Why appropriating the burqa-clad woman is not cool

After exiting my abusive marriage, and in the process, leaving behind my insular, conservative Muslim community, I rejoined “mainstream” white North American society, sort of. I rejoined it in the sense that I got a job, moved to a place with relatively few Muslims, and avoided interacting with the few that there were as much as possible. I was worried about being judged by conservative Muslims. The past was still very fresh in my mind, and I had not even begun the recovery process, so I wanted to have as few reminders of it in my daily life as possible.

In order to have as good a chance as possible to get a decent job that would support myself and my kids, I dehijabed. As a result, I now blended in. I was just another middle-aged, white working single mother with kids. Walking down the street, shopping, sitting on park benches, waiting in line at government offices… were now practically trouble-free. No one stared, no one commented or shouted insults, no one asked nosy questions, and I wasn’t ever made to feel that I had to justify my right to be there. It was so different from what I had been used to, when I wore hijab.

So, a great way to illustrate my transformation would be one of those generic pictures of an anonymous Afghan woman lifting up her burqa to show her face, right?

No. Just no.

This stereotypical picture is not just really tired, but… since when did disavowal ever change the world for the better?? (Picture courtesy of: http://baptisttaliban.blogspot.ca)

Why not? After all, some female survivors of patriarchal religion do describe their experiences of coming to realize that they were being manipulated and abused as escaping “the mental burqa.” Some even refer to conservative cultish Christian churches or groups as “Taliban.” And they didn’t invent this way of talking either—various American media personalities have been referring to homegrown (white, often right-wing Christian) religious and political ideas or groups that they regard as too extreme as “jihadi” or “talibanesque.”

So what’s the matter with that (one might ask)? Aren’t the Taliban notorious for their violence, misogyny, and draconian approaches to almost any and every social or political question? Aren’t they just about the worst example of a cruelly literalistic religious/political movement in recent memory? And isn’t the Afghan “shuttlecock” blue burqa now a commonly recognized shorthand for the Taliban’s brutal subjugation of women in the name of religion and tradition? So why wouldn’t I use the word “burqa” as a synonym for “mental prison” or “oppression,” and “Taliban” for “misogynist” or “religious extremist”? Or throw in a few burqa/lifting the burqa pictures to brighten up my blog? Especially since I’m recovering from my experiences with very conservative Muslim communities??

Several reasons. Disavowal does no one any good. It would be an appropriation of other women’s experiences. It would reaffirm harmful and offensive stereotypes. And it would be exclusionary.

Disavowal. The ever-present temptation to deal with embarrassing, troubling, and deeply traumatic past or present experiences by attributing them to something that has nothing to do with me or my culture. To dump the blame onto someone else, somewhere else. So that I can distance myself from it all, in my mind and in my emotions: It was all just so alien! Don’t know how I ever got caught up in it… well, I do kinda know, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with who I “really am,” at least not now.

In some ways, it would be superficially comforting to fall in line with the stereotyping that the media already makes so handy. Refer to my former communities as “talibanesque.” (Some of the brothers used to wear turbans! That would work!) Equate leaving my abusive marriage and conservative community with lifting or escaping the burqa. Then, I could pretend to myself that somehow, I got swallowed up by a totally alien culture and belief system, that in the end has nothing to do with where I come from or with my “real self”—or for that matter, with North American Islam. And, even better, I get to be the hero in this stereotypical drama. I was a damsel in distress, but hey, I was self-rescuing! I cast off my burqa!

But it wouldn’t be true.

The communities I was involved in weren’t in Afghanistan. Not even in northern Pakistan. They were in North America. Nor were most of their members Afghan. Nor their leaders.

In fact, many of my experiences that are the hardest to recover from took place in a group (which turned out to be a cult) that was led by people who were thoroughly North American, and attracted members by claiming that they wanted to establish a community that was in tune with the realities of life in North America. They had a selective attitude to North American “mainstream” culture—they highlighted its conservative, patriarchal aspects.

Understanding what happened is not possible without acknowledging that this was a North American group, understandable within the North American context of alternativ-y, back-to-naturish lifestyles, conservative religiosity, and the romanticization of certain aspects of the past.

I need to understand what happened and why in order to move beyond it. And, so that I don’t fall into a similar situation again, whether in a religious group, or a political organization, or anywhere else.

Appropriating other women’s experiences. I am not an Afghan woman. I have never worn a burqa. I didn’t live under Taliban rule. What would I gain, then, from imagining myself as a brown woman in a burqa, or a brown woman in the process of casting off her burqa?

Inspiration, perhaps. But then why not find inspiration in all the stories about Afghan women that don’t fit this stereotypical story-line? Or how about stories from all over the world—there are certainly enough women in every culture and religion past and present who have overcome great odds in order to free themselves and others from various types of oppression. And why wouldn’t I primarily find inspiration in stories of North American women like me? North American women who converted to Islam, ended up in abusive marriages or got caught up in Muslim cults or horrendous conservative Muslim community dynamics, got out and built new lives for themselves, which might or might not include Islam or any kind of religion or spirituality. Wouldn’t their stories have a lot more relevance to my life and my issues than tired media stereotypes of oppressed women on the other side of the world?

Perhaps the attention-grabbing potential of the picture of a woman casting off her burqa, begging by the roadside, or moping behind bars? A picture is worth 1000 words, right? What says “oppression” better than a picture like that? What is more likely to move readers to sympathize with me and be indignant—a picture of a pregnant-out-to-here white woman in a long skirt laboring in the kitchen surrounded by piles of dirty dishes and with several fussing toddlers at her feet, or burqa-woman?

Ah, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? The vision that conservative North American patriarchal religious groups—whether Muslim, Christian, FLDS, Jewish, or any other—are selling (and that we bought into) doesn’t look scary or stereotypically oppressive or alien. It looks wholesome and attractive, at least on the surface. It’s supposedly all about family and love and traditional values and authenticity and having a wholistic life. That’s why we fell for it. That’s why others continue to fall for it. Which is why it is important to get readers to see beyond the vision’s surface to the human suffering that conservative patriarchal religious movements right here in North America so often cause.

I know that I don’t at all appreciate other people speaking for me. My story is mine. I have the right to tell it. No one has the right to presume that I can’t tell my story on my own. That is insulting and infantilizing. I have no reason to believe that other women would like to be treated in that way either, especially when there are the differentials of access and power over one’s own image and story. Citizenship, geographical location, skin color, education, family situation, physical health, and income have a lot to do with who has greater access to the means to tell their stories, and to be taken seriously. It is insulting when those with more privilege treat other people and their histories and cultures as some sort of self-serve buffet that they can just pick and choose from at will, regardless of what those other people think about it.

Whatever one thinks about the burqa, it has a complex history that does not begin and end with the Taliban, or for that matter, with Afghanistan. Using it as a symbol of women’s oppression under the Taliban is historically inaccurate. It also has the effect of homogenising the experiences of women of different ethnicities, geographical locations, social statuses, sectarian affiliations and historical contexts.

Why perpetuate stereotypes of passive women in burqas, just waiting to be rescued by foreign armies? Such stereotypes have real-world consequences. They are often invoked by governments wanting an excuse to invade other countries—despite the obvious fact that war and the social and economic turmoil that it usually leaves in its wake makes life a lot worse for most civilians in war zones, particularly women. The implied opposition between burqa-clad women under the Taliban and the bareheaded, free and equal women in the US in such media images tends to make people forget that in fact, the emergence of the Taliban indirectly stems from American support to anti-Soviet fundamentalist “Mujahideen” groups. Or for that matter, that—bareheaded or not—American women today face an organized right-wing religious effort to take away their reproductive freedoms.

Such stereotypes also can result in discrimination against women closer to home, who do veil.

I have had friends who wore face veils. They were and are complex human beings, not two-dimensional stereotypes.

Nowadays, I do not agree with face-veiling, or for that matter, with wearing hijab. As far as I am concerned, these are practices that carry way too much patriarchal baggage to be reclaimable. However, I also realize that lots of women don’t agree with me, and it is their right to dress the way that they want to, whether or not I agree with their decisions. Some women don’t necessarily want to veil or wear hijab, but have various pragmatic reasons for doing so. Whatever the case, that they have the right to dress this way without being treated disrespectfully or discriminated against or condescended to should go without saying.

One thing that I have taken away from my experiences with wearing hijab is a very strong dislike of anyone at all, for any reason, taking it upon themselves to tell me what I can or should wear, or treating me as lesser because they assume that they can know who I am and what I am by what I look like.

Making other women feel excluded from accessing sources of support for rethinking or leaving religious patriarchy is not a good thing. I remember well how I and my convert friends in the ’80’s firmly believed that no matter how bad things got, it would not be acceptable to go to a woman’s shelter. Not just because there were conservative men in the community who said so, but because of the way that the feminist anti-domestic violence discourses that we had access to were framed. It all seemed to be about white, middle class secular women who had absolutely no patience for any kind of religion, so it didn’t seem to have anything at all to say to women like us. Of course, they weren’t trying to exclude religious women on purpose. But their good intentions didn’t make their services any more accessible to us.

My initial, intuitive response to any site using “escaping the mental burqa” type of language, or stereotypical pictures of women in burqas is to assume that they won’t likely contain anything of much value for women dealing with the aftermath of living in an insular, conservative North American Muslim community. Even though, once I read further, I often find that they do. I also hesitated to start blogging, or to link to post-patriarchal blogs or sites, not wanting to risk further affirming the stereotypes that are already out there.

I don’t want to discourage anyone who is looking for support. Or, to inhibit other women from openly discussing their experiences. Or noticing the commonalities among the different patriarchal, conservative religious movements that are out there using similar methods of manipulation and control, because some aspects of the post-patriarchal discourse is implicitly based on an us/them attitude.

And frankly, words and images of this type also trigger me. They remind me of particular incidents and situations that I am trying to lay to rest. I know that I am not the only one who finds such things triggering, either.

I find it sobering to realize that for white women in North America leaving conservative patriarchal religious movements, trying to reintegrate into “mainstream” society basically means trying to reintegrate into white mainstream society, in a society that still privileges some people over others on the basis of skin color. While I have no ready answers for how sort through the ethical challenges involved in trying to have a “normal” life, I think that avoiding racist tropes which imply that the worst evils that humans are capable of are only characteristic of “Other” (non-white) cultures would be a start.

*     *     *     *     *

For Peggy McIntosh’s classic outline of what white privilege looks like in North America today, click here.

For a clear discussion of what appropriation is and why it is offensive (from a First Nations’ perspective), click here.

For several blogs of North American converts who have worked through some really challenging situations of various kinds, that really inspire me—see the links on the right under the heading, “Like a phoenix, rising.”

**The purpose of this post is not to tell anyone what they can, or cannot, write. I am not interested in censoring anyone. What does interest me is recovery from conservative, patriarchal religion, and not standing in the way of others’ recovery.

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  1. #1 by Saliha on June 19, 2012 - 2:37 pm

    In the “about me” section of my dusty Twitter account, I wrote “standing at the intersection, gnawing through the double bind.” I’m planning a post about the difficulty of criticizing and deconstructing patriarchal Islam as I experience it, while not allowing myself to be a pawn in colonial feminist games or other racist and destructive discourses. You’re just kicking royal ass at it, though. I’m raising my glass of water in your honor this morning. You put a big ole smile on my face. Bless you.

    • #2 by xcwn on June 19, 2012 - 3:57 pm

      Saliha: Thank you! I have been trying to avoid thinking or writing about this issue. It really bothers me. Partly because it’s really triggering. Partly because I did not leave behind my oppressive situation in order to join other oppressors. At least, I hope I didn’t. And innocent people, such as our kids with their “good Muslim names” and parentage continue to pay the price for this type of thing, whatever their personal religious convictions today might be.

      And this sort of stereotyping is just grist for conservative, patriarchal Muslim leaders’ mill. They fall over one another in order to claim the title of defender of the faith in North America. Ugh. While women’s concerns get swept to the side yet again as a luxury that we don’t have time to deal with right now….

      Oh man. Anyway. I am really looking forward to your post.

  2. #3 by Paula G V aka Yukimi on June 19, 2012 - 4:29 pm

    I think another example of this would be people always using the nazis in discourses to mean something very evil whatever it’s relevant or not, having or not a real understanding on what went down in the country. When I was reading the firs post about the “Taliban Church” it grated my nerves a little but I didn’t say anything which I guess it’s almost as bad. *back to lurking*

  3. #4 by Karen on June 19, 2012 - 7:38 pm

    I found your blog via Libby Anne of “Love, Joy, Feminism.” I interpret that you’ve taken on a very serious struggle (without a choice; your own sense of fairness and rightness has led you this way), and I applaud your willingness to sort out the details of how you came to be where you are. In fact, I’m very much in awe of you right now! A lesser person would have tried to take an easier way out. I hope you find joy as well as distress on your journey, and I admire your strength and courage.

  4. #5 by Sierra on June 21, 2012 - 2:35 am

    Thank you for articulating so clearly the problem with the “mental burqa” image – it has always made me uncomfortable when it takes place in white, middle class ex-Christian contexts, but I had no idea what to say about it. You may have seen me write about Islam lately, but my purpose there is to demonstrate that fundamentalist Christians aren’t all that different from fundamentalist Muslims and Jews, and that it’s hypocritical/racist to claim that the latter are “dangerous” and the former are “old-fashioned and wholesome.” If this ever comes across as appropriation, I welcome your critique, because it’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do.

  1. Link Love (30/06/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope

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