Muslim women want to be heard and respected

20:13, Nov 16 2012

Last Saturday Michael Cox wrote an opinion column that offended some readers and stereotyped Muslims. Today Hamilton Ethnic Women's Centre trustee Anjum Rahman gives her perspective as a Muslim woman.

One problem with being a woman of colour is that many people think I need to be saved.

Saved from myself, either because I couldn't possibly have the strength to fight the supposedly awful oppression I constantly live with; or because I've been brainwashed into being blind to that oppression.

Saved from all the men in my life who couldn't possibly value me as a human being and who would never listen to what I had to say, even if I did manage to speak out from under the heavy weight of oppression.

Saved from my society, which is structured to keep me in my place and to deny me any ability to fulfil my dreams and ambitions.

Such are the narratives surrounding me. These narratives were formed without my consent, and without any consultation. Such narratives deny both my own agency and the work I do in my community.


Such narratives are used by those who want to take actions in the name of liberation. These were the narratives used to colonise India, the country of my birth. Atrocities against women were cited as a reason to wrest control of the country from "ignorant savages" (who incidentally had a history of civilisation well beyond that of their colonisers), and to bleed wealth from that country.

These narratives were used (among other things) to justify the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the bombing and killing of thousands of innocent civilians, including the very women they purported to want to save. These are the narratives used by warmongers who are calling for the invasion of Iran.

I don't deny that there are significant problems for women in these countries. There used to be the practice of suttee, or widow immolation, in India. In parts of Africa, there is female genital cutting. In northern Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan, it's access to education. And there are many more issues besides, for women in all parts of the world.

I understand that people want to do what they can to stop these practices, to improve the lives of these women, because they care.

But if that caring leads to actions that worsen the lives of women, then what is it worth?

If you asked these women what they saw as the solution to their problems, I'm sure that not many of them would say it was a 10-year war. Nor would they say that misrepresentation of their religious beliefs and hatred of the men they love is the answer.

Certainly, there are men who make their lives difficult. But there are also many who support them as they take on the struggle to make their voices heard and to push for change. [Pakistani education campaigner] Malala Yousafzai's father is one of those men.

Women of colour are activists, strong and effective, often working quietly and sometimes loudly, but in a way that will achieve the results we know are best for us. It might not be what others want for us, or we may not be doing it the way others think we should be.

But true empowerment lies in actually listening to our voices, letting us find our own solutions, and respecting us enough to accept that we are intelligent, capable human beings.

Maligning us with ignorant and inaccurate generalisations about our communities is not empowering.

If we care about the lives of women, there is plenty to be done in this country. Statistics from the "Are You OK" website are sobering reading, with 58 per cent of all reported crime in New Zealand relating to family violence.

We can and we need to make a difference to the lives of women in our neighbourhoods.

That's why I'm a trustee of the Hamilton Ethnic Women's Centre. We do our best to support women in ways that work for them. We do our best to listen and we never judge a whole community by the actions of the worst few among them. Because it's not fair and it's not helpful.

I don't need you to save me. I need you to respect me, and to listen. The editor of the Waikato Times has done that this week. I hope others can do the same.