Essay | Feminism and Islam

Every so often someone in my cyber circle will link to something like this or this and I will let out an audible, exasperated sigh. If you don't want to spend your time in a narrow darkened hole of hatred, here is what those links boil down to: An atrocity is committed by Muslims against women or a woman, and a conservative/right winger decries the perceived lack of feminist activism and calls hypocrisy. "Feminists will protest all about assault in America!" they say. "Yet, they are afraid to speak out against the oppression of Islam because of political correctness!" But that's not actually the case. Here is what makes their opinion dumb.

First of all, it should go without saying that any feminist with credibility does indeed cover and speak on injustices against women the world over, even in the Middle East. You should probably know that it is physically impossible to call yourself a feminist or an ally and not be against things like honor killings, or the stoning of rape victims. So just throw that straw man argument out the window immediately and if that's all you got, go to bed.

The critics do have one thing right, though: feminists are not organizing en masse to picket outside of mosques, or protesting the embassies of Muslim nations, or voting Republican. The assessment that this is a bad thing is fundamentally wrong. It's not that feminists and allies are not angered, horrified, or against the assaults and oppression that happen in other countries. They're not so beholden to the ideals of diversity and afraid of seeming intolerant, when there is obvious moral bankruptcy. It's that feminists and allies understand that that's not where the fight actually is.

This is, really, the root of all intolerance. It's the assignment of blame to wide swaths of groups based on confirmation bias, gut feelings or flimsy evidence. Islam is one of the most diverse religions in the world. With 1.5 billion followers across 50 countries, across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Americas and more, you would have to be determinedly bigoted to blame an entire religion for the sins of individuals.

Yes, there are cultural factors and trends. I am not naive enough to believe that the oppression of women in the Middle East is a rarity. I spent childhood summers in Saudi Arabia. My mother and sister were forbidden to drive. They weren't allowed in stores. It is plain to anyone that there are obviously societal and cultural factors involved. But to hold the entirety of Islam responsible for it? There's a disconnect there that people aren't seeing. They see that the burqa exists and it makes for an easy leap, free of real analysis, to connect Islam to violence against women.

If you think the Muslims that assaulted Lara Logan in Egypt are representative of Muslims in Malaysia, or Muslims in Nigeria, or even Muslims in Pakistan, you're beyond reason. If you make Islam an enemy, then your attack is on all of them, regardless of their actual lives and opinions. It makes as much sense as being anti-Christian because you are anti-pedophilia, or anti-Mormon because you are anti-polygamy. You can hold those opinions, but know that you are painting with a ridiculously wide paint brush. It's cartoonish. You should look at yourself.

There's no doubt that people use the religion as an excuse to do some horrible things to women -- but there are awful misinterpretations of every religion. Individual societies have problems. Objectification of women in America is rampant, and as much as I am against that, I cannot conceivably attribute it to Christianity, which has a bible that has its own gender issues. A vile commonly held belief is the enemy - not the path it uses to spread, or the region it inhabits. Cancerous ideas and intolerance can take hold by way of many pathways - through politics, through culture, through economics, or through religion. Your carpet bomb of hatred does not make that distinction.

Yes, studies show that harassment against women in Egypt is astonishingly high, yet to attribute that to the religion of the masses, instead of the disease of groupthink and an endemic misogyny cultivated in a subculture, is missing the mark. Because even though it was a bunch of Muslims that assaulted Lara Logan, it was also a bunch of Muslims (women and soldiers) that rescued her.

If you want to call it a clash of civilizations, fine -- but understand that this is not the way to go about changing a culture. When you cast a wide net, you are not changing anything so much as attacking it. And in that case, it's not helpful to anyone. Cultures don't grow through brute force hatred. They don't heal with indiscriminate judgment. They don't progress through warfare.

Let's get this straight: these critics are not feminists. The people who think feminists should be anti-Islam are not thinking about the equality of women first and foremost. They want a holy war. They want an easy, black-and-white enemy, and a cultural victory over The Other.

It gets to me because it's a kind of ignorance that seems to spread easily. People are getting better and more well versed at spotting and discussing racism. It's far from acceptable, but at least I can recognize tiny bits of progress. But when people get bigoted about religion or ill-informed about gender issues? When a friend tells me that most Muslims are terrorists? It fucking irks me that that kind of ignorance is like a wildfire. It's an effect of the internet's instant gratification burst culture, put to use for spreading easy answers that are also destructive. Next time you want to fill up my news feeds with something that you spent 1 minute thinking about, do some Googling and reading first, cause you looking real dumb right there.