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Opinion

New Controversy Around Kamala Harris is Rooted in Cultural Misunderstanding

On Thursday, the New York Times published an op-ed by two Muslim women who had been invited, notably by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to testify before the Senate about the ideology of political Islam. The piece was entitled “They Brushed Off Kamala Harris. Then She Brushed Us Off,” and it criticized Sen. Harris, famous for being cut short not once, but twice, while doing her job on the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as her female peers North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, for not questioning Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Asra Q. Nomani.

Ali and Nomani’s ultimate point, that women of color and, in particular, Muslim and Middle Eastern women are a key demographic so often excluded by western progressives and feminists in their advocacy, is valid. For example, many Muslim women may be less concerned about the pay gap than they are about potentially being banned from entering the country, harassed for wearing hijabs or being labeled as terrorists.

But Harris, and her peers, opted to not question the two women not because they sought to sideline Muslim women and don’t support their rights, but because they do.

Inviting the two women, Ali, a survivor of genital mutilation, child marriage, and other abuses, and Nomani, a woman shunned and oppressed for having a child out of wedlock, was a blatant ploy by Republicans meant to further stigmatize Islam, and perhaps even garner support for President Donald Trump‘s travel ban.

Republicans offered these women a platform not because they valued these women and their experiences, but because they valued their narrative — one of two women subjugated, oppressed and abused by the religion of Islam — and sought to exploit it for their own benefit.

Often the only times Republicans so much as touch the topic of women’s rights, it’s to demonize Muslim-majority countries by pointing out how they “persecute” women — as if persecution of women, often as a result of Republican policies, doesn’t exist in the west. Republicans can hardly sit on a high horse of moral superiority in their perceptions of the Middle East, as they so often do, when their own policies where reproductive rights, wage equality, health care and family leave are concerned deny countless American women control over their bodies and equal opportunity.

McCaskill went on to clarify that her decision to not participate in the hearing was because of her opposition to it as a tool to “distort” Islam.

“Anyone who twists or distorts religion to a place of evil is an exception to the rule,” McCaskill said. “We should not focus on religion.”

McCaskill went on to voice her concern that the hearing, organized by Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, would “underline that,” referring to political hostility toward Islam.

In their op-ed, Ali and Nomani note that Johnson, who set up the hearing, and his Republican colleague, Senator Steve Daines from Montana, were the only ones who questioned them.

When was the last time either of these men gave a platform to American women to speak about their struggles to access birth control or basic health care? Of course, they haven’t, because unlike inviting Ali and Nomani to testify, this would hurt rather than help their narrative.

The two women complete their op-ed by writing:

“We believe feminism is for everyone. Our goals — not least the equality of the sexes — are deeply liberal. We know these are values that the Democratic senators at our hearing share. Will they find their voices and join us in opposing Islamist extremism and its war on women?”

And Harris, who is notably herself a woman of color and is probably no stranger to being excluded by the harmful and white-centric “feminism” Ali and Nomani are criticizing, and her peers, believe feminism is for everyone, too. That’s precisely why they didn’t participate in the senate hearing, which was meant to frame the “Islamist extremism” the women write about as one and the same as Islam, to the detriment of Muslim women in the United States and around the world.

When we selectively talk about radical acts committed by those who identify as members of one religion, but not the radical acts committed by those who identify as members of another religion, we run the risk of suggesting that oppression and violence are exclusive to one religion. The reality is that they’re not.

History is dotted with women being hurt and persecuted as a result of puritanical, Christian beliefs, of abortion clinics being burned to the ground and abortion providers being terrorized and murdered, by Christian terrorists. Portrayals of “””radical Islam””” as the exclusive purveyor of violence and sexism aren’t just bigoted and harmful — they’re also plain inaccurate and ignorant.

The Democratic senators who chose to not participate in the hearing did so not to brush them off, but to fight the Islamophobic, intolerant narrative the women were being used by Republicans to craft.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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