As a Pakistani woman from a Muslim family, I find that people often preconceive how my life must be. Apart from the rather ignorant comments and questions that I’m used to — “Oh, so you can actually speak English?” and “Do people in Pakistan still ride on camels?” — people tend to think that because I grew up in a Muslim country, I must be seriously oppressed.
I am anything but oppressed.
People are quick to define my story for me. They actually argue when I insist that I haven’t been victimized and tyrannized by Islam. Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classmates — a white male — about my experience growing up in Pakistan. I was trying to tell him that my life is actually pretty good and that my parents, although conservative in some ways, are really understanding and liberal. But he kept on saying that he “can’t imagine what my life was like” and that the rights I have aren’t “enough.” When I repeated that I consider myself lucky, he stated that it was nice I was “seeing the bright side.”
He had a hard time grasping the idea that, just maybe, women in the Muslim world aren’t victims.
From what I’ve experienced, Westerners like the idea of the brown girl from a third-world Muslim country finding “liberation” and “freedom” through Western values. Western media usually depicts Muslim women as submissive victims forced to wear the “oppressive” hijab and obey the men in their lives. While this is true for some women who are denied their rights, it is ridiculous to think that all Muslim women are subjugated and in need of rescue.
In this debate on whether Muslim women need saving, the voices that are most often ignored are the ones that are most important — those of Muslim women.
The media generally does not focus on what Muslim women happen to think about wearing the hijab or what Muslim women find empowering. In many cases, Muslim women find strength and freedom in their faith.
But just like people misjudge my experiences, Western media fails to understand and acknowledge the wants of Muslim women. Even if Muslim women claim that they are not oppressed by Islam, people like to believe that these women are brainwashed and don’t know what’s best for them.
For the West to portray all Muslim countries as sexist and backward is colonialist and condescending, and it feeds into the white savior complex. Even though the West does not have gender equality, when the East and West are compared according to the Western standard of freedom, it is the West that is portrayed as being more civilized, progressive and feminist. Instead of understanding the nuances of Eastern cultures and practices, Western cultures dismiss them as being backward and in need of reform. This narrative parallels colonialist history. As a result, Muslim women are treated like damsels in distress, their voices are silenced, and they are denied their agency.
Malala Yousafzai’s story is an example of the white savior complex. I agree that Yousafzai is incredibly courageous and inspirational and that her contributions to feminism have been immense. But her story has been claimed by the West in order to justify U.S. intervention in other countries and also to criticize Muslim countries. As journalist Assed Baig puts it, Yousafzai’s is “a story of a native girl being saved by the white man.” He also states, “The West has denied more girls an education via their missiles than the Taliban has by their bullets.” But the media fails to talk about girls killed by U.S. drone strikes.
Yousafzai’s story is also not representative of all Pakistani women’s. The northern area, where Yousafzai is from, is indeed dangerous for women. But in the major cities — such as Karachi, where I come from — educational opportunities are available to women. In fact, women outnumber men in medical schools in Pakistan, where 80 to 85 percent of medical students are women. My grandmother, who is also a doctor, never let the fact that she is a woman stop her from going to medical school in England. Even now, she continues with her private practice and balances her work with her traditional values and faith.
Muslim women are often strong, resilient and determined. I admit that there are some Muslim countries that are sexist and restrictive, along with some cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation and honor killings, that are mistakenly attributed to Islam. But not all women in the Muslim world are treated like that. I also admit that most Western feminists have good intentions when trying to help Muslim women, but they often fail to consider the views of the very people they are trying to save.
Before the West tries to save women in other lands, it should focus on the problems Western women still face: sexualization, the wage gap, the glass ceiling and the freedom to own their body.
Many Muslim women are reclaiming their story and talking about their experiences. The media and public just need to hear them out and take them seriously.
My story is not that of a victim, and I choose to define my narrative on my own terms. The right to claim one’s narrative is something that everyone should have. Muslim women don’t need others to tell their story or speak for them — they can speak for themselves.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].