This piece was published at the Religion Dispatches blog in 2007.
I like visiting cafes. Cafes are to me what the phone booth is to Superman. Except I never go in Supermom, sparkling with sugar sprinkles. Nor do I emerge Exceptional Academic, rippling with cerebral muscles. I go in Struggling Momma, and I emerge Dr. Barely There. Cafes help me transition from one mode to the next. In my study, I can’t really transition (surrounded as I am by onesies and jangly toys) , and I end up blogging about the challenges of motherhood.
One day, I left my toddler in her father’s care, and went to a café. I like my baristas. I enjoy making conversation with them about the media, Athens, and health-care (or, I should say, health un-care, since I am in the US). The baristas are young, clean-cut liberals – my peeps, in relative terms, especially here in this red state – college-educated, middle-class, pleasant young people.
One of the baristas is a local student. She was unhappy with one of her professors that semester. The professor claimed that girls in the Middle East were almost universally married off at early ages, with barely any education at all. The professor went a step beyond outrage: she called upon the international and American community (via her undergraduates, if you please) to save Muslim women in the Middle East. America, she entreated, should penalize Middle Eastern nations. Any country that disadvantaged women to the extent that they could not easily pursue careers, and where they were married under family arrangements instead of purely personal choice, should not receive US aid.
(Heck, under that principle, I thought, we should go in and save Pakistani men – plenty of them marry spouses selected by their parents. My brother married a wonderful woman that my parents found for him; I (the daughter) traveled to the US and married an American.
Naturally, that afternoon, I gave up every attempt to jot notes for the public lecture I was preparing. I dedicated myself to studiously being the weird woman eavesdropping on the baristas’ conversation.
I dealt with mixed feelings as I listened to the two young people disagree with the professor. “So she says that American authorities should publicly criticize countries where women are married off early, and don’t have rights to choose their own husbands, and have to get arranged marriages,” Emma said. Peter chuckled rather unenthusiastically. Emma threw her hands in the air. “You know?” she said. “She thinks we should go in and change what people in other countries do, and how they treat women there.”
“Why should we go in to change what they do?” Peter said. “Who died and made us president of the whole world?”
“Exactly,” Emma said. “And it just doesn’t make sense for us to try to change how they feel. Why should they accept our point of view, when we think they’re wrong? Maybe they think we’re wrong because we meet people and marry whoever we like.”
(Uh, the little brown woman here? She’s one of them, and she met and married the man she liked).
“What they’re doing might be relevant to where they live, and their culture,” Peter said. “Maybe women in the Middle East don’t need as much education. Why should we force them to get more education and to marry late?”
“Well, don’t we have enough problems of our own right here?” Emma said. “Women don’t get paid as much as men do, and women get turned down for jobs because they’re going to get married and pregnant, and women don’t get treated equally to men at work either.”
“There’s another side to the problem,” Peter said reflectively. “I wish the whole world could agree on basic moral values today, so we could all enforce them collectively. The UN was supposed to help us achieve that dream of universal human rights. But we’re far away from agreeing on any moral and universal values today. Least of all on women’s rights. Other cultures and other religions will just do things differently, whether we like it or not. What we can do is live up to our own principles of equality and leave the rest of the world alone.”
“People in different cultures will never agree on certain things,” Emma argued. “It’s just something we have to live with, and stay out of people’s business. Would we like them to interfere with our values and our lifestyle? Of course we wouldn’t. So why do we expect them to welcome us with open arms and say, ‘Oh, please come and turn our societies upside down. Please change the way we work. Please make us do things the opposite from how we do them. We love America and we love equality. We love feminism. Come and teach us how to do it.”
As the two baristas chatted, agreeing on culturally relativistic values on gender, I struggled on my private darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of discomfort and delight. When a young American calls for non-interference in “their” business because “they” are different, I am relieved and disturbed. I contrast the non-interfering liberal with the large young Midwestern ex-GI in my class years ago: “Saddam is the Antichrist, and we’ve got to go in and fight him,” he told me solemnly. So I like the tune of non-interference. A little. In relative terms.
But the background harmony assumed total difference. People in the Middle East were different. They treated their women differently. They treated their women unequally. That’s the way “they” like it. Let “them” be. We, here, we like it different. We’re all feminists around here. We like our human rights and our nightclubs. They like their arranged marriages and their veils.
The combination was sort of Samuel-Huntington-with-Edward-Said.
My feelings reminded me of the fall of 1996. Just as I felt in the café – stimulated, troubled, confused about my feelings – I had felt in my graduate classes. I had just arrived in the US that summer, and was very unsure of myself. I had much to say, to be sure, but I recall how I struggled to find my thoughts and words in the conversation. I felt like I wanted to speak a different language.
For me, the struggle became an issue of how to insert myself into the conversation. How was I to re-examine the very bases of the discourse and then to re-examine the conclusions? How could I bring the incisive debate to a grinding halt and deconstruct the binaries – binaries that were foundational to the discourse? How could I challenge the very basis of the debate? And how, then, could I offer the same conclusion, but with a different emphasis? Or how could I offer a new perspective on the whole debate and face the blank surprised faces? – My baristas happily ranted about their professor and I agreed with them against the professor but I was struggling with the very basis of their opinions.
Neither one of my baristas, for all their liberal, distant, hands-off respect for “other cultures,” had even vaguely entertained the notion that norms of gender equality could possibly be shared by strange, brown Muslim folks in distant lands.
As a Muslim feminist from Pakistan – where feminism is local and has many colors and isn’t always called “feminism” because “feminism” is owned and run by White women who bring White men in fighter planes – I felt wracked with discomfort. I heard the baristas’ assumptions about Middle Easterners and Muslims. I thought of Pakistani activists, scholars, lawyers, theologians, politicians, writers, and lay-people that allied themselves with feminist causes.
It hadn’t occurred to my baristas that “those people” had already come up with ideas, strategies, and jihads to try to change patriarchal norms and oppressive customs. It hadn’t occurred to them that brown and black folks who spoke funny languages were sometimes engaged in a life-and-death struggle to change societal practices. Weren’t they all swarthy, bearded males featured shouting furiously about America on the cover of Newsweek? And weren’t “we” all feminists and enlightened?
And then there was the professor. She was so filled with outrage over oppressive practices that limited women’s choices that she wanted the US to engage in a political war with those countries to change what they did. So little did she know about the local contexts and so little credit did she give them that the only hope for them lay in “us.” And “us” meant marines from Alabama, Mavis Leno, or President George Bush (whose mythical cv features only one entry under ‘feminist activism,’ and that entry is labeled Afghanistan slash Oil).
When the white knight knows so little about his damsel in distress, how does he expect to rescue her? When she turns around and tells him to call her Ms. and to stop telling her what to do, will he be outraged at her ingratitude? When she says she’s quite happy wearing a traditional outfit, thank you, but could she please get maternity leave, will he snort in disgust at his charge? When she wraps her head in a veil and stands up for her Islamic prayer, will he throw up his hands at her inability to throw off Islamic slavery? When she says why thank you for your help, but I need my husband out of Guantanamo, and then I’d like to open a Qur’an school for girls – what will he say then? When she says she’s got her own ways of effecting the revolution, and it doesn’t involve selling out brown men to America, will he decide against trying to rescue her after all?
Muslim women are done being rescued. Muslim women are done being defined. Muslim women are done being told what they need.
But Muslim women could use help, doing what they think they should doWomen could use help in the worldwide community of patriarchy. Muslim women are engaged in struggles for humanity, equality and justice as are their global sisters. They sure could use some help. But when they reach out for assistance, to fellow warriors for all kinds of justice and equality they call for a few ground rules:
Respect. Give us some credit. Understand that we’ve been engaged in the struggle for gender equity for a very long time, even if you hadn’t “discovered” us before. As fellow feminists, you’re our peers. To you, we are not victims and certainly not your charges.
Empathy and support. Respect does not go with indifference. Respect does not mean that you must leave us to our own devices. It is not inherently disrespectful to feel for the suffering of others: the recipe combines respect and empathy. Support the cause of gender equity, and offer every assistance that you can, as long as it is combined with respect. This will mean a continuing internal jihad for you, along with the jihad for gender equity.
Don’t infantilize. Even as you empathize, make sure that you do not infantilize. When I feel sorry for my crying child, I gather her into my arms and cuddle her; I try to control her hands so that she does not hurt herself; I protect her from forks and messy food by feeding her spoonfuls of food with my own hands. Well, don’t treat Muslim women like that. Don’t tell them you have exactly the diet of morality and values they need. Don’t tell them you know what they need, and what they should refrain from.
Humility. As you support others, and as you empathize with their struggles, do not forget to exercise humility. This means remembering that you do not have all the answers, that (sadly) your own communities and homelands are not free of inequalities. Remember that your theologies and your cultures have as much patriarchal content as do Muslim women’s – and yet you do not abandon them. So do not call upon Muslim women to abandon everything they know and love for the sake of their rights. Share your ideas and experiences, humbly, but never assume you know. Which means –
Embrace your ignorance. Do not fear your ignorance. We sally out into the world armed with assumptions because otherwise we could not function. But a modicum of uncertainty about your own assumptions is useful. Do not have confidence in Fox News, CNN and Geraldine Brooks, or even in merely the present writer (who is a member of the post-colonial elite). Yes, I know that sounds like you can never truly know, but the best thing you can do is –
Learn and listen. At the conclusion of a lecture, a young White woman approached me and asked me what she should do about the “problems” of Muslim women. She wanted to help people, she said, and she didn’t want to be disrespectful. I reflected for a moment: had I, in my lecture, created a moral impasse? I had lectured passionately on the need for gender equity in Islamic theology, and I had mentioned the dangers of Western cultural imperialism. What was the answer? Very simple: the best thing you can do, I said, is to listen. Talk to people who are different from you. Listen to them, and process what they say. Even then, don’t assume you know all about them. Never assume that you are done knowing. I am a Pakistani and a Muslim, and I still haven’t figured out my own people entirely. You can’t put us in a box. The “different” folks of the world aren’t an easy minor in a college course for affluent White people to “master.”
Don’t crash the party. As you humbly, respectfully and empathetically listen, learn and support, take care not to barge into the struggles with guns blazing, and expecting applause. You are not Michael Douglas in The Ghost and the Darkness, you are not Lawrence of Arabia, and you are not any other White savior of Miserable People of Color. Offer support as Muslim women engage in their own struggles. Ask them what they need. Don’t appropriate their struggles. Ask them if they really want your letters to pour into the President’s mailbox. Ask them if they want statements of protest. Sometimes the last thing a local third world feminist struggle needs is loud shows of support from Washington, DC. Foreign supporters of a movement can destroy the hard-earned legitimacy of local movements. You can disrupt the delicate pattern of evolutionary struggle with your desire to see change occur overnight. When you fly in to “rescue” Muslim women, you can do serious damage to the work and to the credibility of feminist activists.