ONTD Political

Those hijabis and women of colour don't like it when I play White Saviour™

2:49 pm - 05/02/2012
When Anti-Racism Becomes Anti-Woman: The 'Privileging' of Race above Gender


Sadly, I was not surprised to read that brave Egyptian-American activist and writer, Mona Eltahawy faced a barrage of vitriolic abuse this week after the publication of her brilliant article 'Why do they Hate Us?'. Eltahawy's article (shock, horror) dared to criticise the worst excesses of patriarchal violence and misogyny so prevalent in the Middle East.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience. As editorial collective member of The Feminist Wire (TFW), I wrote and published: 'To be Anti-Racist is to be Feminist: the Hoodie and the Hijab are not Equals'. The article, which was in the hands of four TFW collective members before publication and was approved of as 'excellent' by two, generated not only a huge amount of online debate but also abuse in terms of my skin colour (white), character (non-Muslim) and motivation (imperialism). I was called a "racist" and "white imperialist" and was even accused of using the 'ties' of my mixed-race family to "obfuscate my whiteness." For what did I deserve this abuse? For questioning the hijab, not only in relation to majority of women who are forced to wear it, but also those women who have the privilege of 'choice'. For saying that the main parallel that can be drawn between the recent US murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi (if any can be drawn at all) are that they were both the result of a global culture and celebration of male violence and patriarchy. And for claiming that a hijab cannot be compared to hoodie in terms of its origin and symbolism.

Subsequently, The Feminist Wire collective (panicking in the face of hostility from their own members) published a response from 77 North American feminists. This response not only misrepresented and undermined my article but also my credibility as an author. The online debate that ensued was equally aggressive and unpleasant.

Although, some women (of colour and Muslim) defended my article and condemned the collective response as a 'pile-on', such women were either ignored or patronisingly told to read Audre Lorde. Thus making it clear that, according to their feminist ideology, whatever your skin colour or religion if you criticised the hijab you were a racist, imperialist Islamaphobe or an "ignorant hack" (as one woman politely put it).

Shortly afterwards, I was kicked out of TFW and both articles were deleted, citing 'an appeal to legal action' - TFW's founder initiating the threat of legal action. Thus, sending out a strong message that women who criticise the hijab (even though I also criticised the pressure to have breast implants) will be bullied and shamed into silence. It was something straight out of Stalinist or fascist state. Gurl, seriously? Perspective. Please find some.

Thankfully, several feminists from Pakistan, Algeria, Senegal, Iran and the US, led by Maryam Namazie, picked up on it before it was removed and delivered their own response:

We extend our full solidarity to Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for such a clear and rare analysis from feminists in Europe and North America, in which women's resistance to the Muslim Right -including by resisting all forms of fundamentalist veiling - is made visible and honoured, rather than sacrificed on the altar of anti racism and anti imperialism.


Ophelia Benson, an atheist feminist from the US, also attacked the Feminist Wire response as "dishonest" and "patronising."

This is not some 'woe is me' tale or attempt at self-promotion. (O rly?) This is a defence of freedom of expression and a deep concern about where the logic of TFW debate takes us: into a black hole of cultural relativism. I have never stated that race and Islamaphobia do not play a role in hatred of the hijab. I have also never denied that the colour of a person's skin is a factor in racism either.

Has the anti-racist debate really become so closed-minded, divisive and fearful? That a white person cannot question any practice or ideology, if it is prevalent amongst people of colour? Does that mean to criticise porn one has to be a porn star? To criticise rape one has to have been raped? This is not to deny the power and authenticity of those with direct experience either. But since when did skin colour and first-hand experience become a barrier to critiquing something? And vice-versa, surely that means that women of colour cannot then critique 'white culture', whatever that might be? Which of course would be ridiculous.

The 'excuse-making of cultural relativism' and the politically correct face of anti-racism is ugly and dangerous. As Lauryn Oates concludes in her eloquent response to Eltahawy's critics:

Without voices like Eltahawy's, those of us on the outside looking in would be able to drown ourselves in the excuse-making of cultural relativism: they like being abused, degraded, violated. Our own society isn't perfect, so how can we criticize? At best, we might give "careful attention" to the most overt forms of misogyny, like FGM. At worst, we might just tell ourselves that the women are choosing it, so let it be.


Whatever our skin colour or religion, we simply cannot let racists, religious maniacs, Islamaphobes and misogynists own this debate on women's clothing and sexuality. We should not shy away from saying something for fear they might agree with us either. The basic human rights of women and girls are not relative to culture but are universal human values. Whether a choice is made freely or not, we still have a right to critique it, especially if that 'choice' harms or disproportionately affects females. I return to Fadela Amara's words, such people:

..define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is. They won't denounce forced marriages or female genital mutilation, because, they say, it's tradition. It's nothing more than neocolonialism. It's not tradition, it's archaic.


Source doesn't understand why we can't fight the real injustices

So, there is a lot of bullshit to sort out in this. Let's start by taking a deep breath and reminding ourselves that playing the Oppression Olympics is stupid and harmful.

I'll say upfront I wasn't a fan of Mona Eltahawy's original article. She assumes that different histories, cultures, religious interpretations, past and continued experiences with colonialism, and ethnic traditions can be summed up in this nebulous idea of the Middle East. As if an entire region shares one mind on how to best oppress women. I hate this idea that sexism is somehow 'different' in other countries. Misogyny is misogyny is misogyny. How is manifests and is used to control women differs depending on the context, but there is no 'special' type of misogyny that's shown in different countries or cultures.

I don't see a whole slew of Muslim and Arab women and their allies excusing the horrific abuses that women go through in the Middle East and beyond. Instead I see them talking about how culture shapes their lives, how it fuels their oppression and even how they use it to help liberate themselves. Because those different manifestations of misogyny need to be dealt with by those who have experienced them and understand how best to address it. These are difficult conversations to have, especially because it destroys the easy colonial narrative of Those Brown Muslins being uncivilized and backwards, needing White People the West to come in and give them democracy and equality and puppies.

These conversations instead tell us that misogyny is a fucked up system that links with class, race, ethnicity, sexual and gender identity, ability &etc. And as it links with those systems we do need to address those other issues of oppression in order to properly address sexism. This isn't a 'privileging' of one ism over the other. For me, I can't talk about women's issues without talking about race (and sexual and gender identity and class and ability and and and), because they are one and the same to me. They all affect how I experience sexism and racism and and and. Acting as if these conversations privilege one over the other shows a lack of understanding on how these systems of oppression work together. It also shows that you might have the privilege to ignore how race intersects with gender since you're not adversely affected by it.

The tired meme of hijabis being universally oppressed and not having a choice in what they wear cheapens their struggle and denies them a voice. Hijabis are, y'know, human beings and can speak about their own experiences. If you tell me they're all forced to wear hijab I'm going to automatically discredit anything you say cause you've obviously never talked to women who wear hijab.

As for the issue of 'political correctness.' Girl, please. It's called not being an asshole. We're not saying you can't talk about and address women's issues in the Middle East. We're saying you should address it as the complex, changing issue it is and not reduce it to simple narratives about Poor Oppressed Brown Women. It only furthers another kind of oppression.

TLDR: White folks, stop with the Oppression Olympics and stop telling us we're shutting you down when we talk about our experiences. You're not helping. You don't want political incorrectness. Your feelings couldn't handle it.
etherealtsuki 3rd-May-2012 03:55 am (UTC)
Think whatever you want to think. It's very problematic but whatever.

And I don't like Oppression Olympics as a method of silencing either. It's very easy to misuse intersectionality when certain privileges are not equal and ignoring the history of how these privileges work.
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