Victim Blaming & Gaslighting: Our Society's Shameful Abuse of Women

I considered myself a strong woman. I was proud of my ability to read people. When I was 18, I used to judge other women who would get fucked over by men. How can they keep going back to men who hurt them? Are they really that naive? Do they not love themselves enough to stay away? 

Call it karma...or perhaps, bitter irony, because a few years later, I became one of those women.

Image Description: black background with white and red text saying "Because survivors deserve our support, NOT our scrutiny. End victim blaming."

Victim blaming is a terrible tactic society has used time and time again to stigmatize and silence survivors of abuse. It is, of course, a fruitless and irrational endeavor, for it neither addresses the root of the problem, nor mitigates its harm. Yet, we raise entire generations of women who are brainwashed to believe the contrary.

Abusers will always find someone else to prey on. For every individual who is spared, another will fall victim to their abuse. If a motorcyclist sustained injuries due to a poorly designed helmet, would we blame the people who designed and manufactured it, or the biker? Of course, we would hold the company who made the helmet responsible, because we would understand anyone who wore it would have been at risk of injury. Why do we not extend this same level of empathy to victims of domestic abuse?

It is because even today, despite multiple feminist movements and our growing understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships, we continue to raise our girls to be docile recipients of abuse. One needn't look further than the depictions of idealized relationships in pop culture to see this. From songs that teach "good" women to forgive their partners for being unfaithful, to movies that teach women to change themselves to please men, we condition our girls to not only accept, but desire abusive relationships at a  young age.

Quote from "Fifty Shades of Grey". This is abuse.

We teach our girls that their emotions are "irrational" and impair their ability to make sound decisions. Instead of teaching men to respect us and empathize with us, we teach them to treat our emotions as a burden. We do this by shaming people for being empathetic. We regard empathy as a weakness, and devalue professions that require higher EQs.

We raise generations of young girls with low self esteem, who want to change themselves to please men. We shame women for being emotional, while simultaneously telling them that being nurturing is a desirable trait in women. We encourage women to chase men who hurt them...after all, "good" women always go back to abusive men no matter what they were put through. We fail to teach our girls that even infidelity is a form of abuse.

By doing all of this, we as a society, start gaslighting women before they even have a chance at self-actualization. Women are trapped in abusive relationships not just because of their abusers, but also because of a society that will stigmatize and blame them for the abuse they endured.

Knowing all of this, how can we continue to shame women for behaving exactly the way they have been conditioned to behave throughout their lives?

Our discourse of abuse needs to extend beyond the dynamics of abusive relationships. We need to start talking about how we have created a toxic culture that condones and promotes violence against women while teaching young girls to accept it as their fate. Only then can we work toward dismantling it. 

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Why is Nike Suddenly Interested in Hijabs?

Business is all about adaptation. Those who are able to cater to the changing needs of their customers, survive and thrive. Those who stay set in their ways and refuse to change, end up as cautionary tales we learn in business school. Lack of innovation is perhaps the biggest cause of failure for companies.

Nike is not the first major company to announce a special collection for Muslim women. Earlier last year, Dolce & Gabbana made headlines by launching its abaya line and becoming one of the first Western designers to cater to hijabis. H&M went viral for hiring its first hijabi model, and CoverGirl hired popular YouTube makeup artist Nura Afia as its first hijabi brand ambassador. Three years before all of this, Marks and Spencers launched its burkini, which proved to be extremely successful in Dubai and Libya.

This is hardly surprising- Muslim consumers spend around $230 billion annually on clothing- more than the clothing market of the UK, Germany, and India combined. In addition to this, the Middle East and Africa are the fastest growing market segments in the sports apparel industry. In recent years, hijab fashion has grown so popular worldwide that even non-Muslim designers are catering to hijabis. To ignore the needs of such a large percentage of consumers would put Nike at a huge disadvantage, since it is not the first company to start designing athletic wear for Muslim women.

Fashion blogger zozoliina wearing Madamme BK's burkini
Nike's decision to make athletic hijabs is hardly revolutionary. Muslim women have always struggled to find hijab-friendly athletic-wear. In middle-school, gym class was my least favorite for this very reason. It was extremely difficult for me to find clothes that allowed me to be comfortable yet modest at the same time. Fortunately, in recent years, Muslim designers have worked hard to change that. From Madame Bk's designer burkinis that made it easier for us to go to the beach without feeling awkward, to the dozens of Muislim women who have launched their own lines of hijabs for every occasion, hijabis no longer struggle to find what we need to wear.

Therein lies my concern; how can these Muslim small-business owners compete with a corporation like Nike? While it's great that major companies are now including hijabis in their target market, they are doing it at the expense of Muslim designers and small-business owners. This is hardly "liberating". In fact, it will have devastating consequences for Muslim women who can no longer make a living from serving the needs of their own community.

As a hijabi I cannot support a corporation that will exploit labor from Muslims in Bangladesh to make overpriced products that will threaten the livelihood of other Muslim business-owners. We Muslims must stand with our community and support our sisters because corporations will never be on our side. Celebrate the hijab by supporting hijabis; we make cuter clothes anyway. 

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My First Tech Conference

This weekend, I had the privilege of attending a conference for women in computing for the first time in my life. I am so grateful to the Director of Engineering Diversity Initiatives at my university for encouraging me to apply to the OCWiC Scholarship. 

I used to be a liberal arts major. My empathy naturally drew me toward the liberal arts and social sciences. As a 14 year old, I only imagined myself working as a lawyer, so I could fight for justice and help uplift people and my own community. However, after taking several classes in the field, I began to get bored by the curriculum. I read non-fiction history and political science books for fun as as a young teen. To me, everything I was learning in college was just review. Why should I spend thousands of dollars to re-learn the same material? Last year, I finally interned with a lawyer and realized the field really wasn't right for me. 

Engineering was a field that really fascinated me, but unfortunately, I did not have the right background for it. I was already in my junior year, and my university had a mandatory co-op program for engineering majors that would set me back five years. As an international student, I really could not afford to do that. 

I initially never considered tech because I didn't fit the stereotype of a typical professional in the field. Weren't all programmers supposed to be misogynist white men who hated feminism? How would I, a brown hijabi feminist, fit into that picture? Plus, most of the computer science majors I knew had been programming since they were teens. I would stick out like a sore thumb. 

My friends encouraged me to try tech so I could see if I enjoyed it or not. I was a bit hesitant, but I switched my major to Information Systems anyway. The degree combined business with tech, so I had the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by trying two different fields. After my first semester, I fell in love with the tech side. I realized I had completely misunderstood the field. Programming wasn't the only possible career you could have in tech...and there were many minority programmers who were the sweetest people I've ever met. I found a community in this field, and that community convinced me that I belonged in tech. 

I finally switched my major to IT, which had more programming classes. My life has changed so much in the past few months! I am learning my first programming language (Python), attending my first Hackathon (MHacks 9), working on my first tech project (a workflow engine I am building with a coworker), and starting my own club for women in computing. I am so excited I discovered this fascinating field and even more excited to think about where it may take me. 

The OCWiC Conference helped boost my confidence. I met so many talented and hardworking women with diverse ethnic, educational, socioeconomic, and professional backgrounds. I discovered fields I never even knew existed, such as localization, which enables people to combine their passion for foreign languages with their interest in computing. 

I will now be graduating a year later than I was originally supposed to, but honestly, as Dr. Margaret Burnett said to me at the conference, "it is better to be a Sophomore in a field you love than a Junior in a field you have no interest in." 


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FAQs About Islam

  1. What is the difference between Shias and Sunnis?
    The short history: After the Prophet Muhammad passed away, there was a disagreement over who would get to be the next Caliph. The people who wanted his companions to lead, became known as the Sunnis. The ones who wanted succession to be based on bloodline, became known as the Shias. Throughout history, Sunnis have held most of the political power and even today, they make up around 85-90% of the Muslim population worldwide. Shias have been a historically persecuted minority group who face discrimination and oppression even today. Currently, most of the world's Shia population lives in four countries: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and India.   

  2. Why do Muslim women have to wear a hijab? 
    Do Muslim women have to wear a hijab? That's debatable. Although most Orthodox schools of thought, including Sunni'ism and Shi'ism, do require women to cover their hair, this practice is interestingly not exclusively mentioned in the Qur'an. Regardless, Islam places a heavy emphasis on modesty and for some that includes wearing a hijab. 
  3. What is "Sharia Law"?
    Sharia is literally just the Arabic word for "law" so those who say "Sharia law", are being redundant. The Islamic Sharia, which I assume is what they are referring to, is the law Muslims follow based on the Qur'an (and hadith). 
  4. What is "Halal"?
    Halal literally means "permissible". It's basically everything a Muslim is allowed to do. "Halal meat" is meat that was slaughtered according to the Sharia
    Haram (forbidden) is the opposite of Halal
  5. Why can't Muslims drink?
    Alcohol, along with any other substances that impair judgement, are strictly forbidden in Islam. 
  6. Why do some Muslims drink, have sex outside marriage, etc? 
    Because religion does not monopolize morality or cease individuality. 
  7. Is homosexuality allowed in Islam? 
    Not according to the Orthodox schools of thoughts. However, some modern sects and scholars challenge this view
  8. Is Islam cis-sexist? 
    It isn't supposed to be. In fact, trans people are mentioned in the hadith, and are recognized in Muslim societies. However, in most Muslim majority countries (such as Pakistan), they face extreme discrimination, especially when it comes to employment, marriage, etc. 
  9. What about racism in Islam? Does it exist? 
    According to the Qur'an, all men are equal in the eyes of Allah. Unfortunately, most religious people only choose to follow parts of the religious scripture that benefits them. Anti-blackness is prevalent in Muslim-majority nations, despite the amazing things black people have done for our community (and continue doing for us, even today). Some Muslims will quote Malcolm X, but will refuse to let their daughters marry a black man. It's sad. 
  10. Are Muslim men really that sexist?  
    Just as sexist as all other men. There is nothing unique about their sexism, except that some do use religion to justify their bigoted beliefs. 
  11.  What do I do if I want to convert to Islam? 
    I recommend first starting off by researching the different sects and finding one that aligns with your personal beliefs. Next, try to read some religious scripture from that sect, and search for lectures by scholars from that sect. Finally, find a mosque near you for that particular sect (or any mosque with open minded people) so that you can be a part of our community.
  12. Why do Muslims fast during Ramadan? 
    During Ramadan, which is based on the Lunar calendar and thus doesn't fall on the same date every year, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking (yes, even water) from sunrise to sunset. We do this for two reasons: 1) it's one of the five pillars of Islam 2) it's supposed to help us become more humble and generous as the point of Ramadan is to feel the pain of the poor and starving. That's why in most Muslim-majority countries, people's generosity triples during Ramadan. Fasts are meaningless if you aren't growing from them.
  13. What should I do if a Muslim is fasting or praying in front of me?  
      Muslims who are fasting cannot listen to music, or look at nudity. Also, you should never walk directly in front of a Muslim who is praying. Always ensure there is a physical barrier (a chair, a door, a wall) present between you and them. Try not to stare at us when we're praying, especially if we aren't of the same gender. 
     aaannnddd this is why you shouldn't watch us when we pray. 
  14. Who can see a hijabis hair? 
    Only those who are related to her by blood or marriage can see her hair. Anyone who is sexually attracted to women (including lesbians) generally cannot see a hijabi's hair.
  15. How do Muslims treat non-Muslims? 
    We don't have some magic formula for dealing with non-Muslims. It depends heavily on where you live, and most importantly, WHO you're dealing with. Muslims are just like everybody else- some of us are nice and accepting and other's aren't.
  16. How many sects exist in Islam? 
    Too many, apparently. I am still learning about new ones every day.

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The Words I Didn’t Speak

Every day, as I force myself to get out of bed at 7 AM, I am reminded that I am not a morning person. I hurriedly put on whatever I can find and run out the door so I can make it on time for class. This particular morning was no different. I arrived ten minutes early, as per usual, and sat outside waiting for the TA to finish lecturing the other class. A tall girl was standing right in front of me, and I was mesmerized by her long and silky blonde hair as it was completely different from my own dark tresses.

“Oh my God, she totally does not know what she’s doing.”

I jerked my head up to focus my attention away from her hair and toward the person who appeared to be speaking to her.

“She’s so unhelpful. I can’t even understand a single word she says.”

I knew exactly who the stranger was talking about, and her words stung me. I was all too familiar with the hostility and condescension in her tone. Our TA is a timid and tiny woman from South Asia. Although we hail from different nations, I felt strangely protective toward her because we both were the only visible outsiders in a sea of pale faces. This is not a serious issue. I told myself, some people just don’t get along with everyone and that is ok.

Little did I know that the stranger’s unkind comments would set the tone for the rest of the morning. Every question my TA asked was answered with a heavy sigh. Several of my classmates appeared to be rolling their eyes in unison. A part of me wanted to get up and scream and tell them, this material is really not that hard if you concentrate...if you only listen to her, instead of disrespecting her. Can’t you see you’re making it worse for her by doing that? Can’t you see how she’s nervously shuffling back and forth, struggling to get the words out of her mouth?

Seeing her struggle to teach a class full of students who did not even believe she deserved respect broke my heart. It also reminded me of my own position in society as a woman of color. I knew my thoughts and opinions had little value to an audience that did not want to listen to me. There, in that tiny room, I too was unwanted, and my classmates made it abundantly clear to me.

“Hey guys, did you get $425 as the answer to question number 4?” I asked the walls. Their silence was deafening.

Minutes later, the blonde boy sitting next to me wheeled his chair over to another girl. “For number 4, was your answer $425 too?”

It was finally my turn to sit back in my chair, roll my eyes, and sigh.

Walking out of that room, I felt as if I had lost a battle I didn’t even choose to fight. There were so many things I could have said to my classmates, my TA, or even my professor…but I chose to stay silent because I did not want to make a scene. How many people of color make the same decision because we are afraid of making things worse? Is patience really the most effective way of dealing with bigotry? I do not know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that I needed to write this to clear my conscience, because I cannot afford another sleepless night this late into the semester.

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Your Islamophobia is not Revolutionary

Being a Muslim woman is a fun experience. People are quick to pass judgement on my character. Just one look at the scarf I wrap around my head is enough to convince them that I am an oppressed and docile creature who must be saved. Everyone loves advocating on my behalf, often without my consent. 

As a Muslim, I often find myself excluded from most activist circles. I have been told I can't be a socialist if I follow an organised religion. I am frequently ignored or harassed by most LGBTQ activists, who assume my religious beliefs automatically make me a bigot. Even feminists have told me that my decision to wear a hijab is akin to supporting misogyny. 

Up-and-coming social justice page "I am Ryan Henly" is among some of the several Islamophobic feminist pages on Facebook.

I have gotten used to this. I have gotten used to being shunned away, even by those who claim to champion the rights of the oppressed and fight against intolerance. 

I remember the day I learned the difference between "white" feminism and intersectional feminism. Relieved to finally find a movement where I was accepted, I quickly began calling myself an intersectional feminist...but a part of me knew that a united movement against the white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy sounded too good to be true, especially in our hostile Islamophobic society.

It didn't take long for me to discover that I was unwelcome, even in spaces where people's multiple marginalized identities were supposedly acknowledged and respected. I have watched the rise of several Islamophobic activists. They always use the same excuses to justify their hatred. According to them, the Islamic faith is a threat to women and the LGBTQ community. For this reason, they reserve the right to spew anti-Islamic rhetoric, even if it means ignoring the voices of hundreds of Muslim activists such as myself. 

By speaking out over us, these activists cause more harm than good.

When Muslims are the only religious group who've seen a rise in hate crimes in Canada, when the New York Times portrays us more negatively than cancer, when countless Islamophobic books, movies, TV series and songs are released, when anti-Muslim bias has been around since before 9/11 and has taken countless lives, when presidential candidates base their entire campaign around it, and when it has helped many people become billionaires, Islamophobia is neither radical nor revolutionary. It promotes a system that exists and thrives on our oppression. It only helps uphold white supremacy.

If people are legitimately concerned with the safety of female and LGBTQ Muslims, they must understand the only way they can support us is by hearing us out. No one understands our unique beliefs and struggles better than us. We are the only ones who have the power and the expertise to make a real change in our community, so stop excluding us from your activism. It's meaningless without us.


No, Starbucks, Creating A "Gender Wall" Won't Fix Your Sexist Policies

On February 1, Manar N exposed the sexist rules of a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh.

The tweet went viral and sparked an important conversation about cultural relativism and respecting women's rights, prompting the coffee shop to erect a gender wall allowing the women to enter inside.

Nice move, Starbucks, but as a woman who grew up with "gender walls", I am unimpressed.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the laws and customs of Saudi Arabia, all stores are required to segregate men and women's spaces. Men have the privilege to enter both the "Single Section", or the "Family Section" when accompanied by women and/or children. At most restaurants and coffee shops, there is no space for women only.

A sign displayed outside a Starbucks in Riyadh bars women from entering the coffee shop.

Having a "gender wall" means women get the smallest, darkest, and the most crowded area to sit in. The "Family Section" of most restaurants is incredibly small. If a woman even accidentally enters the "Single Section", she is escorted out immediately.

How can a company like Starbucks, which was named one of the world's most ethical businesses for the ninth year in a row, continue to operate in a nation with such repressive laws? By continuing to do business in Saudi Arabia, Starbucks is financially benefiting from the oppression of women.

As result of the backlash against the sexist policies of the coffee shop, Starbucks responded by erecting a "gender wall" segregating single men from women and families.

As a Muslim feminist, I believe businesses have a moral obligation to not open franchises in countries with gender apartheid. Until then, I will stand by my opinion that as a corporation that profits from oppression, Starbucks does not deserve the title of the world's "most ethical" business.

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