“Does anyone else check with at least three friends before making a formal complaint, just to make sure they can’t be perceived as irrational?”
It was late on Sunday night when I read my friend’s tweet during a break between my end-of-weekend-studying frenzy. I tweeted her back, starting a conversation on how we would always question voicing our complaints and opinions, out of fear of being rejected or brushed off because we are women. The saddest part, though, was realizing we both felt this lack of respect in the Muslim community more than in our communities at large.
For most of my life, I was okay with the patronizing treatment I received, not just from men who held positions of authority in the community, but from female leaders who stayed silent due to their upbringings in societies that normalized such behavior from men. I thought such patronizing attitudes were normal since I’d never worked in a Muslim group where the leadership treated me with esteem.
There are Muslim women everywhere who are dissatisfied with the way they’re treated in every aspect, from the conditions of the spaces they receive in mosques, to the disproportion of men to women in leadership positions, to the patronizing treatment they receive in both professional and personal settings. It has gotten to the point where women felt the need to have their own mosque, and have opened one in Los Angeles.
It seems the men dedicated to perpetuating the patriarchy are truly overachievers – so if you identify with them and aren’t sure if you’re pulling your weight, these are nine tried and true methods guaranteed to stunt the self-worth and confidence of Muslim women.
Dear men of the Muslim community:
1. When you need to speak to one of us, please stand at least six to ten feet away, and don’t make any eye contact or even look us in the face. In fact, turn your entire body in the opposite direction, please. We should be addressed and viewed as a serious source of fitnah, or temptation – not as living, breathing individuals.
2. When the community event you asked us to help organize is around the corner – perhaps a day or two away – please inform us in an abrupt and stern manner over the phone that we may not attend. Because although the event was originally advertised for both men and women in the community, such interaction can be a source of fitnah, so the women can no longer attend.
Bonus points: Make sure you break the news to us over the phone. Don’t have the decency to do it in person. Make sure we are responsible for making the announcement to all the women planned to attend. Why put yourself through that?
3. When we send you a formal and professional complaint in person or via email, don’t listen. You may respond to the complaint by using flawed, patronizing logic, and not addressing anything that was actually mentioned in the content of the complaint.
Bonus points: Add a personal attack in the response to the complaint about us or our family members.
4. When designing the mosque, give the women less space. Ignore the fact that the kids are generally on their side as well. It’s not important. Make sure it is difficult for women to attend the masjid. Don’t consider providing child care or anything to make it easier for them to make it to events and prayers. Because, priorities.
5. When you occasionally hold a meeting for the entire organization, make sure the disproportion of men to women is clear by seating the three to four women in the back. That way, they can see the sea of forty men in front of them and feel outnumbered and uncomfortable voicing their opinions.
6. When one of the two women on a committee cannot make it, make sure that the other one still takes the time out of her schedule to arrive at the meeting. But when she gets to the door, turn her away and tell her to go home, because she cannot be the only female at the meeting. The meeting can’t be held in a more public room, of course. Why go through the trouble of making those arrangements?
7. When reviewing the institution’s bylaws, confirm that there are several sexist double standards inherent within. If you find that your existing bylaws are full of “progressive” rules that encourage diversity and equality, there are numerous options to fix them. These can include but are not limited to, not allowing women on the official board, or maybe having more red-tape when it comes to event planning for women (arranging for more chaperones, security, or setting rules on the farthest distance the women can travel). Don’t be afraid to let your own, often unqualified, interpretation of Islamic law support your views. Get creative!
8. When working with us in person, make comments about how we dress. Make comments about the lengths of their shirts, the tightness of their clothes, or maybe even the few strands of hair that slipped when their hijabs shifted. You can make these comments directly, or use indirect communication and have someone else do the dirty work for you.
Bonus points: Victim blaming. When you receive any complaints about the comments, make sure to be clear about how women are fully responsible for the fitnah caused between men and women in the community. Don’t consider that maybe men could lower their gaze to add to the anti-fitnah effort.
9. When dealing with physical, emotional or sexual abuse or harassment, you have several options:
a. Magnify the taboo around these subjects. Don’t put any effort into providing a space for the community to discuss these issues.
b. Imply to victims that because such things are so common, they are normal. Victims just need to get over it and move on with their lives.
c. Stress the role of a woman in keeping a family together, so she feels guilty for even considering leaving her abuser if he is in her family. In your organization, don’t allow for the advertising of any resources that aid women who are in, or are recovering from abusive situations. You don’t want to break families apart, do you?
d. Again, victim blaming is also a great way to contribute to the situation. Blame the way the victim dresses, or blame her for allowing herself to be alone with him in the first place. Think outside the box.
Let me be clear, these are based on experiences my friends and I have had in the Muslim communities we have grown in, from summer schools to mosques to personal relationships.
Don’t get me wrong, we have enjoyed our experiences in the communities we have grown up in and have interactions and relationships with many wonderful people. These steps, however, are based on unfortunate experiences we’ve had that have taken a toll on our psyches. They need to be discussed and brought to light so that we can improve the shortcomings our communities. I am not pinpointing or attacking any one institution. Believe it or not, these are based on actual experiences and aren’t exaggerated.
Because of these experiences, I, amongst others, have found myself constantly second-guessing myself: Am I being rational? Am I overreacting? Is this idea even worth proposing? Questioning my sanity like this stunts my self-esteem and stunts the community as a whole, holding women back from their full potential to better the community. Not to mention that’s it is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I have several friends who choose to avoid working with or participating in Muslim organizations because of these previous negative experiences.
When I have had the pleasure of working with organizations that treated me fairly and valued my input and ideas, I have felt confident, empowered, and motivated to contribute. As a Muslim community, it is absolutely essential for everyone to support one another in their work and initiatives. It is especially important for leadership in communities and organizations to set the standard for valuing everyone and treating them with regard.
Let us work to get our communities to treat all individuals as equals and learn to build each other up instead of stunting one another’s potential. Maybe then, our communities can prosper and flourish.