The limits of a WOC feminist stance within the context of global racism.

A few days ago I was stuck in the airport and luckily caught Mona Eltahawy debating blogger Hebah Ahmed on Elliot Spitzer’s show on CNN “In the Arena” about the ban on face veils in France, piety, feminism and xenophobia. It is worth a watch because they both make really good points and also because it is rare that you see two actual real life Muslim women debating about the lives of, well, Muslim women, on television.

Eltahawy makes the point that the law in France is obviously part of the conservative xenophobia of the Sarkozy administration, however feels adamantly that a face covering is oppressive to women. It assumes piety means that women shouldn’t exist and is predicated on their invisibility.

Ahmed responds that veiling by choice is an act of defiance to larger forces that sexualize the body and provide an opportunity for women to engage without being sexualized. She also makes the case that of the women she has met worldwide she has not met someone who was forced to veil.

Sadly, Ahmed is wrong about her last point. There are countless examples of nation-states that demand women veil and if they do not they are subject to fines, punishment, arrest, public humiliation, beatings and other forms of coercive tactics to keep women covered. How much these laws are enforced varies from state to state and the extent to which women must veil varies as well, but there are many examples of places where women are forced, either by the state or their family, to cover their bodies.

But that doesn’t make the ban a solution. Only approximately 2,000 women in France actually cover their faces, making the law not only symbolic, but a deliberate attempt at controlling a community that is already victim of extensive police harassment and xenophobia. Women have already started to be arrested for covering their faces by police. The context may be different, but state mandates and coercion on what should be on or off women’s bodies is unjust. Demanding women’s bodies should be covered or uncovered, makes their bodies the ground on which battles of culture are fought. She is reduced to only her sex, objectified either in her being covered or in her being exposed. She becomes the stand-in symbol for either the past or the future, for religious anxiety and for nationalism.

Eltahawy’s point about veiling being a sign of female subjugation isn’t totally “right” either. As Jos, pointed out, almost all of the criticisms from Western feminists have been prefaced with “I think veiling is oppressive, but…” Katha Pollitt similarly wrote a rather measured piece but prefaces her own understanding of the ban with, “I don’t like face-veiling either. It negates the individual; it reduces women to sex objects who must be shrouded to avoid tempting men; it sends the message that men’s “honor” resides in the bodies of “their” women.” Pollitt concludes, rightfully, that this law won’t actually make Muslim women’s lives better and we should shift our focus elsewhere, but still makes the point that veiling is fundamentally wrong.

Ahmed, Eltahawy and Pollitt all have legitimate points, but I am struck by how difficult it is to have a conversation about veiling without falling onto standby defenses of veiling as a practice of “choice” or full on rejection of veiling as a practice of resistance.

If feminism is about choice and some women “choose” to veil, we have to extend the criticisms of “choice feminism” itself. The notion of choice, and therefore, choice feminism, is predicated on what choices you have historically had access to, the cultural reality you are functioning within, what is considered normal to you and if it is connected to a larger system of patriarchal power. Is something ultimately a choice, when the other choices are replete with social stigma, chastising, harassment and abuse?

On the other hand, is it possible to make a blanket statement about veiling being inherently oppressive? After all, in Algeria women hid bombs under their burqas as they crossed into French territory to fight colonial power. They fought hand in hand with the men in their country to push the French out. Veiling has in many instances been used as a sign of not just religious solidarity but also national solidarity against Western power.

Sarkozy’s ban is a direct reaction to the symbolic use of veiling as a form of a political anti-imperialist stance. It is not about gender equity, it is about using women as symbolic pawns in a fight between religions and continuing a legacy of colonialism.

What these debates reveal for me is two things: the limits of a women of color feminist stance within the context of global racism and the lack of historical memory of colonization, anti-imperial activism and stories about women of color. Yeah, just that.

As women of color we are often forced to debate criticism of practices that are unjust, inhumane or misogynistic because criticism of these practices come from people that have no sense of what life is like within that particular cultural context. This has been on my mind in light of the debate around Ashley Judd’s comments about sexism and hip hop. That’s a whole other can of worms and could be a separate blog post, but the point about outsiders criticizing “our cultures” still stands. Judd has the right to criticize the misogyny in hip hop but if she is going to do it she has to do it with recognition of the cultural history of hip hop, the role of corporate control in the production of misogynistic lyrics and the criticisms of sexism and hip hop from women of color.

What happens in pushing back against criticism of misogyny in our own cultures is as women of color we often end up inadvertently reconsolidating the patriarchal power of those very practices, left without the space to criticize sexism in our own spheres because we are forced to be on the defensive to larger powers of racism. And often the only time the mainstream media is interested in women of colors’ criticisms are when they feed into larger ideas about racism or Islamaphobia (Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes to mind).

Critiquing cultural practices that we are not part of is difficult. Criticism of veiling (and for that matter rap) is folded into the argument that the West is better, more progressive, more modern and better suited for the lives of women (even though women’s lives are being negatively impacted every day by patriarchy everywhere). Or it is often used to justify military or police aggression (as was the case in Afghanistan, predicated on the rhetoric that we must free women using the burqa as a symbol for invasion). And it ends up feeding the rhetoric that men of color are somehow more sexist, patriarchal, violent and misogynistic then the good willed white men of Europe and the United States.

But these debates shift the focus from the real issues at hand. “Women’s rights” become a stand-in go to phrase to continue a legacy of pushing nationalist rhetoric and racist policy on communities that are already marginalized. In an effort to “free” women of color, they ultimately reconsolidate the very sexist and oppressive conditions they want to overturn, leaving most of us without the cultural space or actual rights to fight back on our own terms.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted April 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    We’ve long been guilty of co-opting aspects of a minority culture while defining these aspects on our own terms. The early Twentieth Century movement of Orientalism is the prime example I think of here.

    The nuances, subtleties, and context as pertains to any practice like the head scarf are what is lacking when we discuss their merits or offensiveness. And, furthermore, I am again reminded of how few things in this world are purely good or purely evil. This is not to encourage a strand of Moral Relativism, but to note that what is culturally acceptable is rarely simplistic, and the same goes for that which is not culturally acceptable.

  2. Posted April 14, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh…The voice of reason. Thank you, Samhita.

  3. Posted April 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    What a great, great post. I wanted to watch the clip, but I couldn’t get over my disgust at the idea of Eliot Spitzer moderating a discussion between women about “women’s rights.” Ew. Anyway, if intersectionality has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know everything, though we’d like to pretend otherwise. Is the veil oppressive? I wouldn’t wear one, but then again, I have no reason to. I don’t wear high heels or makeup, either, and that’s expected of me in my own culture.

    I have a Muslim friend here in Minneapolis who wears a hijab, and in this context, it’s a revolutionary act. It proclaims difference in a homogeneous culture built on the myth of “Minnesota Nice.” When she ran for mayor, she refused to explain what her “ethnic background” was until her white male opponents did the same. Is she oppressed? Hell no!

    There’s always plenty to learn.

    • Posted April 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      What’s your friend’s name? I would love to read more about her; she sounds awesome.

      • Posted April 14, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        I would, too. I’ll be spending my summer in St. Paul, so I’ve been paying close attention to interesting stories coming out of that area. I’d love to meet this woman!

  4. Posted April 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    What about orthodox Jewish women, and I realize they may not be as prevalent in France as here in the US, but what about the Amish, Mormons, or other conservative Christian groups? These women wear long skirts and generally cover their bodies modestly in the name of their religion. Should we mandate how much skin needs to be shown to be “Western?”

    The only difference here is *what* religion it is. I, too, have a muslim friend who chose to cover her hair according to the cultural norms of Islam in her home country. She is an independent woman a whole continent away from any subjugating male (her father), and several of her sisters have chosen not to cover their hair without any repercussions. Obviously there are cases where women are forced to wear them when they don’t want to… but how is stopping these rare occurrences (think how small it must be if only 2000 actually wear them at all in France) justified by doing the same to the women who choose to wear a veil? They are effectively forcing them to do something against their will, and I can’t stand for that.

    To the argument about it reducing women to sex objects, I’d have to say that this is going to happen no matter what we wear. This seems to start a slippery slope where if one is to wear skimpy clothes, then they are merely objectifying themselves in the opposite direction (“That’s just what the male dominated, sex-driven society wants you to wear!!”). When does it stop and when do we just let women wear whatever the hell the feel like?

  5. Posted April 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Islam is a religion, not a race. There are people of all races who practice Islam from Asians, eastern Europeans, to Africans, etc., so its intellectually dishonest to conflate the two.

    Framing ones objection to anothers cultural or religious bigotry as being racist has been used to stiffle decent and is very dangerous. The truth is clear that Misogyny is prevelent throughout the world, but there are varying degrees. To deny the difference in degree is again another form of intellectual dishonesty.

    Most theocracies are generally rife with misogyny and many cultures where Islam is prevelent are governed by Islamic theocracies. In these places the degree of misogyny is usually more severe and women’s roles and freedoms are more restricted. That’s a fact and there is nothing racist or imperialistic about stating that truth.

    I agree with Mona 100%. The burqa is designed to make women invisable. It is also a justification for rape. The whole notion that women have to cover themselves to the point of suffering from viteman D deficiancies, so men won’t sexually harrass them perpetuates male sexual privilage and male ownership and control over women’s bodies. The idea that because men are not held responsible for controlling their sexual earges women are forced to be invisible, smacks of blaming the innocent party/victim.

    To me the Burqa represents female oppression. I find it every bit as offensive as as burning crosses, or nazi symbols. Should we next condone killing gay people because their lifestyle offends Islam? Is it racist to object to the murder of gays that is so frequently carried out by Islamic states under Sharia law? Is it bigotted to make the judgment that denying gays the right to marry isn’t as bad as executing them for being gay? Of course not! So why would we condone the oppression of women in the name of religous freedom or cultural diversity?

    I don’t buy the cultural relevancy argument either, when little girls are being married off at as young as 9 yrs old, a woman’s testimoney is worth half that of a man’s, men are instructed to beat their wives in the quran, women have no rights to divorce or custody and all the other inequities encoded in sharia law.

    It is dishonest to frame notions of fundemental fairness as culturally insensitive or intolarant. If it is intolarent to object to intolarence and bigotry, then humanity is doomed. And as long as we allow our objections to misogyny anywhere to be reframed as racist or imperialistic, women will NEVER realize equality.

  6. Posted April 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    We are not talking about modest clothes or ankle-length skirts or hats or knee-high socks, or school uniforms, or swimwear; we’re not talking about scarves or even partial face coverings like the hijab. The law bans full face coverings and that cannot they be equated with “clothes”. I assume this would also ban things like a KKK hood as well.

    The author of the post writes “The notion of choice, and therefore, choice feminism, is predicated on what choices you have historically had access to, the cultural reality you are functioning within, what is considered normal to you …” Ok. Let’s listen to those within that culture. There was something in the news in 2008 about a cleric saying that the traditional veil was too revealing and that all Muslim women should wear a veil with only one eye revealed. I remember reading articles where he was quoted as saying that a woman could still seductively wink if both her eyes showing.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7651231.stm

    Furthermore, there was news that veiled women reported more sexual harassment, not less.

    http://www.boston.com/news/world/africa/articles/2008/08/24/veils_fuel_harassment_in_egypt_some_say/

    As I wrote in another post on this issue, I am willing to go out on a limb and say that every girl of every nation and culture knows instinctively, maybe even before she has the words to express it, that she is both Object and Subject. The equilibrium between the two states might lean one way or another depending culture, class, education, socioeconomics, nationality, religion, etc., etc. My question is, would society at large, including the sectarian and secular subgroups within, be either alarmed by or see the necessity of Women’s Coverings if the mere presence/thought/idea of The Female Body wasn’t itself such a threat? We’re not just talking about France, here. The word “uterus” was banned on the Floor of the US House because it might be “offensive”!

    So, how do we make Female-ness less threatening? Is making Female visibly invisible really the way to do it? How about creating laws that outpace social lag, esp. in the absence of a immediate and global realization that modernity has outmoded texts written during the Bronze Era? People tend confuse the real form of peaceful, tolerant multiculturalism with moral relativity – the mistake being we can’t possibly thoughtfully and constructively criticize another culture objectively, so therefore all cultures, and opinions and practices formed therein, must be equally valid.

  7. Posted April 19, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    >Framing ones objection to anothers cultural or religious bigotry as being racist has been used to stiffle decent and is very dangerous.
    >

    Indeed.
    It is _also_ very dangerous to deny that there is widespread racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, which shape the media coverage and the veiling debate — between Muslim women, Muslim feminists, and non-Muslim women and non-Muslim feminists.

    >The truth is clear that Misogyny is prevelent throughout the world, but there are varying degrees. To deny the difference in degree is again another form of intellectual dishonesty.
    >

    The truth is clear that racism and ethnic prejudice is prevelant throughout the world.

    This, however, does not absolve the West from blame for its large role in the world history of racist oppressions.

    The fact that there is misogyny all over the place also does not absolve the West for its own entrenched misogyny, against all kinds of women.

    There could perhaps be different degrees, but WHOSE definition and context of misogyny shall we adopt to measure these degrees?

    If the discussion is about veiling, should not Muslim women, who are the women directly affected, have the say? Or how about Muslim feminists?

    >I don’t buy the cultural relevancy argument either, when little girls are being married off at as young as 9 yrs old, a woman’s testimoney is worth half that of a man’s, men are instructed to beat their wives in the quran, women have no rights to divorce or custody and all the other inequities encoded in sharia law.
    >

    Certainly there are many abuses, but why is it that ONLY abuses are discussed when Islam and women are the topic?

    Can some feminists not conceive of the fact that Islam (like most/all religions) is large and varied, and that there are many interpretations of scripture and religious practice? And that women take part in creating some/many of these interpretations, and that religious practice need not all be negative?

    As a person recovering from fundamentalist Christianity and the abuses it enabled within my family and community, I am very aware of the Christian privilege enjoyed by Christians in the US and in Canada. One of those privileges is not to be constantly attacked and under suspicion by the mainstream media, not to be considered a monolithic block of extremism and oppression.

    Even in some progressive circles, the only thing many people have as their conception of Islam is this kind of negative, monolithic block.

    >We are not talking about modest clothes or ankle-length skirts or hats or knee-high socks, or school uniforms, or swimwear; we’re not talking about scarves or even partial face coverings like the hijab. The law bans full face coverings and that cannot they be equated with “clothes”.
    >

    Who says they cannot be equated with “clothes”? You? Muslim women using veils? All or some? Muslim feminists? All or some? Others?

    Who says that “modest” clothes that some Christians wear are not abusive, or that women are not coerced into wearing them?
    And who says they _are_ all inherently abusive, or that women are only coerced?

    The issue of the potential oppressiveness of women’s clothing in some (usually less populous, more conservative) Christian sects is not extensively discussed in the mainstream. But of course, in the West, we are much more culturally familiar with Christianity and have absorbed many of its attitudes even in supposedly secular society.

    Yet, the policing of women’s dress in the US and Canada goes ever on, along with slut-shaming and victim-blaming for sexual assaults (“she was wearing a miniskirt and lots of makeup, she asked for it”). People of all spiritual beliefs and non-beliefs participate in this kind of oppression.

    Are women in North America who get breast implants “coerced” into doing so? Are women and girls “coerced” into eating disorders? But I forgot, we must quickly rank all these things into “greater” and “lesser” degrees of oppression.

    But who is we? And who gets to pronounce on this?

    There is a “small space of discursive agency we all experience, however multi-layered, fictional, and constrained it in fact is.”
    - from Linda Martin Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking For Others” (http://www.alcoff.com/content/speaothers.html) which is one of many good things to read if you are considering whether or how one can “constructively criticize” another culture.

    >People tend confuse the real form of peaceful, tolerant multiculturalism with moral relativity – the mistake being we can’t possibly thoughtfully and constructively criticize another culture objectively, so therefore all cultures, and opinions and practices formed therein, must be equally valid.
    >

    “real” multiculturalism — Please define! Do you have a magical solution to a complex issue?

    How assimilationist is such a “real” multicultural society? According to who — the majority races, religions, ethnicities, etc?

    How can one “constructively criticize” another culture?

    As a white, formerly-Christian woman who has always lived in Canada, I know that I need to listen especially attentively to any culture and/or religion I am not a part of. I need to learn about its histories and concerns, and learn these things from those who are part of it.

    And I need to keep checking white privilege and Christian privilege (in the case of Christians, and often, former Christians).

    And I need to listen to women and feminists of the culture in question, and hear how they outline issues and speak about them.

    Have you read/heard the work of any Muslim feminists? How many? Obviously such feminists will be varied in experience, philosophy, and opinions on action, tactics, and goals.

    Even if I accepted the premise that veiling is always inherently oppressive (which I don’t, because it leaves no room for multitudinous social contexts, nor for any women’s agnecy), then why would I just accept that a ban on veiling is tactically desirable or just?

    It’s not my body, let alone my lived experience of culture or religion.

    So who gets to make these kind of decisions?

    This is NOT about “cultural relativism.” Right now it is about who gets the power and the privilege to speak, to be heard, to frame the debate, to make judgements, and to enforce them.

    Obviously there are many abuses, in many religions and in many non-beliefs. Before charging in, people need to listen and educate themselves.

    Are those who are so willing to judge already educated about these things? Have you made serious and sustained efforts to learn about Islamophobia, and the particular racisms and xenophobias that impact Muslim women? Have you listened extensively to Muslim women and Muslim feminists?

    Are you so educated already that you can’t listen?
    Because woman is not a neutral term.

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