“Isn’t she one of those feminists?” The word rolled off his tongue tentatively – as if saying it was like swearing or backbiting. As if it was a bad thing. In light of the situation, calling my sister-in-Islam a feminist was part of a smear campaign geared toward suppressing our opposition to the barrier, which had just been installed in our local university prayer room.

This was a young man – impressionable, uninformed and obviously using the word as he heard it used by others. He just wanted the inside scoop on our barrier protest. Being one of a handful of hijabis on campus, meant that some people just naturally assumed I was more religious, pro-barrier and rejected certain social movements.

I brushed him aside saying that the moment the Prophet championed women’s rights and emphasized equality – he became Islam’s most influential feminist.

My sister in question didn’t wear the hijab and was a vocal organizer against the barrier – so she took the brunt of the slander. Any authority and power she could have wielded was suspended because her dedication to the religion was made questionable. Now, no one called her a woman of loose morals. No one accused her of being an enemy of Islam. No one said that her western education threatened the very fabric of Islamic tradition. They just needed to call her a feminist, and innuendo took care of the rest.

I’ve noticed that when Muslim women and their allies try to challenge the status quo, there’s at least one perspective attempting to place the blame on “foreign” political or social ideologies. Despite the fact that feminism(s) exist in Muslim traditions and cultures, saying that word to the wrong person can bring to mind images of bra and burka burning westernized women – who either assume to know what’s best for the “oppressed” Muslim woman, or who have tainted their delicate and innocent minds with thoughts of revolution and forced equality.

Some fear that the agenda of the western feminist includes banning the hijab, encouraging women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, mocking motherhood, promoting promiscuity and lesbianism (*gasp*) and challenging traditional, divinely guided gender roles. Of course anything that threatens “our traditional way of life” is fair game. So sometimes feminism is let off the hook in place of democracy, television, the fashion industry, music, Pepsi or Thanksgiving. Really, anything that aids in creating “us” versus “them.”

This perspective tends to define the rights that Islam affords to women in opposition to perceived (and usually misunderstood) goals of the feminist movement. There’s no need to promote equality for all – Islam already grants equality between the sexes. There’s no need to settle for lower paying wages for an equal position to a man or choose between your career and your family – Islam defines your duties as a woman and as a mother. There’s no need to use your body and sell yourself to others – modesty in Islam guarantees that people engage with your mind instead of seeing you as a sex object. There is no need to struggle for your rights – Islam came at a time when women were horribly oppressed and grants women specific rights. And under a truly Islamic society, these rights will be guaranteed.

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