In Defense of Creating Safe Space on Social Media

tumblr_n2sum9iWod1rfwfq9o1_1280During the Occupy protests, I remember attending a meeting created by and for people of color. Their goals were many, including efforts to de-center white activists who failed (and refused) to address issues like racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism. They also sought to change the name to “Decolonize” instead of “Occupy” because the land on which we walk in the United States is already stolen and occupied Indigenous land. As the first meeting began, we recognized that there were white people in attendance seeking to show solidarity and become allies. They were welcomed in the group, but most people of color also demanded that there be time for safe space, i.e. meetings for people of color only. As expected, the reaction from white folks was extremely defensive. I heard some even say that we were resorting to the very discrimination that we were fighting against (we’ve all heard this before, nothing new). Also not surprising was how there were some people of color in agreement with these white activists. As one could imagine, a lot of exhaustive arguing ensued, especially from people of color who were trying to explain the need for safe space. Ironic was how the white activists who kept complaining and crying “reverse racism” failed to recognize that their defensive reactions were precisely the reason why people of color ask for safe space — a space where our concerns don’t get derailed or where we don’t need to explain ourselves or worry about being labeled “reverse racists” or “anti-white.”

Recently, on my Facebook, a person of color (who I had recently added) accused me of “reverse racism” and “discriminating against white readers” when I shared my previous post on X-Men’s appropriation of anti-racist struggles. He also said that the answer to racism is not the “supremacy” of “another race group” just like the “the answer to patriarchy is not matriarchy.” After I replied to a private message of his and recommended some readings for him, he de-friended me and wrote a scathing message where he accused me of “playing the victim,” “isolating myself” and surrounding myself only with people who “agree with me.” It’s not important who this person is specifically. What’s more important and concerning is that there are far too many people like him who buy into the myths of “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism,” as well as the “multicultural” notion that respecting and accepting “all views” is a marker for being “progressive.”

I’m not going to address the “playing the victim” comments in-depth here, but I will quickly just say that regardless of how much I disagree with someone, I would never go as far as using victim-blaming attacks against someone, especially a person of color. I don’t know how anyone committed to anti-racism, feminism, and anti-oppression can accuse another stigmatized and marginalized individual of “playing the victim.” The vocabulary reminds me of “playing the race card” or “playing the gender card,” which imply that those who struggle against racism and sexism are “treacherous” and have the “advantage” over those who are more privileged in white supremacist heteropatriarchy. As Ann Anlin Cheng writes in her book, “The Melancholy of Race”:

Even in contemporary vernacular culture, we observe the increased frequency with which the ‘race card’ is displayed… Indeed, it has acquired the peculiar status of a game where what constitutes a winning hand has become identical with the handicap. Reappearing with the vagrancy of a Joker, the race card brings with it a host of haunting questions about the value and perception of race and racial matters in America. What does it mean that the deep wound of race in this country has come to be euphemized as a card, a metaphor that acknowledges the rhetoric as such yet simultaneously materializes race into a finite object that can be dealt out, withheld, or trumped? Why the singularity of a card? Who gets to play? And what would constitute a ‘full deck’?

Holding a ‘full deck’ may imply some idealized version of multisubjectivity (that is, the potential to play the race card, the gender card, the immigrant card, and so forth), but it also implies a state of mental health and completion that renders such playing unnecessary in the first place. One would ‘play’ a card only because one is already outside the larger game, for to play a card is to exercise the value of one’s disadvantage, the liability that is asset … [T]he vocabulary of the card also reveals a conceptualization of health and pathology that underlies our very perceptions of race and its abnormalities. Figuring the minority can be treacherous… [A]s the ‘race card’ rhetoric makes clear, there is more than a little irony, if not downright counterproductivity, in effort to relabel as healthy a condition that has been diagnosed, and kept, as sickly and aberrant.

Cheng calls attention to the paradox: “the one who plays with a full deck not only need not play at all but indeed has no such ‘card’ to play. Only those players with less than a full deck need apply.” I would go as far as describing such arguments (“playing the race card” or “playing the gender card”) as racist and sexist. Similarly, when it comes to people who make “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” arguments, I believe those assertions should be described as racist and sexist arguments as well, not merely flawed or problematic. Recently, a First Nations band, A Tribe Called Red, heard cries of “reverse racism” after one of their members wore a T-shirt mocking the Cleveland MLB baseball team: the word “Caucasians” instead of “Indians” was written across it. Far too often, claims of “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism” and any other type of “reverse” oppression are attempts to derail, vilify, and silence people resisting against these oppressions.

I’m not going to explain why “reverse racism” arguments are oppressive, mostly because so much work has been done on it already (watch Aamer Rahman explain it and read Mia McKenzie and A.D Song’s brilliant post). What I want to talk about is the flawed “multicultural” notion that if you don’t surround yourself with people who “have different views,” you are “close-minded.” I’m not talking about “different views” in the sense of having different perspectives that are non-oppressive. None of us think exactly the same, but there is a significant difference between having different perspectives and having views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, etc. If you’re going to trivialize and/or justify drone attacks, rape, racism, racial slurs, gender slurs, Israeli occupation of Palestine, etc., then we are going to have issues. There is a difference between having a disagreement over, say, whether or not we are ready to see complex supervillains of color in western sci-fi/fantasy (I don’t think we are, but I know others who feel differently) and having a disagreement over use of the “i” word to describe undocumented immigrants. Use of the “i” word is not “up for debate,” as the term is dehumanizing. I’m not talking about people who are unaware of how this word is a racial slur; I’m talking about people who have already made up their mind and insist that this language is “appropriate” and “acceptable.” If you set boundaries for yourself and seek to avoid people who are perpetuating racist and sexist ideologies, then how is this “close-minded”?

In my personal life and on my Facebook page, I used to be ok with befriending people whose politics were profoundly different than mine. I spent the time and energy “dialoguing” with them and addressing their misconceptions about Islam, anti-racism, and other issues. However, a lot of times, these conversations would become quite heated and accusations of “reverse racism” were leveled at me and my friends.  After a while of going back and forth with these people, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted on people who were never interested in learning in the first place, but rather wanted to argue, insult me, and prove me “wrong.” I remember I would go to work on some days and then come home at night only to see ridiculously long comments posted on my wall that labeled Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a “terrorist” and “Jew-hater,” or comments that demanded Muslims to explain the “violent verses” (most of the time, I found that these comments were copied and pasted off of notorious Islamophobic websites). I remember spending hours responding to these people. I recall writing an 11 page e-mail to a friend (who I knew since 6th grade) who believed that the Qur’an didn’t permit friendships between Muslims and Christians. I would cite so many books on Islam and Islamic history to assure people who were important to me that my faith didn’t preach discrimination or violence against people due to their religion. In some cases, things worked out fine. Sometimes my messages to online non-Muslim friends (i.e. people I never met before) had better results than my conversations with friends who knew me for years. In many cases, no matter how “peaceful,” “polite,” or “respectful” my tone, the conversation would go nowhere. When some asked ridiculous questions like “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” it was never a sincere question most of the time. It’s an attempt to vilify Muslims unless they support racist U.S. policies (NYPD spying of Muslims, racial profiling, etc.) and violent U.S. wars in Muslim-majority countries.

A turning point came for me after I read Mia McKenzie’s post, “Read a Book! Or, Why I Don’t Talk to Strange White Folks About Race,” where she writes about why she refuses to respond to random white people whom she doesn’t know well or trust. She argues that, most of the time, when people of color spend the time and energy and exhaust ourselves in explaining racism to random white people, most of the time, nothing good comes out of it. She elaborates:

What happens, most of the time, is nothing good. Why? Because the person who posted the thing that offended us did so because it’s what they really think, it’s what they actually believe, it’s the conclusion that they have somehow come to after 25 or 30 or 40 years of living in this world. The ridiculous position they just laid down isn’t something they just came up with. It’s their fucking philosophy, and they mean that shit. And now here you come telling them, uh uh, nope, your analysis is flawed and this is why. And you are right. You really are. And guess what? It doesn’t matter… Nothing you say is going to change that. But you might spend a lot of time and energy trying.

[...]

More importantly, engaging with strange white people about race feels incredibly unsafe. If I do it anyway, because, after all, they just want to “understand” my position, then I am putting their need to “understand” ahead of my own need to protect my psychological and emotional well-being. And why on earth should I do that? Especially when the likelihood of that understanding actually happening is slim to none? And the likelihood that my position will be mocked, dismissed, or attacked is very high?

I found myself relating to much of this and I soon began to remove offensive people from my Facebook. Some of these people were from interfaith groups I had joined and while I don’t doubt their intentions were initially good, they often would try to tone police me and other Muslims on my wall when we expressed outrage against Islamophobia and imperialism. Respectful and compassionate conversations with our friends and allies are important, especially when we make mistakes. However, when it comes to people who are insulting, condescending, and/or think they’re superior to you, what is to be gained from this “friendship”? What is the point of “friendships” when white people, and those who defend them, are constantly trying to police our thoughts, feelings, and experiences? I found these interactions quite unhealthy for me. I’m sure all of us have dealt with these people. The kind of people who NEVER comment on anything you post EXCEPT the times when they want to argue with you. Or, the people who lurk on your Facebook and click “like” on the comments written by someone else who is insulting you. And of course, there are the passive aggressive people who will just post a link on your wall (or under your post) without leaving a caption or explanation of why they’re posting it (and the linked article is often something in response to the views you’ve expressed on your wall).

Some people have come at me for deleting people with accusations of “censorship” and being “close-minded” or “intolerant.” There have been countless times on my blog, for instance, where I’ve responded to Islamophobic, racist, and sexist comments from random people, yet what seems to outrage certain people the most is when I decide I’m done responding and would rather delete comments. I cannot control who reads my blog, but the main reason I put comment moderation on is because responding to Islamophobic comments became exhausting and a waste of my time. On the same thread where several people were saying “all Muslims” should be “executed” or “evicted,” some chose to tone-police me and accuse me of “censorship” instead of addressing the violent, anti-Muslim comments. I have heard countless incidents from women bloggers/writers who have received rape threats, in addition to death threats, from men who disagreed with them. Why is it “censorship” or “close-minded” if someone wants to ban these comments or delete people who think and behave this way?

For people who think maintaining a safe space on Facebook is “close-minded,” I ask them to consider this: most people of color are already in spaces that are discriminatory, unsafe, and/or hostile to them in their everyday lives. One of the major problems with “multiculturalism” is that it legitimizes “all views,” including views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and so on. If you challenge someone who holds such views, the blame is on you for not being “multiculturally competent.” That’s how messed up “multiculturalism” is. Whether it’s in the workplace, school, or any other public setting, hearing these “different views” are things we hear on a daily basis. How often do people of color have to deal with ignorant remarks, offensive questions, or stereotypical assumptions? Many students of color are verbally attacked in their classrooms for raising anti-racist critiques and disrupting the status quo. How many are attacked, either verbally or physically, just for their mere presence in a classroom or workplace? What about people of color who have to bite their tongues at work 90% of the time for the sake of keeping their jobs? Many do speak up and get suspended, fired, and vilified for standing up for themselves. What about how often women see and hear sexism and misogyny, especially women of color who face both racism and sexism?

“Different views and opinions” that perpetuate racism and sexism not only come from classmates, teachers, co-workers, bosses, lawyers, doctors, but sometimes even from members in our own families. Yes, sometimes they are not intentional, but white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are so normalized that people don’t need to be deliberate in order to carry out oppressive acts or behaviors. When there are so many oppressive forces in everyday life, why is one considered “close-minded” or “living in a bubble” if he/she chooses to maintain a safe space on their Facebook, in their circle of friends, at their club meetings, etc.? I know lots of people of color, including myself, who like to use Facebook not only to network with people and stay in touch with friends/family, but to also vent comfortably and safely without worrying about judgment (or accusations of “reverse racism/sexism”). If you are constantly arguing and insisting that people of color can somehow oppress white people institutionally, despite being told and informed over and over again about how these arguments perpetuate racism, re-center white people, and silence and vilify people of color, you’re not just being disrespectful. You’re making your unwillingness to listen and learn very clear. Telling someone that they should be “more open” by having to listen and accept racist views is oppressive, not a sign of “progress.” If we cannot feel comfortable venting to our friends, then who can we speak to?

I have to clarify that I’m not saying everyone should delete people in this way.  I know this is more complex than simply saying, “Oh, that person posted something racist on your wall? Just delete them!” It’s no one’s business to tell you who you should or shouldn’t have on your Facebook. I have seen that play out as well and how it perpetuates shaming and victim-blaming. I do believe there are times when it’s important to show solidarity on someone else’s wall if they’re being attacked with racist, sexist, and oppressive comments. A lot of times, these comments are inevitable, no matter how hard we try to filter them out. There are complex reasons why we choose to maintain friendships with certain people, despite them holding views that are quite different than ours. Also, I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in conversations with people. As a friend told me recently, it’s important that we don’t shut out friends and allies by being arrogant and condescending towards them.

My overall point isn’t about how people should use social media, but how we shouldn’t label people “close-minded” if they choose to delete people they don’t feel comfortable or safe having on their friend’s list. I don’t believe a safe space means that everyone thinks exactly the same or that people agree on everything. My friends and I disagree on a lot of things, but those disagreements occur in a space of trust, respect, compassion, and humility. When we are constantly surrounded by the images and messages that promote white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, etc., how can we blame people for seeking a safe space among their friends where they don’t have to deal with the headache, stress, and trauma of these oppressions? It is not “close-minded” or “censorship” – it’s the need, as McKenzie said, to protect our own psychological and emotional health and well-being.

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.

Remembering Malcolm X


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

Silence Hurts

The other day I was reading a brilliant article on “People of Color Organize!” and this part stood out to me especially:

Silence – You are in a group of people, you’ve just heard someone say something racist. Not full blown N-Word racist just run of the mill racist (we’ll get to this in a minute) and you stay silent. You are a piece of shit.

I don’t expect anyone to go out and call out each and every racist thing they hear from each and every human being. Not only because you’d have no time to eat, sleep or breathe but in some cases, it could actually be dangerous to do so.

I am talking about that one time when you and your black friend were out with a group of people and someone said something racist. The black person was left to defend themselves while you stayed silent. Later, when you and said black friend were alone, you let them know how wrong you thought that person was and how much you agreed with everything the black person said.

You are a piece of shit.

If being friends with a black person is too much for you, don’t do it. If you are going to sit and silently agree that something was racist and wrong, keep walking. You are not a friend.

Being an ally behind closed doors and only behind closed doors is not being an ally at all. It is being a coward. Be a coward with someone else. You are not a friend.

Unfortunately, a lot of people of color can relate to this. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.  Many of us are already familiar with the phrase “silence is complicity” and how it is commonly written on signs at social justice demonstrations.  The statement is directed at governments, political leaders, and society in general for remaining quiet and not taking action against war crimes, colonial occupation, sexual violence, and other oppressions. As the excerpt above demonstrates, we can also look at how racism and silent complicity operates in the realm of personal relationships, such as friendships.

I’ve lost count of how many times certain white “friends” would remain quiet while someone else relentlessly demonized my culture and faith.  One awful memory was in my early twenties when someone I once respected lashed out on my research on Islamophobia and made utterly racist remarks against Muslims.  The silence from my “friends,” who sat as quiet observers during the whole tirade, was devastating.  It was more difficult to deal with when this happened on numerous occasions.

It took several years for me to realize that these people are not my friends. It took time to realize that their assertions of “colorblindness” is a fantasy and that there is too much at stake for people of color to ignore the reality of racism. In the process, I also had to confront my own internalized racism and the way I perceived myself, my culture, my religion, my community, etc. I couldn’t simply pretend that I wasn’t brown or that racism didn’t exist.

No one should have to tolerate situations where their friends suddenly fall silent during unwanted encounters with racism. No one should be left alone to defend themselves in the presence of friends.  It amazes me how people of color hear excuses like, “I was going to say something, but I didn’t want to get involved,” or receive advice like, “Just ignore it, that person says homophobic things all the time around my gay friends.”  While the people making these remarks may have good intentions, they are actually making matters worse and not being supportive at all.

Leaving someone unaccountable places the burden and expectation upon the victim to “get over it.” While the victim is told to “forget” about the damage that has already been done, the perpetrator’s behavior is normalized and allowed to carry on.  This is not how it should be. When you leave your friend to defend him/herself and then tell him/her to “ignore it,” you are participating in that abuse.  You are complicit because you allow the perpetrator to go unchallenged while your friend is hurt. That is not being a friend.

The disturbing part is that these experiences are not “isolated incidents.” They reflect a larger problem in society, particularly in the way we are taught to discuss (and not discuss) racism.  Throughout high school, I remember assemblies that would address bullying, but rarely was racism ever mentioned. We were constantly taught that “sticks and bones break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” What my school and other schools fail to understand is that words do hurt. They do cause damage. Telling someone to ignore name-calling is to simultaneously excuse the bully of harassing that person.

Furthermore, there is a huge difference between calling someone “four eyes” or “nerd” for wearing glasses and calling someone “Apu” or “Osama” for having brown skin.  There is a huge difference between calling someone a “loser” for being shy and attributing a sexist, degrading word to a woman because of the way she dresses. A white student being bullied for having blue hair cannot say he knows what racism feels like. This is not to negate his challenges, but rather to stress that his experiences are not the same as victims of racism. I bring this up because various forms of bullying often get lumped together when developing anti-bullying strategies.  Such strategies assume victims of bullying “share” the “same” oppression when, in fact, bullying has very distinct forms. The problem with the assumption of  “shared oppression” is that it has potential to trivialize racism (as well as sexism and homophobia) when people say things like, “Hey, I was called a nerd in high school and I was able to ignore it; why couldn’t you ignore the people who called you ‘Osama’?”

Verbal bullying is harmful, most especially when racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and ableist language is used, and it needs to be addressed more effectively in schools. When people are socialized to think insults “can’t” and “shouldn’t” hurt anyone, they end up telling their friends to “ignore” the racist remarks they hear. Such attitudes result in conflict and have serious potential to break friendships, particularly when white people get defensive after their friends of color call them out on their silence.

Interestingly, while I was writing this entry, I came across another blog post that also discusses silent complicity. The author cites recent video clips of white women who used violently racist language to verbally assault people of color on trains. Commenting on one of the videos, she writes:

So let me get this straight: It’s alright to let a raging racist White woman say sh*t about immigration and people of color but a Black man is not allowed to stand up for himself and express his anger at verbal violence explicitly directed at him? And can someone please tell me why the Black woman was the only person on the train who was left to defend herself? Where are the White people? Where are our White allies who should have told the Raging Racist to stop? Staring into space or playing on their phones.  At this point, Whiteness conveniently shrinks into the background as the people of color in the train are forced to listen to Raging Racist and forced to defend ourselves.

To make matters worse, we see people of color internalizing and perpetuating the same racist logic used to oppress marginalized communities.  The author terms these people as “white defenders.” They give excuses for the racism of white people and point fingers at people of color.  I cannot begin to describe the frustration that one feels when fellow people of color blame the victim for discrimination, sexual assault, and other abuses. When anger is expressed towards white supremacy, whether in rallies, in academic papers, or in general conversation, white defenders resort to “reverse racism” arguments. They say, “Not all white people are like that,” or “We shouldn’t stereotype white people,” or “I have really amazing white friends who I really love and care about.”  The conversation suddenly shifts from challenging institutionalized white supremacy to making people of color “anti-white,” as if they have the same power to dominate over and oppress white people.  The blogger of the aforementioned post articulates this much better than I can:

When we engage in ‘White defending’ and make excuses for individual acts of racism, we are supporting and furthering the agenda of White supremacy. Whiteness is highly invested in ensuring that its privilege remains beyond question. Engaging in ‘White defending’ gives Whiteness a free pass – White people can continue to ignore the historical and present wrongs committed against people of color. White defenders are White man’s best friend. This is the thinking and these are the people that people with privilege turn to and point towards as proof that ‘Things are better now’ when some shit-disturber like myself decides to call out their bullshit.

And, yes, this:

And when we come to realize that everyone is in one way or another complicit in racism, we realize that racism is not just about individuals saying some racist things this ONE TIME. Racism is not just an individual’s actions upon another individual. Racism is everywhere – it is in our culture, it is in our everyday interactions, it is in our systems and institutions. And when we shine a light on this bigger picture, we realize that racism is not just about one person doing something bad to another person. It is about centuries upon centuries of groups of people doing bad things to other groups of people and then, those groups of people punishing themselves, defending their bullies and saying they deserve the violence in the first place. Racism is a BIG OL’ GIANT ROCK THAT JUST WON’T SEEM TO BUDGE.

I know some people are thinking, “Well, if you would explain it nicer, then maybe we’d be more willing to listen.”  This goes back to attacking the tone of the victim.  For white friends and allies, you must understand the anger about racism.  You must.  If you sincerely care about ending racist oppression, you need to stop getting defensive when people of color express their anger about racism and stop being condescending with comments like, “You need to love more, just show people compassion and they’ll understand.”  If you try to make this about “tone” or “reverse racism,” then you are not being an ally or a friend.

White allies who do anti-racist work understand that there are times when they should speak and times when they shouldn’t. I remember during a social justice meeting, people of color wanted to have their own space to discuss certain issues and some white people objected to it because they thought they were being “discriminated against” (precisely the reason why people of color requested for safe space).  White allies interjected and told the other white activists that they should respect the decision made by people of color. Similarly, I recall women of color feminists making decisions for women-only spaces for certain discussions. No matter what a man’s feminist politics are, he should not go around complaining about “reverse sexism” or whine about about how he was “excluded” by women and how he “should have” been part of the discussions because “he is a feminist, too.”  If he makes these complaints, he is not an ally.  Sometimes, not interfering is the best thing you can do as an ally.  In the case of speaking up when your friend of color is being chewed out by a racist bigot right in front of you, you need to speak up – not to speak for your friend, but to speak out of support and solidarity.  People of color can defend themselves, but when we have our friends around, we don’t want to be abandoned and take further abuse from your silence.

I refuse to be in situations where I would be left alone to defend myself. I refuse to allow myself to be silent when my friends are on receiving ends of racist, sexist, homophobic, or any kind of discriminatory or derogatory remark.  There is a lot of responsibility that all of us have in the struggle to end oppression and that includes holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes, especially when our complicity hurts the people we deeply care about.

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.