Opinion

Why as a Black Muslim Woman I Feel I Can’t Be a Feminist

The movement has consistently alienated women like me.

av Hoodo Hersi
2016 12 20, 10:45pm

Illustrations by Ralph Damman

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. 

I'm a 25-year-old grown-ass woman who is not a feminist. Before you roll your eyes and lump me in with the Kim Kardashian/Shailene Woodley brand of deep-thinkers who don't know what feminism is, listen to what I have to say. When you think feminist, the first thing you think of is Rosie the Riveter on the "We Can Do It" propaganda poster with the sexy pout and picnic table bandana on her head, flexing that toned forearm. Fast forward years later to our current pop culture era; when you think feminist, you think of beautiful white women like Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Taylor Swift. Things are changing (Beyonce's LEMONADE was released April 23, 2016), but feminism is still very white. Wonder bread white.

Now, I'm what most would call a triple threat—black, Muslim, AND a woman. Most people who meet me can't figure out which part to discriminate against first. Usually, they focus on the Muslim part (HELLO to that hijab). People love joking around by making the whole "you're a terrorist" joke; not realizing that ISIS isn't trying to diversify their team by hiring more women and black people.

This is part of the reason why I don't consider myself a feminist. Think of struggle like a mountain. It's tough to climb and eventually (if you're "lucky") you'll overcome it. So picture yourself hiking. You climb up the "black" mountain and when you're done, you've got to run over to the "Muslim" mountain. At last, you run over to the "woman" mountain—and damn, it's just a bunch of white women skiing at the top. By the time I get to women's issues, I'm exhausted! I already don't feel included by a majority of feminist organizations because I have rarely seen women who share my colour and creed have their voices heard. Also, I just don't have any energy left in me to try to obtain that acceptance. The first two are already taking up so much of my time already. I'm busy!

Honestly, there are times when I forget I'm even a woman. The disconnect was obvious when one day I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook and there was some article criticizing the wage gap and all I could think was "I hope these girls get in formation! I'm rooting for them!" When other women talk about catcalling, I don't relate and catch myself saying things like "Wow, that's bad! Good thing I'm totally unaffected by it."

My real critique is that ever since Hillary Clinton began her ill-fated run for president, white feminists have stopped talking about issues affecting women of colour. One of us might get elected president? That's much cooler and less depressing.

Remember the women kidnapped by Boko Haram? Remember when you cared so much? Know what happened to them? (Neither do I, it's OK.) Remember when the Israeli government was sterilizing Ethiopian women without their consent? I hope that worked out. White feminists: just like that guy who ghosts you when his ex comes back into the picture.

Feminism is not necessarily distinct from the media since being a feminist is not a job but part of someone's identity. There are white women who are journalists (identifying as feminists), who are more drawn to reporting on issues that affect or are familiar to them (i.e white middle-class women). It's like the country club of civil rights, where only the privileged get membership. Even when an important topic affecting women as a whole is discussed, there are angles and points of view that are ignored. The wage gap is a perfect example of how the focal point seems to be pay between men versus women. However, there are a lot of layers that are left undiscovered because rarely is there a discussion about the disparity in pay that exists between white women versus black women (or other colours, creeds, sexualities, etc.). Wanna take a wild guess and see who makes more?

In my experience, feminists have always seemed to have a problem with Muslim women. We are criticized for being mentally enslaved; probably because wearing a hijab is in direct conflict with what Western society's image of a "free" woman would look like. France, the beacon of freedom, just loves telling women how naked they have to be and a perfect example is when the French government banned the burkini on public beaches. For those who don't know, the burkini is basically a wetsuit being worn by a Muslim woman.

If you're white and your head is covered, it doesn't seem to be the same kind of problem. For some reason, nuns walk around with their hair covered out of a sense of modesty, which is considered noble; but an Arab doing the same is a sign of a refusal to assimilate. If your melanin count is high, and your hair covered, you must be oppressed. And if you're oppressed, there's no way you could be a feminist! Us hijabis need to be saved! History will tell you that being white involves not really listening to minorities and making assumptions on their behalf. At its core, the belief here is that minorities represent the "other" and our culture, religion, etc. is backwards and primitive. This line of thinking is quite similar to the "they just don't know any better" white saviour complex that the Europeans possessed when colonizing practically the entire world. Well done, colonialism!

The problems affecting Muslim women are simply dismissed by the broader feminist movement. People just point to what's on our heads and say "that's the problem!" This is usually done without a thought to the roots of the obstacles we face, like barriers to proper employment, access to good education, or a decent line of headscarves from American Eagle.

The issue here is that the media does, on some level shape our way of thinking. We have been socialized to think that Muslim females are inherently weak and that view of us has been ingrained in your minds. Part of the problem is the way us hijabis are portrayed on TV and in film. We are always glorified extras; given the role of looking dainty and meek. While researching this article, I had to look up hijab-wearing Muslim women on TV. There are five. I'm pretty sure the guy who played the lead in Paul Blart: Mall Cop has more shows on Netflix than there have been hijabi women on TV ever. Like the ones you see on TV who don't speak up and don't seem to matter that view is then (whether consciously or not) associated with the Muslim women that you do see in everyday life; and like in everyday life, within feminism, we don't seem to really matter.

Listen, white people reading this: don't feel guilty. That was not the goal of this piece. Although many women who choose not to identify as feminists don't seem to understand the meaning of the word "feminism," us gay, black, Muslim, trans, South Asian, Native, East Asian, and disabled women understand just fine. But we can't participate in a movement that drops us the moment it becomes convenient. There is an exclusionary aspect to feminism that feels unfair. This is meant to be a way of thinking that is supposed to stick up for all women; so when only some women are consistently having their issues heard, it becomes this unspoken and unwritten rule that the rest of us just don't belong.

When you really think about it, intersectionality is a fancy way of saying "Hey let's address the struggle of other people even though they may not look like us because we've all got vaginas and life is already hard enough!" The funny thing is when you type "intersectionality" into Microsoft Word, it underlines it as a spelling mistake. We've got a long way to go.

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