Intersectional feminists fail Muslim women by valorising difference over shared humanity and overlooking or excusing abuse from their own communities.
Many critics of intersectional feminism have accused its activists of not caring about the welfare of Muslim women. This is not straightforwardly true but it is easy to see why they get this impression. In particular, critics often point to the lack of support for the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen hashtag from western intersectional feminists despite many of the posters tweeting in English for the attention of the English-speaking world.
— For Saudi Women (@WCFSW) May 6, 2017
Intersectional feminists have been accused of largely ignoring an unambiguously oppressive patriarchal system like the Saudi Arabian Guardianship system whilst finding evidence of patriarchy all over their own societies in everything from catcalling to emotional labour.
Reading books about sex work and gender and emotional labour and how they are all products of the patriarchy makes me wanna kill all men.
— baby g (@ggeorginattyson) February 25, 2017
Attempts by non-intersectional feminists and human rights activists to discuss honour based violence are frequently shut down by western intersectional feminists who will immediately change the subject to domestic violence experienced by western women.
Any conversation about the horror of female genital mutilation is likely to be derailed away from girls in danger right now to a lecture on the pre-Islamic origins of the practice. Any attempts to discuss gender-specific modesty veiling will almost certainly result in a claim that Muslim women are exercising their own choice and are somehow magically free of the paralysing societal pressures claimed to be experienced by western feminists. When a petition to criminalise cat-calling and other gender-based annoying behaviour gets more than 58,000 signatures but a petition to strengthen multi-agency responses to ‘honour’-based violence receives only 406 (and consequently will not be addressed by parliament), people could be excused for thinking western non-Muslim feminists only care about themselves.
its amazing how much western feminists hate actual women who need rights like #stopenslavingsaudiwomen
— Secular Dhimmi (@secularwakanada) September 20, 2016
This is a misconception. Sort of.
The problem does not stem from a belief that western non-Muslim women matter more than Muslim women. It’s much more tortuous than that. With the advent of postmodernism-inspired critical race theory, post-colonial theory and intersectionality, the focus of mainstream feminism has shifted from universal human rights and sisterhood to cultural relativity and identity politics. General principles of human rights, freedom and equality have been subordinated to redressing a very real historical injustice by the West against the East. Academic post-colonialism and the concept of ‘Orientalism’ are key here. Postcolonial studies are a branch of critical theory that look at the aftermath of colonialism and imperialism and the attitudes and discourses around it. The term ‘orientalism’ refers to an attitude on the part of westerners in which the East is seen as exotic, mysterious, violent, primitive, deceitful, lecherous and pagan. When Edward Said wrote in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalisation of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact,” he was right. Literature from the medieval period right into the mid-twentieth century depicts the East very much in this way (although it should be noted that from the 14th to the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was the world power and had its own stereotypes of the west.) Nevertheless, Western ideas of an intrinsically morally & rationally superior West did provide a justification for imperialism, dominance and exploitation.
When the cultural shift towards equality and universal human rights began to emerge in the 20th century sparking the advent of the civil rights movement, 2nd wave feminism and Gay Pride, these ideas ceased to be morally tenable. A universal liberalism rejected collectivist ideas of cultural identity and demanded a level playing field where people were treated as individuals and provided with equal opportunities to access all the western world had to offer. However, with the rise of critical ‘theory’, particularly of postmodernism, this soon began to be problematised. It was argued that universal liberalism based on secular, liberal values were still western values (despite the existence of secular liberals everywhere). In other cultures, religious and conservative ideas were more dominant and to valorise secular liberalism was seen as a continuation of the assertion of the superiority of western values over all others.
Furthermore, in this perspective, there were wrongs to be redressed. In critical ‘theory’ rooted largely in postmodern ideas of cultural constructivism, discourses construct social realities and embed themselves in individuals, becoming ‘knowledge’ which require deconstructing to unlearn. Therefore, it simply isn’t enough to say, ‘We undervalued and oppressed women, non-white races and LGBTs before. That was wrong. We must set up a society where that doesn’t happen anymore.’ There is a whole system of thought that needs to be unpicked and rewritten before a balance can be restored. These can be ideas around gender, sexuality, race or culture. Drawing on Foucauldian ideas, Said said,
“My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated, so that “our” East, “our” Orient becomes “ours” to possess and direct.”
Therefore, we find in this form of activism great pressure to amplify and promote cultural ideas, art, beliefs and historical narratives that are non-western and devalue those which are western. In this way, it is hoped, an imbalance perceived to still exist in mainstream culture and to have been internalised by westerners will be redressed. This sounds very positive in theory but unfortunately, in practice, it tends to result in the creation of cultural stereotypes which are, frankly, orientalising (the very prejudice they seek to unmake) and reinforce ideas that reason, science and liberalism are only for westerners. This is not only exclusionary but demonstrably wrong. The UK in particular is suffering from a lack of national interest in STEM fields leaving the country reliant on attracting doctors, scientists and engineers from India, Pakistan and Nigeria. (10% of NHS doctors are Indian or Indian British despite this group making up only 2.3% of the population). One wonders what they make of British approval of the claim that “Science as a whole is a product of Western modernity and the whole thing should be scratched off” and calls to ‘acknowledge the importance of indigenous knowledge frameworks’ (including witchcraft).
The problem is that this framework doesn’t acknowledge that people are widely diverse and share many values. It only values the cultures of non-westerners in the areas in which they differ from mainstream western culture. At the least, this is insulting and presumptuous when it claims the knowledge component of modernity – science, reason, industry – to be uniquely western but furthermore it’s positively dangerous when it claims that the ethical component – universal liberalism, secularism, democracy and equality – is too. This restricts non-western people to the very narrow, unscientific, irrational, illiberal, superstitious and oppressive depiction rightly condemned as ‘orientalist.’ It underlies the attack on liberal Muslims, non-white races and ex-Muslims as ‘house-Arabs’, ‘native informants’ and ‘coconuts.’
It is essential to recognise that not only is this extremely racist, it is also a continuation of reading everything through a western mindset and imposing a restrictive identity on the ‘other.’ Postcolonial theorists and the activists who draw on their ideas are still defining the East. They are still controlling the narrative, still focusing on non-westerners as foils to westerners and still making the West the primary focus. It’s simply that the narrative has changed from seeing the west as the sole holder of rational, scientific and liberal ethics which are good and liberating to seeing them as sole holder of the above values which are bad and inherently oppressive.
This attitude is motivated in large part by an attempt to redress an imbalance negatively affecting groups who are minorities in the west. However, it also stems from a change in western self-conception and how liberals like to see themselves and so it retains a large dose of narcissism. Once, the feel-good narrative was an imperialist one and westerners could tell themselves they were bestowing positive values and order upon less enlightened people. Now, the feel-good narrative among a certain type of liberal is that of ‘woke’ post-colonialist ashamed of the actions of their forebears, revelling in guilt and newly-attained awareness of wrongdoing and attempting to make recompense. Unfortunately, this still requires the compliance of the wronged party to act as foil, and so only those who share this very black and white, restrictive image of their own culture and the West’s can be supported.
In attempts to valorise Eastern cultures, western intersectional activists decide which things can be owned by them and which are forced upon them by the west. Therefore, elements of culture seen as positive or neutral – clothing, art, spiritual practices or symbolism – are often fetishised and ruled off-limits to westerners whilst negative aspects – religious fundamentalism, sectarian violence, political instability – are considered to be solely a product of western military intervention. The fact that the East has a long and complex history of its own, filled with well-established religious and cultural values existing independently of the West is usually glossed over in these cases. This constrains the ways in which people wanting to talk about it can do so greatly and attempts by ex-Muslims, reforming Muslims and liberal Muslims particularly to criticise their own religion and culture are frequently shut down and individuals vilified.
When it comes to those values which cannot be considered positive or argued at all plausibly to be a direct consequence of Western military intervention – gender inequality, honour violence against women and persecution of LGBTs – activists drawing on postcolonial theory will usually try to minimise them and argue them to be products of universal patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes. This often appears to their critics to be a selfish attempt to self-victimise at the expense of women and LGBTs suffering severe and often fatal oppression most often in the Muslim world and in other intensely religious cultures, but activists believe themselves to be prioritising and defending the rights of what is, in the west, a minority group. This leads them to fail to support and even to obstruct the minority of human rights activists, feminists, LGBT activists and liberals in Muslim countries and Muslim communities.
We can know that intersectional feminists are not motivated by a lack of concern for Muslim women because they are steadfastly dedicated to the important cause of opposing anti-Muslim bigotry especially when it impacts women. Much of this centres on that most visible markers of Muslim identity: the hijab. There have been many alarming reports of abuse and even violence being directed at women wearing them. Consequently, feminist outlets have platformed essays in support of the hijab, presented it as compatible with feminism and featured Muslim women in hijabs in feminist activism despite the fact that many western Muslim women do not wear it and many Muslim feminists , as well as non-Muslims and liberals are critical of it as a gender-specific concept of ‘modesty.’
The hijab is inseparable from its anti-woman implications. Women's bodies lead men to sin, so blame for the sin falls on she who entices.
— Sarah Haider (@SarahTheHaider) September 14, 2016
As feminists everywhere from Iran to Saudi Arabia protest the enforced wearing of the hijab and many more all over the world report feeling under community pressure to wear one, or disagreeing strongly with the concept of modesty, the concern has been that western feminists, in their worshipful adherence to ‘intersectional feminism’ are adding to the pressure by valorising it. This may be overstating the case and their motivations seem good. However, the narrow and limited view that feminists display in their focus on areas in which Muslim women are seen to visibly differ and their tendency to engage only when they are abused by white non-Muslims can have much more serious implications.
In England and Wales, there were 4,400 reports of hate crimes committed on the grounds of religion in 2015-16, mostly non-injurious but serious nonetheless, and it is reasonable to suspect from the report, which shows spikes following Islamist terrorist attacks that the majority of victims were Muslim. This is a problem that should not be neglected but it is not the only danger faced by British Muslims which should be of concern to feminists. 11,000 cases of ‘honor’ crime were reported to the police between 2010 and 2014. These relate to beatings, abduction and murder. The figures are considered to be much lower than the real number. There were 5,700 cases of FGM reported in 2015-2016 and in 2016, the Forced Marriage Unit was involved with 1,428 cases of actual or threatened forced marriage with 80% of the victims being female. Again, real figures are probably much higher. These issues, resulting in serious bodily injury, death or loss of freedom are among the most serious human rights abuses. Concerns by intersectional feminists that focus on abuses committed against Muslim women by Muslims could lead to further anti-Muslim bigotry are not unjustified and need consideration but these human rights abuses do still need to be addressed. The best way to do this is to support the (ex)Muslim feminists, liberals and reformers already addressing them.
It is a mistake to assume that intersectional feminists’ downplaying of human rights abuses in the name of Islam reveals an indifference to the wellbeing of Muslim women and a desire to claim a higher victim status for themselves but it is an understandable one. The reality is that intersectional feminism works by essentialising and valorising, elevating and romanticising cultural stereotypes of minority groups and focusing solely on abuses committed by white westerners and that this is rooted in a desire to redress past wrongs and their lingering consequences. However, there is also a desire to build a ‘woke’, self-flagellating, western liberal identity which is narcissistic, divisive and essentialising. It impedes Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists, liberals and reformers from critiquing and/or reforming their own religion and culture and demands they act as foil to it. It detracts from shared humanity and individuality and attempts to force individuals into cultural stereotypes. It is western-centric, orientalising and fails to defend women’s rights and freedoms consistently. Please stop doing it.
Helen is a humanist, secularist and universal liberal. Her academic writing focuses on late medieval & early modern religious writing by and for women.