Submissive, quiet and polite – These characteristics plastered on young Muslim women for many decades were planted by colonialism and toxic patriarchy. In recent times, young Muslim women are stereotyped with these labels which are vigorously guarded and enforced by older Muslim women, who under the politics of respectability secured the nurturing role of “Aunties”. By virtue of their age and experiences, many young women look up to them as role models. Their status in the community is powerful and forceful and could help supplant harmful cultures. But due to their failure to recognise the power they hold, we are forced to talk about their roles as enablers of male predation and abuse in Muslim communities.
This is not a piece criticising our elders. I acknowledge that once upon a time, our “aunties” were once girls, who weren’t born as toxic Muslim aunties but were, unfortunately, subjected to the same experiences bedevilling young Muslim women of today. Due to the sexist structures put in place to uphold their oppression, they were unable to adequately navigate and dismantle their predicaments. Just as the saying “If you can’t beat them, you join them” goes, these aunties assimilated and internalised these toxic ideologies. Their cups brimmed with misogyny, toxic masculinity, racism amongst many other issues that restrained them from developing the necessary skills to choose themselves. The few aunties who rebelled were either ostracised from their communities or blatantly stigmatised, having to face the music for daring to defy. Therefore, internalised misogyny became a response to trauma; a way to seek safety even in oppression rather than jeopardising their reputations and the meagre privileges allotted to them.
Many of these women were unable to perceive life beyond marriage, motherhood and survival. They were spiritually abused by religious leaders into believing that asking for more was a ticket to damnation. And since they lacked the resources, due to the educational repression of women and the male-monopolisation of Islamic scholarship, to look into these issues and find out the truth for themselves, It became the norm that women had to pattern their lives around these areas. What was, and still is, oppressive became glamourised as women’s nature.
Contrary to the trends of the 21st century where self-love and mental health are becoming greatly prioritised, these aunties were practically forbidden from complaining or at the very least, giving a hint that they were not happy or mentally healthy, for fear that they would be perceived as ungrateful and, therefore, losing the meagre privileges allotted to them. They were conditioned to accepting the barest minimum and showing gratitude for it. The message communicated was that the greater the pain a woman goes through, the higher her status in society and the bigger the privileges handed to her by the patriarchy. So these aunties chose to bask in the glory of their pain, even competing and bragging about whose pain was greater.
This also meant that these aunties had to hold other women to higher standards of suffering by protecting the patriarchy. Women who guarded the patriarchy best earned the most favour under the system. So even when confronted with the ugly realities of their predicament such as when an “alpha-male” who happens to be a serial predator endangers the lives of women and girls, the expected attitude would be to blame the victim and coerce them into silence. After all, since “bad things don’t happen to good girls” it was shameful and character-assassinating to talk about being molested by a member of the masculine gender. It is why narratives such as the inherently evil nature of women began to circulate, with aunties spearheading the slut-shaming culture… If women were not inherently evil creatures who tempted men into sin, men would be pious creatures who wouldn’t prey on women.
Today, toxic Muslim aunties have not ceased to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and oppression bedevilling women around the world. They disguise shame and oppression as protection, coming off as having our best interests at heart. I know how difficult it is for our aunties to see the young women of today defying everything they’ve ever known. I know how threatening it is to feel handicapped when they’re expected to either call these young ones to order or lose the little privileges they have left.
However, I genuinely hope that, as women from different generations, we can come together and heal collectively from our trauma, passing over kindness, empathy and grace to ourselves. Conversations around internalised misogyny need to be had. Aunties need to know that their pain does not define them and what they endured shouldn’t be the norm. Young women of today, need to keep fighting for a better world for the young women of tomorrow. Our aunties should know that we need them to fight for us, rather than throw us under the bus. And most of all, I hope that toxic Muslim aunties cease to be a thing.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.