At her pre-atheist-bat-cruise lecture, an ex-Muslim and atheist activist Heina Dadabhoy was rather critical of westerners stereotyping Muslim women. Her tone was gentle and playful, but the message was sharp.
Heina gave many examples of how Westerners like to fetishize Muslim women's presumed powerlessness and oppression. That doesn't really help the women, just like the memes that compare burqa-covered women with garbage bags don't either. It's not just conservatives: progressives do it too. And they should know better.
Western people like to not acknowledge that Muslim women have agency. It comes across in patronizing comments, such as when little old ladies would come up to Heina back when she wore a headscarf, and say "Dear, you know you don't have to wear that here." Heina was tempted to answer, "Here? Where else would I wear it? I haven't lived in any other country than US."
When she first got on the internet as an adolescent, and some men online found out that she was a Muslim, with a headscarf, trapped at home (I don't know if she meant that last part sarcastically or genuinely), they objectified her as an oppressed princess that needs to be saved. And there was an undercurrent of "you better be grateful and keep your bitch mouth shut". Heina pointed out that it happens in the atheist movement to, cough cough (I guess she meant Richard Dawkins, though he is not alone in that). She had people say to her: it's so great you left Islam! Are you still pure? Do you still have your headscarves? Can you wear one for me? The weirdos just keep coming out of the woodwork.
But Muslim women are not without agency, and Heina bristled against being portrayed as a helpless, isolated girl in need of rescue and liberation. Even as a teenager, growing up in a very strict fundamentalist environment, Heina and her friends found ways to have fun. For example, they used religious phrases to rate boys by hotness, e.g. "Look what the God has created!"
Heina Dadabhoy gives a lecture before the Atheist Community Austin bat cruise in September of 2015. More pictures from the 2015 Atheist Community of Austin bat cruise are in my photo gallery.
Heina pointed out that all societies have patriarchal structures oppressing women. While there is no "law" in the West that women should shave their legs, the societal pressure is there nevertheless; the fact that no one is going to throw you in jail for refusing can make this norm even harder to get rid of. Whether you think that the less clothing a woman is wearing the more immoral the country is, or the freer it is, it's the same thing: you define women's sexuality as only in relation to men.
Later in her speech she gave a bunch of trivia about Islamic rules that govern dating, sex, relationships, and marriage. Not surprisingly, most of them don't take women's wishes into account. Oh, and she assured us that the myth that "virgins" (as in 72 virgins that await a man in heaven) is mistranslated "raisins" is completely wrong. The guy who said that just didn't understand language. Speaking of which, what do women get when they get to heaven? Apparently, in some corner of Islamic mythology it is written that women will be reclining on couches, eating, and they will be served by beautiful clear-eyed servant boys. There is a lot of discussion between Muslim women to what extent those boys are used. "So there is kind of some forward thinking there," says Heina.
(I already forgot if all women were supposed to get these boy servants in heaven, or only particularly virtuous ones, or maybe just the ones who died as martyrs.)
Some people from the audience asked her how, with all the gender segregation, are you supposed to meet a person you're going to marry? She replied that it could be someone you met at a mosque, or it might be someone your parents knew all his or her life. There is also a lot of halal flirting going on in the hallways of Islamic association gatherings: "Can I have your dad's email?" Oh, and Islamic men and women who are unmarried are called boy and girl, even if they are in their 40s.
As a takeaway message, she said we should champion an attitude of female agency. We should not buy into Islam's erasure. We should not agree when Westerners say, oh, Islam women are oppressed and have no agency. The most important thing, the most pragmatic thing is harm reduction. We should not try to deconvert them all, its not going to happen. A person from the audience asked her for ideas on how to support progressive Islam. Heina replied: "For one thing, western people should not be smartass and condescending: 'ha ha, you are a Muslim feminist? How do you do that?' Progressive Muslims are eager to get involved, but nobody even notices that they exist." When Heina points out to someone that she is an ex-Muslim, someone inevitably tells her that all ex-Muslims are dead.
(People from the other side tell her she's been bought and paid for, but she is still waiting for that check.)