“But you’re a feminist, surely you should be against immigration into Denmark? Surely you are against the way women are treated in Islamic culture?” Personally being exposed to questions like these, is only one of the many demonstrations of how women’s rights, sexual freedom or the freedom of expression and association for lesbian and gay people is invoked instrumentally to wage cultural assaults on Islam in the current political environment. Yes of course I am outraged by gender discrimination and violations of women’s and sexual rights in some muslim countries, just as I am concerned with these very same issues in any other social, cultural, economic, political, religious context, be it due to factors of ethnic conflict, civil war, militarized cultures, economic instability, humanitarian crisis, climate change, political unrest, religious fundamentalism, media images, consumerist society combined with interplay of various capitalist and patriarchal norms. Of course I am in favour of sexual freedom, gender equality and women’s rights, but it seems these freedoms and rights for which I have and will continue to campaign are increasingly being instrumentalised to establish a specific kind of universal cultural foundation and demonising and excluding others through cultural imperialism.
Discourses like these increasingly attempt to deﬁne European countries and the sphere of modernity as the privileged site where sexual freedom or “radicalism” can and does take place, and that such a privileged site of radical freedom must be protected against the ‘barbaric’ orthodoxies associated with new muslim immigrant communities. Sex seems to play a key role in the European nationalist politics of belonging. Sex – especially homosexuality, sexual liberation and women’s rights – is instrumentalised by the nationalist right who uses it to represent immigrants as ‘strangers’ who threaten tolerant, modern European societies. Thus, tolerance, power, and xenophobia come to be increasingly entwined in European countries with powerful National right-wing support. In this discursive context it seems almost impossible to imagine discussing women’s and lgbt-rights without bashing Islam and Muslims. The hegemonic narrative is that gay and lesbian emancipation, and gender equality is almost complete – as gays and lesbians are ‘tolerated’ and women and men are treated equally- and that the only problem left is the lack of integration of Muslims into European societies.
In the Netherlands, one way of addressing this problem, is to confront muslim immigrants seeking citizenship with film footages of two men kissing and a women in a topless swimsuit to judge whether their reactions were of distaste, disgust or tolerance. This is part of the Dutch entry evaluation test designed to determine whether the applicants are open to the socially liberal views of the country: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/16/international/europe/16dutch.html . Is the purpose of this test really testing tolerance of sexual freedom or is it merely a provocative assault against muslim minorities, part of a wiser political agenda of the state to rid themselves of their immigrants from muslim countries and prevent them entry into the Netherlands? Is this a liberal defense of sexual freedom which we should praise, or is this ‘freedom’ being used as an instrument of coercion, that essentially seeks to keep Europe white, pure, and non-muslim? Certainly, I wish for everyone to be able to kiss in public, but I certainly wouldn’t require that everyone watch and approve before they acquire rights of citizenship.
In Denmark, there also seems to be a strong link between sexual politics, islamophobia and citizenship. The so-called 24 year rule is a rule in Danish immigration law with the official guise of cutting down on forced marriages and family reunification immigration, especially targeting muslim immigrants seeking Danish citizenship. The 24-year-rule states that non-resident spouses can only be united and thus cohabit with their spouse living in Denmark, when both parties have reached the age of 24 years. Another demand is that the couple’s aggregate ties to Denmark are stronger than those to the country of origin. However, the demands of aggregate ties are not applicable to people, born in Denmark or people who acquired Danish citizenship as young children and have lived in Denmark for more than 28 years. The rules are of particular consequence to people of other ethnic descent than Danish, notably of muslim and arabic background, and thus constitute unequal treatment. Furthermore the rules prevent a number of citizens from enjoying the right to family life as laid down in the human rights conventions. Officially the rule claims to “protect muslim women from forced marriage and other such maltreatments of women by Islamic culture”, however quite clearly the rule is merely a means of keeping muslim immigrants out of Denmark.
In countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, lgbt-politics, women’s rights issues have largely come to be reduced to the question of a perceived lack of tolerance toward homosexuals and women’s rights among Muslims. The discourse that is put forward is one in which native Danish and Dutch citizens are construed as tolerant while society’s cultural ‘others’, especially Muslims, are represented as intolerant. The structural heteronormativity and patriarchy of society has almost completely disappeared from the movement’s discourse and from the struggle, while the question of Islam and tolerance has taken front-stage. The tolerance towards homosexuality and women’s rights, merely discursive as opposed to practiced in everyday life, is accompanied by a growing intolerance toward Muslims and other immigrants, social outsiders, the poor. The culture of the Muslim minority is framed as an essential, natural, uniform, and a-historical whole while homophobia and oppression of women is construed to be alien to Dutch and Danish society.
Since 9/11 and the initiation of “war on terror” rhetoric there has been an eager search for knowledge about and attention on our sister “women of cover” (as president George Bush so marvelously called them), implicitly co-opting the discourse on muslim women’s rights. Laura Bush’s remarks on the explanations for the invasion of Afghanistan was a clear demonstration of this, reinforcing chasmic divides between the “civilized people throughout the world whose hearts break for the women and the children of Afghanistan and the Taliban and the terrorists, the cultural monsters who want to”, as she put it “impose their world on the rest of us”.
This gives me a great discomfort as it seems that as feminists in the “west” we need to be wary of this rhetorical response to the events and aftermaths of 9/11; the obsession with “the plight of the muslim women”. A key question if why knowing about the “culture” of the region, and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the US/western role in this history. Such cultural framing seems to prevent the more serious exploration of roots and nature of human suffering in this part of the world. Lila Abu-lughod clarifies the dangers of this obsession of culture and demonization of certain so-perceived “cultures of violence”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hLOos5yJn8 .
The “western” liberal assumption of an innate universal human desire for freedom in analyses of gender runs the risk of orientalisting arab and muslim women, defining them as passive submissive others, bereft of the enlightened consciousness of their “western sisters” and hence doomed to lives of submission to muslim men. This has most recently been demonstrated in the debate around veiling and burqa bans in several European countries. On 14 July 2010 the French Parliament imposed a ban on the wearing the burqa in France. This kicked off several counter-protests , such as a group of French females “NiqaBitch” which demonstated against the ban by strolling through the streets of Paris wearing niqab and mini-shorts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GmYRTTbN7g. Essentially, as has been demonstrated by several arab feminist literature, it must be recognized that modern muslim women have voluntarily returned to wearing the veil for a variety of reasons; wearing the veil makes it easy for women to avoid sexual harassment on public transportation and it lowers the cost of attire for working women. Further, the veil is seen as a symbol of resistance to the commodification of women’s bodies in the media and more generally to the hegemony of western values. Importantly, the resurgence of Islamic forms of sociability, such as veiling, within a range of muslim societies is best understood as an expression of resistance against western political-cultural hegemony. From this perspective,wearing the veil can be seen as empowering for many women, not oppressive. I therefore argue that we must avoid the denunciatory discourse of mainstream depiction of Islamic culture, as this is creates severe misunderstandings of what makes these Islamic practices, such as veiling, powerful and meaningful to the people who practice them.
My point is not to trade sexual freedoms or women’s rights for religious. I am of course very concerned with issues of women’s and lgbt rights in muslim societies, as I’m concerned with them in any other society. I remember reading the Princess Sultana’s Daughter book series as a pre-teenager and more recently the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and being shocked by the depiction of conditions for women in muslim countries – despite the post-colonial culturally-imperialist discourse which might arguable also be implicit in this kind of literature. Hearing about how homosexuals in Iran are forced to comply with heteronormative norms via comsulsory sex changes equally infuriated me: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7259057.stm. However, I argue that it is important to question the framework that assumes that there can be no political analysis that tries to analyse homophobia, sexism and racism/islamophobia in ways that moves beyond this current framework. It seems crucial that we overcome the idea that the struggle against homophobia must contradict the struggle against cultural and religious racisms. As Butler (2008) maintains if sexual freedom and women’s rights are some of the ideals we hope for, we must be alert of how easily discourses on sexual freedom and anti-sexism can be instrumentalised in the name of religious intolerance, namely islamophobia (Butler, Judith ( 2008) ‘Sexual Politics, Torture and Secular Time’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 59 (1).) We need to be wary of what the discourses on women and lgbt rights do – who is determining these rights? Who is talking? Who is setting the agenda? What are the alterior motives? Can the subaltern speak?
During BA my studies at the University of Warwick, some friends and I from the Warwick Friends of Palestine Society proposed a motion for our Student Union to “twin” with the Islamic University of Gaza as a symbolic move of solidarity with student living under occupation in the Gaza Strip. However, as we launched the campaign for the motion, this triggered off a big counter-campaign claiming that the motion was implicitly endorsing Hamas policies and in turn homophobia and sexism. How can we campaign for muslim people’s rights without being accused of endorsing sexist and homophobic attitudes in some muslim societies? How can we campaign for muslim women’s and lgbt rights, without falling into this co-opted islamophobic discourse? It seems important that we keep campaigning for rights for all in order to overcome this dichotomous framework, making Islam and anti-sexism seem mutually inclusive, so that LGBT and women’s rights aren’t only campaigned for in the name of islamophobia and cultural imperialism. We need to regain the power over discourse and knowledge co-opted by diverse political agendas!
Linking this dilemma to current event, we could ask how we can construct an “arab muslim woman” in light of the current uprising in the Middle East/North Africa? “Unbelievable! There are veiled muslim women who go out protesting?!? They are screaming and making themselves heard!!”. Muslim women have often been stereotyped as passive, voiceless, politically apathetic and religiously repressed. But scenes around the Middle East have complicated preconceptions, with women seen as active political players in trade unions, grass roots activism and other political organisations. On Aljazeera’s Riz Khan they discuss how “Arab women” have long been committed to fighting for a more equitable society: http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/rizkhan/2011/03/2011318326616845.html
It seems we need to move beyond this rhetoric of salvation; do muslim women really need saving? It’s obviously problematic to construct muslim women as someone in need of saving – when you are saving someone you imply that you are saving her from something and to something. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) put it “white men saving brown women from brown men”. A key question becomes how we can talk about women and lgbt rights in muslim societies without falling into this kind of paternalistic discourses, infantilizing Islam, implying a sense of superiority in the West? A key task in this current climate of “Islam vs the West” seems to be to critically explore what we might do to help create a world in which those “poor afghan women” and homosexuals, for whom “the hearts of those in the civilized world break” actually can have safety and decent lives anywhere and at anytime without using that very instrumentalised discourse.
Marie is currently investigating the social labour conditions of women working in garment factories in Bangladesh. She recently completed an Msc in Development, Gender and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She combined her Masters studies with working part-time as a Fundraising Researcher for the Philanthropy and Programme Funding Team at Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO).
Marie has experience with bi- and multilateral development cooperation through working with the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD in Paris, focusing on the implications of the global economic downturn on the world’s poorest. Whilst working there, she was responsible for covering the work of the Danish Delegation in the DAC Network on Gender Equality, particularly focusing on gender issues related the contexts of war and conflict, as well as gender and development issues more broadly.
Whilst studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Warwick University, Marie was talks organizer for the Warwick International Development Summit and Research Officer for Warwick Amnesty International. She also worked as a volunteer at the local Refugee Centre in Coventry. During her second year, Marie received a grant from the Warwick Lord Rootes Fund to go to India to do voluntary work at the NGO Asha, a charity working in Delhi’s worst slum areas. She also received the Warwick Global Advantage Award for joining the delegation from the Cope Pink Women and Peace Organisation that went to Gaza in December 2009 to volunteer at a Palestinian Women’s Rights Centre and a Palestine Trauma Centre.