“You don’t have to wear that thing, you’re free to take it off!” How many times have Hijabi women had to hear that? While the people saying this may believe that they are doing a favor upon the woman by saving her from this oppressive piece of cloth issued by an oppressive belief system, they do not realize how oppressive their ideas are. In the last few decades, there has been a widespread notion that Muslim women need to be saved and rescued from their religious believes and practices, particularly by Western societies and institutions. However, as emancipatory as this idea may seem, it restricts Muslim women from freely expressing their religious identity, beliefs, and choices. Muslim women do not need their life choices to be dictated by the West. Neither are they asking for such an intervention that the West doesn’t even have the authority to do.
One of the reasons why this idea of saving Muslim women is problematic is that it stems from and reinforces the misinformed stereotype that Muslim women are submissive and docile members of society that are incapable of any independent thinking. To say the least, this idea is very essentialist in the sense that it groups all Muslim women into this category of helpless and submissive women thereby stripping them of any form of individual agency. It assumes that Muslim women either are too helpless to fight against their own oppression, or are too naive or “brainwashed” to see that they are oppressed. This assumption has been debunked by Muslim women time and time again. To begin, Muslim women have shown participation and excellence in different fields, demonstrating that it is not they who lack the agency to act but rather it is the rest of the world that needs to shift their focus from saving them to recognizing their achievements. While in conversation with some female Muslim students, they expressed that the notion of rescuing them from their own faith is very degrading to them. They emphasized that Muslim women are very capable of distinguishing between what has been imposed on them and what they choose for themselves. One of the students pursuing her Ph.D. at Oxford University states, “Muslim women have critically engaged with their own faith, undertaking hermeneutics of the religion, both reinterpreting and reclaiming it at the same time.” Scholars such as Saba Mahmood, Amina Wadud, and Fatima Mernessi are prominent scholars who are reinterpreting the Islamic beliefs from a female point of view and thus reclaiming their beliefs. When it comes to religion Muslim women have actively been taking up positions of authority ranging from studying, interpreting, and teaching religious texts to taking part in Islamic movements. The Mosque movement in Egypt or reclamation of the public spaces in Sudan are examples of such active participation in religious and socio-political movements. This is not to say that Muslim women are not oppressed by men, their cultures, and societies. For most females, patriarchy has seeped deep into their religious practices. However, the patriarchy that oppresses many of the Muslim women also oppresses other non-Muslim women. Objectification, lack of right to one’s own body, wage gap, etc., are some of the problems that women in the West face. Women as a gender have been historically and globally oppressed. Thus, female oppression is not something uniquely exclusive to the Muslim world and the oppression faced by Muslim women does not exist by virtue of them being Muslim.
Another very problematic element of this notion of saving Muslim Women is its Eurocentrism. It is based on the belief that Muslim women are oppressed when compared to Western women and can be liberated only through Western values thus holding the Western ideas and values as the standard for freedom. This essentially reinforces the idea that the Western or European ideas and culture are superior to others and so only they can provide rights for females and pave way for feminism, female agency, and autonomy. Commenting on this idea, a female Muslim student at Georgetown University in Qatar said that she feels like the Western people who claim to be “saving” Muslim women look at our experiences relative to their own, without considering our different cultures, socialization, and beliefs. A person’s individual values and beliefs shape his/her idea of freedom. My idea of freedom is suitable to me and cannot be the same as that of someone else. This brings me back to the idea that this phenomenon of “saving” Muslim women are often counterproductive to its initial intent. When people attempt to save a Muslim woman from her beliefs they do not consider the idea that it may be this woman herself who has chosen this belief and such lifestyle. Thus, by telling her to “break free” from her religion you are not liberating that woman but dictating to her what freedom is like and what freedom to her should look like. This fundamentally clashes with the basic feminist ideologies that are used to defend this entire enterprise. The supposed saviors of Muslim women fail to understand that feminism does not have any fixed definition or meaning. Feminism essentially stems from the fact that women are historically and globally oppressed and therefore there is a need to eradicate that oppression and pave the way for their freedom. However, the meaning of oppression is different for every woman: the way a black woman experiences oppression will not always be similar to the way a white woman would experience it. Likewise, the way an upper-class woman faces oppression is not similar to the subjugation of a lower-class woman. Therefore, since oppression manifests in different ways for different women, freedom from said oppression will also be different. Thus, feminism can mean a variety of things depending upon a women’s experiences and identity. Feminism, therefore, can exist and does exist in Muslim spaces as well.
It is these diverging experiences that allow women to have their own definitions of freedom. For instance, coming to the question of covering one’s body, for a lot of women wearing clothes that reveal their body is an expression of freedom. And being a feminist myself, I believe this choice should not be questioned. However, personally, I express my bodily freedom by covering my body and my religious freedom by wearing the hijab. Contrary to popular opinion these actions don’t feel oppressive to me but are liberating. I feel powerful in choosing who gets to see my body. Objectively speaking, both decisions are an expression of freedom, however, Western feminism fails to recognize the second one as such. The Western media and entertainment are evidence of the failure of recognizing the choices of Muslim women. We often see Western media portraying the hijab as a symbol of oppression, patriarchy, and backwardness. On the contrary, Muslim women believe that the hijab is an expression of their religious freedom and their relationship with God. However, the Western media chooses to be ignorant of this reality and continues to misrepresent Muslim women and Muslims in general. TV shows or movies such as Elite, Hala, and Cuties demonstrate this and continue to portray Muslim Hijabi women as oppressed and they achieve the epitome of their freedom when they take off their hijabs and embrace the Western practices or when a white boy comes to save them from her oppressive beliefs.
Finally, the world needs to accept the agency of Muslim women and believe that they can recognize and point out their own oppression and decide how to they want to express their religious identity. We do not need a white savior to “free” us from our hijab or liberate us from our beliefs. We are capable of making our own decisions and can differentiate between what’s right for us and what is not. Therefore, people and societies that have adopted a savior attitude towards Muslim women need to reevaluate their ideas of freedom, oppression, and agency. It will be crucial towards eliminating the widespread misinformed stereotypes about Muslim women thus paving the way for the recognition of Muslim women as capable social actors equal to their counterparts in the West— a recognition that is long overdue.