My lecturer, once, singled me out in class as being “oppressed” when there was a discussion about how people view things differently. At that time, I was surprised. Admittedly, I was sporting a baggy shirt with a scarf that covered my hair, but I still felt very uncomfortable to have been categorized as the odd one out just because of my outfit. Also, she never asked for my point of view about my own choice of clothing. That’s when it hit me. She had labelled me as “oppressed” without even asking my opinion on how I feel about how I dress. I did understand why she would have thought that I am a victim of oppression, as there’s always a news story about women being forced to wear certain coverings in the Middle East, but I wasn’t from the Middle East and nor was I oppressed. In fact, I remember thinking that I was being “oppressed” by her because she was labelling me unfairly without even asking me what I thought of the issue that was about me, and not her. It is no one’s right to speak on my behalf, I can speak for myself. Feminists have fought for centuries so that men don’t speak on their behalf, and the same way, I did not need someone who didn’t bother to know what I thought, to speak for me. That incident really impacted my life and I still remember how I felt this lack of belonging, just because of who I was – a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf.
I feel this way nowadays too, but in a different context. With years, my knowledge on feminism expanded and I realized it was about women’s struggle for equal rights and not what I had thought earlier. I started identifying myself as a feminist because I have always been proud of being a woman. But then I noticed that mainstream westernized feminists such as the European Feminist movement, FEMEN, would not recognize me as a feminist. In fact, I would be someone they would be protesting against. All because I was a practising Muslim woman and for a lot of them, that cannot coexist with being a feminist. But I choose to differ, for who defines what it means to be a feminist? There are many branches within feminism such as intersectionality which fights for the struggles of non-white women of a lower economic class and recognizes that different women may have variations of struggle due to being of a specific gender, race and class. So my struggles as a Muslim woman may be different to that of a French FEMEN protestor, but in the end of the day, aren’t we all women fighting for the same principle, which is for all genders to be treated equally? Why, then, is there an inequality of some mainstream feminists in regards to treating other feminists who may have “different” belief systems and ways of dressing? Because as a feminist, I believe every woman has a right to do what she wants, out of her own choice and if I as a woman choose to practise my religion and cover my body, that is my own choice and no one has a right to judge it just the way I do not have any right to judge anyone who chooses to practise differently.
Unfortunately, a lot of women who come from minority backgrounds such as Muslim women feel left on the side lines by mainstream feminism due to differences in belief systems, which should not be the main concern. I mentioned the incident with my Spanish lecturer because she identified herself as a strong feminist, but ironically she did not let me have a say regarding myself and stereotyped me instead of letting me feel equal to everyone else and respecting my viewpoint, even if it may differ to hers. Being in the umbrella of feminism should mean to include everyone no matter what their belief or dress code, and respecting each other’s way of living as well as fighting for the same cause of equality. But if within the umbrella, amongst the feminists themselves, if there’s a conflict because one labels another and thinks they are the “right” kind of feminists (although there is no “right” type), then we cannot unify and struggle for equality.