[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]hile all Muslim women face intense backlash when challenging authority, Black Muslim women’s intersecting identities make them even more vulnerable to marginalization when they speak up. Black Muslim women’s Islamic values are called into question as they are depicted as being more loyal to feminism than to Islam, more loyal to Blackness than to the universal ummah, and more loyal to feminism than to Blackness. Shutting out of Black women from public discourse or dismissing their grievances and realities goes against the spirit where women in the Qur’an and during the Prophetic time did speak their mind. Even the Creator heard the one who complained:
Certainly has Allah heard the speech of the one who argues with you, [O Muhammad], concerning her husband and directs her complaint to Allah . And Allah hears your dialogue; indeed, Allah is Hearing and Seeing. (Qur’an 58:1)
Whether through microagressions or macroagressions that dismiss our sister-scholars-activists, marginalization of Black Muslim women depletes our spiritual resources. Often, the dismissals of legitimate complaints are based on explicit and implicit bias or internalized racism, combined with sexism.
While social media allows for a widening discourse on gender, race, and Islam, it can become a toxic place. I have tried to commit myself to level of civil discussion as I critically engage with issues that reflect my anti-racist anti-sexist commitments. One of the most unnerving discourses on social media, however, involves gendered racism–especially the gendered racism that reifies stereotypes about Black women. Gendered racism is an insidious form of racism that targets only one gender of a particular racial group (i.e. all if not most Black women have attitudes, white women are easy, Black men are thugs, Asian women are submissive, Brown men are oppressors, or Asian men are asexual). The dominant society can generate these stereotypes or they may arise from internalized racism (i.e. the colorism in the Black community, orientalist tropes in discussions about gender and Islam). Even in influential scholars have generalized about Black women. In Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon writes, “‘It is because the Negress feels inferior that she aspires to win admittance into the white world’.”
Black Muslim women have been accused of being more committed to Western paradigms than to the Qur’an and sunnah when addressing the real world consequences of spiritual abuse, domestic violence, and discrimination in our faith community. I’ve seen gendered racism perpetuated with Black American Muslim men and women bashing each other on social media. What makes it even more troubling is that a number of non-Black Muslims have chimed in on the discussion to either challenge or reify stereotypes. Many of them lack the context to understand the history of how Black men and women have been pitted against each other. As long as we are battling each other, we are not uplifting or liberating each other.
While the majority of married Black men are married to Black women, there are still negative tropes that affect how we relate to one another, how we work together, and in turn affect how effective we are as a community. In many ways the comments on my earlier blog posts provided a forum to show how these issues are a real problem within both the Muslim American and Black American communities. One typo laden comment on my blog proclaims:
black women are what you might call a lost woman and a weak woman
her problem is she has been trained to think like racist white america but the difference is white people atach(sic) their vAlue(sic) to
themselves while black women attach
value tomaterials(sic) titles and money
she cant(sic) seperate(sic) her personal life from these things.black women
in their current state of mind will
never on a large scale ever be a
good mate for anyone especially a
american black man the white male
has ingrained to(sic) much poison into her she is therefore a walking curse the bases(sic) of her problems is she hates herself and she has been taught to hate black men she is in
a useless struggle to be a woman
to a white man notice in all her
conversations is the pursuit of
men of other races this is what they want to do they just using
problems with black men as an excuse.
Another commenter writes:
Non-Muslim professional African American men are not opting out on Black women… Just AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN. These brothers will marry Caribbean, Afro latina, or anything but African American sisters. The problem is the attitude they feel they get from Black women in this country. I frankly understand the point. As a Black professional I find dealing with many professional African American women to be a pain because of the 10 pound chip on their shoulders. I was talking to a group of lawyers, Black and white, they all agreed on one thing: There was nothing worse than having to deal with a Black female judge in the courtroom. The feeling was UNIVERSAL. The annoying neck rolling sass, which is more refined with the addition of university degrees basically turns EVERYONE OFF. So frankly.. I have little sympathy for these women.
Sadly, a number of Black Muslim men express negative attitudes towards Black Muslim women for being “too independent,” bossy, and in power struggles. Black Muslim women have not yet been able to overcome negative racial stereotypes.
Some blame Black women for robbing Black men of their manhood, without taking into consideration the broader social and historical forces that have undermined Black men’s agency and sense of self and dignity. Black people have internalized the dominant narrative about Black cultural pathology. More often than not, Black women are blamed for perpetuating the pathology. The Moynihan report conducted in the 1960s argued that assertive, intelligent, and independent Black women undermined the well being of Black men. Basically these traits emasculated Black men. In essence, it is easier to blame Black women for poor schools, inner city poverty, and crime, rather than historical legacy of segregated housing, discriminatory banking, post industrial economy, and neoliberal policies.
The tropes are harmful in that they effect how our girls grow up to see themselves. Two racial tropes shape the discourse on Black womanhood in the Black Muslim community, the sexually promiscuous Jezebel and the emasculating Sapphire. Legal scholars Marilyn Tarbrough and Crystal Bennett write:
in the stereotype of Sapphire, African American women are portrayed as evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful. In other words, Sapphire is everything that Mammy is not. “The Sapphire image has no specific physical features other than the fact that her complexion is usually brown or dark brown.” Unlike other images that symbolize African American women, Sapphire necessitates the presence of an African American male. The African American male and female are engaged in an ongoing verbal duel. Sapphire was created to battle the corrupt African American male whose “lack of integrity, and use of cunning and trickery provides her with an opportunity to emasculate him through her use of verbal put-downs.”
The Jim Crow of Racist Memorabilia concisely describes the relationship between the Sapphire stereotype and social control of Black women:
The Sapphire Caricature portrays Black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing.1 This is the Angry Black Woman (ABW) popularized in the cinema and on television. She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing White women. She is a shrill nagger with irrational states of anger and indignation — prone to being mean-spirited and abusive. Although African American men are her primary targets, she has venom for anyone who insults or disrespects her. The Sapphire’s desire to dominate and her hyper-sensitivity to injustices means that she is a perpetual complainer, but she does not criticize to improve things; rather, she criticizes because she is unendingly bitter and wishes that unhappiness on others. The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish Black women who violate the societal norms that encourage Black women to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.
500 words blogger Abagond describes Saaphire as follows:
Sapphire, named after a character in “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, always seems to have her hands on her hips while she is running her mouth – putting down her man, making everything into a fight, never taking anything lying down. She is an overbearing, hard and undesirable woman who drives men away. Think of Tichina Arnold’s character Pam in “Martin”.
The significance of the emasculating Sapphire is significant given the discourse on masculinity in Black Muslim communities. In most cultures, manhood is tied to being able to protect and provide for oneself and one’s family. Manhood is not just about being male, but linked with notions of maturity, efficacy, courage, virility, and honor. Manliness, like honor, is something that needs to be cultivated. And a blow to the manhood literally and figuratively really hurts. The definition for emasculate reads as follows:
Main Entry: emas·cu·late
Function: transitive verb
1 : to deprive of strength, vigor, or spirit : weaken
2 : to deprive of virility or procreative power : castrate
3 : to remove the androecium of (a flower) in the process of artificial cross-pollination
Emasculation is not about making a man into a woman, that is feminization. Rather, emasculation is about dehumanizing or making an adult male feel like a child, incapable of effecting change or acting as an agent for change. In addition to systems of oppression, poisonous relationships and negative life experiences can make a person feel less than human, or zapped of vigor. When it comes to the female gender, there is no equivalent term for dehumanization through emasculation. There is, however, a gender neutral term that has a corresponding meaning:
Main Entry: en·er·vate
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): en·er·vat·ed; en·er·vat·ing
Etymology: Latin enervatus, past participle of enervare, from e- + nervus sinew — more at nerve
1 : to reduce the mental or moral vigor of
2 : to lessen the vitality or strength of
synonyms see unnerve
In 2009, I wrote about the Enervation of Black American Women to address what many now call misogynoir, a special variety of sexism directed at Black women. Gendered racism denies Black women of their ability to define themselves and express their experiences as real and legitimate. Black Muslim women’s grievances aren’t real, because they are simply attempts at emasculating others or spreading her spitefulness. They not only render a Black woman invisble, but they camouflage her behind a coded racist caricature. Gendered racism has detrimental effects on Black Muslim women in the the public sphere, in education settings, and in religious institutions. It is especially troubling to see the silencing of legitimate critiques of spiritual abuse, representation, or power dynamics cloaked in religious discourse about piety and proper roles of Muslim women.
I have had the pleasure to know so many Black Muslim women from different walks of life, from professional women, stay at home mothers, community activists, public speakers, religious scholars, researchers, and thinkers. We want our communities to be embodiments of the Islamic ideals we all espouse. I’m finding women who are in the trenches working beside our men, raising sons and daughters, trying to live dignified lives. When we make Black Muslim women, who are often carrying so much in our community, the subject of our derision, we are only harming ourselves. Allah tells us in the Qur’an:
The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (9:71)
Being a good ally means that we must support each other, as well as hold each other accountable. When we refuse to listen or grant a person respect because of their station in life, we are being misguided by arrogance. Taking the time to reflect on our biases, to listen and amplify the voices of the most marginalized in our community, and to develop empathy is key. By doing so, we can restore the honored place that Islam has always given Black women, such as Sumayyah bint Khayyat or Umm Ayman.