Who Speaks for Muslim Women?


By Diana Rahim

I just finished reading “Who Speaks For Islam?: What A Billion Muslims Really Think.” by John L. Esposito & Dalia Mogahed. The book presents the data collected from a 6 year long study conducted by Gallup Organization. They conducted tens of thousands of hour long interviews with people from more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations. The data collected helps empirically answer questions like – Do Muslims hate the West? Do they hate democracy? Are Muslim women silenced & oppressed? Are extremists acting on religious grounds? (The data collected answers ‘No’ to all questions, but of course the answers are more insightful and complex than the questions asked).

With data collected from a billion Muslims, we get the silenced voice of Muslims to the forefront to answer these questions — not from the media, not from extremists given the loudspeaker, nor from politicians with rudimentary understanding of the faith who resort to racist caricatures to state their point.

An interesting section that I thought would be relevant to share would be “What Do Women Want?”

With all my reading, some things presented in this chapter still came as a surprise to me. I didn’t know for example how directly the call to “save the oppressed Muslim woman” under the banner of feminism was used as a justification for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Isn’t that amazing? I always knew the power of opinion and how with enough numbers and momentum, they can shape policies, providing justifications even for wars. It is why I’m frustrated by the accusation that Muslims are “overreacting” whenever they call out someone for saying or doing something Islamophobic. And with regards to using women’s rights as justification, it seems too basic if your feminism stops at simply trying to ‘save’ someone while keeping her voiceless in her own liberation. It seems so basic to not interrogate one’s country’s own participation in the oppression of the women. What, are we still in the first wave?

But anyway.

Our white saviours so concerned for the oppression of poor muslim women by their oppressive Muslim husbands and fathers might be surprised to know the following (which I quote from the book):

“Western attacks on Islam often use women’s rights as a justification. Also, as discussed before, acute conflicts such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both partially justified in the name of the liberation of women. Yet, Muslims believe that these wars have harmed rather than helped Muslim lands. Muslim men and women alike believe that the invasion of Iraq has done a great deal more harm than good — this is the sentiment of majorities in most of the countries in which this question was asked. Add to this Muslims’ perception that Western concern for Muslim women is limited to the abuse they might suffer at the hands of Muslim men, while the suffering that women endure at the hands of Western power appears to be ignored.”

I remember answering a question on Quora, a site that I have now abandoned, when someone asked “Are Muslim Women Oppressed?” I pointed out that a lot women are oppressed around the world. Some more so than others. This includes the oppression of Muslim women by Muslim men. But why is it that Muslim women have become the poster girls for female oppression? Perhaps simply because she is the most peddled picture of female oppression today. Why is it that this poster girl will also be wearing the sky-blue burqa, her eyes behind the a little strip of net? After all, less than 0.05% of muslim women actually wear the burqa.

Then again, it would be good to interrogate how this singular image of the quiet, oppressed Muslim came about. What are the images received by the public eye when it comes to Muslim women? I quote the book again:

“In a survey of all photographs of Muslims in the American press, three-quarters (73%) of the women were depicted in passive capacities, compared with less than one-sixth (15%) of the men. In photographs of the Middle East, women were six times (42%) to be portrayed as victims than men (7%).”

The idea of Islam as a monolithic entity, which breeds reductive views of muslims, is nothing new. In this monolithic view of Islam the men are bearded. The women wear a burqa or a veil. They’re both Arab. When Europeans are resistant to the idea of an influx of Muslims, they comment on how Europe might turn into “Eurabia”. Never mind the fact that 80% of muslims are non-Arab.

It is reductive to point to one thing, be it religion, or race, or culture, and not look at the whole web of structures intersecting with each other. How even politics and power relations come into the mix. If one truly cares about the condition of muslim women, one has look to more than just the muslim men, who are very often the target of Islamophobic and neo-colonialist violence as well, two forces that are more successful at oppressing women more than any muslim man can ever hope to achieve.

In all of this talk about the Muslim woman, her own voice is rarely heard. She is an object of pity, whose saving is decided without consultation to her own opinion. British Parliamentarian and journalist Boris Johnson encapsulated this perfectly when he said in 2001:

“It is time for concerted cultural imperialism. They are wrong about women. We are right.”

And just like that any consideration for the opinions of women themselves are obliterated. With the misdiagnosis of oppression being Islam, well-meaning but nevertheless rather condescending Westerners assume that the imposition of their own culture, their version of democracy, and ‘rescuing’ women from their own religion will liberate them. This alienates the very women westerners want to liberate since –

“One of the most pronounced themes to emerge from our study of the Muslim world was the great importance of faith in respondents’ personal lives and in society. Substantial majorities in virtually all predominantly or substantially Muslim countries Gallup surveyed say “religion is an important part of life.” ”

In short: Muslim women value their rights and their faith.

To end, I quote Snigdha Ali, whose insight is relevant:

“Very often Third World women have been presented as “oppressed” without any attempt of further analysis of the form and extent of the process of oppression. … Women as a group/social category is not a homogenous collectivity. Terms like “women’s problem/s” often hide the fact that women from different class, culture, race and religion face very different challenges and can experience even contrasting outcomes of the same social phenomenon.


If [people] harbor a thought of “liberating” illiterate, impoverished, suppressed women they are denying or undermining the ability of those who they want to liberate. Coming from outside with whatever amount of knowledge or other resources and having the benevolent idea of “doing good” to the women of a community, is not only patronizing on their part it is also a misconstrued reality to begin with… any researcher or activist so to speak, has to work with the women and not on them.