I’m not exchanging my hijab for a bulletproof vest
This post is for a subset of my allies.
It’s been building up for a bit but sort of crescendoed with a lot of the responses to my Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal project, which is fabulous and you should totally check out before you read another word, go go go go: http://exhijabifashion.tumblr.com/
Alright… now, what I have to say might sound harsh, but I feel it needs to be said. It does not mean I do not value you and your support. It does not mean I do not want people to be concerned for me or to care about me and my community. But I’d like to challenge some of the assumptions inherent in that concern. I invite you to really think about why you continually express concern for our safety carefully and thoughtfully, trying to look at it from our perspective.
So here’s the issue: One thing that I’ve noticed and that really bugs is me is that almost every time an ex-Muslim publicly does something, writes something, begins a project, inevitably there will be allies commenting something like “I’m happy for them, but I’m worried about their safety,” often with iterations like “They will be hunted down, there will be a fatwa over their heads.” Some people try to get pithy, saying things like “they’re exchanging hijabs for bulletproof vests.”
We hate it when you do that. It is insulting and counterproductive in the most important ways. It often devalues many of us as people of color and as women.
Yes, we know that violence in response to free expression is very often a huge problem among Muslims and in Muslim-majority societies. In fact, we know it dearly in ways you cannot imagine. You do not need to inform us.
But that also doesn’t mean that every time ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims publicly engage in free expression in any way anywhere they undertake the risks they would under a Taliban or ISIS-controlled area. In fact, odds are that if they are publicly engaging in free expression, they are at low risk. In fact, many of us are in no danger at all.
And it bothers me that you assume we would be, especially with such regularity, especially often as a kneejerk reaction, as the first sentiment you express when you hear of something we’re doing. Why is that the first thing you think about our endeavors, our work; that we are in a position of weakness because of it?
Here’s the thing: Did you think that potential danger did not occur to us? Did you think we have not accounted for it?
Did you think–and excuse me for a moment while I try to quieten my intensity about this–did you think that, given the lives that many of us have led, the suffering we’ve had, the pain and oppression we’ve been subjected to, that we warrant other people explaining the risks of our behavior to us? When it is we and only we whose bodies and lives are at stake, who actually know what it is like to be controlled by Islamist powers, and you do not?
It’s not to say there aren’t risks, and there aren’t costs. The costs of apostasy are heavy and often pass very few people by, but often they’re not too different than things you might deal with in your life: social costs, familial tension, estrangement, poverty, the struggle to gain independence and chart your own path. For many of us, there are or have been costs of violence as well–violence that is not foreign to those who are abused, especially women, anywhere–domestic violence, beating, assault. Yes, the risks are often there, the costs are there–but so is our capacity to assess those risks and make decisions as to whether we want to engage in public apostasy work.
Expressing fear that we will be hunted down, maimed, killed for our work can be incredibly paternalistic, presumptive. It implies that Ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims are doing stupid, dangerous things. It implies that the work of Ex-Muslims often does not merit the risks. It also disempowers us–it does not even acknowledge the possibility that we might have power over our bodies and lives, that even on the small scale of our own lives we are able to transcend the oppressiveness of the big bad Islamist demon.
It also implies that we either have not taken the time or do not have the capacity to assess the risks and benefits when we deliberately go about creating projects and movements. It does not acknowledge that we might have the capacity and resources to take the requisite measures to safeguard our security.
And our work is very deliberate.
And when this is a kneejerk reaction, a first reaction when you see an ex-Muslim or progressive Muslim challenging and subverting Islamic norms, then it is based by necessity on zero knowledge of what that person’s life, family, and circumstances are like. It assumes that you somehow have more knowledge about the lives of strangers than they do about their own. It also judges them for what they are doing even while attempting to support and praise them, an almost begrudging sort of support. It often smacks of that’s nice and all but what are you doing, you silly brown woman? think of your safety!
I’m sure you consciously know the blatantly obvious: that not all brown people or people from Muslim societies are the same and have the same circumstances, that not all Muslim societies have the same norms regarding religious expression. But even though you consciously know that, your sentiment is based on a generalization. And the fact that it happens with more frequency regarding the endeavors of women than men is telling; it reinforces these implicit memes we all struggle to fight in our everyday interactions; that women are less capable, less independent, less informed, less reasoned, in need of concern and protection. Especially brown women.
And it is othering. That’s really one of the most bothersome things about it. It suggests that we are not like you, because people do not think to suggest that you might be in extreme physical danger when you express things freely. It does not sufficiently entertain the possibility that we might live in safe countries with human rights, that we might not be other than you, that we might identify as Americans etc too, that we have belonging and stake in the same places you do. It does not entertain the possibility that we might actually have similar circumstances and capacities, that we might have human rights that we can utilize fully, that we are in no more danger than you are for writing critique of religion, that we might live non-exotic, boring, white-fence lives outside of our online presence. But the default assumption–also implicit in the brown woman narrative–is that we don’t live like you, we don’t have the rights you do by default–that we must be in imminent danger, in hiding, in fear, with an aggressor waiting to entrap us behind every door when we dare speak a word–and this assumption is implicit before even asking who we are, where we live, what our living circumstances are like.
But we are here, and loud, and are speaking. Why must you unnecessarily paint us as victims when we have somehow transcended circumstances you project upon us? Have we not been victimized enough?
So I ask you: please; give us the benefit of the doubt. Set aside your protective instincts for long enough to acknowledge that we are rational, informed adults who have achieved wonderful things, and that we are more than qualified to make decisions with the information and outlook we have that you not only are not privy to, but are likely at least somewhat misinformed about. Because you don’t know what my country is like, what my family is like, what my living situation is like except for in the ways that I have shown you and taught you.
Do not let your expression of concern be a front for painting the ex-Muslims who are taking charge of their bodies and lives as helpless victims. Yes, religion often victimizes–but when your desire to express your sentiments about Islamist oppression ends up undercutting and devaluing the work of ex-Muslims, you might want to take a step back and reassess why it’s so important for you to voice your tired assertion that ex-Muslims are at risk for violence in that context. Instead, you can express support for and help promote our endeavors.
It doesn’t help for you to talk about our dead bodies and potential violence being done to us as a product of our work. That is not how we want to be thought of. If we are fortunate and empowered enough to be in safe places where we can articulate our experiences, make beautiful new projects and expand our safe places within our communities–why would you have a desire to project horrible circumstances upon us instead of celebrating the fact that we are doing what we are doing, openly and freely?
Why deny our freedom and agency when it’s absolutely unnecessary? Why give voice to the power of religious oppression by diverting the focus from our work and to how the Islamists would kill us for our work?
I certainly hope that it’s nothing along the lines of feeling that the existence of free, safe, empowered Ex-Muslims might undermine your ability to generalize about an evil, violent, destructive Islam everywhere. We don’t need to make things seem worse than they are to have powerful, compelling critiques of religion.
And isn’t it a good thing that Ex-Muslims can be safely out and proud?