It’s not unusual for renowned atheist Richard Dawkins to rub people of faith the wrong way. It’s not unheard of for him to get on the bad side of feminists. But it’s not every day that he pisses off the intersection of the two groups. But this week, with a series of tweets, that’s exactly what Dawkins did.
He started the hullabaloo off with this humdinger:
Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 23, 2015
What on earth could possibly be wrong with such a comment? Let’s count.
For starters, Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women — and overwhelmingly, women of color — around the world “need” to do, with little to no context for what their lives are like.
He’s relying primarily on mainstream media accounts of what it’s like to be a woman living in Middle Eastern countries where Islam is prevalent. To be sure, those stories can be jarring. Who can hear Malala tell her tale and not be moved? Who can read of an 11-year-old Iranian girl being gang raped without rage? But what Dawkins, and many critics of Islam’s relationship with women, forget is that this is only part of the picture. There are many more lived female experiences within this far-from-homogeneous culture of faith, and not all of them are ugly or oppressed. Much like most practicing Western Christian women are not sold to future husbands by their fathers for a couple of goats, many Muslim women embrace a very different interpretation of Islam than what we see in the headlines or read verbatim in the Qur’an.
But beyond the arrogance of assuming all women experience Muslim life the same way is the ignorance of assuming that Muslim feminism doesn’t already exist. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As Noor Al-Sibai wrote earlier this year:
Muslim feminisms, feminist movements in Muslim regions, and Muslim feminists in the West are as diverse and contradictory as their mainstream, white counterparts.
From Red Lips High Heels (a Lebanese blog) to MuslimGirl (the Seventeen magazine of Muslimahs) and many, many others, Muslim feminisms are experiencing an online renaissance alongside their non-Muslim counterparts.
Paired with the historical gains of Islamic feminisms — from the Daughters of Hajar’s “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques” to the Turkish feminisms from the Ottoman period onward — Islamic feminists have been making waves in their ancestral homelands and beyond.
Add to that the feminisms of converts and a collage as multi-faceted and brilliant as traditional mosaics that adorn the world’s great mosques emerges — a diversity that Western feminists should not only heed when discussing women in Islam, but could also use as a learning tool in their own feminisms.
In other words, Dawkins is way late to the party. The Muslim feminist revolution is well underway, and even a cursory amount of research (Richard? Meet Google.) would have demonstrated as much.
His prior arrogance is compounded by the fact that he somehow thinks he is bringing something new to the table, the implication being that these poor non-Western women of color could not possibly have figured this out before now and without his help.
In this sense, at least, Dawkins is in good company. Western feminists have historically, erroneously, assumed they are the only ones up to the task. In a post-colonial era, such charges add insult to injury in their condescending premise and clumsy execution. As Anne Theriault explained at Huffington Post:
We are taught to be thankful that we are not these women. On the surface, these lessons seem to be fairly innocuous — after all, it’s a demonstrable fact that we in the West, especially white women in the West, face less oppression than non-western women of color. When we take a closer look at these statements, however, their core message becomes clear: our culture is better. We are more enlightened, more rational, and more civilized. Other cultures should strive harder to be more like us.
We live with this strange sort of racism that tells us that oppression for any reason is wrong, but that only us white folks understand how to successfully end oppression.
We, as white feminists, are really not so different from the missionaries of several generations ago. We want to travel to far-off, dreamily exoticized lands and bring the light of the truth to the people there. Like the missionaries, we assume that we will bring wonderful, life-changing revelations to these people. We imagine ourselves standing before a crowd of dark-skinned women, their mouths little round Os of amazement as we reveal to them that no, they in fact do not have to wear a hijab. We think with delight of how appreciative these women will be, how they will fall about our feet with thanks for the truth that we’ve brought them.
This isn’t about whether or not women of color, specifically non-western women of color, face more discrimination and oppression than white western feminists — the fact that they do is pretty incontestable. This isn’t about whether or not white women should speak critically about the various ways that women of color are marginalized — this discussion is important, and I’m grateful that it exists. This isn’t even about whether or not we should work to better the lives of marginalized people — of course we should. This isn’t about any of those things. What this is about is agency.
There are so many examples of white folks charging to the rescue without considering how those they are rushing to help might feel about their “rescue.” Take FEMEN, for example, the feminist group that tried to “free” Muslim women by organizing the International Topless Jihad Day, during which they held protests (topless, naturally) in front of mosques. Though Ukrainian feminist group claimed to be protesting on behalf of oppressed Muslim women, numerous Muslim women felt that their voices were being co-opted, and disagreed with both FEMEN’s message and their tactics. There are many, many western women who will tell you that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and that they need to be freed from the shackles of their oppressive religion, but few seem to consider the fact that telling women that they should not wear a hijab (or even ripping the scarf off a woman’s head, as one Quebec woman recently did) is to continue to disempower an already marginalized group.
Ignorance was bad. Arrogance was worse. But Dawkins’ biggest offense rests elsewhere: ego.
After sending out his initial tweet, he was hit with an onslaught of messages from Twitter users calling him out on the first two problems with his message. Instead of hearing their words and correcting course, he defensively doubled down, rattling off passages from religious texts and referencing practices associated with fundamentalism. He pretended not to hear those informing him of the existing feminist movement. He shrugged off those who pointed out that, as a white Western male, he might not have the best perspective on what non-Western women of color might want. He was derisive and belittling.
When you offer someone “help” and they decline, it’s hardly productive to berate them for turning you down.
If Dawkins wants to help, here are some practical suggestions. He should educate himself on the rich history of Musawah. He should donate some of his wealth to the efforts of existing Muslim feminist organizations. He should use his wide network to signal-boost Muslim feminists advocating on Twitter. But most importantly, he should start by listening to the people he aims to assist.
For a man who values logic, you’d think that at least that last part would have occurred to him already.
***Update***: I’ve included some additional thoughts on my personal website.