Looking at the title of Mark Milke’s editorial, “The 21st century-style subjection of women” I have to admit that the first group of people that didn’t come to mind was Muslim women. Maybe it’s because Muslims are usually portrayed as being stuck in the middle ages. However, my first impression was wrong and the editorial was indeed about Muslim women. I guess Muslim subjection of women is both medieval and modern.
Milke’s essay is a throwback to John Stuart Mill’s 1869 essay “The Subjection of Women”. He tries to connect Mill’s essay to the plight of Muslim women but unfortunately spits out a bunch of tired clichés about Muslim women and the “freedom” that we’re denied.
I got the sense that Milke was just insistent on Muslim women being oppressed and downtrodden even when he provided examples to the contrary.
“I’ve taught a number of university classes and the young Muslim women do exceptionally well. I don’t know if that’s because they have parents who push them to succeed, or whether they appreciate Canada’s opportunities. It might be both.”
Muslim women can’t do well because they’re internally motivated to do so. We can only do well when afforded the wonderful opportunities that only exist in great countries like Canada and when we have parents looking over our shoulders making sure that we hit the books. Excuse my sarcasm, but I find it surprising that a professor like Milke didn’t realize how condescending this statement was the moment he typed it. His statement is not a compliment to his students at all but once more reinforces two stereotypes: 1) Muslim women are always under the control of their families 2) Muslim women are infantile and cannot be successful unless they benefit from a benevolent Western society.
In the rest of the essay, which really was not that coherent, Milke goes on about Muslim societies being so horrible to women. Even “liberal” Muslim societies don’t escape blame:
“For instance, one young Muslim woman I know came from a relatively more liberal Muslim country but still prefers to not settle back home. Male attitudes towards her gender are the reason.”
This statement groups all Muslim societies in a monolith while trying not to. In Milke’s mind, all Muslim societies treat women badly. Additionally, this statement, as well as the whole of Milke’s essay, also assumes that Muslim women are immigrants or come from an immigrant perspective. In Milke’s discussion there is no room for black, white, or Native American Canadian converts or their children.
Milke’s editorial isn’t all negative. He does give a shout out to Arab newspapers that print editorial cartoons decrying unequal treatment of women. But he found the cartoons on MEMRI, which makes me wonder if he actually did any real research on grassroots movements to bring about gender equality in Muslim societies. Even Milke’s accolades of Arab editorial cartoonists felt more like a pat on the head than a sincere attempt at solidarity with people genuinely concerned about gender rights
I would have preferred if Milke had highlighted, in addition to the cartoons, the everyday efforts that women in all Muslim societies are making to create more equitable societies for both women and men. And this is why Milke’s essay ultimately failed. His attitude towards the Muslim women and Muslim activists that he writes about is paternalistic. I felt as if he were looking down upon us, saying, “There, there. I know it’s hard for you Muslim women, but once you and your men accept our enlightened Western ways, you’ll be fine.”
That doesn’t feel like someone sincerely reaching out at all.