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#12: 'White feminism created the myth that Muslim men are inherently more violent'
Shahed Ezaydi on the Muslim alt-right, white feminism and her upcoming book The Othered Woman
Hello lovely readers,
FIRST. An apology. I am embarrassed to have been so neglectful of you all and this project of late. Between two jobs and a PhD, suffice to say that this Virgo took on too much and SWANA speaks found a firm home on that sorry spot that is the back burner. And yes it issss Virgo season. I am now THIRTY. Wow! Woo!
Anyway. I am pleased to say we are BACK, and with a BANG. Below is a conversation with the brilliant Shahed Ezaydi, whose forthcoming book on intersectional feminism and gendered Islamophobia I am so so excited about. Her book is crowdfunding and is almost fully funded so please go check it out and purchase your advance copy here.
But before we dig in, I’d like to take a moment to keep the spotlight on the region and look at where our efforts of solidarity, support and resistance can be focused right now. Safe to say it has been a distressing few weeks. We have seen devastating humanitarian disasters in Libya and Morocco; this past weekend marked a year of Iran’s civil rights movement and death of Jina Mahsa Amini; and the siege on ethnic Armenians in Artsakh, where people are starving and being denied medical supplies, intensified.
So, before we go on:
Danny Hajjar has pulled together some resources in his latest newsletter if you are looking to donate to support those affected by the crisis in Libya and Morocco
See this post on where to donate to ongoing relief efforts in Turkey-Syria
You can read a BBC overview of what is happening in Artsakh here and an Al Jazeera timeline here, see also this New York Times review article on the atrocity written at the start of the year — I’m working on finding the best places to donate for on-the-ground support to the region so keep an eye out in future newsletters
As an Edinburgh resident, I’m working alongside our local Woman, Life, Freedom collective to advocate for civil rights in Iran — if you would like to, you can donate to the collective’s protest efforts here
You can also check out some relevant articles I wrote recently:
Okay, now for our illustrious guest!
Shahed is a writer currently working at Stylist Magazine. She was previously freelance and has written for publications such as Dazed, Bustle and gal-dem. Shahed’s first book The Othered Woman: How White Feminism Harms Muslim Women is crowdfunding with Unbound.
If you haven’t read her journalistic work, go check it out! She is a fantastic writer who is so skilled in creating accessible, powerful content, and always with a strong social message — I’d start with this fab Mashable piece on white feminism. I have been a big fan of Shahed’s work for a long time and was so pleased to speak with her earlier in the year.
Let us know what you think! And as always, I’d love for you to share this with your friends. Let’s grow our fab community.
P: Okay I’m recording! I’m definitely recording. I do worry sometimes.
S: Oh, I’m the same!
I had this one nightmare experience where I cornered someone at a conference and spent an hour talking to them only for the recording not to work. My mind always goes back to that!
I think we all have that one experience that has literally traumatised!
Was yours over Zoom, or in person?
It was in lockdown. Thankfully it wasn’t a profile or an interview about them, they were just woven into the piece. I emailed them being like, I’m really sorry, but I've actually just not recorded the interview. So if you could just give me a few quotes, that’d be good? But it was all fine in the end. I don't want people to think I'm dumb, but it does happen with technology.
That’s it, it’s not us — it’s technology! But it's nice to finally meet and to see your face. I kind of feel like I know you because I've been following your socials for so long.
Same here, I feel like I have followed you for ages. And congrats on the newsletter.
Thank you, it’s a lot of work but I’m loving it. It’s been so good to have this excuse to connect with people doing brilliant things.
Are you still freelancing?
Yes, still freelancing, doing a PhD, trying to balance everything! But you must feel that way with your book?
Yeah, because I haven’t been paid in advance. It’s a different publishing model with Unbound. So effectively when I'm book writing I also have to find time to fit in other paid work around it. So far I’m finding it okay, but I’ve just moved to London. They do tell you it is expensive, but it is really expensive down here.
So you are currently writing The Othered Woman?
Yeah, so the proposal was commissioned, and I am now writing the book and crowdfunding at the same time. Once it reaches 100% funding, they give you six to nine months to finish it off, and then it goes into edits.
Publishing feels like this alien world to me! How are you finding doing it in this way?
It’s opened my eyes to how the publishing industry works in general. How having an agent works, or getting your idea commissioned. Nobody really tells you this stuff. I guess it's like journalism — you can do a degree in journalism or even book writing, but nobody tells you how to balance your time or the fact that these big authors are also doing paid work on the side. I interviewed an author recently who told me that when she was writing her fiction novel, she was still waitressing up until she handed in the final draft. I wish more authors said these things. It’s not all this glamorous, renting-a-cottage-by-the-sea and writing a book in six months stuff.
That’s the dream, right?
This is it. What's that film, is it When Harry Met Sally or one of those films? Where she's in her New York apartment with a thick cabled knit sweater on. She sits by the window doing her work. I'm pretty sure that’s no one's reality!
When I was in my first journalism job, I interviewed Kate Winslet’s yoga instructor and she told me about her life in Cornwall, how she has this yoga studio with big open windows and that she would walk her golden retriever on the beach every day. I was straight out of uni and thought, this is it. This will be my life. I’ll write a book, and I’ll do it beside the sea with my golden retriever. But my dreams have definitely been crushed since then!
Yeah, and often writing a book is such a grind. Mine is nonfiction, so there is a research element and interviewing people. But I have friends who are writing fiction where you have to develop characters from scratch and write these story arcs and it’s so much planning. It’s a really isolating and lonely experience sometimes.
For most writers, everything is written before they ever interact with readers. But as a crowd funder, it must be motivating to know the person who just contributed is going to be reading it. Has that influenced you in terms of the kinds of things you’re writing?
I wrote this proposal in late 2021. I signed the contract in August last year, so it's been seven or eight months, so things do change. Obviously, I have the structure down and know what each chapter is going to be on. But I recognise the course of the chapters and the themes within those chapters will adapt and change over time. Last week we released an extract of one of the chapters, and it's just nice to see people engaged with that. I haven't seen any criticism, but if there was, it would be great to be able to talk to people about that.
What has been the most surprising thing to come out of your research?
With journalism, you usually have a word count of 1000 to 1500 words and there is not enough space to get into themes like white feminism, and breaking down what that is and its relationship with white supremacy, colonialism and neoliberalism. The chapter I’m working on at the moment is on how Muslim men are viewed by white feminists. I look at how white feminist beliefs have brought about the myth that Muslim men are inherently more violent and more vile than other men, that their patriarchy is different to everyone else’s. Then something that wasn’t in the proposal are the repercussions of that. So for example, the influence people like Andrew Tate have had on Muslim men to believe in such misogynistic and frankly, violent, things about women and our ‘role’ in society. I mean, it’s dark. I've had to take a lot of breaks as it can weigh quite heavy on my mind.
That’s interesting, I was recently talking about Tate’s popularity with Muslim men with friends — what kinds of things are you engaging with on this?
I've been looking into the organisations and charities working on changing masculinities in schools, starting at quite a young age. There’s an organisation called Beyond Equality. One of the guys there, Ben Hurst, did a TED talk about creating spaces where teenage boys can speak about manhood and masculinity in a non-judgmental way. There’s this whole debate over the ‘crisis of masculinity’ which some people have said probably doesn’t exist. But masculinity has changed in 2023. Men have seen a lot of changes, even from an economic perspective. I was at WOW Festival this weekend, and one of the panellists made a comment that in the post-world period, from World War II onward, men have had nothing they can really identify with. War was the place to get manhood and masculinity from. This panellist was saying that today there isn’t anything like that. We’re in a cost-of-living crisis, there is economic precarity. I’ve also come across a really interesting paper on what’s called the “Akh right”. So Akh is the Arabic word for brother and this article is about the Muslim alt-right and the red pill ideologies that these men have been engaging with online. Hussein Kesvani has also written a book called Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims, which includes sections on Muslim men engaging with Reddit forums and red pill ideology too.
Lila Abu Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is, I suppose, the landmark texts on gendered Islamophobia? How has this conversation evolved since that book was written in 2015?
It’s such a good book but I do feel a lot of the books on Muslim women or gendered Islamophobia specifically are, not quite outdated, but they do need placing in the modern world. Like with the rise of Andrew Tate who is this influencer-misogynist; that has taken place within the last five years. When Muslim men engage with Tate, the first people who are going to be harmed are Muslim women who are pushing back against husbands or brothers. I've got a cousin who's engaging with Andrew Tate, and that's a very tricky thing to navigate talking about with a 17-year-old boy. So I am surprised a book like this one doesn’t exist already. This book is about putting gendered Islamophobia and white liberal feminism together and seeing how they interact with each other. I have found that missing in some of the older texts. What I’ve also found is that they use very academic language. Since I did an undergrad and also a master’s in criminology, I’m able to engage with that language but I know a lot of people who want to read about this stuff who don’t come from that background. So I wanted to write and research a book that has a wider audience than just people at university who are engaging with this specific topic. Muslim women will be reading this book and there is stuff in there that we already know, but it would be great for Muslim men to read the book too. It would also be great for feminists from different circles to read the book because I think there’s a lot they could probably take away from it.
What are your thoughts on the idea of muslim-as-race and how ‘muslim’ has become synonymous with this very particular racialised image?
I think Muslims have been racialised. Especially in the UK. My mum is white, she is from Libya, but she is white. But she also wears a headscarf, so she is racialised. She is identified as Muslim first and foremost. There has definitely been an increase in the racialisation of Muslims in the UK, which feeds into the ways we have been vilified and stereotyped.
You mentioned that your mum is white. What kinds of words do you use to think about your own racial identity?
I don't think I'm instantly identifiable as Muslim, but I do make it known quite quickly that I am. The term I would mostly use is ‘woman of colour.’ It's got its own problems, it’s a very vague term. But I do think that's probably the best that is out there. This is the thing about language, none of the terms are great. Unless you are being really specific, like, I’m British-Libyan. But then there are still people I’ve had blank at that or not know where Libya is. I have used the term ‘brown’ in the past, but I do think I am probably quite white-passing. Although I think the majority of people do see me as brown. Muslim communities have a massive issue with colourism as well. In the book, there is a chapter on how white feminism views Muslims as one homogenous group, especially Muslim women. So I want to make sure that I interview loads of different Muslims about their experiences living in the West, making sure there are Black Muslims, queer Muslims, Muslims from working-class backgrounds, Muslims who wear headscarves and Muslims who don’t. But I don’t want to erase the racism and colourism that exists in our communities. I don’t want to paint our communities as perfect because they are not.
Sometimes it feels hard to engage in conversations about the kind of oppression that does take place within SWANA communities because there’s this fear of playing into stereotypes, or a worry that your words might be received in a way they aren’t intended.
Yeah definitely, especially with how some of it ends up playing out. We work in the media, so sometimes you do pick up terms or end up subconsciously perpetuating the same myths. But I think we are in a position to engage in those conversations.
How do you navigate some of these conversations? How do you talk to people about the problematic behaviours of some Muslim men without playing into stereotypes, for example?
Sometimes I find myself saying things that are too general, like, ‘Oh Muslim men did this’. I was recently complaining to someone about dating and said, ‘Oh, all these Muslim guys’. Then I had to take a step back and think, okay, you’ve talked to five people. That’s not a sample, what are you trying to prove? I’m trying to engage more with men, like my cousin, who like Andrew Tate. But even with my brother; he is very old school in his thinking. And these aren’t bad people. Especially younger people who have just started engaging in this misogynistic content, or they’ve heard their dad say something, so they’ve repeated it. When they're younger, it's very important to approach conversations in a very non-judgmental way because as soon as you start phrasing things in an unhelpful way people get defensive and are driven further towards extremist content. They want to listen to someone who doesn’t make them feel like a bad person.
When it comes to engaging in conversations about the problems within Muslim communities, especially if the other person isn’t in that community, I think it’s important to be as specific as possible in order to avoid generalising or falling back on stereotypes that can then go on to harm us. The last thing I want to do is feed into any of these stereotypes that exist and so I try to make sure I’m really specific in the problem I’m speaking about. For example, if I’m talking about the problematic behaviours of men, and if that person isn’t well versed in Islam, I’ll also explain why these behaviours aren’t based on religion but entangled with culture and misogyny.
Who is someone from a SWANA diaspora that you find inspiring right now?
I can answer this quickly because I was actually stalking her today: Alya Mooro the British-Egyptian writer. She’s great, I love her so much. I’ve never met her in real life but I’ve chatted to her a bit on social media. I think she is inspirational and I want to be her.
She is brilliant, isn't she. I interviewed her for the newsletter and her answers are so thoughtful. As a side note — everything she seems to wear is unreal.
She’s a powerhouse. I mean, the style alone!
Okay, final question. What is the cultural artefact that’s had the biggest influence on you?
Oh good question, I’m just watching New Girl on repeat recently and that’s not a cultural artefact.
That’s better than me, I’ve just rewatched two or three seasons of Gilmore Girls.
I’ve never seen it, but I want to watch it. I feel like it is one of those things where you can just turn your brain off.
When you watch it, you should probably turn your brain off so you don’t absorb too much of it…
As someone who suffers from imposter syndrome regularly, Elaine Welteroth’s book More Than Enough had quite a big impact on me as a brown Muslim writer and really cemented how I viewed myself and I think made me a better writer, to be honest! I’ve read it twice and will probably read it once a year for the rest of my life.