Ex-Hijabi Interviews and the Underrepresentation of Ex-Muslim Women
[UPDATE: The Huffington Post has published the Ex-Hijabi interviews; find them HERE.]
A few weeks ago, Valerie Tarico, a psychologist, author, and journalist, released a piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Is the Hijab A Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?” While I was glad to finally see a mainstream media venue tackle the issue of the hijab in a different way–without being needlessly apologetic, pandering to the sensibilities of Muslims, and giving undue focus on the perspectives of those privileged enough to have had free choice regarding the hijab and only those perspectives–I was dismayed that no women were interviewed for the purposes of this article. No women, in a piece that was about the experiences of women who wore the Muslim veil and felt it to be oppressive. No women who had been Muslims, no women who had worn the hijab, no women who could speak for their own experiences. Instead, as the trend seems to be in mainstream media and even liberal and secular discourse, a man was consulted to speak about a woman’s experience to the exclusion of women.
I wrote to Ms Tarico offering to put her into contact with a plethora of ex-Muslim women with eclectic backgrounds and experiences to speak for themselves in future, including my dear friend Reem, whose experiences were referenced in the original article as an example of oppressive hijab without any direct input from her. Ms Tarico responded graciously by offering to provide extensive space for follow-up interviews with women who had worn the hijab for many years, to speak for themselves.
And here are the interviews with three ex-hijabis from various backgrounds–Heina Dadabhoy, Reem Abdel-Razek, and myself, speaking with care and thoughtfulness about our experiences with the hijab. And how wonderful it is that we have been given space, how unfortunate it is that we had to first point out that we were being spoken over instead of being the immediate, natural choices.
This is an essential matter for reasons beyond the obvious. To be clear, it is a wonderful thing that we have allies, friends, and supporters championing our causes to highlight and critique the circumstances that have structured our experiences. However, the status quo at the moment in mainstream media has those voices largely overpowering ours when it comes to speaking about our experiences. Despite the fact that this is less than ideal for powerful, effective critique. Why give space to secondary sources when people with more insight and knowledge are easily accessible and readily available to speak for themselves? People who have lived knowledge of the intricacies of the power-privilege and honor-shame dynamics of the societies in question, who were intimately involved in the very religious systems that are being scrutinized? Women are often the greatest sufferers under Islam, and our experiences can be very difficult to adequately imagine and capture indeed. Why forgo the opportunity to let us tell the powerful, compelling, sometimes unbelievable stories of our lives and our critiques of them? Especially when so many of us are so incredibly intelligent and articulate when it comes to these matters. To be clear, secondary sources are a strong asset to support and champion our own–but when they are magnified to our exclusion, there is something quite amiss going on.
Especially, since, as seems to be the case, the positions we are attempting to critique do not fall into the same negligence of representation. There seem to be a plethora of Muslim women in popular mainstream media venues within the last two years alone who are represented concerning Muslim feminism, their empowering choice to wear the hijab, how they resist being appropriated or misrepresented, how they are not oppressed, how they do not need Western feminism and do not need to be liberated, and the injustices they suffer as Muslims in the West.
It is odd that, in attempt to critique many of those positions as hardly representative of Muslim experience and grossly unfair in their depiction of the goals of “Western” feminism, there is a dearth of representation of these women’s ex-Muslim counterparts. It is incredibly easy for people to then turn around and discount these critiques. And they have, and do, saying (again, within the last two years, in popular mainstream media venues) that the critique of Islam and of Muslim oppression is nothing more than white Western feminists, especially white men, speaking in ignorant, petty ways on behalf of people and cultures they insist on viewing with Western eyes, that the privileged white spokesmen of New Atheism are promoting anti-Muslim hate and bigotry, that white men are being exploitative in their support for Muslim woman activists, that white people have savior complexes regarding Muslim women, and that white Westerners are reducing problems of violence to religious influence and telling lies about religious-based oppression, as this white Western woman ironically argues.
Now imagine if the largest liberal platform regarding this issue was given to Ex-Muslims, who are largely people of color who were socialized and lived enmeshed lives in Muslim-majority countries and societies, who have the requisite knowledge and experience to discuss these matters in informed ways, who are far less likely to fall into mistaken generalizations. Who also cannot be easily discounted as ignorant appropriators–who have incisive, eloquent critiques to give about being marginalized, who refuse to be swept aside using the No True Muslim fallacy. Who will not stand to have their legitimacy to speak about their own lives challenged without powerful retort.
Imagine that mainstream news and media venues normalized our voices. Imagine that BBC’s wonderful interview with British Ex-Muslims leaving the faith was joined by other such endeavors. Imagine that the wonderful Ali Rizvi was not Huffington Post’s only regular ex-Muslim contributor, and that the often-represented Ex-Muslim ally Faisal Al Mutar was joined by a plethora of other voices who lived Muslim experiences of many varieties, especially those of women. Imagine that Ex-Muslim voices were considered legitimate and acceptable, to the extent that everyday Ex-Muslim writers are no longer kidnapped and jailed and threatened with death. Imagine that uber-famous critiquers from Muslim backgrounds such as Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not face disproportionate amounts of danger and threat for simply speaking out.
Imagine if, for instance, Kiran‘s pieces were giving a place in mainstream media: she’s gathered testimonies in 7 parts highlighting the powerful voices of 17 ex-Muslim women–who else has published anything like that? And one of the contributors was a transwoman, and how happy I was to hear her speak about her experiences of being nullified by Islam when I had heard nothing of the sort from anyone else before. Imagine if mainstream venues highlighted those 17 women’s voices and their brave testimonies were not left in obscurity.
Kiran also weighs in on the UK gender segregation uproar with incisive critique, providing the perspective of an ex-Muslim who cannot be accused of being a white Western appropriator of brown peoples’ struggles, representing a side that has been continually silenced in that discussion, which pretends that brown people, Muslims, and Ex-Muslims were not part of the anti-segregation movement and protest, painting it as a movement of white feminism. She also evaluates criticisms of so-called white exploitation of Malala Yousafzai in a careful, nuanced manner. How wonderful would it be if an ex-Muslim woman’s voice was added to the white voices and the Muslim voices weighing in on these issues in mainstream media?
Or Reem, who grew up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and has a strong feminist voice and speaks to her own undeniable experiences of religious-based victimization with articulate candor. What if a mainstream media venue made space for Reem to talk about the religious influences of sexual violence in Egypt, as she does here and here, instead of devoting the entire space to a back-and-forth between Muslims and Western feminists arguing over Joyce Carol Oates’ tweets on the matter?
Or EXMNA blogger 1GodlessWoman, a Saudi medical doctor who powerfully tells the story of her horrific experiences in the Kingdom–imagine she was given space to weigh in on the perpetual conversation on how oppressed or empowered Saudi women are that is rolling and rolling and rolling in mainstream media with few contributions from Saudi women speaking of the injustices they have been dealt.
Imagine, in all the discussion about white feminism, intersectionality, the hijab, body image, and brownness, Heina Dadabhoy, the hilarious woman of color who grew up overweight and Muslim in America, was given space for her candid discussions of body image and being fat, adding on to the conversation of what the hijab does and does not do to brown bodies and fat bodies, what brownness does and does not do to fat bodies in mainstream media. Imagine too that her Skeptic’s Guide to Islam, written from the inside perspective of a former practicing Muslim, became a landmark text on the subject.
Imagine that in addition to all the personal blogging in mainstream media venues about being a Muslim woman and a parent, and a student, and a teacher, and a person of varying professions and experiences, space was given to Sam I Am’s awesome blogs about Parenting Beyond Islam. Imagine then that Ex-Muslim lives with their everyday, normal paraphernalia were normalized and humanized, that we too were seen as contributors to society, as educators, parents, part of the fabric of the places in which we live.
Such diversity of experience already there, and so much more potential hidden.
Imagine that the dozens of other ex-Muslim women that I alone know, many closeted, anonymous, marginalized, were able to speak of their rich, varying experiences. Including the amazing ladies with their whip-crackingly spot-on critiques at Muslim and Ex-Muslim Women for Secularism. Imagine we were allowed to demonstrate that what we say about the dearth of discourse surrounding direct Muslim acknowledgement of religious-related suffering is due to a dangerous, active silencing of the apostate voice. Imagine these women were sought out and given assurances of safety and fair representation–I feel like so many of our voices would blossom. I wish I could see more of us discussing what it’s like to be trans and queer while Muslim too. That’s a subject that as a queer woman even I, outspoken as I am, have been afraid and hesitant to do more than touch upon.
How powerful would the movement aimed at reform, commentary and critique of Islam become when the most incisive and relevant voices are sought out and highlighted in addition to secondary sources?
See, EXMNA is a movement that is very conscious of equal representation of women and making space for the voices of strong, diverse thinkers. In their own time, using their own personal resources, its members have created space for these voices, building among other projects an entire blog network devoted to the Ex-Muslim voice. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain also publishes pieces on its own Twitter Blogs. But these will remain obscure platforms until the work showcased there is normalized and enters its proper place in conversations regarding the very people and experiences that are not consulted.
Imagine too, that secular, freethought, and skeptic venues make the wonderful move of giving more space for the Ex-Muslim voice especially in equally representing women. Already there are have been many steps taken for our support, and we are very grateful. Shout-out here to the atheist organization representatives and thinkers who met with Ex-Muslims to offer help last September in Washington DC. The Center for Inquiry has been especially active in promoting the Ex-Muslim voice. Shout out here to Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist and Dan Fincke of Camels and Hammers on Patheos Atheist for repeatedly sharing/promoting my work and the Ex-Muslims of North America, as well as to the multiple bloggers on the Freethought Blogs network who have also reblogged my work or hosted me as a guest-blogger. Shout-out to the FtB network for recently adding an Ex-Muslim atheist blogger to their network–*waves at* Kaveh Mousavi. Shout-out to PZ Myers for promoting EXMNA and interviewing one of its cofounders, Sarah Haider. Shout out to my former professor and continuing mentor Daniel Dennett for continuing to support and share my work. Shout-out to the multiple bloggers on the FtB who have repeatedly discussed the problem of silenced critique of Islam, especially Ophelia Benson and Alex Gabriel. Shout out to The Atheist Nomads for that awesome podcast with EXMNA leaders (one man, one woman, Ah yisss equal representation) Muhammad and Sadaf. Shout-out to the Centre for Secular Space for repeatedly hosting the guest-blogs of atheist feminist Reem Abdel Razek–this very small organization has promoted women’s voices with greater dedication relative to its size than most popular mainstream secular venues. And all those who I’ve failed to mention. You’re doing things right, but this is just the beginning.
Imagine instead of filling up erstwhile and guest spaces within the skeptic movement, we became an integral part of it, regular, established contributors to it. Imagine too, that within those guest representations of our voices, there was greater striving to fairly and equally represent us, especially in terms of gender. Imagine if, when you are an atheist venue creating a (pretty awesome) podcast called “I Am An Ex-Muslim” that you try to do better than representing one woman* to four men, one of them not an Ex-Muslim (although these men exhibited bravery and eloquence–I salute you, especially my “boss” and colleague Muhammad Syed of EXMNA, who totally rocked it).
Imagine if atheist and secular organizations allocated some sponsorship and funding to promoting Ex-Muslim organizations, who provide a rich network of many powerful voices, over continuously endorsing only isolated individuals within the movement.
Imagine that within atheist/skeptic blog networks, Ex-Muslim blogs were given a little bit more space as minorities, and within those Ex-Muslim blogs, men and women were equally represented. Imagine if, in addition to the 20 blogs that Patheos Atheist already hosts, there was even one Ex-Muslim one. Imagine if among the 36 Freethought Blogs, more than four were blogs belonging to people from Muslim backgrounds, and more than three regularly focused on Ex-Muslim issues (the very recent addition of Kaveh’s blog and the 2:2 women-to-men ratio here should be noted; it’s much progress, but I insist not enough). Imagine if the only women represented from Muslim backgrounds, Taslima Nasreen and Maryam Namazie, did not need to be famous and have incredibly impressive credentials to qualify when many, many other Freethought Bloggers are considered worthy with modest resumes and great writing. Imagine if secular websites and podcasts interviewed more of our voices–so many of them already do such a great job with interviewing Faisal Al Mutar, who is one such voice with powerful experiences, but unfortunately only one such voice.
Clearly, we bear responsibility as well for trying to make ourselves heard, and we must continue to reach out, to email people we think should know about us and represent us, to follow up on those opportunities, to collect testimony, to band together, to write, write, write and read, read, read. And we do–on our own time, at our own expense. We do not have sponsors or funding. We build these websites and write these words on our own time, with no payment, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of apostasy. We are trying to network and make ourselves more known. But the onus is also on journalists and concerned organizations who claim to be concerned with our cause and want to support it to make adequate effort to be ethical and thorough–to find the most relevant voices to speak for their own experiences–a simple Google search reveals many Ex-Muslim writers and bloggers, many of whom are women–and not continue to only represent the most well-known ones even if those voices happen to be secondary to the topic at hand.
Imagine all the possibilities.
Don’t forget to read the ex-hijabi interviews, which we hope will be picked up soon by a mainstream venue. Warmest of wishes.
*full disclosure: I was originally contacted to potentially be part of this podcast, but I had to follow up several times to get replies, stressing the importance of representation for women. After an interview time was suggested and I agreed upon it, the offer was retracted and I was told that there were already enough interviews recorded, though my colleague at EXMNA was in fact contacted and interviewed after mine was cancelled. I was given the offer to write a letter to be read on air instead, which I fully admit I did not manage to complete in the two days before the show aired (I was not followed-up with concerning the air date of the podcast). Even if I had appeared on the show, that still would have made the ratio 2 women to 4 men, which is pretty weak.
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