When Adele Wilde-Blavatsky’s article ‘To be Anti-Racist is to be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab are not Equals’ on the Feminist Wire garnered a storm of opposers angrily accusing her of everything from attacking the identity of Muslim women, to exercising white privilege, to perpetuating racism and Islamophobia, it led to the Feminist Wire censoring both Wilde-Blavatsky and its own subsequent response.
The “Collective Response” removed from The Feminist Wire, but published later on Jaddaliya.com, is signed by “a group of feminist writers, activists, and academics” from “diverse racial, religious, economic, and political backgrounds.”
But are the signatories really as diverse as they claim to be? It’s worth taking a closer look at the characteristics that can be garnered from the signatures.
First, they overwhelmingly represent universities of the so-called Imperialist part of the world, the part that they claim is the harbinger of western privilege seeking to subdue and persecute the poor, non-white and Muslim of the world. Of the 86 signatories as of May 18, 2012, all but six specifically identity themselves with institutions, mostly universities, in the United States or Canada, and one in the United Kingdom. One is at the American University in Cairo, the closest to thing to anyone signing from a Muslim-majority country. The other five signatories don’t identify their locations.
Who is represented among the signatories is also demonstrated not so much in who signed, but in who didn’t. The complete absence of signatories from universities (or otherwise) in parts of the world that form the epicenter of the debate’s topic, might cause an anti-imperialist to argue that ‘privileged’ women at western universities are speaking for the silenced women of the Muslim world, therefore perpetuating hegemonic discourse.
I actually don’t really care where people live or work, or where they were born, when they opt to protest something. But it’s not lost on me that those who have attempted to vilify Adele Wilde-Blavatsky were quick to focus on her “whiteness” as a characteristic that automatically makes her a paternalistic western feminist. Hence, the above is simply an exercise in the game that Wilde-Blavatsky’s detractors are playing. If you’re white, you dare not speak about issues that don’t concern you. It’s a refrain I’ve confronted often enough myself, and at the risk of belabouring this controversy further, it’s worth examining more closely given that the Feminist Wire censorship incident is hardly unique as a case of those labeling themselves “feminist” misusing the race card, and in the process, trumping real struggles over rights and freedoms that face women.
But first, allow me to point out one other feature of the signatories. The bulk of them represent Women’s Studies Departments, at western universities. This is telling, and sad.
Where are all of these voices when horrific incidents of violence occur against women in Afghanistan? When dissenters are censored in Saudi Arabia? When women’s rights defenders are raped inside Iranian prisons? When 12-year-old Yemeni girls have their insides torn open when they are raped in their marriages to adult men?
In the world of urgent action for women who are under siege in a plethora of deadly situations, in the realm of courageous and outspoken responses to the misogyny that festers under the purview of male rulers that deem women akin to cattle—whether the rulers of governments or the rulers of families—Women’s Studies departments in western universities have simply been non-players.
They are too busy, it would seem, investigating intersectionality, avoiding being seen as patronizing westerners, deconstructing dominant discourses, challenging hegemonic “narratives”, labeling all action for women abroad as Orientalist, and fighting the murky imperialism that lurks everywhere, threatening to colonize and subdue exotic cultures at any moment.
But out there, in the real world, the most pressing issues facing women are all too often ignored by those studying questions of gender from the confines of Women’s Studies departments. Research agendas seem more determined by deep-rooted biases favouring relativisms and a post-modernist view of the world, than by the empirical evidence that everywhere around us, women are getting mutilated, maimed, raped, beaten, prostituted, set on fire, drenched in acid, and murdered because they are women, and a disproportionate amount of this takes place in Muslim societies.
The destruction of women’s bodies is the most violent manifestation of systematized male control over women, and this systematized control uses culture and religion as its primary vehicle. And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t pin it all on American foreign policy in the Middle East, on neoliberal economic policy, or on colonial legacies. The justifications vehemently given for the subjugation of women in so much of the Muslim world come from within those cultures, and typically, from the men. Referring to local “tradition”, religion or culture, such men don’t even blame their treatment of women on the outside world or on American policies, so why would foreign scholars do so?
As a Caucasian woman fighting for the rights of women in Afghanistan, I’ve had many experiences where my race was brought up as “problematic” as it relates to the legitimacy of my right to speak out against the atrocities I’ve witnessed against women here over the past 15 years. It’s been implied that as an outsider from a western country, I could only be some kind of zealous missionary bearing “my” message of rights, or the specter of a neo-colonialist simply extending imperialism by other means over a resistant people. I’ve been called a racist more than once, and only ever by individuals who reside comfortably in the West and consider themselves to be of the political left, that is, to be “progressive”.
The casual misuse of a term that has a very precise meaning and is among the gravest accusations one can make towards another person is an indicator that those conflating the advocacy of women’s rights in the Muslim world with racism simply have no idea what they’re talking about or what they are fighting for anymore. They’ve drifted so far off a genuine social justice agenda, that they’ve found themselves shipwrecked on the shores of the fascist, patriarchal and hate-filled political ideologies that work to keep the female sex securely in submission. They invoke the racism card to shut down dialogue, pushing out of the conversation anyone they can associate with whiteness, making the ridiculous assertion that just by existing, just by speaking, any white person perpetuates inequalities. As Adele Wilde-Blavatsky asks, “Are you seriously suggesting that we can only debate an issue if we have first-hand experience of it? Do I have to be a porn star to critique pornography?” As she experienced,
To claim, as one woman did, that I used the ‘ties’ of ‘non-white bodies’ to ‘obfsucate my whiteness’ not only reduces me and my family to the level of our skin colour but also categorically ignores our intimate connections and unique personal experiences and cultural and religious backgrounds. Most importantly, it denies us the experience we share as human beings in terms of genuine love, care and compassion. The very thing you accuse me of doing in relation to Muslim women.
And like the boy who cried wolf, when accusations of racism are blatantly and routinely misused, it’s easy to then miss or ignore real instances of racism.
Where inequalities are truly being perpetuated is by those who have co-opted the language of feminism, but really work to preserve the status quo of misogyny by giving credence to cultural relativism, and by letting an indelible paranoia of imperialist identity override the need to speak out against the real perpetrators of abuses against women. Similarly, Wilde-Blavatsky referred to a “fear of Islamaphobia so intense” that it risks shutting out dissenting Muslim voices calling for more freedoms, such as the freedom of choosing how to dress.
Too much of the western academic world has consistently ignored the homegrown voices courageously demanding the kinds of rights and freedoms we have come to take for granted. I still have faith in feminism, because I’m fortunate enough to interact with real feminists every day—women in Afghanistan who aren’t willing to compromise on their demand for rights in the name of culture or identity—and who risk their lives every day to express their belief in the idea that human rights are universal.
In the west, we have forgotten that the rights we enjoy today were not granted, they were taken. Now it’s the turn of others to take theirs.
I may be Caucasian, and I may be non-Muslim. It would hardly even matter if I were also a man. I’m calling a wrong when I see it, and if you want to box me into a corner based on the superficialities of 21st century identity politics as defined by post-modernist Women’s Studies Departments far removed from the real battlefields for women’s rights, so be it. But I will speak out whatever the skin colour and whatever the religion of the victims of misogyny. If those who profess to be scholars confuse that with racism, by god, scholarship is in trouble. Civilization, indeed, is in trouble.