The Othered Woman: Shahed Ezaydi’s quest to debunk white feminism
Ever since the Egyptians were colonised by the British towards the end of the nineteenth century, Muslim women have been a pawn used not just by Western imperialists, but by white feminists.
British colonisers in Egypt and French colonisers in Algeria tried to claim legitimacy through the use of liberation politics, arguing that they were freeing native Muslim women from veiling, gender segregation and other religious and cultural practices they called “backwards.”
"The first waves of feminism monopolised by white women in the West created a new type of 'saviourism' in which Muslim women were viewed as oppressed, submissive and uneducated women who needed saving by white feminists"
Male British politicians used the very same white feminists that they were arrested back home in the suffrage movement in order to influence middle- and upper-class women in Egypt.
Mass unveiling ceremonies were held in Algeria in the 1950s, where French military men’s wives would unveil Algerian women to claim the latter had sided with them. Muslim women were turned into a public spectacle.
Unfortunately, the end of colonisation in the 1950s and 1960s did not bring with it an end to liberation politics.
Instead, the first waves of feminism monopolised by white women in the West created a new type of 'saviourism' in which Muslim women were viewed as oppressed, submissive and uneducated women who needed saving by white feminists, the latter believing that they needed to speak up for Muslim women and act on their behalf.
This did more harm than good.
Not only has liberal white feminism harmed Muslim women, but it has excluded them from feminist spaces. White feminists have the habit of dominating all spaces and platforms and “whitesplaining” lived realities that they actually have no lived experience of.
It’s a type of white supremacy that Libyan British journalist, Shahed Ezaydi, has been researching for years. The more books on feminism she read the more she realised that there was no literature addressing Muslim women in the history of the movement.
“I was finding that Muslim women were relegated to just paragraphs in books, or we weren't even included in these feminist books, or if gender or Islamophobia were mentioned, the gendered aspect wasn't really looked into,” she says in an interview with The New Arab.
So, she turned to crowdfunding publishing company Unbound, proposing a book that would turn Muslim women from a footnote into a full manuscript – and that’s how her upcoming book, The Othered Woman: How Feminism Harms Muslim Women, was born.
Not only does Shahed’s book deep dive into white feminism and its relationship to Muslim women, but she also explores gendered Islamophobia and how Muslim women are harmed by a number of players, a trifecta of state, street and home that Egyptian feminist Mona ElTahawy refers to as the “trifecta of misogyny.”
Not only do Muslim women face Islamophobia, but they have to deal with misogyny at home, at work and on the streets, and further marginalisation by white feminists too. It is a lot to deal with, yet Muslim women are often an afterthought regarding feminist spaces in the West.
"Not only does Shahed’s book deep dive into white feminism and its relationship to Muslim women, but she also explores gendered Islamophobia and how Muslim women are harmed by a number of players, a trifecta of state, street and home"
“I find it both baffling and interesting that a book that investigates the relationship between gendered Islamophobia and white feminism has only been commissioned in 2022,” Shahed says of her book. After discussing it with her agent, she realised that gendered Islamophobia and white feminism were closely related.
“I don't think we can begin to talk about and analyse gendered Islamophobia without talking about white feminism and the harm it has and continues to cause Muslim women around the world. I want this book to serve as a foundation and a tool to both gain a better insight into the insidious nature of white feminism and learn more about the lives and experiences of Muslim women worldwide.”
According to Shahed, there is an inextricable link between white supremacy and white feminism, which is surprising, as on the surface, white supremacy is often associated with far-right politics and feminism is left-leaning. But she explains that while politically they are at opposing ends of the spectrum, white feminists in the West uphold harmful structures that underpin white supremacy.
Because of their white saviourism, white feminists knowingly or unknowingly are backing the same imperialistic policies peddled by right-wing American governments and politicians who invade Muslim-majority countries such as Afghanistan on the premise of “saving the girls and women.”
This white supremacist-white feminist relationship also works the other way around.
“One of my chapters focuses on white feminism and its relationship to far-right groups,” Shahed continues. “People like the EDL use white feminism rhetoric to further an Islamophobic agenda. They'll say, Muslim women, need to be saved from these people. And then they cite cases like the Rochdale grooming gangs and how it's a Muslim problem, whereas actually, it is just an example of a kind of sexual abuse that was running rampant and the council’s negligence there.”
"For decades the white feminist movement has excluded Muslim women because of its belief that Islam is not compatible with its values and standards. Either Muslim women are asked to change themselves and reject their beliefs in order to fit into the white feminist box, or they are outsiders"
Shahed makes it clear that while she expects many Muslim women to take an interest in her book, it is an important book for non-Muslims to read too and hopefully learn how they can be allies to Muslim women.
“The biggest thing that they [non-Muslim women] can do is amplify our voices. I think a big thing about white feminism is that they tend to speak over and invent stories about Muslim women. They’ll cite one example of a Muslim woman that they know of who has been forced to wear the hijab and then make that a generalization for every single Muslim woman who wears the hijab.
“I think they can stop doing that and seek out Muslim voices, or books, articles, podcasts – any kind of content – and amplify that instead of putting their [white feminists’] voice in the mix where it's not really needed.”
For decades the white feminist movement has excluded Muslim women because of its belief that Islam is not compatible with its values and standards. Muslim women are asked to change themselves and reject their beliefs to fit into the white feminist box, or they are outsiders. This in turn has meant that within the Muslim community, feminism has been rejected and deemed incompatible with the faith.
There is a common mix-up in the Muslim community between the type of neo-liberal white feminism that isn’t compatible with the faith, and intersectional feminism, a type of feminism centring the lives of all marginalised people, which seeks to dismantle all unjust systems. One of Islam’s core values is ‘adl or justice, which would make a social justice movement like intersectional feminism compatible with the religion. Making that distinction between the two types of feminism is important.
“How can white feminism be defined? How can you spot it? Usually white and/or middle-class women in the West prioritize their own experiences. And it's based on capitalist ideals, what people have started to call girl boss feminism,” explains Shahed.
“Pointing to increasing the number of female CEOs in businesses is important but doesn't really tackle the actual roots of gender inequality, whereas intersectional feminism looks at how to tackle structural inequalities in society and when you begin to tackle those, you will improve the lives of not just women, but men too. The patriarchy harms men too and I feel like sometimes they fail to see this, but the patriarchy harms women and men in different ways.”
So, can a Muslim woman practice her faith and be a feminist?
According to Shahed, she can.
“Muslim women can absolutely be feminists. Islam not only gives us a multitude of rights as women but encourages us to learn about and actively fight for these rights, and we have been doing so for centuries. We are not symbols to be used to score political points, and we are definitely not waiting to be freed or saved. Instead, we stand and fight for our own rights and liberation, on our own terms," she explains.
“It's not Islam that confines us, but other oppressive forces such as colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, and until white feminists can see where the true oppression lies, they will always be reproducers of those very oppressive forces.”
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA