Agency is easily overlooked if you actively erase it

Via Muslimah Media Watch comes a lesson in how not to advocate for women’s rights. This ad is from Germany’s International Human Rights campaign.
Poster showing a woman in a burqa among trash bags
The text translates to: “Oppressed women are easily overlooked. Please support us in the fight for their rights.”

As Jos wrote the other day about France’s ban on the full face veil, which went into effect this week, “It seems to me we have a lot easier time seeing -isms in a cultural context different from our own, and a lot harder time seeing agency.

It seems the folks who created this ad not only have a hard time seeing agency but actually went out of their way to erase it as thoroughly as possible and then stomp on it some more. And then equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.

“Please support us in the fight for their rights?” Please shove your support up your ass and get out of the way. Pretty sure Muslim women around the globe are too busy fighting for their own rights to deal with this paternalistic bullshit.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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Join the Conversation

  • Allie

    Always love your articles Maya – straight forward, to the point, and always with some sort of appropriate profanity. You say it like it is; thank you for that!

    • Maya

      Thanks so much, Allie!

  • jiujitsubuddah

    Yeah, because there’s nothing sexist about the culture that makes women cover themselves head to toe or else the are whores and dishonorable to their family. Let’s totally rally in support of this culture. I thought this was a feminist website?

    • Rachel

      You completely missed the point of what Maya is saying. All she’s saying is that may women do make the decision to cover themselves and we should support them in their decisions. I think you should consider reading “Vieled Intentions: Don’t judge a Muslim girl by her covering” by Maysan Haydar, you’ll probably find it very illuminating.

    • Ms. Raspberry

      There is nothing feminist in telling a woman that she can’t cover herself head to toe either. I’m certainly against forcing women to wear a burqa, but I don’t think the answer is to force them to not wear one.

    • Angel H.

      Did you not see the second paragraph?

      “It seems the folks who created this ad not only have a hard time seeing agency but actually went out of their way to erase it as thoroughly as possible and then stomp on it some more. And then equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.”

      Yes, there are places where is a woman is forced to wear a burqa, but there are places where she has the freedom to choose. Not only does this ad fail to differentiate between the two, but it implies that the oppression of women is something that only happens ‘”over there.” What about the oppression of of German women?

    • Maya

      What all the other commenters have said. And also check out Samhita’s great post today on the nuances of this very issue.

      I’m also saying that even in cultures where women are forced to wear the veil (which is, of course, sexist), I’d still have a problem with a German women’s rights campaign with this image and the words “Please support us in the fight for their rights.” I’ll definitely support Muslim women as they fight for their own rights (which they do, every day, contrary to the implication of this ad). But I will not support folks who claim they are fighting for Muslim women’s rights on their behalf, while ignoring their voices and erasing their agency. That’s not the feminism I believe in.

  • nazza

    By agency we mean that women have the right to choose whether to cover themselves or not. Women in Western Society make a lot of suppositions about the head scarf, superimposing their own struggles and experience of discrimination upon it. But it’s not as simple as a garment that men force women to wear to prevent themselves from sexual thoughts.

    In a Middle Eastern/Muslim context, there are many many nuances within it. And, furthermore, many women CHOOSE to be fully covered for lots of completely justified reason. It is their right to do so, and it must be respected.

  • rabia

    I love this, and it’s so true.

    Also, I’d like to point out that a lot of the women that wear a burqa, especially in the West, do it out of their own free choice. I know many Muslim women who are feminist, and a lot of them choose to wear it. Banning it has nothing to do with protecting rights, and a lot more to do with ethnocentrism.

  • azinyk

    “the folks who created this ad … equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.”

    I think the intention was to equate the disregard that men have for the women whom they force to wear the burqa, with the disregard that they have for trash.

    Why should we have such a low opinion of the agency of women who look at photoshopped magazine covers, or get labiaplasty, or diet, or have sex when they don’t particularly want to, or face any kind of peer pressure, and yet we have such a high opinion of the agency of women who have been told since birth that the creator of the universe wants them to cover their face, and that they’ll go to hell if they don’t? I can hardly think of anything *more* coercive than religion, especially a religion where the penalty for changing your mind is death.

    I’ve read the other comments, and I agree, there are good reasons to oppose a burqa ban. But why not also oppose burqas? Just like we have programs – including consciousness raising – to help women leave abusive relationships, I think there should be programs to help people who want to leave their religion.