With the recent “Muslim ban” fiasco in the U.S., polls that suggest many Europeans may support similar legislation in their countries, and reports that claim the number of Islamophobic hate crimes against women who wear a hijab has spiked, it is not easy to be a Western Muslim. World Policy Journal discussed this issue with Dr. Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-born author of works such as Women and Gender in Islam and A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America and the first appointed professor of women’s studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What would you say is the biggest misconception the Western world has about women in Islam?
LEILA AHMED: This is not as simple a question as you’d think because in my own lifetime there’s been a huge change in how people think about Islam and women in Islam in America. The idea that Muslim women are oppressed beyond any other women in religion is a common belief here today, but it wasn’t 20 or 30 years ago. That’s important to know. In other words, back when I started working on women in Islam, say in the 1980s, there were many women—Christian women working on Christianity, Jewish women working on Judaism—who thought we were all oppressed. Nobody thought then that it was unique to Muslim women. My point is that we live in a time when the oppression of women in Islam as a unique feature has been fabricated. It’s not a reality. It’s become such a part of the media now that many people believe it. This is probably the greatest misconception: the creation of the uniqueness of Muslim women’s oppression. All women are oppressed by patriarchy, and the three monotheistic religions, in very similar ways. So the idea that Islam is uniquely oppressive is just nonsense.
WPJ: The headscarves many Muslim women wear—be it a hijab, niqab, or burqa—are often the source of debate in many Western societies because it is assumed to be inherently anti-feminist or misogynistic. What are the true origins of this practice and how did it become such a political issue?
LA: Nobody knows the real origins. But we do know that early Christianity practiced it. Think of all the images of the Virgin Mary we see everywhere. What is she wearing? A hijab on her head. This was the norm throughout the Middle East, whether you were Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Judaism is much older than Islam and so is Christianity, so the hijab was common in all those societies before it became common in Islam. It’s just a common, old-style way of dress. It’s like asking why people wear jeans.
So why did it come back? That’s another very complicated problem. Going back to the first question about the misconception of the unique oppression of women in Islam—that was a politically constructed misconception. It served a political purpose. It became very, very clear to those of us who study women in Islam that sometime immediately after 9/11, a hijab became a sign of women’s oppression in America. It became prevalent in newspapers, TV, and everywhere in the media. Laura Bush and Cherie Blair made a statement about it when we were going to war in Afghanistan—not about the hijab in particular, but about liberating women from the oppression of Islam. They said that we were going to fight the war in Afghanistan in order to liberate women, which is obviously a political fabrication. We were not in either Afghanistan or Iraq to liberate women. So it was serving a political purpose and that’s why it became an entire Islamophobia industry, which seeks to promote the idea that Islam is particularly bad or particularly oppressive to women.
Almost exactly 100 years ago when the Egyptians wanted independence from British rule, the British ruler, a man called Lord Cromer, said that Britain couldn’t give the Egyptians independence until they began to become civilized like the British. And the sign of becoming civilized would be for women to throw off the veil. What’s important to know about Lord Cromer is that he claimed to want the liberation of women in Egypt as a sign of Egypt becoming civilized, while at the same time in England he was president of a society opposed to women’s suffrage. So he was an anti-feminist in England and a so-called feminist in Egypt. It was again another political ruse in order to justify an empire. The British were saying: We can’t give you independence because you’re too dumb, too backward, and too uncivilized. We have to rule you. And the sign of you becoming civilized is to let your women throw off their veil. In a way, we witness history repeating itself today. Again the veil is used as political power—as the justification for imperial power, imperial domination, and war. This combination of being anti-feminist at home and apparently feminist abroad applies to many people in America, often the conservatives. I don’t think President [George W.] Bush was a great supporter of women’s rights in America.
WPJ: Many Muslim women feel excluded from Western feminism, and they’re not the only minority demographic that feels unwelcome. How can Western feminists be more inclusive and supportive for all women?
LA: I think it is becoming more inclusive. I went to the Women’s March partly to understand what was going on and to observe, and many of the signs participants held were supporting Muslims, ecological rights, and African Americans. So I think people are waking up here, including those in the feminist movement. I think what people fail to understand is that earlier feminists did not quite understand that racism and feminism are completely interconnected. It’s essential for us to understand this now. There can be no real feminism if it’s only for white women. Even back in the 1980s, there were many African-American and Latina women who stood up and said that. I think anyone who seriously considers themselves a feminist today understands that it has to address racism just as centrally as sexism.
WPJ: You grew up in Egypt and moved to the West as an adult. What unique struggles do you think people who are from Muslim or Middle Eastern families and are the first-generation born in a Western country face?
LA: For one thing, Islamophobia is much, much worse now than when I was young. So that’s a very big hurdle. It’s not very easy to find ourselves in a society where even intelligent people are brainwashed by the anti-Muslim nonsense in the media. So that is a very big obstacle. On the other hand, members of this generation are Americans or Europeans. They think like Americans in a way that some of us who came from abroad do not. If I look around now at the number of women who are visibly Muslim or who have a Muslim background, there’s a huge variety of Muslim women now in the West. And there are many different kinds of voices. So I actually think it’s a much more hopeful time, although Islamophobia has to be defeated and is a major obstacle.
WPJ: What’s your perspective on reports that Islamic State recruiting supposedly targets this demographic of Muslims, who are often believed to be especially vulnerable if they feel like they do not belong in their home countries?
LA: ISIS is a horrible new development in our history. And I think it’s tragic that young people are put in that terrible position of feeling like they don’t belong. I actually think that Muslims need to connect to other minorities: Hispanics and African Americans. It’s the same story, just a slightly different inflection. But racism is racism, and I think maybe an important part for us to understand is that we need coalitions of people who are suffering from different versions of the same problem.
WPJ: There are some on both sides of the issue who believe that Islamic or Middle Eastern values are at odds with Western values and that they simply cannot coexist in the same society. How do you respond to such claims?
LA: Well, it depends on what Western values entail. The West doesn’t seem to know itself what its Western values are. I think basic, wonderful, core human values are present in every society, in Islam just as much as in the West. But history has muddied the story. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic to Islam that makes it incompatible with the good things in the West, and vice versa. There are some bad things in the West, too, like racism. Who wants that? What are Western values?
WPJ: You mentioned how there are many different kinds of Muslim voices today in the West, but they are often silenced by extremists on both ends. What can be done to empower these voices and make sure they are heard?
LA: I think their voices are deliberately excluded. That’s my view. The thing we have to fight is Islamophobia and the media that allows Islamophobia or perpetuates it. But how can we do that? I haven’t got the answer. I don’t know. Because I think Muslims have been speaking out against all of the worst things that have been happening in the name of Islam. And nobody hears because we are not given the voice or publicity that would allow us to be heard. I do think it’s a major problem. I don’t know what the answer is. I think this generation needs to answer it. And it seems to be happening. Ten years ago, there weren’t many people of Muslim backgrounds on NPR or British television or British news. Now I hear Muslim names all the time. Change is slow, but it’s happening.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Yasmin Merchant]