The desire to be picked capitalises on two of our most basic human drives; fear and survival.
“What is the agreement on Muslim women living life on their own terms?” I found myself asking this question recently when, unfortunately, I stumbled upon an Instagram comment thread where an unknown Muslim woman took apart one of the most accomplished Muslim women in our community. “She is everything you warn brothers about” the woman ranted. “a woman who is remarried, yet posts about how much she loves her ex-husband. May Allah protect our brothers“. Let’s bear in mind that the object of this woman’s venom is a woman who lost her husband some years back, and chooses to remember him periodically. Let’s also bear in mind that the ex-husband in this context should have been phrased as a late husband. This exact scenario played out with the Prophet (PBUH) who after getting married to other wives, would frequently remember his late wife, Khadijah (RA), declare his love for her and shed tears.
The issue here, however, is not the correctness of remembering one’s late husband after being remarried. What was most baffling was the hatred and venom with which this woman spoke about her fellow Muslim woman, going as far as calling upon the men in our community to cancel her and “roast” her. The woman did not stop there. She went ahead to level accusations against the object of her hatred for promoting sexual equality and orgasm for Muslim women, disrespecting male authority and going against the basic tenets of Islam.
Whatever our opinions are on any issue, it is important to highlight that this woman is not the first to attempt to improve her worth in the eyes of men by supposedly ‘signalling her virtue’ and undermining what she perceives to be her sexual competition. Many women in our communities turn against their women counterparts, proclaim themselves as ‘not like other women‘ and show their readiness to be subservient to male authority. If this angers us as a collective, and it should, we also need to think about the deep-rooted causes of this kind of behaviour in some women.
These women, whom we sometimes refer to as “pick-mes” need to be understood. The term “pick-me”, defined by the urban dictionary as a woman who puts down other women for male attention or validation, is a far-reaching concept that goes back to fear and the need for self-preservation. It connotes the need to be “picked” for far-better treatment by a world that suppresses us as a collective. When we understand the lengths at which some people will go to achieve a certain status or position, trampling upon those deemed closest to them for the preservation of their own selves, it becomes easy to understand that the act of shaming other women is a coping mechanism for survival. This instinct to survive and be treated better than the rest is so rudimentary that it can be seen amongst children.
When it comes to choices, most of us weigh our options, selectively choosing those that will protect us from unfair assumptions and stereotypical tropes circulated about women, such as those centred around slut-shaming. Many women want to fit into the “good girl” box, to corner favours from society; the instinct to signal to the world that “yes, I’m a woman, but a respectable one“, thus protecting ourselves from the shunning that comes with non-conformity. Distancing ourselves from other women labelled as sluts, bad-women, evil temptresses and whatnot seems like the only way to survive in a world that communicates to us that our reputations are as fragile as a piece of glass; so easy to be tainted and shattered for life. It explains why women turn against each other, fighting for recognition and survival as though our world were a jungle in which the fittest outlives the rest. In this case, unfortunately, the fittest appears to be the woman who is the most well-behaved, acting out the man-made scripts prewritten for her.
Women who depend on men for their identity, careers, money and livelihood are more likely to turn against their fellow women to maintain their privileges. They are more likely to conform, shut other women up, protect the abused instead of the abuser, call out other women who defy gender norms and dance to the tune of the patriarchy. After all, the one who pays the piper dictates the tune.
The pick-me attitude is both dangerous and deserving of compassion; dangerous because it is damaging to our collective existence as women and deserving of compassion because this game is unempowering even to the women who signal their virtues as distinct from the rest. What the constant shaming of other women does is to further draw attention to unfair stereotypical labels, creating a vicious cycle of danger for women generally. While we are afraid of being labelled and stigmatised by society, do we really want to play a game of self-preservation in which we send other women to the gallows for the sole purpose of establishing that we are not like other women who actually ‘deserve‘ to be punished by the system? What does this tell of our values?
As a Muslim woman who has gone through and is still undergoing a process of unlearning, I believe in holding space for the women who throw other women under the bus. I believe that what we need is better engagement and acknowledgement that the desire to be picked capitalises on two of our most basic human drives; fear and survival. The strategies that many women employ to be picked and thus, protected from the harshness that often visits women can be destructive. However, once we collectively acknowledge that these behaviours are based on fear, we can then proceed to tackling them in our safe spaces.
Women need to know that virtue-signalling and pick-me behaviours cannot grant us true agency and freedom. It only guarantees conditional safety and respect in a world where women are not valued for just being humans. And just like women’s resistance is triggered by misogyny, we have to recognise that the need to proclaim that we are not like other women is also an impulsive but indirect response to misogyny.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.