Why Muslim Women Need to Switch Off 'Polite Mode'

04/08/2016 09:13

As a Muslim woman, at some point in your life, you will have come across the idea that a good Muslim woman does not get aggressive, angry, or allow herself to be seen as *cue dramatic music*... 'outspoken'.

This will ultimately lead to the worst outcome imaginable of potential spouses seeing you as not good wifey material or, if you are already married, some kind of mouthy fish wife!

While I'm hyper-generalising here the unwritten yet accepted tradition that Muslim women should appear docile has influenced the way in which we are viewed in wider society and has resulted in us being the most vulnerable targets of Islamophobic abuse.

You don't have to scroll Facebook or Google news very far before you come across a story that includes some form of harassment or abuse perpetrated against a Muslim woman. There are lots of reasons as to why this is: For example, wearing a niqab (face veil) or headscarf makes you more easily identifiable as a Muslim etc. etc. etc. But I think our reaction to these incidents also has a part to play. Majority of the time when a Muslim woman is being verbally abused she is viewed as the subdued, helpless victim.

We are not victims. Ok, if a crime has been committed then technically you are, but we need to stop incubating this victim mentality within Muslim society. Each situation will be different and most of us have the common sense and instinct to judge whether we are in physical danger or not. So I am in no way advocating a violent response or even a confrontational one. But we have a duty to our fellow sisters to respond.

There are numerous examples from Islamic history of how to deal with conflict. Although the situations differ in many ways from ours today we can use these responses as stimuli to formulate our own reaction. And there are many examples of people doing this successfully: The founder of, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, wrote a Facebook post about how her standing up to a racist resulted in an apology and the Islamophobe losing his job. Zakia Belkhiri came up with a genius response to an anti-Muslim rally by turning up and taking selfies. Malaak Ammari and her friend Nura dealt with an angry Trump supporter while eating ice cream by recording his racist rant and replying in a calm yet assertive way.

A lot of Muslim women reading this will have a debate going on in their heads right now.
Aren't we supposed to be merciful and 'tread carefully on this earth'? Didn't the companions just accept the abuse in Mecca? I don't want to be seen as a loud mouth?!

Fair enough. But we are talking about your, and your fellow sisters', safety. The hijab is supposed to be a protection for us but it also makes us an easily identifiable target for Islamophobes. We are obligated to show how much we are not easy prey in order to prevent further abuse. We are intelligent, eloquent, well-informed members of our society that have a voice and are perfectly capable of using it. This is not about being aggressive or seeking confrontation. It is about asserting your authority as a person requiring respect. Using your voice enables us to be heard above the cacophony of Islamophobia.

Most people are aware of Donald Trump's recent comments about Ghazala Khan, the mother of the late Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq. His suggestion that "maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say" was callous and in true Trump-style entirely insensitive. Her heartfelt and eloquent article in response explained how her silence was nothing to do with her status as a downtrodden, oppressed Muslim woman but from grief. Pure and simple. I admire this woman so much because at a time when most of us would forgive her turning a blind eye - she chose to speak up.

However, as much as we hate to admit it, there are Muslim women that are prevented from, or believe they should not be, using their voice. Whether it be with religious justification or a cultural pressure - the fact remains that there are a lot of silent Muslim women. I would argue that, to some extent, this is subconsciously tolerated by the Muslim community as it comes under the large category of issues that we acknowledge needs to change but usually shrug our collective shoulders at. But if we are content to ignore it then we have to expect that comments like Trump's will continue.

Luckily, it seems that a large proportion of Muslim women are not willing to accept this any longer. The hugely successful hashtag campaign #canyouhearusnow started by CAIR (Council of American-Islamic Relations) has highlighted how Muslim as well as non-Muslim women and men are unwilling to tolerate such statements.

It occurred to me, while writing this, that the problem of men telling the story of women, as Trump attempted to do with Ghazala, is not isolated to Muslims. I came across an article based on a series of tweets made by Lauren Haroutunian, a film producer and expert in her field. She related a story of sitting on an all-female panel at the San Diego Comic-Con discussing 'Women in Film Production'. She explained how an elderly male member of the Comic Con staff took it upon himself to take control of the Q&A and was "answering questions not asked of him". She said, to her regret, her 'polite mode' switched on and she allowed herself to endure a group mansplain.

You may think that you would never allow this to happen but the truth is that we do all the time. In work, community projects etc. we women tend to consciously avoid taking control or being assertive because we will be seen as "bossy" or, even worse, "a bitch". It is always an interesting point that the male version of being assertive is usually viewed as simply organised, focused, and driven. If he is recognised to be dominating it is more commonly accepted than if it were a woman. When a Muslim women keeps silent when faced with verbal abuse is she merely defaulting to 'polite mode' too?

After a campaign as successful as #canyouhearusnow, one that seeks to annihilate the idea that Muslim women are afraid to/ prevented from using their voice, it seems natural that the next step is to ensure that this isn't the case: How dare you say we are silent! -> We are not silent! -> We will show you!

Our voice is our strongest tool in the campaign against injustice, oppression, and inequality. Let's make Ghazala's example a catalyst for our own vocal protests in the face of adversity.