Democrats and Republicans alike believe Islam’s ideas about women are outdated. My research, and my life as a Muslim woman with a hijab, show they’re wrong.
The latest iteration of the so-called “Muslim ban” was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling, leading many critics to call the decision a triumph of legal technicalities over principle.
In this third version of the Trump administration’s attempt to ban citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., there were some key differences that may have ultimately swung some justices in favor of upholding the executive order. One example was the omission of “honor killings,” which legal analysts pointed to as proof of biased intent in an earlier version of the travel ban.
But the perception of an allegedly inherent misogyny in Islam and its adherents is not unique to the Trump administration.
A recent study I co-authored with John Sides as part of the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group revealed something few thought possible: there exists a belief that liberals and conservatives actually share. The survey shows that the most salient stereotype about Americans of Islamic faith, held by liberals and conservatives alike, is that Muslims “have outdated views of women.”
Islamophobia common on both sides of the aisle
As an American woman who is visibly Muslim, I can personally attest to the wide prevalence of this perception, especially on the part of other women. Even among many liberals, the unquestioned assumption seems to be that I am deserving of their pity before their respect. A well-meaning woman approached me recently in a public bathroom to inform me that I was now “in America” (what?) and that I didn’t have to wear that thing on my head here.
A more creative microaggression came from a white woman sitting next to me at a coffee shop. Seemingly out of nowhere, she declared to an adolescent girl, who I presumed was her daughter, that she would never be subjugated to any religion that tells women they are inferior and have to wear the veil. The girl looked mortified. I hope the girl will also never be subjugated to being totally embarrassed in a public place again so her mom can feel superior to a Muslim woman she knows nothing about.
Had she taken the time to ask, rather assume to know me, she might have come to learn that I head research at a D.C. think tank, I’m an engineer by training, I went to a business school (where I was one of 20 women in a class of 150) and that I was appointed as an adviser to an American president. Also, I find great meaning and joy in my faith and choose to practice hijab as an act of religious devotion — plus, I find it empowering.
My choices may not be her choices, which doesn’t threaten me at all. If she really cares about freedom for women, listening rather than demeaning women who don’t look like her would be a great start to real progress.
Now I don’t mean to imply that Muslim women don’t face any gender-based challenges. Roughly half of Muslim American women say they’ve also experienced gender discrimination in the past year. But that’s no different from Christian, Jewish and non-affiliated American women. Where Muslim Americans are unique is that three-quarters say they have experienced racial discrimination in the past year, and 69 percent report encountering religious discrimination during that time, as well.
So, what actually subjugates Muslim women? It’s not Islam or hijab, but instead racism and Islamophobia — assaults justified in part by a supposed desire to save them. Frustratingly, our study found that liberals, who tend to be overall friendlier to marginalized groups, are nearly as guilty of this type of patronizing prejudice as others.
Muslim women in America don’t need saving
I am here to say that we are not in need of “saving.” According to a study by The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, for which I direct research, Muslim American women are among the most educated faith group in the country, and outpace their male counterparts in higher education. The majority polled also see Islam as a source of pride and happiness. The more than 40 percent of American women of the Islamic faith who say they wear hijab tell researchers they do so either as an act of piety (54 percent), to be identified as a Muslim (21 percent) or for modesty (12 percent). Only 1 percent said they wear hijab because a family member requires it.
Rather than pity, Muslim American women need respect even when their choices don’t conform to the dominant culture’s idea of what liberation is supposed to look like.
Writing their dissenting opinion in the travel ban case, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg maintained that “a reasonable observer would conclude that the Proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim animus.” They also said the decision turns “a blind eye to the pain and suffering the Proclamation inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens.”
And many of those suffering are women — women actually in need of saving.