A few years ago, a certain type of article became extremely common and frequent on feminist blogs and websites, a set of articles that non-white women were writing and sharing with some gusto. In varying forms, they all deal with the spectre of ‘feminism’ and whether it had accorded Muslim women their due respect and acknowledgement of their agency. They ranged from Muslim feminists wondering if they would ever be considered and accepted as feminist, criticising feminism for failing to be ‘inclusive’ of Muslim women and their life experiences, personal tales of feeling ‘excluded and unwelcome’ within feminist spaces and communities, contemplative pieces about Muslim women’s agency being invalidated, and, above all, pieces stating that Muslim women did not need to be saved.
To a non-white, non-westerner from a conservative religious country, many of these articles were well crafted, eloquently argued, yet baffling for defending strictures that other non-western feminists were pushing back against with all their might. With time, these voices grew louder, and more strident so much so that simple Google searches on the disaffection of Muslim women with feminism will yield a trove of details, and recent titles are more of a taunt to western women, insisting that Muslim women did not need them. Slowly, but surely, one began to notice the effect of this sustained stream of views, which relentlessly accused western women of either imposing their cultural values on Muslim and conservative women, insisted that the movement refused to acknowledge the agency and independence of Muslim / conservative women, that they did not need ‘saving’ and any attempt to think so was an extension of the ‘white saviour complex’ that heralded colonialism, and derided what was labelled as a belief of western feminism that sexual liberation is fundamental to gender equality.
Generally, such opinions were also bundled with hefty doses of allegations of ‘neo-colonialism’ and ‘cultural paternalism’, terms that, to this day are bound to evoke apologies and sheepishness from liberally inclined westerners (generally white). Remember that, of course, one of the most profound experiences of being a feminist is to be confronted with ignorance. From men, from non-feminist women, all around. So when it is alleged that the position is due to ignorance, in the absence of a profound arrogance and superiority which, thankfully, most younger feminists in the West seem to lack, to strenuously insist that their detractors are wrong is extremely difficult. Being told that one is unaware of other cultures and that the lived experience of women of colour and of other religions should be taken into account is therefore like a siren call – most feminists recognise an uncomfortable truth within, and so to dismiss that same argument would have been profoundly hypocritical.
These arguments, therefore steadily gained traction and persuasive value, and opinions on the situation of Muslim women from white, western women gradually became less authoritative and more reflective. This is not to suggest that it was a sustained attack on the feminist movement – some or more of these criticisms and grievances do have legitimate roots, and certainly, there is generally benefit to diversifying the perspective of a system of thought such as feminism, which is trying to encapsulate the experiences of half a billion women. But I narrate this to recount an almost invisible drawing of ‘spaces of expertise and activism’ occurred, with or without most feminists realising it, mainstream activists withdrew from some debates while focusing their energies elsewhere, and feminism subtly changed. White, western feminists were happy to defer to the wisdom of their Muslim and other peers when it came to issues that they could not be certain of, and some women felt that being spoken for by their own religious counterparts afforded feminism some much needed legitimacy.
At this point I can almost hear the chiding of feminists for withdrawing from such ideological battles so easily. It must be remembered that this phenomenon, of cultures from the East and South accusing the West of cultural hegemony is not new, and continues to be played out in the halls of the UN. In memorable incidents, subject matter experts have had to draw on their own national background to lend legitimacy to their criticism when faced by resistance from countries on issues they consider not open to argument. It’s a push and pull dynamic that takes place in the context of numerous issues, but mostly concerning women’s rights and LGBTQ issues.
But what does all this have to do with today, and right now? Only recently, a video of a girl wearing a hijab dancing in Birmingham went viral. In it, the girl was subjected to profound harassment, and death threats from fundamentalist and ultra-conservative Muslims, and the tearful girl tendered an apology and an acknowledgement that her behaviour had been “unseemly” and “inappropriate”. Among the various reactions to this incident, one that was not gone unnoticed was the lack of feminist condemnation of the threats and harassment and their failure to stand up for and protect this girl. Only a few days ago, Maajid Nawaz in his Daily Beast column echoed the criticism, pointing out that while feminists had time to seemingly debate non-issues, they failed to rally around such a crucial incident.
This criticism, I believe does not take into account the complexities and layers within the feminist community, many of whom now believe that a community or an individual are best served when their own representatives speak up, or speak for them. In other words, while some feminists are now wary of expressing condemnatory opinions of conservative and religious beliefs, others have respectfully withdrawn, since they deem an uninformed intervention is more dangerous than none. The wisdom, sustainability and indeed, intellectual honesty of this stance should be debated, but the fact remains, that barring a few, this thought process tends to permeate among white, western feminists.
For a minute, let’s assume the opposite had happened, and well-known feminists had penned or expressed scathing opinions critical of the fundamentalists. One of three options would have transpired: The girl, easily made to apologise by the environment she is in, could have just as easily been made to disown or distance herself from any such gesture of support, in the guise of loyalty to her culture and identity. If not, even if the girl had not expressed any such opinion, feminists would have come under attack not just from those who subjected the girl to harassment, but from a separate group of people accusing them of insulting and interfering in their cultural norms and lives. It does not stretch the imagination to predict that quite a few women would have been among this group. Now one can argue that feminists should stand their ground and be unapologetic about their stance, one that they do successfully when it comes to issues in their own lives. But the fact remains that accusations of ignorance and cultural insensitivity are hypnotically powerful tools employed against Liberals and countering them will require a willingness to enter uncharted and boggy territory.
Some argue that, given the obvious fear the girl experienced, she more than anyone else required feminists to stand up for her. Regrettably, as feminist advocates throughout the world will testify, standing up for a perceived ‘victim’ has never been that easy. The power of social stigma and isolation can very easily convince the putative victim to change her stance, and advocates will find themselves in the midst of a firestorm of criticism, risking their own reputation, achieving little and end up losing social capital. Adding to the complications in this particular incident is the fact that the girl in question was wearing the hijab, that indelible symbol of modesty and of belief in a certain social and cultural code. In fact, as her ‘interviewers’ themselves apparently emphasise, in Nawaz’s article, their outrage was actuated by the realisation that a ‘Hijabi’, clearly a practising Muslim woman, would indulge in this behaviour. Perhaps the girl wears the hijab freely, of her own choice, but the fact remains that for non-muslim feminists, this signals an area where they cannot be entirely certain of their moves. Does she want to be defended? Does she feel the reprimand was deserved? Who is to say what would be a desired outcome in this scenario? The memory of the cultural and legitimacy conflict described above, and their inevitable consequences has faded, and mainstream feminists now find themselves in the unenviable position of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
This is not to say that feminism is without problems, and that criticism is invalid. Undoubtedly, like all other social movements, the incompatibility with cultural regression has to be dealt with in a better way. But as things stand, to accuse them of “deserting” this girl in her time of need may be over harsh. In many ways, feminists themselves find their hands tied and must find a way to honestly resolve this perceived conflict with culture, to move forward. However, it must also be remembered that this situation was not engendered by feminists alone – they are merely the latest manifestation of a power dynamic that takes root when one tolerates the unreasonable. The blame for that, clearly, lies with many parties other than feminists.
Readers may well wonder, what happens now? There was a clear case of a cultural and value based conflict that should not have played out in the UK in 2017, and there is an understandable anxiety about which faction takes on this trend. Certainly, feminists have a role to play, and how this perceived conflict should resolve, but perhaps the persons most suited for this debate are ex-Muslims, the people who can speak with authority about its norms and values, their legitimacy and compatibility with a free, democratic society. They are uniquely placed to understand and accurately discern the thought process of girls like this, caught as they are between the restrictions of fundamentalists in their religion and the world they live in, to identify with them and decide the course of action necessary to fight these battles. Their voices are indescribably and indisputably important in this struggle, and they require every shred of support that mainstream society can afford them. Mainstream feminists have a role to play as well, but that is going to require a process of profound soul searching and consistency that is going to have to be undertaken within the feminist stream of thought, whether we like it or not.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.