Western feminism and the Burqa



A SYTYCB entry


I was at a rally in Washington, D.C. last weekend called We Are Woman, organized by a national grassroots group of women with the vision of calling on policy makers to end the rollback of women’s economic and reproductive rights.  Amidst the sea of shirts imprinted with feminist slogans on the West lawn of the U.S. Capitol was a single woman wandering the area in an American flag-printed burqa.  Covered from head to toe, this white, non-Muslim woman was one of the organizers of the event.  As I approached her, others from the rally stepped up to take pictures with her, laughing in good fun, in agreement with her. I couldn’t believe others weren’t offended by what she was wearing. I went to question her on it, attempting to explain why her mode of dress was offensive to me and others, that she was making the feminist movement look bad.  She laughed it off, saying, that the burqa is, quite simply and universally, a symbol of oppression.

A year ago, I was at the Women, Money Power Summit put on by the Feminist Majority, where Rep. Carolyn Maloney, self-identifying feminist and champion of (U.S.) women’s rights, went on stage to discuss the oppression in the daily realities of the women of Afghanistan. It was a patronizing speech, meant to appeal to donors and activists in the crowd, to get them to feel sorry for the women entrenched in Muslim culture and abused by the Taliban, and that U.S. women must do something to help through the use of the U.S. government. To illustrate her point in how severely oppressed the women of Afghanistan are, Maloney pulled a large burqa out of a bag and put it on over her head.  She continued talking as the burqa hit her high-heeled feet (without a hint of irony), covering her from head to toe. The audience responded in surprise, nervous laughter, and applause. In what could only be considered an extreme show of insensitivity, her mocking attitude of this custom only continued, as she pulled it off of her body and threw it on the ground. Several young people in the audience left, upset and unsure of what to do, but the vast majority of the crowd seemed pleased with what they saw.  She’s done this at several other rallies with, I assume, similar reception.

I don’t get it. I don’t get this fetishization of the burqa by non-Muslim American feminists. I don’t get why it’s acceptable in so many of our spaces. I don’t get why there is no attempt at examining what it means to pull a piece of clothing from its context, a form of dress which actually varies greatly from one culture to the next.  I don’t get why there is no consciousness of how our promotion of this concept of Muslim/Arab culture (the two are too often seen as one and the same) as “backward” and “primitive” works within an already very islamophobic America. I don’t get why there seems to be no mindfulness of what it means to present an American flag burqa on the front lawn of the U.S. Capitol without some sense of irony, some cognizance of the imperialist violence that our country has enacted in the Middle East.

Eleven years ago, George W. Bush used the rhetoric of “saving women” and the image of a woman wearing a burqa as a way to gain public support for a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In those eleven years, we have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the country (including many many women), and we have wreaked havoc on their infrastructure.  Few women in Afghanistan today would say that the U.S. “saved” them, and yet, many U.S. feminist organizations were quick to jump on board with Bush’s patronizing justification, helping him to gain support in progressive spaces.  This is a shameful place in the feminist movement’s past, and something that sadly continues today.

A beautiful aspect of feminism is learning to see beyond the surface – seeing beneath the propaganda that teaches us how gender should be. Why is it so hard to see beyond what the American government wants us to believe about global power? We are so good at speaking of agency and bodily autonomy; we use it to talk about our right to have an abortion and to challenge rape culture. We used it to start a movement last year when Slutwalks throughout the continent expressed outrage at slut-shaming and our culture’s notions of women’s sexuality, challenging the legal and cultural justifications for telling women what to wear and what to do with their bodies – and yet many feminists around the world supported France’s decision to ban the wearing of burqas last year.

Why should it be so hard to apply our own concepts of complexity and agency to the women who choose to wear burqas, to attempting to understand their cultural and religious reasons rather viewing any woman who would choose to wear one as being complicit in her own oppression, submissive, and brainwashed.  Of course, not all women who wear the burqa choose to do so. But our argument and concern for those women should never attempt to make the decision for women on whether they should or should not wear the burqa, it should center around respect and personal choice. It should understand context, community, and cultural/national positionality. But by demonizing the burqa, we are participating in the erasure and silencing of the women who wear them.

This orientalist and imperialist way of examining and advocating for global feminism must stop.  We cannot continue this reincarnation of “the white woman’s burden” – saving the “brown women in those dirty, backward cultures.” The burqa seems to solidify this for many white, American women; its use reaffirms their position of power, righteousness, our American sense of freedom that we are on the correct, linear path toward equality. But in doing this, we are helping to perpetuate the U.S. as an economic world power, and are ignoring the major ways in which our own country is directly responsible for the oppression and violence of women around the world, as well as the U.S.’s hand in creating environments in which extreme patriarchal oppression can arise.

We are in a unique position in the U.S. to fight against our own country’s destruction of another’s.  We must stand in solidarity with women who wear burqas and with all Muslim women through open communication, honest reflection, and informed action rather than by creating a caricature of them and reducing them to a single article of clothing.  Western feminists, in order to truly support Muslim women, must maintain a perspective that is not complicit in Western violence, but rather attempts to fight against it; to dismantle the assumption of Western supremacy while giving attention to the voices of the women themselves. I believe this is the future of feminism.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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