Gender Inequality

Scandals like Nouman Ali Khan and Harvey Weinstein say a lot about society’s treatment of women

The cruel reality of being a woman is this: no one is safe from unwanted sexual advances.

This happens regardless of what a woman wears or doesn’t wear, her age, her weight, or the color of her skin.  This has been increasingly apparent as of late as more and more women are finding the courage to fight back against the abuses that have been accepted for far too long.

 Just recently, thanks to the power of social media, the viral hashtag, #MeToo, gave a closer look at the sad reality of just how common sexual misconduct is against women.  The silver lining of this could be that sexual predators will get their just punishment and be shamed for their actions.

Unfortunately, as many women know, it just isn’t as simple as it may seem.

The most basic concept that must be established before we can even begin to discuss sexual harassment is that sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex or romance and has everything to do with exerting power over someone else.

For instance, in times of war, women, along with land, were often pillaged and violated.  As if conquering women was yet another way in which invading forces could conquer territory.  This overriding theme of objectification is one that’s all too common in most cases of sexual harassment.  This plays out even if we were to take women out of the equation as seen with prison inmates who also exert their power using sexual violence upon other men.  Furthermore, young boys are also often the unfortunate victims of such harassment, as they are too young to fight back or even truly understand what’s happening.  Thus, this discussion is just as important for men as it is for women.  

Another thing to consider is silence. A woman will usually be told to ignore what happened to her as if it were just a bad dream – something that her mind just made up, out of fear of backlash.  Sadly, some women are indeed talked into thinking that they simply misunderstood what happened to them.  This does not mean that the woman is by any means a liar or has an overactive imagination.  

There is a very simple reason for why a woman would want to believe nothing happened: because she WISHES nothing had happened.  She WISHES she could take back those few moments where she could be so disgustingly disrespected.  She WISHES it was just a bad dream.

The status of the man will all too often be the deal-breaker in determining his innocence in the court of public opinion.  Take for example the renown Islamic scholar, Nouman Ali Khan (NAK).  Regardless of your belief in his guilt or innocence, you cannot deny the fact that there are, indeed, many men in his position that take advantage of their power.  In fact, such men have an added bonus: the cushion of their followers’ undying support.  This cushion will always be there to catch him when he falls, and almost certainly help him get back up on his feet as if nothing happened.  

This leaves his victims to be labeled as conspirators – evildoers who wish to tarnish the image of a man many see as an agent of God.  

Do not forget that NAK is not, nor is any other man in like position, a prophet or a perfect angel.  

He is a human being, and human beings are inherently fallible.  If this very basic notion was accepted, we would not have people automatically disrespecting the women who have come forward with such allegations against a religious leader.  Immediately, NAK’s followers unleashed a frenzy of victim-blaming, conspiracy theories, and even praying for the destruction of these women.  These attacks completely disregard the experiences of these women and consider them illegitimate.

 It is because of such reactions that some women decide never to come forward with what they have been through.  Thus, the cycle of powerful men taking full advantage of their impunity lives on.

Obviously, the religious community is not alone in allowing power to be equated with innocence as seen by the numerous allegations against the famed movie producer, Harvey Weinstein.

 Immediately, these women were maligned as nothing more than litigious money-grabbers and opportunists.  However, it is interesting to see that many of the women Weinstein targeted were from well-established families and careers, with plenty of their own money and respect.  Clearly, upper-class women are not free either from becoming targets.  Yet even such women, with the resources to shut down Weinstein, took time to garner the courage and the support to finally show him the error of his ways.  

How the Weinstein scandal unfolded is indicative of two things: first, that women in numbers can take down a seemingly invincible and influential man like Weinstein.  Second, that it is quite disheartening that it must take multiple women for there to be action, when one woman should be one too many.     

So, what should be the takeaway from this discussion?

Firstly, society at large needs to see women as individual human beings – not as “somebody’s something.” Not as somebody’s wife, daughter, mother, cousin, maid, lunch lady,  or accountant.  It would sound ludicrous if the same logic were reversed.  No one ever says to respect a man “because he could be your father or your brother.” This thinking, while it is well-meaning, is destructive to a woman’s individual identity.  A woman can be respected just by virtue of being who she is on an individual level.

 She does not need to be affiliated with a man to warrant respect.  

Second, both men and women need to be taught from an early age how to interact with the opposite sex.  For example, in the Muslim community, girls are often taught what is expected of them from a very early age by the older generations.

 This advice often revolves around how a woman should dress and behave in front of men.  Women are heavily scrutinized if a single strand of hair is out of place or if they fail to wear a hijab.  They are then blamed for inviting any misfortune that may befall them.  Unfortunately, Islam itself is the weapon of choice used to justify this repressive behavior, which is detrimental not only to a woman’s self-worth but to the way men in general view women.  Muslims conveniently forget to mention the first rule of gender relations in Islam, which is directed to men: they are commanded to lower their gaze.  

If they did so, they would not even notice what a woman was wearing.  The result of solely policing women has reached a point where Muslims have sexualized the mere existence of a woman.  Thus, the focus needs to shift from women and how they act or dress to teaching men how they should behave around women.

Now that women are speaking up in full force about sexual misconduct, we will hopefully see a turning point in how society tackles the issue. People are now beginning to realize that policing women is not the answer.  The answer is to start policing men who think it is perfectly okay to treat women as sex objects.  Society grows when it accepts change.  

For the sign of a civilized society is when an individual’s rights are recognized, and the sign of an inferior society is when an individual’s rights are sacrificed for fear of change.  

Gender & Identity Life

Dear aunties, stop using my body for your gossip

Under the dimmed lights of the wedding hall, bhangra music played loudly in sync to the rhythm of the dhol drums. My Muslim friends shook their hips on the center dance floor in the midst of a crowd of men, huddling their heads together in laughter and clapping along to the music.

I sat by myself at one of the empty tables bopping my high heels to the music, pretending that sitting alone for the second night in a row during a week of aunty-approved wedding festivities, didn’t bother me. I was dressed in a blue and magenta shalwar kameez. Neatly tied around my face, in sharp contrast to my friends, was a matching navy hijab.

That evening, my smile was my best accessory. It hid the dawning realization of my outsider-status as a hijabi in my Muslim community. 

I was holding back tears.

I grew up in a small suburban town in upstate New York with a modest-size population of Muslims, the majority of whom were of Pakistani descent like me. This community was an isolated bubble, sheltered from people’s lived realities, on-going politics, and rampant Islamophobia. Having attended Islamic school from a young age, I was taught a black-and-white vision of Islam: boys are haram, hijab is obligatory, and meat must be zabihah or kosher.

The conservativeness of our community was only enhanced by my parents, who began every conversation on womanhood with the word “haram,” or “forbidden.” The word was pervasive in their vocabulary and – although God-forbid anyone says it aloud – subtly associated with sexuality.

 Women singing in public was haram because of its so-called sexual allure. Women were forbidden from dancing in front of men because it was deemed sexually enticing. And for every strand of hair, a woman failed to hide behind a cloth was another day of punishment waiting in hellfire. 

My entire existence was perceived and understood in relation to men.

While most would rebel under these stringent rules and ridiculous principles, I embraced it. My strong belief in God’s goodness was enough for me to see the beauty in what I believed was God’s command. We were taught that God wanted to protect women from the uncontrollable gaze of the opposite sex, who make up 50 percent of the population. 

These rules were not oppressive, but liberating and cautionary.

During Ramadan in sixth grade, I walked through the front doors of school with a hijab covering my hair for the first time. Other than a few comments about my “do-rag,” my change in appearance went largely unrecognized by the student body. Ironically, the most ruthless comments came from outside school, from aunties in my Muslim community, the majority of whom did not wear the hijab at the time.

One aunty laughed, “She even wears the hijab in front of my son!” As if I thought I was a sexual muse for her son, rather than carrying out a religious mandate.

This was my first introduction to what I have since dubbed aunty culture: the innate need of aunties to voice unwarranted opinions and attempt to control the lives of everyone else in our mosque community.

The first time our community was exposed to the controversial idea was by Brother G, a trusted Islamic school teacher. Aunties and uncles came at him with knives and pitchforks ready to drive him out. There were threats of banning him from teaching (though he generously taught Quranic Arabic for free to high school students), letters of nasty words were exchanged (“third-world country” took on a whole new level of meaning) and board members demanded he explain his “extremist” textual methodology at an emergency town hall meeting.

The topic in question? Hijab.

Brother G concluded the hijab was never an obligation, but a remnant of a culture that gave birth to Islam. This kind of talk was unacceptable and it became the community’s sole mission to cast out all deviant voices.

Watching the unfolding drama revealed an entirely different facet of Islam to me just as I went off to college—one where people disagreed on the interpretation of the Quran. And so as I moved to Boston for school, I began to explore the multiple Islams through my Anthropology and journalism studies. Over a span of four years, my views changed and crumbled and my faith wavered in highs and lows.

Exiting the confines of my small town, I became frustrated with the hypersexualization of women’s body and hair. I detested the limitation of my mobility when men were present. I resented the discomfort of the cloth on my head, which never rested comfortably on my shoulders. I judged Muslim men who dared to utter the word hijab in my presence. I questioned the positioning of hijab in a continuum of gender and sexuality notions. 

And I hated the constant feeling of being “other,” both inside and outside my Muslim community.

Aunties – my role models, my mothers, my friends – became the cultural agents by which contradictory depictions of femininity were enforced. One day dancing was classified as erotica, the next day it was a measure of my religious progressiveness or lack thereof. Flexibility was not an aunty-sanctioned option.

The mosque had become a space of hostility and othering. Here, it was impossible for me to not question gender-sexuality norms and the role of the hijab in my own marginalization.

None of my female Muslim friends wore this simple cloth that is now a contentious battleground for political, religious and economic ideologies. 

They will never understand the burden of wearing your religious identity publicly, facing discrimination during countless job interviews, to overcome preconceived assumptions while conversing with a professor, or the fear of walking down a sidewalk after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Worse, they will never understand how it feels to be made invisible and under-prioritized by the women of their very own Muslim community.

I spent my youth desperately looking for someone to rise up and define a new normal among Muslim women—one that empowers relationships, emancipates the female body from a field of controversy, and embraces a spectrum of differences. 

All these years later, I’m still looking.

So as I watched my Muslim friends dancing at the wedding from afar while I sat, decked out and alone, I never felt so distant from my faith, my Muslim community, and the larger American society.

It is a paralyzing realization.