Racism, feminism, and the Sharia debate

By Sharmeen Khan

November 2005

The recent uproar over the possible inclusion of Sharia law in Ontario arbitration has raised a number of important questions concerning religious freedom and the place of religious law in a secular society. While superficially, the issue might be seen as a straightforward conflict between religious and secular practices, the fact that the religion in question just happens to be Islam has brought to the surface, in an atmosphere of increasing Islamaphobia around the world, racist and damaging stereotypes of Islam and of Canadian Muslims. We could see many of these stereotypes in evidence during this debate, but to me, the most uncomfortable was the emergence of a particular feminist response that relied largely on the serious misunderstanding and constant “othering” of Canadian-Muslim women.

I have been observing this debate from arms length, since I found it quickly polarized into two totalizing positions that, between them, dominated the media’s coverage. On the one side were the anti-Sharia groups who believed that the inclusion of Sharia law would basically legislate abuse in Muslim families and legitimize Islamic fundamentalism. On the other side were the pro-Sharia activists – from what I saw, mostly religious Muslims – who wanted the option to access Islamic law during divorce, marriage, and child custody disputes. As someone who identifies as a progressive and secular Muslim, the two camps were not only inaccessible to me because of their strict political line, but also because both served only to reinforce stereotypes of Islam and Muslim Canadians that were detrimental to a healthy debate. To be clear, there were compelling arguments by Muslim feminists in Canada who articulated the danger of Sharia inclusion in Canadian law. However, much of the feminist mobilization, especially by those who were not Muslim, continued to promote an idea of Muslim women as victims that needed to be “saved” by Western feminism.

At a recent anti-Sharia demonstration I attended in Toronto, reporters asked the question of why so few Muslim women were in attendance. One man suggested that, “many Muslim women aren’t allowed to leave the house without their husband.” Indeed, there is abuse and oppression within some Muslim marriages, as there is in many non-Muslim relationships. Patriarchy and violence are neither specific, nor unique, to Islam. As to why few Muslim women attended the demonstration, I could venture a guess that many Muslim women were at work, or perhaps chose not to subject themselves to racist paternalism by non-Muslim would-be saviours.

Understandably, there are patriarchal elements within Islam and Islamic law, and we all can point out examples of oppression by followers of Islam. But painting Islam as an unquestionably violent and oppressive faith only serves to portray Muslim women as victims. I heard various stories at demonstrations of how Muslim women would have “no choice” but to accept Islamic arbitration, since only the most oppressive and abusive of men would opt for it. The stereotype of Muslim women – hidden behind the veil, barred from public participation unless given permission by their husbands – has captivated the imaginations of some feminists in Canada, and fuelled a commitment to “save” the women behind the burqa. Unfortunately, this analysis has also been used to legitimize violence and war against Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the main reasons Bush gave for the bombing of Afghanistan was to “liberate” Muslim women from Islamic fundamentalism. Casting Muslim women as victims only denies their agency, their struggle, and their choice, since they are seen as incapable of changing their situations without Western intervention. This “we know what’s best for them” sentiment is evidence of paternalism, not solidarity.

Non-Muslim feminists need to approach their relationship to Muslim women in a way that does not reproduce racism. This is particularly vital at this moment in history, because we are currently organizing in a context of extreme backlash against Muslims. What is at stake is the fact that a movement set on “saving us” will only cause more violence and racism for Muslims. It becomes just another form of imperialism, where non-Muslim feminists determine how the struggle should be fought; who are its victims, and who are its agents; who, or what, is or is not Canadian; and who is or is not a feminist. It is precisely this approach to the issue that has forced many progressive Muslim women to the sidelines of the debate.

Sharmeen Khan is a feminist and anti-racist Muslim doing graduate work in Communications and Culture in Toronto.

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