Richard Dawkins, the Liberator of Women?

Published: 28 July 2015

Region: Worldwide

Richard_Dawkins‘Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?’ This tweet by renowned atheist and writer Richard Dawkins caused quite some controversy on social media, sparking a debate between those who considered his remark a ‘genuine desire to help’ oppressed Muslim women and those who identified his statement as ‘patronizing white savior paternalist Islamophobia’.

Chicago Now came to Dawkins’ defence, claiming that ‘Richard Dawkins has every right to say Islam needs a feminist revolution’. In the article, the white male author stressed that ‘Dawkins wants to promote equal rights for women in a culture that he believes suppresses those rights’. The author of the article also used a quote by black feminist and civil rights activist Rosa Parks to underline Dawkins’ heroic stance. Chicago Now condemned Muslim feminists’ outrage on social media: ‘For those who say Dawkins has no right to even address the issue and speak his mind, that’s nothing more than a shameful and cowardly attack to shut down free expression’.

Instead of exploiting feminist women of colour’s statements to discredit valid critiques by other feminists, the Huffington Post decided to give a space to Muslim women to speak for themselves and explain why Dawkins’ comment was problematic.

‘When Europe began colonizing Muslim lands at the turn of the 20th century, we were told by white European men that their dismantling of our religious, economic, cultural, and political systems were for our own good — that we Muslim women needed saving from Muslim men, by Christian European men […]No thanks’, said a well-known Muslim blogger Hindi Makki in an interview with the Huffington Post.

In the same article, Muslim activist Linda Sarsour argued that she was ‘tired of non-Muslims commenting on what Islam is or isn’t.’

‘As a Muslim woman, I have the agency to tell you that Islam is a feminist religion and informs my role and positions on women’s rights issues. I am a feminist because I am Muslim,’ added Sarsour. While the two activists criticised the paternalistic and patronising way white men deny Muslim women’s self-agency, the article also linked an interview with scholar Reza Aslan on CNN, where he harshly criticised the moderators for perpetually constructing an enemy image of the inherently misogynistic Islamic faith by continuously linking an entire religion to violence against women.

‘You are talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush’, said Aslan. ‘These kinds of conversations that we’re having aren’t really being held in any kind of legitimate way. We’re not talking about women in the Muslim world. We’re using two or three examples to justify a generalisation. That’s actually the definition of bigotry’, he continued.

Apart from issues of denying Muslim women’s self-agency and making sweeping generalisations about Islam, many activists have identified the victimisation of Muslim women by white men as a way of ‘white patriarchy making excuses for itself.

In December 2013, a journalist and author Laurie Penny wrote that ‘horror stories about Muslim misogyny have long been used by western patriarchs to justify imperialism abroad and sexism at home.’

‘I am writing this as a white feminist infuriated by white men using dog-whistle Islamophobia to derail any discussion of structural sexism; as someone who has heard too many reactionaries tell me to shut up about rape culture and the pay gap and just be grateful I’m not in Saudi Arabia,’ wrote Penny.

It seems like Richard Dawkins’ statement was an exemplary instance of this white patriarchal pattern, especially taking into account his controversial letter to Muslim women from 2011, in which he criticised a woman for being too sensitive in an uncomfortable and possibly threatening moment with a man and pointed his finger at ‘Muslim societies’ to show that these were ‘actually sexist’ as opposed to Western societies.

Dawkins’ newest tweet again reflected this combination of sexism and islamophobia that serves Western patriarchal politics and has, in fact, nothing to do with women’s liberation.