Enervation of Black Muslim Women

[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:

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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.”[3]

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
Pronunciation: \i-ˈmas-kyə-ˌlāt\
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:

ENERVATE

Main Entry: en·er·vate
Pronunciation: \ˈe-nər-ˌvāt\
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
Date: 1605
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.

 

 

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5 responses to “Enervation of Black Muslim Women”

  1. Inqiyaad says:

    “As long as we are battling each other, we are not uplifting or liberating each other.” For all the sweet talk about helping each other and not pitting one (gender) against the other, feminism does exactly that. It is a tainted perspective that looks at society or its problems primarily through the binary of gender. Its unrelenting focus exclusively on rights of women (often at the expense of men’s rights), seeking uniformity with the male gender on every issue, (often in contradiction to gender roles and rights assigned by none other than Allah), contributes to social and familial strife. For example, male responsibility of earning a livelihood for the family is not merely a cultural thing, it is something ordained by Allah

    وَلَا تَتَمَنَّوۡاْ مَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بِهِۦ بَعۡضَكُمۡ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضٍ۬‌ۚ لِّلرِّجَالِ نَصِيبٌ۬ مِّمَّا ٱڪۡتَسَبُواْ‌ۖ وَلِلنِّسَآءِ نَصِيبٌ۬ مِّمَّا ٱكۡتَسَبۡنَ‌ۚ وَسۡـَٔلُواْ ٱللَّهَ مِن فَضۡلِهِۦۤ‌ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ ڪَانَ بِكُلِّ شَىۡءٍ عَلِيمً۬ا (٣٢)

    ٱلرِّجَالُ قَوَّٲمُونَ عَلَى ٱلنِّسَآءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعۡضَهُمۡ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضٍ۬ وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُواْ مِنۡ أَمۡوَٲلِهِمۡ‌ۚ فَٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتُ قَـٰنِتَـٰتٌ حَـٰفِظَـٰتٌ۬ لِّلۡغَيۡبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ ٱللَّهُ‌ۚ وَٱلَّـٰتِى تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَٱهۡجُرُوهُنَّ فِى ٱلۡمَضَاجِعِ وَٱضۡرِبُوهُنَّ‌ۖ فَإِنۡ أَطَعۡنَڪُمۡ فَلَا تَبۡغُواْ عَلَيۡہِنَّ سَبِيلاً‌ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّ۬ا ڪَبِيرً۬ا (٣٤)
    سُوۡرَةُ النِّسَاء

    Allah has assigned ‘Naseeb’ i.e shares and duties due to/from either gender. Therefore, everyone has to look to the Qur’an and Sunnah to determine whether things qualify as ‘microagressions or macroagressions’ and not seek remedies beyond those dictated by Allah.

    True that, “when we refuse to listen or grant a person respect because of their station in life, we are being misguided by arrogance.” But, by refusing to point out that the person will stagnate if he/she doesn’t move on or remove oneself from the quagmire of commitment to alien ideologies (alien to Islam), we let the person succumb to wishful thinking.

    It is interesting also that you define ‘emasculation’ extensively without any discussion about specific factors that contribute to this phenomenon (for example, the role of scholars, Muslimahs, mothers, fathers, wives and current trends of subscribing to feminist ideology). While at the same time being very explicit about the causes for ‘enervation’, “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.” It will be interesting to see your critique of specific ‘aggressions’ within the above listed domains based solely on Qur’an and Sunnah. In the meanwhile, does feminism silence legitimate discussions about the refusal of woman to subscribe to gender roles/responsibilities assigned by Qur’an and Sunnah, and what effect does this have on male psychology and emasculation?

  2. GregAbdul says:

    Don’t like your headline. First: it’s a big word that almost no one knows. Second: black women in general are not enervated. black women are some of the hardest workers in the world. Are some mixed up? Tell me a group that does not have a few kooks running loose (ISIS anyone?). Black women in general go crazy in loving their kids more than most women I know. I don’t mean to bash, but often you see black underachieving boys and when you look, you see a black woman, working like a dog, eight hours a day and then maintaining a home so that underachieving boy has a soft place to lay down. Black Muslim women, in my opinion, sometimes fail to let Islam take them beyond the borders and boundaries of black culture. I would also add that when you say black Muslim women, you have to have a special section for African women. I think there’s a big difference between a black American woman and an African Muslim woman and there are big differences between East and West and a Somali and a Muslim woman from the Gambia. But not a one of them that I have seen, would I call “enervated.”

  3. Omer says:

    A day before election day and you guys publish a piece about black Muslim women?

  4. Ameerah says:

    I am tired of this. There is no racism in islam, Black people are always complaining. Seriously enough. Stop trying to bring race in to everything. I have met good and bad people of all races but black women and men do tend to come off as rude and loud to be honest. maybe change your ways and attitude and people would not think of you this way.

    • You’re correct. There is no racism in Islam, but that does not mean Muslims are incapable of being racist. Allah didn’t make Muslims perfect and never claimed that they would be. Either people of color are making false claims as a whole, or they have a legitimate reason. I can assure you it’s the latter. You don’t have to look far either. The reactions to the hashtag #OurThreeWinners vs #OurThreeBoys/#OurThreeBrothers is a terrific example. When the black kids were killed, several Muslims questioned whether they were killed over drugs, gang activity, or some other illegal type of activity before details were released. The fact that they were stereotyped on the basis of their skin color says a lot.

      Even the statements you made are rooted in racist sentiment. You labeled a whole group, black women and men, as being rude and loud. And then went on to mention that black people should change their ways. Racism is rooted in stereotypes, much like the one you mentioned. Based on your statement, I can make a general assumption about you. The first is that you’re not black. The second is that you are not around black people regularly. I say this because this is how racial stereotypes develop. The less contact we have with a group, the more likely we will develop negative feelings about them. Also, our fears of a group pushes us to develop an us-vs-them mentality, something that we refer to as in-group out-group bias.

      Also, having these racial stereotypes that you exhibited are not only harmful, but demeaning. It devalues the people who are making the comments about. If you hold these views about black people and you’re supposed to be Muslim, what makes you think that they will feel welcomed around you? Hint: They will not. You may feel that you are justified in making your comments, but you’re doing yourself a disservice. Instead of making generalizations, try seeking out portrayals that are more realistic and positive, as opposed to seeking out the views which cater to your beliefs. At the end of the day, you’ll be a better person for it.

      Remember: The Prophet (salallaahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “He who believes in Allah and the Last Day must either speak good or remain silent.” And, “And adhere to truth, for truth leads to good deeds, and good deeds lead to paradise.” You cannot speak a lie and expect not to be held accountable for it.

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