Posts Tagged colonial feminism
On a road trip with an old friend of mine—another formerly conservative convert—we were listening to the radio as we were driving along. And, lo and behold, the issue of the day that the radio host was discussing with several invited guests was the burning question of… (drum roll…) whether or not “we still need feminism.” As soon as he announced the topic, my eyes started rolling. I guess that’s part of getting old—because as far back as I can remember the media has been dredging up this non-issue at least every few years, with wearying regularity. And these discussions never seem to resolve anything.
This particular discussion was no exception. One of the guests was a rightwing woman who spent most of the time repeating well-worn Tea Party-ish talking points: Yes, feminism sort of did a bit of good for women way waaaay back in the day, by getting women the right to own property and attend universities and vote… but then it went right off the rails, because it turned into a movement that is all about putting men down and demonizing them, while trying to make women superior instead of equal. Feminism (she said) denies the innate differences between men and women, and promotes women neglecting their husbands and children, while stigmatizing women who want to stay home instead of having a career. Women are weaker than men, and women should celebrate and embrace this rather than deny it. Oh, and feminism is also bad because it promotes abortions.
I read a number of blogs written by women (and sometimes men) recovering from Quiverful and other similar very conservative Protestant movements or churches. As the links on this blog indicate. I can relate to a lot of the things that they write about—patriarchal family dynamics, ridiculously high levels of intrusion into people’s lives, cults of personality around self-styled leaders, destructive scripturally-based “counseling” and rotten “marital advice” dished out by such leaders, victim-blaming rhetoric, the after-effects of isolation from “the world” in favor of living in a religious bubble… and the list goes on.
Sometimes, the things they write about help me to think through things that happened to me. Sometimes, they make insightful suggestions about how to deal with particular issues. Sometimes, it’s just nice to know that you are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of such things.
But unfortunately sometimes, reading these blogs is more like realizing the answer to a question that been haunting me ever since I saw a memorial display with the statistics (broken down state by state) for lynchings of African-Americans in the twentieth century: Where does such visceral, violent hatred go? What happens to it, when it is finally driven more or less underground? Does it die for lack of oxygen? Or does it lie there in wait, perhaps mutating into something more socially acceptable so that it can rise again?
Posters and commenters in particular in some of these blogs (and others like them) sometimes use a sort of short-hand that expresses that certain ideas, practices and institutions are oppressive:
- a fundamentalist, controlling Christian community is a “fundystan”
- any oppressive, hyper-controlling church or group is a “taliban”
- conservative Christian teachings (especially on women’s roles) are a “mental burka”
- to question and reject said teachings is to “throw off the mental burka”
- Hepzihah House is “Hezbollah House”
- and so on
Basically, any media word/part of a word that is associated in one way or another with Muslims is equated with oppression, violence, cruelty, or danger, regardless of what the word means in the language(s) or community(ies) that it originally comes from.
The other night when I was over at No Longer Quivering, I saw a post by a white American woman from an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian background who is carrying out what she calls a “burqa experiment.” (Insert groan here.)
Well, it’s not as though that hasn’t already been done to death by white women. It’s hard to see what she thinks she can add to the “findings” that are out there. Not to belabor the obvious, but when a white non-Muslim woman puts on hijab, she can only experience… what it’s like to be a white non-Muslim woman wearing hijab.
She can’t experience what it like wearing it as a white convert, even, much less what wearing it as a Muslim woman of color would be like. There are multiple North American Muslim experiences of wearing hijab. Even among my white convert friends, women who were very obviously white even when they wore hijab (due to their height, eye color, skin tone, mannerisms…) had different experiences from those whose whiteness was less evident to the casual eye.
Her post seems to suggest that her “experiment” is motivated in part by wondering how much discrimination hijab-wearing Muslim women face—in other words, what it is like to be “othered” in America. It should be unnecessary to say again what has been said before by many others, and a lot more eloquently: You can’t experience being an Other in this way, because any time you like you can remove that hijab and resume your “normal” unmarked existence with few or no problems.
As white converts, we both had and didn’t quite have that privilege, which makes our experiences of hijab much different from those of Muslim women of color. Those of us who did end up dehijabing were able to blend back into white society to varying but significant extents, which is an option that women of color simply don’t have. Yet, for many years, a lot of us honestly didn’t believe that we ever could or would remove our hijab, because that would be so grave a sin that it would be unthinkable. We wore it even in situations when we really should have seriously considered modifying it if not completely taking it off. I ended up being pretty much compelled to dehijab, and I had to make the decision much more quickly than I was comfortable doing, due to economic necessity. I found the process really difficult, and very guilt- and shame-inducing, for a number of reasons. The after-effects of that still haven’t left me.
One of the ways that I and my white female convert friends often reacted to becoming aware of how our white privilege was showing was to avoid thinking critically about the various practices, beliefs and community dynamics of the conservative Muslim communities that we were involved in. This led to a number of serious problems.
It all started innocently/ignorantly enough, I suppose. As whites educated in the ’70’s in largely white small towns, with an educational system that presented white North American Christian (or post-Christian) middle-class culture, history, literature and ways of seeing the world as normative, and consuming media that did likewise, we came into Islam with very Eurocentric (and largely middle class) biases. But our biases were largely unconscious, and therefore, unexamined. We had been educated to simply assume that our ways of doing things and seeing things are only sensible, really… and so by default, any other ways that fall short of what we had been conditioned to believe are rational, fair and correct are inferior, if not flat-out wrong. And, that the world would be a far better place if our “superior” ways became dominant everywhere.
But at the same time, we were very idealistic teens and young adults, who were very critical of the hypocrisy and war-mongering and neo-imperialism and racism and sexism of our parents’ generation. So, we assumed that we ourselves were free from racism, because we were so critical of it in others.
Of course, we were in for a rude shock on that score.
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.
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??
Sharrae over at Muslimahmediawatch posted recently about the responsibility that Muslim writers have when they speak on behalf of other women from similar backgrounds. She raises several aspects of this difficult issue that so much ink has been spilled about over the last few decades: being aware of privilege, how to discuss practices that oppress Muslim women while not falling into the trap of reproducing Orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as passive victims awaiting a saviour, how to open up conversations so that a wide range of Muslim woman can tell their own stories in their own words. Her article responds to two recent controversies: the by now notorious article written by Mona Eltahawy in Foreign Affairs, and the less well-known dust-up in British Columbia (Canada) over a Muslim female niqab-wearing student’s photo of a woman wearing a niqab and holding a bra.
These recent controversies as well as Sharrae’s article brought back a lot of memories. My thinking (and acting) on the issues of representation and responsibility have gone through several phases over the years.
Reactive. [early 1980’s] I am a first-year university student, taking an upper-level class on Marxism. The class is interesting, and I am learning a lot, but I am really feeling out of my depth. Everyone is older—quite a lot older, in some cases—and they seem to know a lot more about everything than I do. A lot of them are city folks. Some have years of activist experience. My few attempts to take part in class discussion haven’t gone well, so I usually keep quiet.
Nearly everyone is white. The majority of students in the class are male, though there are some very outspoken female students. The professor, a white, middle-class, male, makes an effort to foster a more inclusive atmosphere and to avoid speaking on behalf of women by bringing in a (white) female guest speaker to give the (one) lecture devoted to examining Marxism and women.
After she gives the lecture, it’s question time. One of the white male students asks a question about the “Black Muslims” in the US and their future as a liberation movement. She gives several reasons why she doesn’t think that they have the potential to be a liberating force, and then adds, “…and they believe that women are inferior. It’s part of their religion.”
I blurt out, “That’s not true!” Read the rest of this entry »