How Not to Rescue Muslim Women

I like visiting cafés. Cafés are to me what the phone booth is to Superman. Except I never go in Supermom, sparkling with sugar sprinkles, and armed with multiple strategies to nurture and educate. Nor do I emerge Exceptional Academic, rippling with cerebral muscles. I go in Struggling Momma, and I emerge Dr. Barely There. Cafés help me transition from one mode to the next. In my study, surrounded by onesies and jangly toys, I can’t really transition, and I end up blogging about the challenges of motherhood.

So, 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 politics, the media, Athens, and health care (or, I should say, health un-care, since I am in the United States). The baristas were young, clean-cut liberals—my peeps, in relative terms, especially here in this red state—college-educated, middle-class, pleasant young people.

The barista was chatting with his associate, a local student. She was unhappy with one of her professors that semester. The professor claimed that girls in the Middle East were 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 too because plenty of them marry spouses selected by their parents. My brother married a wonderful woman that my parents found for him, while I (the daughter) traveled to the United States 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.

So I had to deal 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.”

“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 United States 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 reexamine the very bases of the discourse and then to reexamine 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, and laypeople that habitually allied themselves with feminist causes. I thought of women who stand up for equality and gender justice and, for their commitment to those ideals, deal with much harsher realities on the street and at home than middle-class American women do, to. 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 then there was the professor. She was so filled with outrage over oppressive practices that limited women’s choices that she wanted the United States 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 marines from Alabama, Mavis Leno, or President George W. Bush (whose mythical CV features only one entry under “feminist activism,” and that entry is labeled “Afghanistan”).

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 my son out of your Musharraf’s jail, 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?