By Amira Elghawaby
Jan. 9, 2019
It would be easy for many of us to shrug
nonchalantly at the historic images of two American Muslim women taking their
place in the U.S. Congress.
After all, Canadian Muslims have been
elected to Parliament over the years, and are currently represented in cabinet
and in the Senate. In 2015, Maryam Monsef became the first Muslim woman ever to
be appointed to the post of minister. She would be followed by current
Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen.
Many people in Canada have nonetheless
taken notice of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s wins. Their victories are
significant for a variety of reasons that resonate well beyond American
Consider that Muslim women, in particular,
have often been silenced, stereotyped, pigeonholed and underestimated since the
first Orientalist images of Muslim women began to appear in the salons of
Europe centuries ago. Artistic themes often centred around the notion of “white
men saving brown women from brown men,” as described by Indian intellectual
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
While Muslim scholars have chronicled a
rich feminist history within early Islamic civilization, patriarchal notions of
the role of men and women have greatly distorted the faith and have indeed
resulted in unjustifiable oppression in some parts of the world, even here.
This has led to the popular and long-held Western view that Muslim women are
generally oppressed and in need of liberation.
“A moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim
women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere,
dissolving distinctions between conservatives and liberals, sexists and
feminists,” wrote Lila Abu-Lughod, professor at Columbia University and the
author of Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
Muslim women themselves have been
challenging these notions, taking control of narratives that attempt to frame
their experiences within a limited Western understanding. Yet analysis of
Western media frequently demonstrates limited representations. One British
study in 2016 analyzed 200 articles in the most widely read British newspapers
and found that most stories featured Muslim women as passive or submissive and
lacking positive representation.
This type of limited coverage has a long
pedigree in Canada; academics Katherine Bullock and Gul Joya Jafri concluding
as far back as 2000 that “Muslim women are presented as outsiders: as foreign,
distant ‘others’, and as members of a religion (Islam) that does not promote
‘Canadian’ values, but anti-Canadian values such as indiscriminate violence and
While social media has gone a long way in
helping to counter mainstream representations, negative perceptions remain.
“This one-dimensional image is being stamped on every Muslim woman, all 850
million of us,” wrote photographer Alia Youssef in an introduction last year to
her photo collection, the Sisters Project.
The wearing of the hijab in Congress is
also a critical milestone. Here in Canada, MP Salma Zahid became the first MP
to wear a hijab this past summer, receiving some backlash from far-right
commentators. She was forced to explain why she had decided to don it midway
through her term in office (she cited her cancer treatment as being the prime
reason, though she was clearly taken aback at having to explain herself at
all). As Harvard professor Leila Ahmed has pointed out, the veil continues to
represent “a sign of irresolvable tension and confrontation between Islam and
Unsurprisingly, some of the most vicious
attacks against both Omar and Tlaib have emerged from Middle Eastern
governments. After all, these two women represent a number of important
realities that despots want to obscure: that all women can and should have full
and equal rights and freely participate in the political sphere; and that Islam
and democracy are fully compatible.
Even while Muslim female leaders have long
existed within contemporary and historical Muslim societies, these latest
achievements reinforce what is possible.
By breaking through the barriers to
participation, these women are now able to bring forward progressive policies
that reflect what all faiths and beliefs are meant to instil: compassion,
humanity, and public service. Their win is a win for all of us who stand for
these principles, wherever we are.
Amira Elghawaby is a writer and human rights advocate based in Ottawa.