With Islamophobia sharply on the rise, the stereotyping of Muslim women seems to be everywhere. In news and media messaging, Islam is often portrayed as oppressive against women and accompanied by the clarion call to “save” Muslim women — usually through the dismissal of their religion.
The stereotype of the “helpless” Muslim woman, devoid of her own agency and oppressed by her faith, is used by liberals and conservatives alike.
Pointing out that faith is an important aspect of a believer's identity and denying a theist their right to practice and believe is in itself oppressive, Muslim women are turning to Twitter to take on people who use them as pawns to justify misogyny, racism, cultural imperialism, and militarism.
In Islam, the onus of how a woman covers her body or chooses to wear the hijab — as a symbol of her piety or symbolic pride in her faith and culture — falls exclusively on her. So, when one man pointed out to a hijabi Muslim woman that she should not be wearing makeup with her headscarf, because it lacks an element of “respectability”, the woman took to Twitter to express her angst.
Humaira Mayet, a 20-year old living in London, who goes by @LondonRaani on Twitter, used the hashtag #NotYourRespectableHijabi to speak out against people who judge women on their appearance, often on religious terms.
Swiftly following Mayet, other hijab-wearing women started tweeting with the hashtag #NotYourRespectableHijabi and posted pictures wearing makeup, as an act of decrying and defying blatant religious and moral policing, telling the world that their faith is not for anyone to regulate.
— لُجَيْن. (@pixieluj) November 30, 2015
— melakkhaleel (@melakkhaleel) November 30, 2015
Bottom line: if you're not a (Muslim) female, you don't get to speak about hijab. #NotYourRespectableHijabi
— Afreen (@afreen_nh) November 30, 2015
Turning the clock to the new year of new hopes: 2016. An article quoted UK Prime Minster David Cameron, saying that Muslim women in the UK, owing to their lack of knowledge and understanding of the English language, are not able to speak up against their oppressors and stand up to protect their rights. He went on to conjecture that Muslim clerics take advantage of this “traditional submissiveness” of Muslim women to oppress them. Cameron then got around to suggesting that the English language could “empower” Muslim women in the UK and help them play more constructive roles in British societies, and also help fight religious extremism.
Muslim women who were outraged at being perceived as and being called “traditionally submissive”, took to Twitter to list their achievements and bust Cameron's claims.
— Afrah 幸福 (@infinitesimalll) January 24, 2016
— Manal Khalife (@iammanalk) January 30, 2016
Dear British PM, I speak two languages, pick up languages quickly, work at an airline and I'm a college graduate. #TraditionallySubmissive
— Mariam (@nofiltermariam) January 30, 2016
The campaign was important because Cameron's opinions are unfortunately shared by many who harbour dangerous misconceptions about Muslim communities, simply because they are culturally distant from their own socio-cultural landscapes. Often these misconceptions are so deeply embedded — in the psyche of a large segment of a population — that they run the risk of being institutionalized, like the way Cameron suggested.
With Muslim women vehemently debunking such ill-formed assumptions they made the world hear their voice contrary to what Cameron thought they were capable of. And this was not first time that they had done so.
In 2014, tired of hearing that an individual cannot be a Muslim and Feminist at the same time, Noorulan Shahid, started the Twitter hashtag #lifeofamuslimfeminist, affirming the significant duality of her identity.
Many Muslim women swiftly followed, tweeting their faith in Islam and feminism. Some also revealed that misogyny plagues the community as much from within, as it does from the outside. This was a revolutionary virtual movement to break yet another commonly held stereotype about Muslim women: that their religious identity keeps them from making legitimate demands for equal rights.
Muslim women of the 21st century, whose imposing presence in the virtual space can hardly be overseen, proved with this hashtag that they are self-assured politically aware individuals, who are with the world in its fight against oppression and discrimination. These women expressed their despair of white supremacist tendencies within feminism, which have scuttled for long the development of a nuanced understanding of feminist intersectionality. Two years after it was started, this powerful trend can still be found alive, being tweeted about to this day. If David Cameron had managed to follow this trend, he probably would not have made the mistake of thinking Muslim women are “traditionally submissive”.
“White feminists argue women should be able to dress how they want to, yet refuse to let me wear my hijab in peace #lifeofamuslimfeminist“
— متو (@xomattouxo) December 11, 2014
— The Miseducation Of (@ABeau2ifulMind) February 20, 2015
— I Speak for Myself (@Ispeakforme2014) March 27, 2014
— Saimah (@saimahta) March 2, 2014
— Hira (@hirab11) January 11, 2014
These women have busted myths, fought misogyny and stereotypes alike, with more gumption than they are traditionally given credit for.