Reactionary feminism and the need to be “modern”

‘Modernity’ is one of those words that is often thrown around and rarely defined. What is modernity? More importantly, who decides what is modern and what is not? While the answers to those questions are complex, a point that we can all agree on is that claims of being modern are often made using women, and more particularly, the bodies and values of women. This has especially been the case in relation to women of colour, women who belong to communities and nations that are taken for granted as un-modern. Discussions over women from these communities often revolve around their lack of emancipation, freedom, or worth—all traits associated with modernity. These kinds of discussions therefore frame some women as modern and others as “un-modern” or yet-to-become-modern.

Unfortunately, this need to appear modern or represent oneself (and therefore one’s entire nation) as modern has been internalized by many within these communities that have been designated as un-modern. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment by Nadia Fadil who pointed out how men in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s would show how modern and enlightened they were by proclaiming that women should have more rights. If the question is how compatible Egyptians are with modernity, the answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and “culture”) treat women. Within this context, the act of unveiling, for example, becomes a marker of progressiveness: men who encourage their wives to unveil are seen as closer to European norms and values and therefore closer to a thing called modernity.

This kind of response can only be termed reactionary: it is an attempt to include oneself (and one’s community or nation) within the folds of a project (in this case modernity) through representing specific aspects of one’s identity in specific ways. In this instance, women are being represented in a very specific way: as in need of becoming modern. Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices. These practices have already been set by “modernity” and are not open to debate. What is additionally problematic is that much of Western feminism has also adopted these practices as signifiers of women’s liberation.

This, in turn, has led to much of the rhetoric coming from civil society and feminist organizations within Egypt become reactionary. The narratives tend to focus on proving either that Egyptian women are lagging behind women in other parts of the world and thus need to be modernized (through development organizations or ‘cultural’ changes), or that Egyptian women are “modern.” What are never questioned are the categories that are used in deciding what is modern. More importantly, why the need to assert oneself (and by logical extension one’s entire culture) as “modern” when modern clearly means a prescribed set of characteristics that have historical roots outside of Egypt?

Within development these processes are especially clear. Lila abu Lughod’s critique of the Arab Human Development Report delineates just how certain “targets” are set for Arab women which reproduce certain ideas of progress and modernity.* Specifically, the use of the “human rights” discourse privileges individuality and autonomy above other modes of social organization. Setting aside the fact that reports such as these play into the common narrative of the backwardness of Arab women as compared to women in the West, there are numerous problems with reports such as these. One of the main problems is that the reason given for so many of the problems facing women in the Arab world is a mix between “Arab” and “Islamic” culture. Rather than economic exploitation, autocracy or unequal positioning within the global political economic system, the vague term “culture” becomes the go-to explanation. As abu Lughod writes, “this contributes strongly to civilizational discourse by attributing a significant role to Arab and Islamic culture in its diagnosis of gender inequality.” The focus on culture ignores other systemic problems and creates “Others” that are traditional (as opposed to modern).

The near-obsession with education is another clear marker of modernity, and is infused deeply within development discourse. Education for girls is seen as the main barrier to their emancipation. Not only does this assume that standardized education is the only form of knowledge that is worthy, it is also a classist narrative employed by elites who see it as their duty to save the ignorant masses. One sentence on Bedouin girls read: “they are unable to read or write and thus express themselves—and have never heard of their human rights. This erodes their very human status.” Employment is another major focus of the report, implying that women’s employment (after their education) is the main path to emancipation. This not only ignores the fact that integration within the capitalist world economy is not automatically a positive thing, but also ignores the multiplicities of power and privileges involved in the employment market. As abu Lughod points out, employment is not by its nature liberating. It must be of a certain quality to provide economic independence.

The focus on individuality is another concession to the project of modernity and its liberal underpinnings. Women are advised to “live their own lives” and reject interference from outside. One could ask whether individualism is the highest moral state, and how this excludes other forms of social organization. Feminist work has shown that individualized women are not automatically better off than women that are more tied to their families and communities. Moreover, these families and communities are not always seen as a “burden” for Egyptian women—rather this is an assumption made on the part of Western development practitioners, feminists, and others.

This report is a clear example of the reactionary way in which women’s “rights” are approached by many in civil society in the Middle East. The implicit undertone is one of liberalism, which poses specific narratives as central to becoming modern, among these education, employment and individuality. Thus civil society aims to show how Egyptian women either fit or don’t fit into these narratives—they are either modern or un-modern depending on these already-prescribed measurements. Rather than organic attempts to understand processes that are happening on the ground on their own terms, these narratives are imposed and in turn construct realities that were not there before. This kind of epistemic violence is rarely spoken of. As long as much of feminist work continues to be reactionary in a misguided attempt to be “modern” or on-the-way-to-“modernity,” it will be difficult to break away from the assumptions underpinning the project of modernity and question why we need to be modern anyway.

* Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Dialects of women’s empowerment: The international circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41.01 (2009): 83-103.

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On feminism, religion and religious women

The debate over the meaning(s) of feminism seems to be an endless one.  A common problem facing any social movement is that of definition: what are the goals we are fighting for, what are our values, and how do we bring about change? Answering these questions in the case of feminism has proven to be more divisive than inclusive, and has alienated many who previously identified as feminists. An important question is whether defining feminism should even be a goal in and of itself? In other words, is the process of defining feminism a process of exclusion?

In this post I want to bring up some of the tension(s) that have often arisen between the feminist project and the issue of religion. Feminism has long had difficulties in engaging with women who are religious. On the one hand, many believe that religion is an inherently oppressive institution, that by nature excludes women and renders them unequal to men. On the other hand, the fact that many women continue to see themselves as both feminist and religious raises important questions about the ways in which feminism has approached the question of religion. Key among these questions is the following: if feminism advocates women having the freedom to make choices (insofar as a choice is ever ‘free’), then what happens when a woman makes a choice that is seen as oppressive? More importantly, who has the right to decide which choices are oppressive and which aren’t?

My aim is not to debate or decide whether religion(s) are patriarchal, or whether they are essentially oppressive to women. My aim is to question the consistently exclusionary approach on the part of mainstream feminism towards women who see themselves as religious. I will focus specifically on the Islamic context because that is what I am most familiar with.

In an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua, it is argued that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholars has meant that they do not see the full picture:

On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist “blindness” of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hands, there is a “religious paradigm” type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by western scholars on Muslim countries.

One of the main issues is that women are often denied subjectivity when religion is seen as unquestioningly oppressive. Authors such as Saba Mahmood have pointed out that many women choose to be submit themselves to God, and do not see this as a form of oppression. Indeed by deciding for these women that their choice is illegitimate from the perspective of feminism, other women can be said to be exercising oppression over these women.

Nevertheless Mahmood does acknowledge that the women she worked with (Islamist women in Cairo) are choosing to be part of structures that see women as unequal to men. This leads us to the question of choice feminism. It often happens that feminists speak of feminism as being the freedom to choose. But what happens when women choose to be part of structures that see men as superior and thus reproduce gender inequality? These two questions are closely linked to debates about the nature of choice. To clarify, I do not believe ‘free choice’ exists in the sense of making choices outside of power structures or hegemonic systems. However, in today’s world certain “choices” have been designated as feminist, and others as oppressive. The way this designation has happened is closely linked to power relations coming from both patriarchy and feminism, but this is an entirely separate post.

This brings us back to the key problem that confronts feminism: who gets to decide? Our ideas of what are wrong and right; good and bad; or healthy and unhealthy, all come from the ways in which we have been socialized. Although it seems almost natural to accept that certain ways of dressing are demeaning to women (think of the hijab or burqa), the reality is that this dominant worldview can be deconstructed and demolished, once we un-learn what we have been brought up to believe is “truth.”

One of the main arguments in this debate is that religion, in this instance, Islam, is important to many women. While religion itself is a highly contested term, there is little doubt that to many, it provides a spiritual framework with which to view, and experience, the world. This spirituality also serves as a counter-point in a world in which rationality is valued above all other systems of meaning.

A feminist perspective should also be careful about not judging religion as per se oppressive for women, without listening to different voices of real women all over the world who are balancing between their identities as women and their places in religious communities.

This balance is an extremely important aspect in the lives of millions of women, who experience religion as an intrinsic aspect of their everyday lives. The quote also highlights another important point: that feminism needs to listen to the different views of real women. In its battle to become inclusive rather than exclusive, the various feminist projects need to move away from Feminism and try to explore the option of multiple feminisms. In a world as complex as ours, no two realities are the same, which means that every single woman will experience oppression differently. It also means that every single woman will find peace differently.

Another key tension in the feminism vs. religion debate is the question of patriarchal texts. Often feminists who are against Islam tend to focus on patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, and ignore movements that call for more inclusive or feminist readings of these texts. They claim that the religion is patriarchal, no matter what the interpretation. This, however, leads us away from choice feminism and towards a feminism where oppressive structures are decided upon beforehand (but by who?) and are strongly rejected. My issue is not with feminists who engage with these reinterpretations of Islamic texts and then reject them as patriarchal or as not coming up with a new framework of understanding. My issue is with the lack of such engagement on the part of most feminists. In other words, the many attempts to re-interpret Islam on the part of Muslim women are seen as further proof of false consciousness. This is a problematic stance for a movement claiming to take women (and their experiences) seriously.

There are similarities between religious fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalist feminists: both tend to see women as passive recipients of brainwashing, and both see religious institutions and traditions mainly as men’s territory.

The view of religious women as brainwashed and passive is, needless to say, problematic. Where is the space for different subjectivities? Where is the space for women who, on a daily basis, choose to be Muslim? When we tell women that Islamic feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an are flawed, wrong, or wishful thinking, then are we simply confirming that the texts belongs to male scholars, and men in general? Are we saying that no matter how hard women try, they can never take back these texts?

(On a side note, after having engaged with a lot (if not most) of the Islamic feminist literature, I was personally not convinced that it manages to completely deconstruct or “reconcile” patriarchal aspects of the Qur’an or Hadith (speaking specifically only about scholars who call themselves Islamic feminists and their work, not about “Islam” generally or any other types of interpretations, nor am I talking about the Qur’an itself). In fact much of it falls into the trap of either over-historicizing problematic surahs/hadith, or over-interpreting them so as to change the meaning completely. That said, there are scholars within Islamic feminism who have instead opted to accept the contradictions within the Islamic texts, and see that the need to “reconcile” doesn’t need to always be central. Kecia Ali is a good example of this.

Nevertheless, despite disagreeing with the conclusions of much of the work within Islamic feminism, I do think it is an extremely important project, and a good example of trying to challenge knowledge production and meaning making within a confined space. Traditional Arab male interpretations have reigned supreme for centuries and this elite group of interpreters have managed to construct “Islamic ideals” that have not sat well with many Muslims. Simply the idea of a feminist interpretation of Islam is already a challenge to this, and in some ways an attempt to imagine a different reality, which in my opinion is an exercise of power.)

A feminist critique of religion stresses the dismantling of religious legitimization for certain political and cultural practices; it critically analyzes the power structures of religious communities; it reminds us that there is no one Christianity of Islam but different forms and interpretations; and that the determinant role of religion in society should be questioned.

The answers to all of the questions I’ve asked aren’t likely to fall on either side of a binary. Religion is too diverse and complicated to be seen as either oppressive or liberatory. Whose religion, which interpretation, which individual and to what end? The same can be said of feminism: it is not, and should not be monolithic. Given its history of exclusion, one would expect the feminist project to be more wary about rejecting the experiences of millions of women.

On the other hand, the question of who decides what continues to be pertinent to feminism. One could argue that everything is imposed, and that imposing the idea that religion is oppressive on women is just another type of imposition that in the end is more beneficial for those women. After all, we all have our ideas of what a better world consists of, and what type of feminism is “right” or more just. In other words, we all have specific subjectivities that we want to spread. It isn’t just about living the way I want to live. If I say that I want to fight patriarchy, then that implicitly involves changing the views and lives of other people. But who is to say that me changing these views is better than those views continuing? Who is to say that me telling other women that you can’t be a feminist and religious is better than these women believing they can be religious feminists?

This goes back to the old debate about whether different subejctivities can co-exist or whether people who are sure their subjectivity is more beneficial should impose it on others. Another way of looking at it is to assume that subjectivities are always imposed, so why not attempt to impose a more just one? But who defines justice? Back to square to one!

In conclusion, I would argue that my issue is not so much with the need for feminist projects to accept Islamic feminism or Islam in general, or to refrain from critiquing what they see as systems that perpetuate patriarchy. Rather my issue is with the lack of willingness to even engage women who identify as religious, and to pre-judge them as suffering from false consciousness. The process of critical engagement is what has been lacking from feminism since its inception. Through such a process (and I don’t mean dialogue in a liberal sense), power relations inherent to feminist movements will become more visible and can thus be challenged more openly.

Article on Femen in Le Monde

An article I wrote about Femen was published in Le Monde. Here is the English version:

Femen are a group of Ukrainian-based feminists who have become well-known over the past few years for their provocative tactics and confrontational strategies. Most notable among these is the tactic of protesting topless, in an effort to reclaim their bodies as their own rather than as instruments of patriarchy. Because women’s bodies are constantly instrumentalized by men and the media, their protests act as a way of re-appropriating the female body as a symbol of resistance against patriarchy. Stripping is therefore a means by which women can “take back our bodies” in the broader fight against patriarchy.

While this logic is accepted by some feminist circles, it is not my aim in this article to discuss feminist tactics. Rather I want to focus on Femen’s tendency to universalize their brand of feminism that renders their activism and organization as neocolonial.

The issue of universalizing feminism is not a new issue. First wave feminism in Europe and America had the same problems: they based their feminism on their own experiences, and expected it to apply to women from all over the world who had completely different experiences. These women also ignored the fact that their own lives were affecting the lives of women elsewhere. For example, many first wave feminists were unable to see how imperialism and colonialism on the part of their governments was destroying the lives of women in other parts of the world. In fact, many western feminists actively participated in the colonial process, by trying to “civilize” and “modernize” women in Arab and African countries. For these women, feminism was about becoming like them.

There was a backlash to this kind of feminism, coming mainly from post-colonial feminists from decolonizing countries, from African-American and Latina feminists in the US, and from some second-wave feminists in Europe and the US. These feminists argued that feminism was more complicated, and that it had to represent the diverse lives and views of women around the world. They also introduced the concept of intersectionality: the idea that women are not only affected by gender, but also by other identities such as race, nationality, sexuality, and so on. This meant that feminism had to account for multiple identities and the ways in which they interacted with one another.

Despite coming after this backlash, Femen seems to be going back to the tendencies of first wave feminism. A large part of their work has focused on Muslim women, in an effort to “liberate” and “save” them from Muslim men, Muslim culture, and Islam in general. At one protest in front of the Eiffel Tower, they wore burkas and then stripped, in an effort to bring attention to the fact that the burka is oppressive. In another protest, they marched through a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in France, they decided to march down the streets naked, in an effort to convince Muslim women to unveil. It is clear that for Femen, liberation is defined in a very specific way: as being free from religion, culture, and oppressive dress codes.

In this view, the more you wear, the more oppressed you are. It is only within this context that a process of stripping can be seen as a liberating process. This kind of logic ties women’s liberations to their bodies and the way they dress, which is very problematic. Who decides what is oppressive and what is not oppressive for women to wear? Also problematic is the assumption that all women who veil or wear the burka are oppressed and need to be liberated. These assumptions reveal a certain view of the world that is Eurocentric and cannot be generalized universally.

My view as a feminist is that women should be able to choose. These choices depend on our socio-cultural, economic and political environment, and cannot be dictated from outside. Femen’s recent stunts in Tunisia show how out of touch they are with the Middle Eastern and North African contexts. Instead of spreading awareness about gender issues, they are instead prompting a backlash from a society who does not see them as anything except outsiders imposing their views on women, similar to the colonial process that occurred decades earlier.

The Middle East and North Africa is already home to a wide array of gender and feminist movements, projects, and activism. If the goal of Femen is to act in solidarity with women around the world, then they should contact these indigenous movements and ask how they can help. The politics of solidarity in a post-colonial world that is full of power imbalances is a difficult process, but it certainly will not go anywhere if movements like Femen keep imposing themselves and asserting that “their” feminism is the “right” feminism.

Women of colour have struggled too long to show how feminism can only help them if it is more diverse and not just about heterosexual white middle-class Euro-American women’s experiences. Unfortunately the amount of coverage Femen is getting is undermining the progress made in this arena. Moreover, the current global climate in which Muslims are already seen as problematic makes the situation much worse. Nevertheless, the criticism Femen has received is a good sign, and it comes from both Euro-American feminists as well as feminists from the Global South. The simple point at the bottom of many of these critiques is that feminists should be careful not to draw new lines of exclusion and to accept that feminism will only succeed if it accepts a plurality of voices.

The emergence of the “Muslim woman question” in Egypt

Qasim Amin's book
Qasim Amin’s book

I just went to a talk by Nadia Fadil about “Islamic feminism and decolonialism” which was absolutely fascinating! What I really like about her work is that she traces the history of feminism in the Middle East in order to show its clear links to European modernity, the Enlightenment, and colonial processes. These links informed the way feminism was discussed and debated in countries like Egypt, and continues to influence the way we talk about gender today.

She argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for them to assert themselves as political and modern subjects.

She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalized women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

Asserting women’s rights becomes a way for Amin to assert himself as a full modern human subject.

Therefore it is clear that the The “woman’s question” in the Middle East emerges as a derivative of the Muslim question. The question is: how compatible are Egyptians with western liberal modernity? The answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and culture) treat women. Therefore for Amin to be seen as compatible with western liberal modernity, he has to see and treat women in a certain way (as do all Egyptians).

Amin choosing to focus on the “woman’s question” had less to do with position of women (and how to advance it), and more with the extent to which Egyptians can enter history and be seen as modern political subjects (i.e. through certain views of women). The civilizational hierarchy was thus defined through gender. Egyptians need to adopt a certain language to be seen as equal. Egyptian men needed to speak in this language (especially about women) in order to be considered as equal political subjects, to be given political agency and to be granted the right to speak.

This whole discussion reminded me of how gender was invoked during the Egyptian revolution, with questions of “where are the women?” and whether the revolution could be considered “successful” if women’s rights hadn’t been achieved (rights being defined in a very specific way). This discourse serves once again to implicate gender into any questions of modernity and progress: Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices.

West & Multiculturalism

I just wanted to share one of the best articles I’ve read recently, called “On the West’s Moral Panic Over Multiculturalism” by Gary Younge.

For certain groups the price for belonging and conditions for banishment have shifted dramatically in Western nations, particularly but by no means exclusively in Europe, in recent years. Citizenship is no longer enough. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the way you worship, have all become grounds for dismissal or inclusion. These terms are not applied equally to all—they are not intended to be. The intention of this series of edicts (popular, political and judicial) is not to erase all differences but to act as a filter for certain people who are considered dangerously different.

To achieve this, certain groups and behaviors must first be pathologized so that they might then be more easily particularized.

Still cannot believe the racist speech in which Chirac said this:

Jacques Chirac, 1991: “How do you want a French worker who works with his wife, who earn together about 15,000 francs and who sees next to his council house a piled-up family with a father, three or four spouses and twenty children earning 50,000 francs via benefits naturally without working…If you add to that the noise and the smell, well, the French worker, he goes crazy.”

Even as the Catholic Church is embroiled in a global crisis over child sexual abuse and the Church of England is splintered in a row over gay priests, Islam and Muslims face particularly vehement demands to denounce homophobia.

The combined effect of these flawed distinctions and sweeping demonization is to unleash a series of moral panics.

And what I think his most important point was:

At a time of diminishing national sovereignty, particularly in Europe, such campaigns help the national imagination cohere around a fixed identity even as the ability of the nation-state to actually govern itself wanes. It is a curious and paradoxical fact that as national boundaries in Europe have started to fade, the electoral appeal of nationalism has increased; fascism, and its fellow travelers, is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe, regularly polling between 5 and 15 per cent in most countries.

I have yet to meet a Dutch liberal who has not done this:

Many who consider themselves on the left have given liberal cover to these assaults on religious and racial minorities, ostensibly acting in defense of democracy, Enlightenment values and equal rights—particularly relating to sexual orientation and gender.

And this:

The first is an elision between Western values and liberal values that ignores the fact that liberal values are not fully entrenched in the West and that other regions of the world also have liberal traditions.

And this:

The second is a desire to understand Western “values” in abstraction from Western practice.

And now, to multiculturalism:

Unable to come up with a single, coherent new term that both encapsulates the atmosphere of fear, threat, panic, disorientation, confusion, contradiction and paradoxes and unites both far right and liberals, the opponents of this diverse, hybrid reality resurrected an old foe—“multiculturalism.

The beauty of multiculturalism, for its opponents, is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean so long as you don’t like it.

Finally,

The nation-state is in crisis; neoliberal is in crisis; multiculturalism is simply in situ.

I would add that Europe is also in crisis.

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, was recently taken to court for hate speech against Muslims. Today he was acquitted. Wilders is head of the PVV, the Dutch Freedom Party, which is currently the third most popular party in the Netherlands. Wilders is famous for his controversial statements about Islam, such as:

“Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture. I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology. Not with Muslim people.”

“Why are we afraid to say that muslims should adapt because our norms and values are of a higher, better, nicer and more humane level of civilisation? Not integration, assimilation! And if the headscarves will protest on the Malieveld, let them come. I’ll have them for breakfast.”

“If it ever may come to racial riots, which I really don’t want, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative result.”

Just to remind you that this guy’s party is the 3rd most popular party in the Netherlands.

What’s on my mind: Pinkwashing

I’ve been pretty busy this past week working on my thesis proposal as well as choosing topics for the final papers of my classes. I actually finished classes last week which means that after I finish my thesis I’ll be done with my second MA!

While researching paper topics, I came across interesting info on “pinkwashing” which is basically the attempt by governments/groups/countries to divert attention away from a touchy political issue onto the topic of homosexuality/LGBTQ rights. Israel has been doing this recently:

Recently, Israel has launched a publicity campaign aimed at portraying the country as a safe haven for homosexuals in the Middle East.  Advertisements, public stunts and activities have been set up, all geared towards convincing the world that Israel is the only homophobia-free country in a very homophobic Middle East.  This campaign has been especially effective in portraying Palestine as a place that is dangerous for gays, lesbians, queers, and transgendered people.

This campaign is problematic on several levels.  First, Israel is not free of homophobia and portraying itself that way is simplistic and misleading.  Second, Palestine, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, have vibrant LGBTQ scenes which include organizations, events, campaigns, and media promotions.  Third, it appears that Israel is attempting to divert attention away from the occupation of Palestine and the various crimes it repeatedly commits there by re-branding itself as a gay-friendly country and thus endearing itself to western democracies and human rights organizations.  Finally, Israel is using and reproducing old Orientalist assumptions many in the west have about the Middle East, particularly in regard to homosexuality.

sexuality.

Recently, an article on CNN questioned whether “gay rights” or the lack thereof would dampen the revolutions across the Arab world. Jadaliyya (one of my all-time favourite sites) responded with an article called “Gays, Islamists and the Arab Spring: What Would a Revolutionary Do?”]

The “gay issue” is becoming an increasingly hot topic in Western media coverage of the Arab world. In fact, beginning with the spate of gay killings in US occupied Iraq, the status of non-normative sexualities has perhaps been enfolded within a discourse that highlights the plight of “women” in Arab/Muslim countries, and the ideological, material, and military mobilization that such a discourse licenses. The already mentioned CNN article is one of several devoted to the issue of what will happen to “the gays” after the revolutions, in addition to spates of comments on many other pieces analyzing what the revolutions may mean. A critical reader might ask what lies behind this interest in gays? Where did it come from and what kinds of discourses and practices is it contributing to? What assumptions does this conversation make as to international practices of sexuality and politics, and what silences about other forms of oppression is this anxiety over the status of gay Arabs in Arab democracies implicated in?

“A focus on the dangers that Islamists pose to minority and sexual rights discourages people from asking serious questions about the structural issues that will determine the outcome of these post-revolutionary societies.”

EXACTLY. Let’s focus on how those Arabs oppress gay people so we don’t have to talk about how WE have oppressed those Arabs. Classic pinkwashing.

Instead of questioning the role of the US-allied Egyptian military, the IMF’s renewed interest in Egypt, or the architecture of political oppression still in place in Egypt, we should be worried about the crazy Muslims.

This is something happening in the Netherlands as well, where homosexuality is often used against Muslim “immigrants” (if you’re not white you’re forever an immigrant), rather than focusing on what Dutch society and government could be doing to help “integration” (which often means assimilation). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about homophobia among Muslim/Arab communities, since that is certainly an issue. But we should always be critical of who is asking the questions, and why.

Gay Arabs cannot be cut out of the fabric of their societies; they are Arab, they are Muslim, Christian, conservative and progressive, soldiers and civilians, communists and capitalists, sexist and feminist, classist and revolutionary, and both oppressors and the oppressed. Islamist discourses are not ossified and stuck in the 16th century, as most Western commentators assume. They are plural, responsive, dynamic, and they represent the point of view of a large and diverse public.

While I don’t agree with everything in the article, I do believe that it is an important point to make. Orientalism has shown how the west often focuses on issues of sexuality to criticize and Otherize Arabs/Muslims (even though the west is still homophobic), and pinkwashing seems to be this process once again.

The Muslim Woman

Lila abu-Lughod is one of my favourite anthropologists and scholars of Islam. She wrote an amazing article called “The Muslim Woman.” Here are some excerpts:

An administration – George W. Bush’s – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s lives – as human beings.

Another interesting point she makes is that these women often represent their countries:

in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.

It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the- terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?

This is similar to the surprise of European liberals when they realized that there are some Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. This surprise was not enough though: they assumed that it was husbands/fathers/Arab/Muslim communities socializing these “wants” into Muslim women. After all, who would ever choose to wear a burqa?

If we think that American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion”.

This is a controversial point, since many in the west believe they live in some kind of “free” society in which no one is pressured to do anything. Unfortunately, we all live under global capitalism, and it is screwing us all. Very few women in the world are not pressured to be a certain way, whether it is to wear a burqa or to get surgery for the “perfect” vagina.

An Islamist to America: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women […] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it.”

The danger of pity, and the western need to save Muslim women:

If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one  implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?

Finally,

Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don’t see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.

We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place.

She proposes what western women (and men) can do:

It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane.

Amen!

Feminism and religion

Feminism and religion have always had a rocky relationship.  I just read an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua.  She argues that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholar has meant that they do not see the full picture.

On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist “blindness” of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hands, there is a “religious paradigm” type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by western scholars on Muslim countries.

The consequences of seeing religion in these 2 ways are:

  • the real historical, social, political and ethical importance of a given religious tradition is negated, because secularization is considered to have won over religion in modern societies, even though this secularization has only happened in western Europe (wait, is that what they mean by modern?);
  • many people in different cultures ar deprived of their agency when their religious traditions are considered unchangeable and dialogue/critique inside these religious traditions are ignored;
  • if we see secularization as the inevitable path for everybody in the world, we are not able to understand the complex and often contradictory relationship between women and their religious traditions, identities and beliefs.
A main argument she makes is that religion is important to women. If feminists claim that a choice must be made between feminism and religion, then most women will choose religion. Why must a choice be made anyway? The tension between religion and feminism, in my opinion, stems from the fact that most feminists see religion as fundamentalist and traditional, instead of as diverse and having many interpretations. If we choose to see Islam as what the Taliban were doing, then yes, it contradicts feminism. But why do we see Islam that way? Why don’t we see Islam in reformist movements, progressive movements, Islamic feminist movements? Why are those Muslims not seen as legitimate or “Muslim enough” and someone like al-Qaradawi or Khomenei seen as representing the “true” Islam. What is the true Islam anyway?
A feminist perspective should also be careful about not judging religion as per se oppressive for women, without listening to different voices of real women all over the world who are balancing between their identities as women and their places in religious communities.
Of course it is important to highlight patriarchal interpretations and applications of the Qur’an. But these are not the ONLY interpretations. By focusing on them, feminists are in fact giving conservatives and fundamentalists more power, since they are ignoring reformist/progressive voices.
Many women feel the need for BOTH a non-sexist interpretation of their religious traditions – and, in fact, try to do so – AND for a feminism which would be less black-and-white and hostile about religion and which would stop seeing women for whom religion is important as the most alienated ones in need of a feminist saviour.
There are similarities between religious fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalist feminists: both tend to see women as passive recipients of brainwashing, and both see religious institutions and traditions mainly as men’s territory.
One of the most empowering ways of coming to terms with my own femininity as well as my own religious views has been the reinterpretation of Islamic texts. Reformist Islam is out there people, and their arguments and interpretations are just as valid as any other forms of Islam. They are ignored for many reasons, including Orientalism (the western need to see Muslims a certain way), geo-political reasons (many countries rely on conservatism to maintain control) and lack of research (more research is focused on conservative Islam than other types; same goes for the media).
A feminist critique of religion stresses the dismantling of religious legitimization for certain political and cultural practices; it critically analyzes the power structures of religious communities; it reminds us that there is no one Christianity of Islam but different forms and interpretations; and that the determinant role of religion in society should be questioned.
A culture’s religious traditions are its basis for meaning-making (yes, even here in the so-called “secular” and “religion-free” west). If feminism wants to be all-inclusive and effective, it must stop seeing religion as a problem.

Islam in the Economist

I’m currently doing a media analysis class, and I think it is one of the most stimulating classes I’ve ever taken. It’s amazing how many types of analyses you can do on different types of media, and how many biases you can find. One technique is to go word by word through an article to see which words are repeated the most. I would never have thought of doing this but it is so interesting to find out which words recur the most often. I would be very interested in doing this to some Dutch newspapers at some point, especially articles about Muslims, immigrants, Moroccans, Arabs, etc.

Anyway we had to find an image that represented social relations of power. I thought to myself that it should be pretty easy to find something in a western media outlet about Islam or Arabs. After some searching, I found this picture:

This is the cover of The Economist, March 31 2011. The title is Islam and the Arab Revolutions. Subtitle is: Religion is a growing force in the Arab awakening. Westerners should hold their nerve and trust democracy.

This picture is troubling on several levels. First of all, there is a clear sign of Islam, which is the crescent and the star. This has somehow come to represent Islam in the media.

So this picture is characterizing the following with Islam (represented by crescent and star):

  • the desert
  • a man
  • in black
  • with a gun
  • with his head covered
  • the desert is unsettled, not calm
So we see a man, who is in all-black with a head covering, coming towards us, carrying a gun that looks like an AK-47. And this is somehow to supposed to make westerners who are “worried about Islam” feel better. Hmmm.
If I were a westerner afraid of Islam (as many apparently are), I would not feel better after seeing a picture like this.
The man is intentionally made to look scary: all-black, hidden, his features are not clear, he’s wearing a head-covering, he HAS A GUN. I mean how is this supposed to convince anyone that everything will be fine and that they should “hold their nerve”??
And WHY is this representative of Islam? A MAN who is not very CLEAR with a GUN? Who is approaching me through a desert? With a gun? A GUN? Okay seriously, this is ridiculous.
Finally, what kind of a story is this anyway? So what if religion is a growing force in the Arab revolutions (not awakenings, for God’s sake)? Why does that scare the west? (oh right, their ridiculous preoccupation with Islam and politics). And why should they hold their nerve and trust democracy? (as if the west would ever allow democracy in the Arab world anyway, see: Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) Is anyone telling us Arabs and Africans that we should hold our nerve about DONALD TRUMP or SARAH PALIN running for president in the US? or WILDERS or SARKOZY in Europe?
No. Well I’m telling everyone now: Islamophobia, right-wing politics and stupidity are rising forces in European and American awakenings. Non-westerners should hold their nerve and trust democracy.
Oh wait, these people are getting in through democracy. Hmm.
Anyway, back to the post. I expected more from the Economist, which isn’t exactly Fox News. But I guess when it comes to Islam, it’s pretty much the same story in every western newspaper/magazine/news channel.
I’m pissed.