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In Conversation With Shahed Ezaydi: The Truth About Muslim Women and White Feminism

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 3rd October, 2023

I spent a large chunk of my teenage years meticulously researching the meaning of feminism. After many attempts at understanding difficult Google searches with inaccessible language for a 15 year old, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. Barely anything I found resonated with me, a young Black, Muslim woman growing up in the UK. I automatically equated feminism with whiteness. It wasn’t until my second year of university that I began to learn more about intersectional feminism, which led me to find my experiences in writing. Reading the works of Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Lila Abu-Lughod and Fatima Mernissi prompted me to confidently call myself a feminist. 

Shahed Ezaydi, freelance writer and editor, has had a similar journey to me, much like many other young Muslim women. Her upcoming book, ‘The Othered Woman: How White Feminism Harms Muslim Women’, is set to be the first to analyse the relationship between gendered Islamophobia and white feminism. Filling a huge gap in the publishing industry, Shahed’s book aims to cover a plethora of topics and issues affecting women. I had the opportunity to chat with Shahed over Zoom about all things feminism, Islam and misogyny.

So Shahed, how did you come to know you wanted to write about this topic? 

I’ve always had a love for reading about feminism, but I didn’t know if I could really call myself a feminist, or if I could see myself in these representations. Black, brown, Muslim, disabled women, they’re just not in this bubble of white feminism – a term I came to a lot later on in my life.

When I became a journalist and a writer, I enjoyed writing about this topic. But, there was never enough space in a 1000-word article to delve into the areas I wanted to explore. So when I started researching the relationship between white feminism and Islamophobia, I thought there would be books on this that already existed. Unfortunately there were no books on how white feminism harms Muslim women specifically. I find this both surprising and interesting as to how the publishing industry works because topics around Muslim women or Islamophobia tend to be viewed as ‘niche’ or not very marketable. And I understand that publishing – like any industry – is a business first and foremost but it sometimes seems at odds with promises or goals from publishing houses to platform more diverse voices or issues. It’s why I’m really proud to be working with Unbound on my book because I’ve never felt as if my book is too niche and the entire team is such a big believer in the book and its potential.

I’ve read quite a bit about your book, but can you share more about the kind of topics you intend to cover? 

I want to address topics like liberation politics, talking about the hijab and how that’s been politicised in the UK, across Europe, and even globally. White feminism has used hijab-wearing women as a tool to further their own white supremacy and white saviour complex. Muslim women being viewed as submissive, silenced and oppressed are all based on their assumptions and stereotypes. 

Another chapter I decided to include is how white feminists think Muslim men have a unique misogyny that other men don’t have. Muslim men are viewed, especially in the media, as their own kind of vilified, inherently evil monsters, but they don’t see men in their own communities in this way. This chapter will also include the other side of things, like why some Muslim men are choosing to opt into what Andrew Tate is regurgitating. The fact is that the misogyny they embody is not tied to their religion but rather connected to cultural and religious language, which has been co-opted to portray it as virtuous, despite it not being so.

There will be a chapter on how white feminism and colonialism feed into each other using the example of Algeria’s unveiling ceremonies during the War of Independence against French colonial rule in the 1950s. French military officers removed the veils of Algerian women –  a colonial way of saying ‘We’re unveiling Muslim women, therefore we are freeing them’. It feeds into the politicisation of the hijab and niqab, and it was used to make it seem that Muslim women who wear the veil are oppressed. 

When the British colonised Egypt, they furthered their colonialism through the use of women’s rights. Lord Cromer, who helped rule over Egypt, would try to further women’s rights in Egypt, but back at home he was part of a men’s rights league and was blocking the suffragettes’ fight for the right to vote. 

The final chapter will hopefully conclude on a captivating and thought-provoking note. There will be a series of interviews featuring Muslim women who are making a significant impact through their remarkable achievements. It is important to note that their accomplishments are not solely attributed to their identity, rather they should be recognized for the great things they are doing. I hope that after reading it, people will be inspired to explore the work of other Muslim women.

That all sounds fascinating! I believe it’s incredibly important based on my experience  during my undergraduate studies. While researching feminism, I found it quite challenging to find information focused on feminism and Muslim women. 

Am I right in thinking that you have a chapter on Islam and what the Qur’an says about women’s rights?

There is no specific chapter, but I will weave it into the book. I’m going to be interviewing a couple of Islamic scholars who also research gender studies. It’s something we should talk about, because even when I was growing up, I absorbed what people said about Islam. I used to think “Maybe my religion is anti-feminist”. But, the gender equality we have today has its roots in Islam. Sadly, a lot of people don’t put those things together. 

Definitely, and for both people on the outside looking in and people inside the community, it is hard to pinpoint what is cultural and what is in the Qur’an. 

What do you think this book means for Muslim women? And what do you imagine them to feel like when reading the book? 

For Muslim women, I believe I won’t be sharing anything they aren’t already aware of. However, I find it essential to put these thoughts on paper, and I wish I had such a resource while growing up. The book can also serve as a valuable reference for non-Muslim friends seeking to learn more about the subject. My aim is to avoid excessive academic language and make it accessible to all. 

Having all of these Muslim women’s experiences compiled in one book, to share with others and to see oneself reflected in those stories, has always been a heartwarming notion for me. I sincerely hope that readers also find this experience touching and empowering.

I know lots of people will agree with this, it’s validating to have your experience reiterated and written down. But for people who aren’t Muslim, or aren’t Muslim women, what would you like them to take away from your book? 

I would like people to be aware of their unconscious biases. Unconscious bias becomes ingrained when you live in a state and are educated within a system that imparts specific perspectives. It takes time to unlearn those stereotypes and viewpoints regarding different communities. I hope that when people encounter such stereotypes on TV or books, they will pause and reflect before forming prejudiced conclusions. Like “perhaps this news platform has an agenda against Muslims, and that’s why they’ve done this”. To stop and think about Muslim communities and women, and how feminism has created and regurgitated these stereotypes for years and years. 

In this way, the book is mostly aimed at the people who subscribe to white feminism. In a way, we all do, because we live in the UK. It’s for people who haven’t thought about intersectional feminism or those who haven’t heard of it yet. For them, there will probably be a level of discomfort, which should be the case when you read stereotypes about Muslim women you’ve unconsciously bought into. This is what we’re trying to break down, slowly but surely.

It would definitely be an eye-opening read for them to reflect on any experiences they’ve had where they have bought into white feminism. 

I wanted to get your thoughts on the current online discourse on platforms like TikTok and Twitter, and even by so-called Islamic scholars. The word ‘feminist’ is often being used as an insult to Muslim women. Do you think it is possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? 

There are issues with the word ’feminist’, I know some people don’t subscribe to it anymore and I don’t think it is the best term for what it is. I’ve seen Muslim men throw that word out as an insult, but I think the fact that they are doing this speaks more about how they view women, and their own misogyny, rather than who we are and what we stand for and believe in. So I would call myself a feminist, even though many people don’t anymore. But I’m intrigued to know what your answer is. \

For me, until a couple of years ago if someone asked me if I was a feminist, I would immediately say no. Everything that feminism is, I believe in, but the word had and still has such negative connotations that I would automatically link it to white feminism. 

I feel exactly the same way. For a long time, the term ‘feminist’ carried such a specific image, particularly for Muslim women. It tends to make people think of hairy armpits, chants of ‘free the nipple’, and women sharing their girlboss tips, which is all well and good but is definitely only a small part of what feminism actually is. And for Muslim women like us, it tends to be a label that can be quite alienating and othering because you’re identifying with a movement that doesn’t always support modest dressing, wearing the hijab, or generally practising our faith.

Clearly white feminism does not support me or my choices. It’s only through reading a lot of Black Feminism and feminists from the Global South that I have come to understand that feminism offers so much more in terms of liberation than what white feminism provides. 

On that note, I know it is really difficult for us as Muslim women to continuously defend ourselves from white feminists, and then also from those in our own communities. There is scrutiny from both sides, and that’s a really difficult reality. Do you have any experiences linked to this?

Definitely, having to constantly defend ourselves from the outside and the inside can get exhausting. I do try to have those difficult conversations. But I think as Muslim women, we need to prioritise our own mental health first. We should recognise when a conversation isn’t going to be very fruitful, that we aren’t going to get anywhere and not to debate just for debate’s sake. It is an energy draining vicious cycle, where you’re having the same conversation again and again. If you want to engage, engage, but if you feel like you’re not able to, don’t feel bad. You’re not less of a feminist because of this. You are the most important, and your faith is more important than engaging with people who can just Google things. 

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am delighted by the wonderful progress the crowdfunding campaign has made so far. My goal is to reach full funding by my birthday, in October. It brings me a lot of joy to witness everyone’s names pop up as supporters, and I love my editor and publisher and what they stand for. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with people who pledge support – they’re not just readers, they’re active advocates of the book. It’s an extremely rewarding publishing experience. 

Thank you to Amaliah and their readers, it’s an honour to be featured on this publication.

Sundus Abdullah

Sundus Abdullah

Sundus is a 22 year old freelance writer based in the West Midlands, who has recently completed an editorial placement at The Guardian. Sundus currently works in communications for an NGO, after graduating last year. She passionately writes about identity, migration, politics and more. Sundus is a big lover of all things cats!