by sacrificing himself, but is self-sacrifice or martyrdom the one and only way to express one’s commitment to justice?  Of course not.  It is the essence that matters.  So, while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation.  This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.

According to Syed Akbar Hyder, author of “Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory,” the following is probably the most recited Persian quatrain in South Asia, even by those who do not speak or understand the language:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, Deen panah ast Hussain
Sar dad na dad dast dar dast-e-Yazid,
Haqqa key bina-e la ilah ast Hussain

King is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain
Religion is Hussain, the refuge for religion is Hussain
(He) gave up his head, but did not give his hands in the hands of Yazid
The truth is that the foundation of la ilaha (negation of all gods except God) is Hussain

This poem, written by Indian Sufi master (khwaja/pir)  Muinuddin Chisti (d. 1236 C.E.), was also popularized in a Qawwali (South Asian Sufi devotional songs) by the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  As Hyder illustrates:

The truth, according to this thirteenth-century Sufi (Chisti), is that the very core of Islam, its essential creed of tawhid, or Divine Unity, ‘la ilaha illa lah Muhammadan rasul Allah,’ or ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger,’ is Hussain. Since Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, in spite of having to make innumerable sacrifices, he is projected as an embodiment of Islam’s creed that refuses to acknowledge any power other than that of God. (emphasis added)

Related is how philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) centered on Karbala’s religious symbolism in conjunction with the “political project to unite and mobilize Muslims, especially the Muslim minorities in the South Asian subcontinent.”  Iqbal not only connected his “evocations of Karbala and martyrdom” to the “subsequent discourses of anti-colonialism and nationalism,” but he also saw the spiritual and political message of the Qur’an in Imam Hussain himself.  As he passionately articulates in Persian:

Ramz-e-Qur’an az Hussain amukhtim
za-atish-e-ou shola ha andukhtim

I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain
In his fire, like a flame, I burn

Since the beginning of Muharram this year, I have been reflecting on these words, which I feel prompt the question: “Well, what is the lesson of the Qur’an?”  Much of what Imam Hussain’s martyrdom means for us to resist oppression has been written above, but I also think there needs to be a critical analysis of the way we discuss religion and religious symbolism, especially within the context of social justice.  For example, when we talk about Islamophobia, racism, and military occupation of Muslim-majority lands, we often think exclusively about male experiences.  An article on anti-Muslim violence against Muslim women was recently published on AltMuslimah and highlighted on this point of male-centrism, not to diminish or negate male experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but rather to address the way racist and violent attacks on Muslim women have been remarkably ignored by Muslim civil rights groups, mainstream western media, and American women’s rights organizations. When the Qur’an says, “There is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice” (42:42), it is not only relevant to struggles against racism, classism, and war, but also sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence because all of these forms of oppression intersect. Racism, classism, and war produce distinct forms of oppression against women, specifically women of color, as sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence are integral to the larger structures of white supremacist power, heteropatriarchal domination, and state violence.

When we talk about Imam Hussain’s commitment to justice, equality, and liberation – all of which mirrors the Qur’an – we must think of ending all forms of oppression, whether they be racism, sexism, classism, abliesm, homophobia, etc.  We must have this discussion because without centering intersectionality politics in social justice struggles and honestly examining the problems that exist in our own communities, we undermine the values we claim to be standing for.  We look very hypocritical when some of us are commemorating the memory of Imam Hussain, but then participate in rape culture by blaming rape victims. We perpetuate victim blaming logic when we, on the one hand, claim Islam is about brother/sisterhood, but then, on the other hand, accuse the Muslim men and women beaten by police officers at an American theme park of “victimizing themselves” or “being at fault.”  We demonstrate failure in understanding of our spiritual teachings when we exalt Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), but then deny women equal rights in Mosques, schools, workplaces, etc. Although it is crucial to fight Islamophobia and demand for our rights in non-Muslim majority countries like the United States, where is the compassion when anti-racist and anti-imperialist critiques of an administration that bombs, kills, and rapes Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani bodies in Muslim-majority nations are ridiculed, insulted, or ignored by Muslim representatives of civil rights groups?  Religious context or not, how do fully understand what interconnectedness of humanity means when some of us are only talking about unity, acceptance, and respect inside the United States?

As previously mentioned, sacrificing one’s self for justice is not the only expression of resistance or activism, even though bell hooks’ reminder about struggle comes to mind: “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Prophet Muhammad once said, “If you see a wrong, you should stop it with your hand; if you cannot, then you should speak out against it; if not that, then at least condemn it in your heart, that being the weakest form of faith” (Sahih Muslim). It is easy to see how Imam Hussain exemplified this Hadith in his life, but also worth examining is the internal struggle. That is, Imam Hussain spoke out against injustice, even if it was in his own community. In our present reality, Muslim communities, like all communities, are no exception to sexism and misogyny.  Muslim men obsessing over the way Muslim women dress, for example, comes from patriarchal entitlement and sense of male “ownership” of women’s bodies.   Denying women prayer space or refusing to engage in dialogue about gender segregation in Mosques (and this is mostly in the mainstream Sunni context since there are other Muslim groups who do not have gender segregation in Mosques) not only perpetuates sexism, but also seeks to marginalize and silence critiques of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an. Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,” asserts that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal. Misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, argues Barlas, do not stem from the teachings of the Qur’an, but rather from history of Muslim men who have interpreted the text to speak to their own realities while excluding or interpreting experiences of Muslim women.

Some of the poems I shared above can probably be read as patriarchal, but if we critique them with Asma Barlas’ thesis in mind, we can reinterpret them as expressions of Love for Imam Hussain rather than “evidence” that somehow only male figures in Islam carry such importance.  Shia scholars have written that one cannot mention Imam Ali without mentioning Hazrat Fatima (Prophet Muhammad’s daughter) because she was “his companion in life and suffering.”  They also contend that one cannot mention her children Hassan, Hussain, and Zainab without mentioning Hazrat Fatima because she was “the secret of their personalities throughout their lives.”  The Prophet Muhammad once said of Hazrat Fatima:

Fatima is part of me; whoever angers her, angers me and whoever harms her, harms me (Sahih al-Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmadhi, Musnad Ahmad: v.4, p. 328., Khasaes An-Nisaee: p.35)

Elsewhere, the Prophet said:

Surely, God is angered when you (Fatima) are angered, and is pleased when you are pleased. (Mustadrak al-Hakim: v.3, p.154., Tadhkirat al-Bast: p.175., Maqtal al-Khawarazmi: v.1, p.54., Kefayat At-Talib: p.219., Kanz al-Umal: v.7, p.111., Sawiq: p.105)

This link between Hazrat Fatima and Prophet Muhammad and God is quite remarkable when read within the context of patriarchal interpretations of Islam as well as western non-Muslim accusations that Islam is “inherently sexist.”  I remember when I first started reading Shia works about Hazrat Fatima, I was surprised to learn that she is a role model for both women and men.  As one scholar writes:

When we present Fatima as a role model, we are not talking about women only. We present her as a role model for both men and women because she is a constituent element of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole, not just of women.

Another scholar writes of Asma bint Omais, the wife of Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who asked the Prophet if any verses of the Qur’an were revealed in regard to women. She asked the Prophet if women were “caught with loss and detriment,”  to which the Prophet asked, “Why?”  Asma replied, “Because in Islam and the Qur’an no virtue has been announced in relation to them as there has been for men.”  The Prophet replied with this verse from the Qur’an:

Surely, the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, And the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their modesty and the women who guard, and the men who remember God much and the women who remember God much: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)

In respect to this verse, many male scholars agree that the Qur’an stresses on equal values for women and men.  Of course, this is not to gloss over how many of these scholars assert sexist attitudes towards women’s role in society, but it is interesting to read their own words against them!  Having said that, if women and men are equal, as the Qur’an teaches, then we must see violations against gender equality as injustice. Similarly, if Muhammad is to be the role model for all Muslims, then so should Fatima, whether one believes both of them to be infallible or not. Indeed, Fatima and her daughter Zainab endured hardship and challenges throughout their lives, and while some poetic praises from Muslim men honor these women, they tend to focus more on their sorrow than their immensely active political roles.  Hazrat Fatima constantly questioned authority up until her death, while Hazrat Zainab was taken prisoner by Yazid, but never submitted to his rule. On the contrary, she constantly condemned him, despite the risk of being executed herself.  Iqbal often writes of Hussain’s greatness because he is the son of Fatima, but Iqbal also goes further to say that had it not been for God’s laws of monotheism, he would have “gone round and round her (Fatima’s) grave-site” and “would have done sajdah (prostration) on her grave.”  Although Iqbal is known to challenge patriarchal Muslim jurists in regard to women’s rights, his conservative views on gender need to be critiqued.  It simply makes no sense for Muslim men to celebrate women like Khadijah, Fatima, and Zainab and yet persist with sexist attitudes and practices that aim to relegate women to the background.

Lastly, I think there needs to be a critique of Love and the way it is presented in relation to Islam and the Qur’an.  If Love is equality for all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., then Love is foundational to Islam.  Orientalists offer a very simplistic understanding of mourning in the Twelver Shia tradition and fail to highlight on the multiple ways people express their grief and sorrow during Muharram. What they also fail to emphasize is that Imam Hussain’s martyrdom was one of Love, i.e. Love of the Divine and Love for humanity. Sufism is not immune to Orientalist misrepresentations either, as we find many western New Age writers, poets, and musicians participate in spiritual appropriation.  For example, poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi are shamelessly mistranslated and distorted by Coleman Barks and others who do not speak Farsi and go as far as deliberately omitting Rumi’s Islamic references. When one reads these New Age “translations,” one might think of Sufi poetry as merely “universal” and “inspirational” quotes with an “exotic flare.”  Of course Sufi poems are inspiring, passionate, and breathtaking, but incredibly rich and complex cultural, religious, and literary themes are lost in western New Age romanticism and appropriation.  For instance, the way the poems I shared earlier shift so fluidly from the grief of Karbala to praise of Imam Hussain reflect the larger Sufi theme of joy and sorrow mirroring one another. This theme is rooted in the Qur’anic verses: “God will grant after hardship, ease” and “truly, with every hardship, there is ease/relief” (65:7, 94:5-6).

These verses are proven by the struggles of Muhammad, Khadijah, Ali, Fatima, Hussain, Hassan, and Zainab.  Further, we are reminded that Love is not without struggle or endurance through hardship.  Interestingly, I’ve noticed in some casual conversations that there is a general misinterpretation of the relationship between joy and sorrow.  Some say such poetry is “too depressing,” while others say it “idealizes” suffering.  On the contrary, poems that speak of struggle on the path of Love are deeper expressions of the human soul; it’s longings, desires, sorrows, joys, uncertainties, etc.  Zeb-un-Nisa (d. 1702 C.E.), who is reported to have participated in the mourning of Muharram, writes the following about Love:

Here is the path of Love—how dark and long
Its winding ways, with many snares beset!
Yet crowds of eager pilgrims onward throng
And fall like doves into the fowler’s net.

Despite the “winding ways” on the “path of Love,” she illustrates how the seekers/Lovers persist, even if the end result is doom.  Like many Sufi poets, Zeb-un-Nisa refers to Love in her poetry as Love for God, so there is a fitting analogy that can apply to Imam Hussain’s struggle in the way of God/Love.  One of my personal favorite verses from Zeb-un-Nisa beautifully captures God’s assurance of relief after hardship:

And see the thorny waste
Whereon your bruised feet their pathway traced,
This wilderness, touched by your blood that flows,
Blooms fragrant as the rose.

I don’t read poems like this as merely romanticizing pain or suffering, but rather as acknowledging that struggle exists in our lives.  Struggle manifests itself differently for everyone, which underlines the importance of being aware of our privileges and responsibilities.  As we reflect on Ashura, we can also use this time to bring our communities closer together.  If we believe the Qur’an’s message of peace, Love, respect, and liberation for all human beings  is represented in Imam Hussain’s stand against tyranny, we must recognize the Karbalas that exist in the present world – Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Native American land that we non-Natives occupy, everywhere.  Love within the context of social justice eliminates domination and establishes commitment to others, no matter where the oppressed are found, as Paulo Freire writes. bell hooks adds that Love is also about understanding that all of us, irrespective of race, class, gender, etc. have “acted in complicity with the existing oppressive system.”  Understanding our complicities serves as a reminder to keep ourselves in check and not recreate oppressive hierarchies in social justice movements.  Our commitment to interconnectedness with others, consciousness of our own responsibilities, and fighting all forms of oppression everywhere is, like the struggles of Muhammad, Fatima, Hussain, and Zainab, rooted in Love.

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

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.

The Hate I Will Never Forget: A Decade After 9/11

I know it’s been more than two months since I’ve written a blog post.  I didn’t even write anything for Ramadan or Eid!  How did that happen?  I had a dream the other night where a friend asked me why I haven’t been blogging (it’s that serious, I guess).  She then quoted something by Michel Foucault and I was quite surprised.  “Foucault?!” I exclaimed dramatically in a coffee shop (not Starbucks, I swear). “You read Foucault?!”  I don’t remember the quote and I doubt it was an authentic one since I haven’t read much of his work, but before our conversation continued, a man in the café recognized me and decided to say “hello.”  He turned out to be one of the racist teachers (yeah, “one of”) I had in high school.  I woke up remembering how, after 9/11, everyone in that class laughed when he shamelessly said Arabs “looked all the same with their mustaches and turbans.”

As today marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, my Facebook news feed has been buzzing with articles that highlight on the experiences of Muslim-Americans after 9/11.  Despite how outspoken the incredibly vast and diverse Muslim-American community has been, much of our stories still haven’t reached the mainstream. The ugliness of Islamophobia that followed the attacks isn’t something new to us, but what disturbs me is how anti-Muslim sentiments and bigotry has increased over the years. Correlating with this rise of Islamophobia are the US Orientalist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as its complicity in Israel’s ongoing atrocities against the Palestinians.

As I read the post 9/11 accounts of Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and others, I reflected on my own experiences and thought about sharing them here.  Because this post focuses mostly on my personal experiences, it might be a little different than what I typically write on my blog.  Having said that, I don’t pretend like my encounters with racism and Islamophobia are worse than the experiences other Muslims (and those who are perceived to be Muslim) may have had.  It saddens me to point out how many have been detained, deported, physically assaulted, and/or lost their Loved ones in hate crime murders.  While I am strongly against “blaming-the-victim” politics or accusing people of “victimizing themselves,” I do wish to make clear that I don’t write this post out of self-pity nor do I think my story is “unique” or “different” than what other Muslims may have experienced. If anything, I simply wish to share what I have experienced and how my life has been shaped by those experiences.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was working on my algebra assignment (shout out to Mohammed Al-Khwarizmi!) before class started.  The whole morning, teachers were saying ambiguous things like, “Today is a sad day for America,” and, of course, when students asked what they meant, no one bothered to answer.  Finally, when my algebra teacher announced what happened to the World Trade Center, a classmate next to me shouted, “Is it those damn Palestinians again?!  They should be wiped off the face of the earth!”  I remember feeling my heart drop at that moment.  Just as I was thinking about how horrible the attacks on the Twin Towers were, I felt attacked with racism.

I kept quiet and before I knew it, my mom came to pick me up from school.  She was in tears and told me that the nation was “under attack.”  When I asked her why she took me out of school, she told me that she didn’t want anyone to beat me up.  I realized then that Muslims were already being blamed by the media for the attacks.   In the following days, I heard racist, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments from students and teachers alike. Growing up in a predominately white non-Muslim American suburb, racism wasn’t anything new to me, but it seemed to get more hostile after 9/11.  When I found the courage to speak up and defend myself after someone called me “Osama” during volleyball, he pushed me in the locker room and challenged me to a fight.  I never fought anyone before (hmm, except my brother when I was little), so I was completely caught off guard. The gym instructors were there to break it up before anything happened.  While my classmate shouted profanities and racial slurs at me, the gym teacher said to me, “Just ignore him.”

There were several occasions when I openly called classmates out on their racism and in all cases, except for one, the teacher scolded me.  When I told one student that he was being racist for saying he wanted to “dress up like an Arab” for Halloween, I was sent to the school counselor’s office.  When I asked why I was being sent there, the teacher said, “I just want to make sure you’re ok.”  I didn’t understand, but I went anyway.  The school counselor asked me questions like, “Do you have any friends?  Are you lonely?  Were you born in the United States?”  When I told the school counselor that the Islamophobia after 9/11 was bothering me, she denied that such as thing was happening.  She said, “I think people are learning more about your culture. I don’t think there’s hatred at all.”  I never went back again, despite the number of times I was given “appointment cards” to visit her.

Like some Muslims I know, I lost friendships after 9/11.  Many of these friends I grew up with and knew since elementary school.  If I wasn’t losing friends, my friendships with them were fading to where they are now: rare contact via text messaging or awkward run-ins at the mall.  When I tried to speak about Islamophobia, I was given a defensive “I’m-offended-that-you’re-offended” attitude.  “Proof” was demanded about hate crimes committed against Muslims (because if the news didn’t report anything about it, it apparently didn’t happen).  “Colorblind” arguments were also made, claiming that they didn’t “see skin color” (despite the concurrent acknowledgment of me being a racialized and religious minority).

When I first experienced Islamophobia at my university (a faculty member posted racist political cartoons about Muslim suicide bombers outside her office), I told one of my white friends that I was going to file for discrimination. He replied, “You can’t do that, it’s freedom of speech!” The fact that my friend, someone who I knew since 6th grade, couldn’t support me (or at least empathize with me), because of his politics was difficult to deal with.  When I confronted this same faculty member alone, she admitted that she was “anti-Muslim” and, as I walked away, she said to her colleague, jokingly, “If I don’t take it (the cartoon) down, I’m going to get blown up!”  I yelled at her when she said that and I was kicked out of the office.  A random professor in the hallway shouted at me as well, even though he didn’t know what happened.

As I became more assertive of my religious identity, some accusations were made that I was being “led on by pride” and I was given holier-than-thou, Pat Robertson-style lectures on “Love.”  If I got angry at the man who shouted “Go back to Iraq” from the car next to me, it was because I didn’t have enough “Love” in me.  If I felt angry about the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was because I didn’t “Love” enough.  It started to feel like I needed to self-monitor myself in friendships because my conversations about Islamophobia were seen as “politics.”  It was as if talking about Islamophobia and racism meant to be “confrontational.”  So, I had to forget I was Muslim and choose the “neutral” or “safe” topics, i.e. the stuff we usually talked about: “Star Wars,” the Philadelphia Flyers, movies, um, extra-terrestrials, etc.   But Islamophobia wasn’t “politics” to me.  It was/is my reality.

For a while, I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to.  I wrote a paper in one of my psychology classes on hate crimes and discriminatory acts committed against Muslims and I remember breaking into tears one night because I felt like my community and faith was being so unfairly and wrongly targeted. As my first semester of college went underway, I noticed a flyer posted on one of the outdoor bulletin boards on campus.  It was an announcement for the Muslim Student Association’s first meeting.  I was excited, but also shocked by the realization that I had never had a close Muslim friend.  When I made my first Muslim friend and got to know other Muslims, as well as South Asians and Arabs, it was nice to feel a sense of community.  I didn’t have to educate or enlighten anyone about the anti-Muslim climate we lived in. We all knew it.  I could talk about the media’s one-sided story on Palestine and my Muslim friends would be like, “Yeah, duh. Where have you been?”

I thought Islamophobia would die down after a few years, but as I got older and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq escalated, the anti-Muslim bigotry in the US got worse.  Experiencing discrimination in the workplace both times was unexpected.  Being called a “terrorist” by a customer and then being blamed for it by my employer lost me my job.  Fighting for my rights was emotionally draining the first time as it was the second time. Even though I had the help of civil rights organizations and was relieved by the outcomes, the stress, the frustration, and the way others treated me is hard to forget.

When I wrote more papers on post 9/11 experiences of Muslim-Americans, I heard stories worse than mine: Vandalism, physical assault, being spat on, workplace discrimination, detainment, deportation, etc.   I read about hijab-wearing Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and beaten on their walks home; I read about young Muslim teenagers beaten by a group of men wearing brass knuckles; I read about Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim fathers being shot and killed at their business stores; I read about Muslim women and men being denied jobs because of their Muslim names; I read about Muslim students being bullied and harassed at school, etc.  The internet, particularly social media, allowed me to connect with people who had similar and, sadly, far more painful experiences than I had.

My romanticized ideas of the “Muslim ummah” faded in time when I saw the problems that exist in our community, including the sell-out Muslims who “play the game,” work in collaboration with the State, and are complicit in victimizing their own people.  As I networked with more Muslims and people of color, I was introduced to the works of Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith and African-American feminist bell hooks.  I became more conscious of the interconnectedness of oppression, which I’ve written about before on my blog.  What I noticed among Muslims (and people of color in general), is that many of us are complicit in the oppression of other groups. When Muslims are praising Thomas Jefferson for holding the “first iftar” at the White House, for example, we are ignoring Jefferson’s hand in slavery and genocide against other peoples, namely Africans and Native Americans (and there’s overlapping there as well since a significant portion of African slaves were Muslim).  Similarly, as Andrea Smith points out, when indigenous people try to escape economic exploitation, they join the military and become complicit in the colonization of other groups (Iraqis, Afghans).  Understanding the interlocking nature of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of oppression means that we all take responsibility and work towards a reciprocal commitment that values the liberation of all people.

So, ten years after 9/11, as I reflect on the tragedy of that day, I am also thinking about the difference in the way people value human life due to racism and war.  September 11th will prompt many white non-Muslim Americans to post status updates to remember the victims – and that’s fine – but not a word is said about the unjust murders of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc. when the anniversary of their tragedies are marked.  At the same time, I reflect on some of the Muslim-Americans who participate in “victim-blaming” and/or fail to see how US imperialism and war crimes “over there” are connected to the struggles we face over here.  In other words, what can the State powers do for you when they’re bombing other Muslims in Muslim-majority nations (which kill, torture, and rape racialized bodies as we speak)?

Ten years later, I’m looking at Yahoo’s front page which has the same question glaring at me for days: “Are we safer?”  Um, no.  We cannot be safer when the NYPD and CIA illegally infiltrates and spies on Muslim communities.  We cannot be safer when bashing Muslims is normalized, or when hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims increase annually while US politicians use anti-Muslim rhetoric to win votes.  We cannot be safer when $43 million are pumped into an Islamophobia hate machine while counter-terrorism seminars and training programs teach military personnel and law enforcement that “Islam is a violent religion.”

Ten years later, I’m wondering why we are expected to know where we were on 9/11, but not expected to know where we were when the US killed over 1 million Iraqis and Afghans, or when Israel bombed Gaza and killed over 1,400 Palestinians.  I’m also wondering how we’re told to honor the firefighters and police officers who died on 9/11, but aren’t given details about the Muslim firefighters, the Muslim police officers, or even the Muslim victims who also died on 9/11.  A dichotomy is in effect when we have to keep reminding people that, yes, Muslims died, too.  And if we’re going to honor and value all human beings, we need to eradicate the racism that poisons these narratives.

I know that Muslims and people of color still struggle against racism, sexist oppression, classism, etc.  I do worry about the future and I think a lot needs to be done.  Rather than telling people to “just ignore” racism, we need to take initiatives for healing. There is a lot of pain and hurt in experiences with racism, and people respond to racism in different ways. Some people are able to laugh it off while others take it to heart.  It can get more dangerous when people internalize the racism they hear and start to believe they are “inferior.”  You cannot expect someone to get over a situation overnight; it needs to be a gradual and compassionate process.

I have received patronizing comments from some non-Muslim colleagues who say, “Love is the answer” or even something like, “Jehanzeb, you write some of the most beautiful poetry, but then you let this Islamophobia stuff get to you.”  Well, I’m sorry I can’t be the New Age mystical Sufi dude 24/7, but I am human.  Muslims, believe it or not, have good days and bad days just like everyone else.  I find Love through my faith, which has been a source of comfort and healing in my life.  But Love is not only a word, it is action. When Muslim teenagers are getting bullied and are too afraid to tell anyone because they either will feel weak for reporting it or feel as though the teachers and faculty members aren’t trained to help them, they need more than talk of Love. They need Love that is compassionate, conscious, active, understanding, and persistent.

In closing, if you say you Love all people and see one of your friends being discriminated against or hurt by racism, then reach out and make an effort to see things through his/her perspective.  Rather than resorting to “colorblind” politics and saying “we are all the same,” recognize that all of our experiences are different based on our race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.  A white non-Muslim telling me that “we have the same experience as human beings” does nothing but erase the struggles I have had as a Muslim and person of color.

As I wrote earlier, I don’t intend for this post to be a “victim narrative” nor am I looking for self-pity.  I am grateful for the friends I have in my life, alhamdullilah.  I know my experiences have made me stronger and taught me to stand up for myself.  Not everyone can say that about their encounters with bigotry, sadly, and rather than telling people what they need to do, we need to be more active and compassionate in helping them heal.  I’d like for my experiences to be understood instead of being dismissed as “anger” from a “dark Other.”  I’d like for all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, to work together and move towards eliminating oppression not only in the world, but also within ourselves (as racism, sexism, classism, etc. is taught to us by society).

Anyway, if you are a non-Muslim reader who doesn’t have regular contact with Muslim friends, I suggest clicking “like” on the CAIR Facebook page so you can keep up to date with what happens in our community.  I do hope you get to read the stories and experiences of other Muslim-Americans as well.  Until my next post, I’ll be trying to figure out what that blasted Foucault quote was!

Banana 2 Conference and Intersectionality

This is a very overdue post, but two weekends ago, I had the honor to be invited to this year’s Banana 2: Asian Pacific American Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles.  I felt very grateful to speak  on the “Uncovering the Activist in You/Social Media for Social Change” panel with Fatemeh Fakhraie (founder of “Muslimah Media Watch”), Marissa Lee (co-founder of “Racebending”), Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (of “Adventures in Multicultural Living”), Cynthia Liu (of K-12 News Network), and our moderator, Keith Kamisugi.  This was the first time I was invited to speak on a panel and I must thank Edward Hong, an activist, actor, and blogger, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and connect with fellow activists and bloggers.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort that went into organizing the conference.  I especially Loved how everything in the room was very social media-based (I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because it was, after all, a bloggers conference!).  For example, draped in one corner of the room was a projector screen that showed live Twitter updates from people in attendance.   There was also a table in another corner that had laptops for people to access the internet and update their blogs and social media accounts.  Above the table was a cute speech bubble painted on the wall that read: “Blog Here!” (I actually updated my Facebook status from this blogging station after I spoke on my panel!)  In the back of the room, there was a white board where people could post up neat and witty sticky notes.   Just by reading the notes, I recognized the diverse Asian community in attendance: Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Filipino-Americans,  bi-racial and multi-racial folks, etc. (sorry if I missed anyone!)

Although I was the only South Asian and Pakistani speaker at the conference, I did not feel alienated or excluded.  On the contrary, I felt very welcomed and I got the sense that people were interested in what I had to say.  One of the first panels actually discussed what it meant to be “Asian” and how South Asians, as well as West Asians, should be included.  Fatemeh and I were the only Muslim speakers and I felt like we made a significant contribution to the discussion.  Given the size of our panel on social media activism, a maximum of five minutes to speak was requested of each panelist.  It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but I was surprised how much could share within that limit.  I was nervous at first, but after speaking with my fellow panelists, particularly Marissa Lee, who told me that this is the most encouraging audience I’ll be speaking in front of, I felt more comfortable about it!  In this blog post, I just want to share some of the things I mentioned in my talk, but also elaborate further on activist organizing.

Prior to the conference, I remember Edward outlining the panel for us and one of the questions he made us think about was, “Can an everyday person make a difference through social media?”  A number of times, I wondered why I was invited to speak at the conference.  My blog is not connected to a group, organization, or a major website.  I really just created my blog to share my experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American and to write about issues that I feel are important.  A lot of times, in my experience, I’ve come across people who didn’t see the significance in blogging, going to a rally, protesting, signing a petition, etc.  They don’t feel like it makes a difference.  I think part of the problem is that we’re socialized to think that revolutions happen overnight and that there must be immediate results from our protesting.  When we focus on this model of activism, it’s easy for us to get discouraged.  We overlook the other significant elements that are important in our struggles, such as reaching out to people, engaging with people on a very personal and individual level.  I strive to do that on my blog, especially when I receive e-mails from readers who share their thoughts about my posts.  Making a difference one person at a time, as cliche as it sounds, is still making a difference.  It is still significant, and with those of us who have access to social media, we can use our blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to network with fellow activists.  It is about sharing knowledge, learning from each other, building and creating communities, advancing upon our movements, expressing solidarity, meeting in person (if possible), and implementing new knowledge and contributions into our social justice activism.

As in my experience, you never know who’s reading your posts.  I’ve seen my posts being re-published on many different websites, not just anti-racist blogs.  In fact, my chapter published in “Teaching Against Islamophobia,” was a result of a university professor reading my two-part online essay on Muslim women in American and Middle Eastern comic books.  I do not deny that there are limitations with social media, but it is an important tool that we can use to strengthen and further our activism.  I mentioned Egypt briefly in my talk because it does exemplify how social media can be used to coordinate rallies, but I also made it a point to say that it would be very problematic and simplistic to characterize the Egypt uprisings as a “Twitter Revolution.”  That is, people were marching in the streets, putting themselves at risk, and even giving their lives for the sake of justice.  Even when the government shut down the internet, people were still protesting.

For a lot of us in the west, social media was a great way to follow the updates in Egypt.  If I didn’t have social media, I would have been stuck with mainstream American news channels that were distorting the reality in Egypt and discussing the protests through an offensive Islamophobic and orientalist lens.  If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t have been able to easily choose an alternative source, particularly Al Jazeera English.  I remember speaking to some co-workers who were surprised when I told them about Egyptian Christians and Muslims holding hands, forming human chains to protect each other during prayers, and standing in solidarity with each other.  Because of their access to social media, I was able to easily share Al Jazeera English with them.

Similarly, when we use social media to network with people and other communities, we benefit by learning from each other.  One of the most important things I’ve learned about through my discussions with friends on Facebook and the blogosphere is something called intersectionality, which refers to the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, and how they often operate simultaneously.  bell hooks stresses a lot on intersectional approaches because so many white feminists from privileged class backgrounds disregard racism, classism, and other factors that play immense roles in oppressing women.  This approach has taught that we cannot be speaking out against racism while participating in sexist oppression (and vice versa).  We can’t be condemning homophobia while we’re perpetuating Islamophobia (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage!).  We can’t be outraged by Islamophobia while making racist jokes about other communities and folks of color.  We can’t be advocating feminism while spreading racist stereotypes about women and men of color (and I would recommend reading this excellent post “Bad Romance: Feminism and Women of Colour Make an Unhappy Pair” by Sana Saeed).  We can’t fight gender discrimination while advocating racial profiling and congressional hearings on Muslims.  We can’t be standing up for Muslim rights in America while supporting orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries, and I would further add that such a stance plays into the hands of “US-centrism,” where we believe what happens in the US is “more important” than what happens “over there.”  We need to understand the relationship between US imperialism in other countries and oppression in the US itself.

For those of you who are familiar with Andrea Smith’s work, you may recognize that my last point comes from her brilliant piece “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supermacy.” A year or so ago, a good friend of mine shared Smith’s essay with me and I have to say that it remains one of the most important, thought-provoking, and valuable pieces I’ve read on people of color organizing.  Smith asserts that instead of focusing on “shared oppression” or “shared victimization,” we should understand that white supremacy affects us all in different ways and that we need to take responsibility in recognizing how our struggles often run into conflict with each other.  An example she uses is how US-born communities of color join the military “in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities.”  As a result, she adds, we “become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries.”  Meanwhile, “all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands.”  The point in keeping us all accountable is to develop stronger alliances and more vigilant strategies in ensuring that our commitment to social justice and liberation does not oppress others (either within or outside our communities).  I believe Smith’s following example demonstrates how effective this strategy is:

“Native peoples who are organizing against the colonial and genocidal practices committed by the US government will be more effective in their struggle if they also organize against US militarism, particularly the military recruitment of indigenous peoples to support US imperial wars.  If we try to end US colonial practices at home, but support US empire by joining the military, we are strengthening the state’s ability to carry out genocidal policies against people of color here and all over the world.”

I mention this strategy because I think it really makes us focus on the rights, dignity, and care of all peoples.  Its purpose is not to discourage us or to assert any sort of political superiority.  It’s about helping us build communities and understand each other better. I know there were things about the Asian-American community that I didn’t know about prior to attending the Banana 2 conference.  I wasn’t aware that Japanese-Americans were the first community to actively speak out against the vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 (and they recently condemned the disgusting, anti-Muslim rally that protested against an Islamic charity fundraiser in Orange County).  I know there is a lot I can learn from you and I know that the same system that hurts your people is also hurting my people.  I know that when we get to know each other, learn about struggles, and build alliances, we only become stronger.  I know that when I do not stand up for you, no one will stand up for me.  When other people of color see Asians speak out against Hollywood’s whitewashing in “The Last Bender,” for example, it’s important to express solidarity and understand that this is not solely an “Asian issue.”  It’s something we should all be concerned about.

Towards the end of the conference, I was trying to articulate about something that I think I can express better on my blog. It’s about an unfortunate phenomenon called “celebrity activism,” which happens far too often.  It’s when being an “activist” becomes a “title” and social justice movements transform into another oppressive hierarchy.  This undermines everything we’re supposed to be standing for: equality, justice, dignity, and yes, Love.  There have been many times when I’ve felt discouraged by fellow activists who assert their political superiority in all sorts of manners, whether it’s because of their emphasis on “sexual liberation” (that is, if you’re not having sex, you’re seen as “backwards” and “regressive”) or their accusing you of being “too negative” and not “positive” enough.  I have seen fellow activists vehemently attack others for not being “consistent” enough in their politics.  In other words, there are “qualifications” one needs to be an “activist.”  There is a specific “way” one needs to speak and behave in order to be considered an “activist.”

On “sexual liberation,” I want to share what bell hooks writes in her book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center”:

The focus on “sexual liberation” has always carried with it the assumption that the goal of such effort is to make it possible for individuals to engage in more and/or better sexual activity. Yet one aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one ‘should’ be engaged in sexual activity. This “should” is one expression of sexual coercion.  Advocates of sexual liberation often imply that any individual who is not concerned about the quality of their experience or exercising greater sexual freedom is mentally disturbed or sexually repressed.  When primary emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression rather than on sexual liberation, it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.

To address my other point on “positivity” and “earning” the “activist title,” I need to ask the following question: what does it mean to be an activist?  When we say that we must have a certain mind-set, or a “smile or die” attitude about social justice, we are forgetting about the fact that there are people out there who do not have the “privilege” (I don’t like this word; can anyone suggest an alternative?) to join organizations, to go to rallies, to write blog posts, to write to elected officials, etc.  These are people who are fighting for their rights 24/7, for their basic right to be treated as human beings.  To suggest that these stories aren’t important because they’re “too negative” is exclusionary and oppressive.  Human beings have feelings, they’re allowed to feel angry, sad, and miserable about the situations they’re in.  Arrogantly denying their feelings and telling them they need to be “more positive” is counter-productive and extremely inconsiderate of the fact that racism and oppression affects us all differently.  Malcolm X was angry, does that mean he couldn’t make a difference?  We need people to share their stories and experiences.  If they can’t feel free and comfortable to speak in our movements, then where can their voices be heard?  There is a lot of hurt out there and we cannot heal if we behave like the pain doesn’t exist.

Something else that also happens with “celebrity activists” is that we give them a “pass” on any problematic things they may say.  I am not diminishing the importance of speaking in the mainstream and I mean no disrespect to the scholars, activists, authors, filmmakers, and artists who are doing amazing work (which is why I will not say their names), but there are some who, due to their status, are excused on ridiculing and even exploiting others.  In some cases, the status of these “celebrity activists,” coupled with their “physical attractiveness” is used to gloss over the errors they make in their analysis.  When we excuse problematic statements that reinforce serious stereotypes about communities just because the individual is “hot,” we are asserting the oppressive notion that “physically attractive” people deserve better treatment.  In these situations, let’s consider if these same statements were made by someone that media and society would classify as “unattractive,” would we still excuse them? (and this topic on physical attractiveness and the way we treat people is an important one and requires further anti-racist analysis).

One of the things I appreciated about my experience at Banana 2 was that I didn’t feel a hierarchy. I didn’t get the sense that some bloggers/speakers thought they were better than anyone else.  While I heard things I disagreed with, I felt that this was a receptive crowd and that if we engaged in friendly, respectful discussions, we could learn a lot from each other.  I’m grateful for the opportunity I had and I hope whatever I shared in this post (and at the conference) is found useful.  I’m confident all of us can benefit from each other and build stronger, more effective alliances and strategies that ensure the end of oppression for all peoples.