The case of Larycia Hawkins, an African-American Christian, Associate Professor of political science at Wheaton College in the United States, who published a photo on Christmas day on Facebook wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim women victims of Islamophobia, has raised a significant controversy about whether non-muslim women wearing the hiyab is useful for Muslim women and our feminists struggle in Islam or not. Beyond the debate about veils, the heated discussion that followed reminds us that Islamophobic violence against Muslim women is a gender matter that must be addressed not only by Islamic feminists, but also by all decolonial feminists.
According to Itzea Goicolea Amiano, a Spanish researcher, in her work “Feminismo y Piedad” (“Feminism and Piety”):
Gender Islamophobia is a term that refers to the xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes mixed with sexist and misogynist discourses that oppress, discriminate and targets with a negative preference for Muslim women more than muslim men …
Islamophobia has become a gender issue for at least two reasons:
-The Islamophobic discourse exploits the image of Muslim women through performances that put them in the place of “eternal victim.” With this, we are objectified while our agency and subjectivity robbed.
-This narrative of enmity against Islam and its followers is rooted in orientalism/colonialism and, therefore, has a strong patriarchal component. We know that patriarchy will always attack, preferably women. Religious identity expressed through the hijab and the perception that exists of this as symbol of oppression and extremism, makes women a recognizable and easily accessible target for violence.
Islam and Women in “Otherness”
Islam is a growing faith in the West and there is an increasing number of believers among the Latino population in the United States. Hispanic converts to Islam have been recorded by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) as approximately 40,000 in the US in 2006.
In South America, while there are no official figures, it is possible to note the increase of adherents of Islam, with a strong presence of women, through various Facebook groups (Islam en Mexico, Islam en Chile, Musulmanas Latinas, Khadijah Sociedad de Mujeres Musulmanas, etc.) There are even new Muslims among indigenous peoples, as those that are part of the Islamic community in Chiapas, Mexico.
Black women are an important part of Islam, and their presence is not new. Africa was the first continent, outside of Arabia, where the faith spread in the early seventh century. Nearly a third of the Muslim population in the world lives there. In Western countries with Afro-descended populations, women are among the Muslims affected by the Islamophobic violence. Worldwide, black female Muslim are tens of millions. Nigeria alone has 60 million Muslim women. Guinea, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among African nations with Muslim majority population.
Being a Muslim Woman is to be in the “Otherness” category, thanks to Orientalism and stereotypical depictions of the Islamic World as simultaneously exotic and barbaric. Until recently, the othering of Muslim women had affected primarily Arab or Middle Eastern women, those born in the areas identified with religious and cultural Islam. With the emerging visibility of African Islam and the growing of our faith in the west, the category of Islamic otherness has broadened to include women already in that category due to their race, gender construction, geography or corporality as Latina, Black and Indigenous.
Islamophobia and Decolonial Feminism
Islamophobia includes many forms of gender violence as part of racist and misogynist colonial paradigms based in otherness and dehumanization.
Decolonial Feminism, a perspective developed in Latin America and the south of the world, has focused on disputes arising from the intersections between sex/gender, class, and race, with institutional and colonial paradigms rooted in culture. It has kept, until now, Islamic feminism on the outside. Sometimes, because of the traditional feminist-inherited dogma that religions are inherently patriarchal, discussions of religious feminism are not possible, thus leaving such discussions to those who come from more privileged races.
But whether you agree or not with Islamic feminism or the possibility of feminism in religion, it is evident that religious identity has become a factor that predisposes some to violence against women, especially women in the “decolonial spectrum.” Many of the women victims of gendered Islamophobia are part of groups whose voices and context decolonial feminism aims to address.
Opposing Islamophobia does not mean agreeing with Islam or the hijab, but disagreeing with violence against women—and with bigotry. Women are entitled to their choices, including the choices that we do not like or that we would not make ourselves. If we call ourselves feminists, we must be willing to defend the right of all women to live a life free of violence, leaving aside our prejudices and cultural biases, even when that requires us to to deal with our own internalized Islamophobia–otherwise we would be hypocrites. When it comes to violence, we cannot defend only those women which options we agree with. If we only see human rights when women live as we like, then we are not feministing their realities, but colonizing it.
The cause of Muslim women against Islamophobia is a common cause of all women in the south for what it represents: a particular kind of gendered violence rooted in colonialism. Religious feminized violence should be incorporated into the discussion of decoloniality, especially in the context of international political tension that we live because of the Islamic State, the terror alert in Europe, the migrant crisis and increased fear, which have shown that the bodies of Muslim women are a particular battlefield. With or without the hijab, the problems of Muslim women are all women’s problems.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.