As my previous writing should make obvious, I have issues with Islam. Among other things, I’ve written about my experiences in Islamic Sunday School and about the importance of including ex-Muslims in discussions about Islam. Recently, I went on a mini-rant on Twitter about people who claim arguments regarding the oppression of the hijab are made up by white feminists and forced onto Muslim women. I then went on another mini-rant about how seeing Muslim women’s writing about sexism they have experienced can be inspiring to those who have had similar experiences. During this time, a few others discussed these topics (and other related ones) and there was some interesting conversation. This post is a result of those posts and conversations. Hopefully, there will be more, but this is a start. I want to address the issue intersectionality as it relates to my experiences as an ex-Muslim woman and my experiences in discussions about Muslim women, specifically some of the problems I’ve seen with the way intersectionality is put into practice.
Alliances and Commonalities
There are those who claim that when ex-Muslims speak out, we are claiming that Islam is especially bad and advocating for discrimination against Muslims. There may be some who do this, but there are many who do not. For myself, I would argue that it’s quite the opposite. When I ask that non-Muslim liberals be allies with liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims, it’s because I believe we have a lot in common and that we have similar goals. I’ll use some examples to illustrate my point. Liberal non-Muslims in the United States and other Western countries know that conservative Christians sometimes make disingenuous statements in apologetic arguments. These statements do not match up with reality, and often minimize the real harm that is done. When conservative Christians say that “gender complimentarianism” (as opposed to gender equality or egalitarianism) is not sexist, because god loves everyone, but has just assigned different roles to women and men, many liberals see through this deception. When conservative Christians say that they “love the sinner, hate the sin” in regards to LGBTQIA+ people, many liberals see through this deception. Advocates for equality know that there is harm being done, even though religious leaders and apologists claim everything is fine; these advocates also know that when religious leaders can find a handful of women or LGBTQIA+ people to say they agree with the discrimination, that is a way of silencing the criticism of the harm being done to many more people. They know that much of the coercion and harm goes on behind closed doors, with a nice front presented to the public via the arguments that sexism and anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry are “not real discrimination”, while many people who are hurt are too afraid or intimidated to speak out.
If you understand all this, it should not be surprising to hear a Muslim or ex-Muslim say that we experience very similar things in our religion and community. We also experience sexism, anti-LGBTQIA+ discrimination, and other types of bigotry from fellow Muslims. We also see religious leaders make up apologetic arguments for why it is “not real discrimination” (as opposed to racism and anti-Muslim bigotry, which these religious leaders do consider real discrimination). We also have relatives like Kamala Khan’s brother Aamir (in the wonderful Ms. Marvel series), who tells Kamala that (unmarried, unrelated) women and men should not be alone together and that Muslims should not marry non-Muslims. (And many of us, like Kamala, do not agree with these relatives.) There are both similarities and differences between and among various demographic groups; we are all humanity, and we contain multitudes.
Some non-Muslim liberals realize that they might not know about the experiences of women of color or of Muslim women, so they decide to share what women or color and Muslim women have written and said. This can be a good thing. The problem is that, all too often, they selectively only support those who stand up for socially-conservative interpretations – those who make arguments that liberals realize are disingenuous when conservative white Christian women make them. They end up accidentally supporting the Muslim equivalents of Christians who they vehemently disagree with. When conservative Christian women make such arguments, liberals may sometimes defend them if they are being discriminated against (out of principle) but they are not usually allies on most social issues. When conservative Muslim women make such arguments, they are treated as the authentic voices of Islam. Liberal Muslim and ex-Muslim women who actually have much more in common with non-Muslim liberals in our values are either thought to not exist or are accused of being allies with anti-Muslim bigots.
Misquoted By The Opposition, Silenced by Allies
That brings us, yet again, to the issue that often comes up in these discussions: the concern that criticisms of Islamic sexism might be motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry and/or that someone else may misuse valid criticisms (such as a Muslim woman’s personal story) of to justify anti-Muslim bigotry. This certainly does happen, and I’ve seen it happen in discussions myself. People make a valid point about problems with Islam, but then follow it up by advocating profiling, torture, drone strikes, or other discrimination or abuse against Muslims. People references stories of Muslim women to advocate against immigration. However, this is not the only way that these topics can be misused or discussed in a way that is exclusionary.
What I’ve also seen happening (in discussions among liberal equal rights advocates) is this: a Muslim or ex-Muslim woman writes something about sexism she has faced in the Muslim community. Someone else misquotes her to advocate bigotry against Muslims and/or people assumed to be Muslim based on race or nationality. From there proceeds a deluge of essays, videos, and lengthy comment sections that predominantly focus on criticizing the person who advocated anti-Muslim bigotry. (Sometimes, this deluge occurs even without the misquoting, in anticipation that someone might misquote her, based on prior experience.) The original point about sexism is forgotten in all of this, to focus on racism and anti-Muslim bigotry almost exclusively.
Here’s the thing: Any human rights or equal rights movement can have backlash or be misused by those with bad intent or harmful goals. When well-meaning liberals focus only on racism and anti-Muslim discrimination, that can also have unintended consequences. It can allow socially-conservative Muslims to continue their sexism and anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry while maintaining that any criticism is bigoted, even criticism coming from Muslim women and queer Muslims themselves. There is certainly backlash when white women discuss gender equality or men of color discuss racial equality, but that does not stop them. Why, then, should those of us who are part of multiple marginalized groups remain silent due to possible backlash?
I have always believed in being thoughtful and taking the time to express oneself clearly to try to prevent misunderstanding (as much as possible, as we all make mistakes and misunderstand sometimes). I also believe that the best way to advocate for equality is to actually advocate for it, not remain silent until another equal rights issue is perfectly solved. We do not live in a perfect world, and the only way to make it less bad is by actually discussing these topics instead of arguing that we shouldn’t talk about them.
Human Rights, Not Just Partially-Intersectional Feminism
One of the larger issues here is a well-intentioned, but problematically-implemented, attempt at intersectionality. Liberals often discuss “intersectional feminism”. I consider myself an intersectional feminist, in that I believe in fighting for gender equality (against gender discrimination) and I also believe in a version of feminism that acknowledges and fights against other types of oppression as well. At the same time, intersectional feminism is not sufficient the way it is currently put into practice.
Intersectionality, ideally, is supposed to acknowledge that people can simultaneously be part of privileged groups and marginalized groups in society. In too many of the discussions I’ve seen, there’s an imbalance in that people expect certain advocacy groups to be intersectional while giving a pass to others. The phase “white feminists” or “white feminism” often comes up in discussions regarding the racial privilege of white feminists and the problems of institutional white feminism. There’s a valid reason for this, I know; there is a long history of white feminists being the most vocal in discussions and focusing only on issues that affected them, while either actively supporting or ignoring racism and other equal rights issues. Certainly, feminism should be intersectional. However, intersectional feminism should not mean that white feminists have to support socially-conservative Muslims almost exclusively to prove they’re not being bigots.
Intersectionality should be expected of all human rights advocacy movements, and it should include the right to people to discuss how they have been discriminated against along various axes of oppression, even by people who might also be in a marginalized group that they are also a part of. Too many people have given special treatment to discussions of religion, in that they expect (for example) feminist movements and LGBTQIA+ equality movements, to include people of different religions and races, but are not willing to criticize religious oppression (sometimes with the exception of religious discrimination against other religions). People label any untrue or harmful teaching as ‘not real religion’ so that even as they may criticize individual religious people, the religious institutions remain free from blame.
Why is this?
Some liberal equal rights advocates may believe Muslim bigotry is a minor issue. It’s minor in a certain context, specifically in the sense that Muslims in the United State and other Muslim-minority countries have much less institutional power to discriminate against the Christian majority in comparison to the great amount of power the Christian majority in these countries has to discriminate against Muslims. It may also be a relatively minor issue in that the United States, one of the most powerful countries on Earth with the largest military on Earth, is majority-Christian and has done many wrong things to Muslims internationality. In other contexts, Muslim bigotry is far from minor. It is a major issue. Muslims may be a minority in certain countries, but Muslims can still have other types of privilege. Being a minority in certain countries does not prevent Muslims from saying and doing things that are sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQIA, prejudiced against other religions or denominations, classist, ableist, and so on. Additionally, Islam is the second largest religion on this planet. There are a great many countries were it is the majority religion and Muslim privilege does exist, with Islamic religious leaders able to influence the government policies to create (de jure or de facto) theocracy. In an international context, while the governments of majority-Christian countries like the United States have done much wrong, that does not erase the wrongs done by the governments of majority-Muslim countries (both internationally and within their own borders). Religions have a lot of power in people’s lives, affecting their beliefs and decisions. Leaders can teach bigotry using religion (sometimes quoting it to support pre-existing prejudice, but sometimes also specifically teaching a type of bigotry because the religion endorses it). Religions can become powerful institutions within communities and gain the power to oppress.
Part of the problem is that socially-conservative Muslims, like social conservatives in many religions, try to maintain hegemony to claim they are the ones that society has to listen to as representatives of the religion. Agreeing with them becomes considered equivalent to defending the rights of Muslims. Giving them a pass for other types of discrimination, defending them all the time “on principle” (while never or rarely defending the people they hurt) becomes a prerequisite for being considered inclusive. Like anyone who says that people should tolerate their intolerance, their aim is to prevent human rights, not advance them. As I already stated, people who believe in human rights should realize this and seek out Muslim and ex-Muslim allies and who actually do believe in equal rights for all, not just rights for conservative Muslims.
The result of this for me, and perhaps for other Muslim and ex-Muslim women, is that we find allies among liberals only when we discuss how we have faced racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. We may find allies when discussing sexism and anti-LGBTQIA discrimination we have faced from non-Muslims, but when we discuss discrimination we have faced from fellow Muslims, we are told that we’re siding with anti-Muslim bigots. (Meanwhile, these anti-Muslims bigots who we actually disagree with misuse our words and want us to agree that our families deserve to be discriminated against by non-Muslims. We are unfairly held responsible for their actions.) Our attempt to find allies among non-Muslims is seen as bigotry against Muslims. Conservative Muslims accuse us of being brainwashed by non-Muslims if we disagree with them, as if we couldn’t come to the conclusion that we don’t like the way they treat us all on our own. Meanwhile, conservative Muslims, while calling themselves “moderate”, can find allies and claim intersectionality and inclusion. Liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims are expected to give up gender equality, LGBTQIA+ equality, and other equal rights issues within Islam while focusing on racial and religious freedom (especially for conservative religious people). This is no better than giving up racial equality and religious freedom in a feminist movement dominated by white Christian women. There are already international human rights groups that do include and work together with liberal Muslim and ex-Muslim women, and more people should realize that this is possible and a good thing.
I don’t believe in giving any equal rights group a pass on not being more inclusive, and that inclusivity has to mean being allies with minorities within minorities as well. Someone who discusses facing discrimination for being part of a marginalized group within another marginalized group is not the same as someone pretending they were discriminated against because someone didn’t tolerate their intolerance. Having these discussions requires thoughtful consideration, something that should be a core part of equal rights advocacy anyway, as we give consider the possibility of a better world.
Many people, I think, may find this all a very complicated issue to discuss. They do genuinely care about bigotry among Muslims, but they do not know how to bring it up or how to discuss it accurately. Well, life is complicated, and equal rights discussions are complicated as well.
I hope that more people will be inclusive of people who belong to multiple marginalized demographics and people who are minorities within minorities. There needs to be more thoughtful discussion in which people can share their experiences of discrimination within their communities, even if more powerful people in their communities may not want them to. People who may be part of marginalized demographics themselves shouldn’t assume that they can’t discriminate against others, and experiencing discrimination in one way is not an excuse for ignoring or supporting other types of discrimination.
One of the reasons I write about these topics is because I have found that I cannot count on someone else to speak up for me, and so I have to write about these topics if I want to be heard. I hope that more people are heard so that more people are included.
Acknowledgements and Recommended Reading
Much thanks to Kiran Öpal (@KiranOpal), Maryam M.-C. (@MaryNeedsNoHail), Eiynah (@NiceMangos), and the others who discussed some of these issues with me on Twitter.
Kiran Fatima Öpal was kind enough to quote me when posting some thoughts on the issue in “Double standards of white feminists towards dissident women of colour from Muslim backgrounds”. Her post expresses some of the same frustrations that I’ve felt as well. She has previously written some other posts that are relevant to this issue as well, including the following: “Should Brown/Muslim Women Be Sacrificed to Save Culture? The Case of Malala Yousafzai.” and “Gender segregation and rape culture”.
 My writing about Islam can be found at https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/category/islam/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Dressing For (Divine) Success: A Shallow God and Coercion”. Posted on 19 November 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/dressing-for-divine-success/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “On Discussing the Hijab and Including ex-Muslims”. Posted on 29 March 2014 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from
 The five tweets can be found here: http://twitter.com/AniSharmin/status/609112319570931712.
 The six tweets can be found here: https://twitter.com/AniSharmin/status/609355188734984192.
 My essays and reviews about Ms. Marvel can be found at https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/category/ms-marvel/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #13 ‘Crushed, Part One’ (By G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Ian Herring, et al)”. Posted on 24 May 2015 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/book-review-ms-marvel-vol-3-13-by-wilson-miyazawa-herring-et-al/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #14 ‘Crushed, Part Two’ (By G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Ian Herring, et al)”. Posted on 24 May 2015 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/book-review-ms-marvel-vol-3-14-by-wilson-miyazawa-herring-et-al/.
 Kiran Öpal’s Twitter can be found at http://twitter.com/KiranOpal.
 Maryam M.-C.’s Twitter can be found at http://twitter.com/MaryNeedsNoHail.
 Eiynah’s Twitter can be found at http://twitter.com/NiceMangos.
 Öpal, Kiran Fatima. “Double standards of white feminists towards dissident women of colour from Muslim backgrounds”. Posted on 11 June 2015 at Kiran Öpal’s blog. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from http://kiranopal.com/double-standards-of-white-feminists-towards-dissident-women-of-colour-from-muslim-backgrounds/.
 Öpal, Kiran Fatima. “Should Brown/Muslims Women Be Sacrified To Save Culture? The Case of Malala Yousafzai.” Posted on 6 November 2013 at Kiran Öpal’s blog. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from http://kiranopal.com/malala-yousafzai-should-brown-women-be-sacrificed-to-save-culture/.
 Öpal, Kiran Fatima. “Gender segregation and rape culture”. Posted on 16 December 2013 at Kiran Öpal’s blog. Retrieved on 13 June 2015 from http://kiranopal.com/gender-segregation-and-rape-culture/.