Rafia Zakaria is an author and human rights attorney focusing on Muslim women and minority rights. She co-founded the Muslim Women’s Legal Fund which provides legal representation to Muslim women facing domestic abuse in family and immigration law cases.
She is author of the forthcoming book “Silence in Karachi: an intimate history of Pakistan” (Beacon Press). She writes a weekly column for DAWN, Pakistan, and blogs at Ms.Magazine, Dissent and Guernica.
In the war-ravaged decade following 9/11, every aspect of Muslim women’s lives has become a fulcrum of political contestation. From burka bans in Belgium to proposed Sharia bans in Oklahoma and Tennessee, saving Muslim women is advertised as a purported aim for broad and varied campaigns that in actuality have little to do with them. In private conversations and in public forums on these issues, the questions on many lips are inevitably “But doesn’t Islam really oppress women?” or “Doesn’t Sharia law treat women as second class citizens?” Because these observers see Islam, Sharia, and Muslim women undifferentiated monoliths, the answers to their questions consequently fit the binaries that produce them: good and bad, just and unjust, oppressive and liberating. The assumptions buried inside these perceptions rest on western law, in which gender equality is safe, while in Sharia law, its specter hung with images of hacked hands and stoned women, it is not. The consequence of looking through these prisms is that everyone, reader and writer, scholar and student, is required to pick at team and then sit as onlookers in a civilizational contest that had little room for nuance or dialogue. All writing about Islam and Muslim women must thus ascribe to this paradigm, either an unequivocal defense or a fervid denigration, a prioritization of being either Muslim or female, and always an “either/or” and never ever a uniting “and.” The essay presented here is a small rebellion against precisely this arrangement, one that insists that we choose a side, and immediately agree or disagree, before we understand or empathize or make any attempt to feel how the world appears to others seated at different places in the arena or to those in the ring itself. Rather, liberation and justice are complicated issues that defy the construction of neat lines across cultures and contexts and individual lives.