‘The process of Othering has everything to do with knowledge, and power acting through knowledge to achieve a particular political agenda in its goal of domination’ (Said 1978: xiii).
The non-Western woman (and more recently since 9/11, the Muslim woman), has been produced as a singular monolithic subject within academic frameworks, and in Left and Right narratives reduced to a political item for both agendas, invisibilising and stifling and deeming illegitimate any voices and identities that operate outside both frameworks and don’t fit into each political camp’s colonization of the Middle Eastern woman. The Left in their backlash against the racist Right’s symbol of Muslim woman as oppressed and ‘victim’, and their anti-immigration, Islamophobic agenda, have utilized the Muslim woman as backlash to Western imperialism and Western sexualized femininities. Hence, silencing debates on human rights abuses in Muslim communities as it will play into neo liberal Right wing agendas. By wholly ignoring the experiential, the Left, too have participated in Othering the Muslim woman. Whilst in academia, the ‘Other’ woman remains an object for Western feminist inspection and investigation through the interpretation of the Western model of knowledge and through the Western gaze: a discursive colonization of the Muslim woman that is homogenizing in its picture of oppression (Mohanty 1984).
Since 9/11 the concept of terror and the ‘enemy’ has become merged with the religion of Islam in mainstream media. Anti-immigration groups, Christian fundamentalists and the Right have contributed to mapping their cause in the body of the Muslim woman, the eternal and passive victim, using oppressive factors and cases of human rights abuses in Islamic countries as justification to feed populous anti-Muslim prejudice (Phipps 2014). In the USA, UK, and Western Europe neoconservative and neoliberal agenda, the ‘victimised’ Muslim woman provides justification for social and cultural Islamophobia and political and economic interventions. Violence against Muslim women as cultural in origin have fed racist prejudice and because Muslim women are symbolised as victims and oppressed, anti-immigration groups represent them as a threat to the Western value of individual freedom which is deemed as the universal truth about the human. The argument against multiculturalism, immigration and pro-military intervention is expressed through the body of the Muslim woman which in both right wing narratives and extreme strains of Islam is bound in the writings of the Qur’an regarding ‘truths’ about gender ‘norms’. Hence, FGM, child marriage, veiling, forced marriage, honour killings, stoning are practiced/forced as the word of Allah by some, and flouting Allah’s ‘truth’ punished by stoning, flogging and executions. These practices prevalent in many Muslim countries are utilized by anti-immigration rhetoric in Right wing media such as The Sun and Daily Mail who situate the practices as essentialist expressions of one whole ‘culture’: ‘The Muslim.
As backlash to Right wing racist, Islamophobic and neoconservative rhetoric, the Left have utilized the Muslim woman (specifically the veiled Muslim woman) as a device for their political agenda which also reduces the Muslim woman to a singular monolithic object by the exclusion of any experiences that might play into right wing agendas. For example by silencing human rights groups that speak about human rights issues in Muslim countries, and any voices that might operate outside the left’s agenda of the Muslim woman, such as activists that fight FGM, forced marriage, forced veiling, stoning and honour killings are immediately seen in the same camp as Right wing Islamophobes. Debate on the Left is framed by anti-Imperialist critique which tends to oppose anything which might play into the new conservative project. The Left’s refusal to debate human rights abuses and violations in Islamic communities because it plays into neoliberal neoconservative agendas ensures that the Muslim woman’s voice is kept marginalized and she is forever the ‘other’. In a landscape whose tension is between Right-wing Islamophobia, the demonized Middle East and its Left wing backlash, a multiplexity of voices thus become invisibled. Both Left and Right’s strategic use of the Muslim woman is ‘Othering’; participating in a discursive colonization of the Muslim woman with little attention to the experiential and structural.
In this essay I want to explore how Western narratives- academic, as well as Left and Right representations of the Middle Eastern woman- have been complicit in the imperial project of orientalising and ‘Othering’ a wide range of cultures, religions, castes, countries and experiences as one monlithic whole: ‘the third world woman’. Whether situating women’s equality within western frameworks and through the Western gaze of ‘liberation’ in the production of academic knowledge, or indeed in anti-immigration, Islamophobic rhetoric, or defining agency and choice through the anti-Western and anti-capitalist resistance agenda . I would like to demonstrate how the Middle Eastern identities that don’t fit in this landscape of resistance between Left and Right wing agendas, are marginalized and silenced in both Left and Right wing media, not giving a space and voice to Middle Eastern artistic forms of expression or behaviour that don’t support both agendas. In doing this I would like to explore how the Western model of knowledge being deemed as the universal truth about the human orientalises non-Western cultures, for example with regards to gender and sexuality norms and codes of behaviour.
Just like the categorisation of ‘chav’, using any group as a cliché or stereotype is beneficial for maintaining the white Western privileged as naturalized elite model. Thus it is beneficial for the elite to see the Middle East as one whole people with the same religion, ethnicity and culture. The Middle East is a region with many religions: Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Baha’i, Assyrian and Coptic Christians and many ethnicities: Persians are Indo-European as are parts of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. There famous Middle Eastern rappers, punk poets and porn stars, female racing drivers and artists with no political agenda. However it is beneficial for the west to stifle any voices that that operate outside the stereotype by keeping the Middle East as both problematic and vilified and as the ‘Other’.
The postcolonial feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty in her article Under Western Eyes (1984) has investigated the production of the ‘Third World Woman’ as a singular monolithic subject in the Western production of knowledge, specifically in Western feminist texts. What she identifies as hegemonic is a construction of ‘Western’ in an oppositional framework to any ‘Other’. She talks about ethnocentric notions that not only ignore diversity among women belonging to a large geographical spectrum, grouping them with one universal identity—i.e. victims but also lead to a constructed discourse of asymmetries of power that sets Western feminism as gatekeeper of knowledge through texts and language vis-à-vis the Third World women who are oppressed victims (Mohammadi 2013). She demonstrates how Western feminists are engaged in the process of Othering by engaging in the very hegemonic narratives they are resisting by focusing on the codes of scholarship in academia about women in the third world by particular analytic categories as articulated in Western academic narratives. Mohanty says:
Because Western Feminist narratives are best seen as a mode of intervention into particular hegemonic discourses (for example, traditional anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, etc.), countering and resisting the totalizing imperative of age-old “legitimate” and “scientific” bodies of knowledge, “feminist scholarly practices (whether reading, writing, critical or textual) are inscribed in relations of power-relations which they counter, resist, or even perhaps implicitly support. There can, of course, be no apolitical scholarship (1984: 3).
What Mohanty is suggesting is that Western feminist writings produce and re-present a composite, singular ‘Third World Woman’ by discursively colonizing the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women of different classes, religions, cultures, races and castes classified as the Other, an image which carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse. ‘Sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis’ (Mohanty 1984: 8). Mohanty is arguing that male violence must be interpreted within specific societies, and not as one cross-culturally singular, monolithic notion of patriarchy or male dominance. This ethnocentric universality coupled with inadequate self-consciousness about the effect of Western scholarship on the ‘third world’ in the context of a world system dominated by the west, characterize a sizable extent of Western feminist work on women in the third world.
In revisiting her article in 2002, Mohanty focused more on transnational commonalities between women and the role of global economic and political frameworks in producing disadvantage and positioned the fight against globalising capitalism (Phipps 2014: 49). ‘The hegemony of neoliberalism, alongside the naturalization of capitalist values, influences the ability to make choices on one’s own behalf in the daily lives of economically marginalized as well as economically privileged communities around the globe (Mohanty 2003: 11).
Feminist political theorist Zillah Eisenstein states in Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy that corporate capitalism has redefined citizens as consumers—and global markets replace the commitments to economic, sexual, and racial equality (1998: 134-170). Mohanty extends on this argument:
Women and girls are still 70 percent of the world’s poor and the majority of the world’s refugees. Girls and women comprise almost 80 percent of displaced persons of the Third World/South in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work and earn less than one-tenth of its income. Women own less than one-hundredth of the world’s property, while they are the hardest hit by the effects of war, domestic violence, and religious persecution (2002: 11).
Mohanty also alludes to the rise of religious fundamentalisms which in conjunction with conservative nationalisms, are also in part reactions to global capital and its cultural demands, having led to the policing of women’s bodies in the streets and in the workplaces (Mohanty 2002). These religious fundamentalisms, both Islamic and Christian, I believe have both strengthened since 9/11 as a political tool. The rise of contemporary radical and political Islam has been interpreted by some as a radical reaction to imperialism and the West’s intervention in the Middle East. Radical Islam is also seen as analogous to Christian Fundamentalism in its ideology. By others it is situated as a backlash to neo-conservatism. One side argue about how colonization, as well as political and military intervention by the West in recent times has led to the rise of Islamic extremism as backlash. However this ignores the complexities of Islam throughout history and how its beliefs and pratices just like other religious fundamentalisms are inherently misogynist.
Contemporary radical and political Islam shares its positioning with the Western Left in opposition to Western imperialism and in particular America, and political Islam is implicitly positioned as a liberatory socio-political project on the Left which means that human rights abuses in many Muslim countries wwill not be given a platform for debate (Phipps 2014). This Invisibility of the structural and lack of attention to the contextual and historical also make it possible for critiques of oppressive practices situated with a Muslim majority societies or communities to be labelled Islamophobic. Native critics of Islam have been criticised by the Left for seeking notoriety and being entrapped in mainstream Western perceptions and values and having sold out to the West and its values. Thus, debates regarding Middle Eastern women’s sexuality, sexual health, gender identity, marriage, romantic love, rape, abuse and violence are not treated with the same equality as debates about Western women’s issues for fear of being Islamophobic or culturally insensitive, so therefore they remain bound in shame and taboo. Therefore the Middle Eastern woman’s body is increasingly engaged in the process of Othering in the tug of war between Right wing neloliberalism and the Left’s backlash which is couched in anti-imperialist narrative.
The Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy has consistently been attacked for being a ‘traitor’ and Zionist when speaking about Muslim women’s issues. Her argument that the niqab is representative of an ideology which does not believe a Muslim woman’s right to do anything but choose to cover her face and her argument that the real war on women was being carried out by men in the Middle East provoked a great deal of controversy. Dalia Abdel Hameed, Women’s Rights Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights attacked Eltahawy in her article Get an Arab Woman to Say it for You (2012) strongly suggesting that Eltahawy was the mouthpiece for American Neoconservatives: ‘For the Right wing conservatives it is better to get a woman to attack women…the same for neo-orientalists who would get an Arab woman to say it for them’ (El-Hameed 2012). The backlash against Eltehawy was as a result of her article in the April 2012 issue of ‘Foreign Policy’, entitled ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ (Eltahawy 2012) where she outlined a wide range of historically deep-rooted misogynistic practices in Islamic countries: ‘An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed’ (2012).
She cited just a fraction of a catalogue of laws regarding women that violates their human rights in the Middle East:
Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness….It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 55 percent of women are illiterate, 79 percent do not participate in the labor force, and just one woman serves in the 301-person parliament. Horrific news reports about 12-year-old girls dying in childbirth do little to stem the tide of child marriage there. Instead, demonstrations in support of child marriage outstrip those against it, fueled by clerical declarations that opponents of state-sanctioned pedophilia are apostates because the Prophet Mohammed, according to them, married his second wife, Aisha, when she was a child (2012).
Eltahawy has ‘dared’ to bring to the public arena debates and conversations concerning Muslim women, her argument being that we must depart from this binary of Islam vs. the West. ‘First, Islam is not monolithic. It, like other major religions, has strains and sects.’ (Jerusalem Post 2010).
Bringing debates on the strains and sects of Islam to the public arena, and specifically the veil and agency, Eltehawy talked about how the strains of Islam that promote face veils do not believe in the concept of a woman’s right to choose and describe women as needing to be hidden to prove their ‘worth.’ In her article An Egyptian feminist writes on the burqa ban, Eltahawy wrote: ‘Salafism and Wahhabism preach that women will burn in hell if they are not covered from head to toe – whether they live in Saudi Arabia or France. There is no choice in such conditioning. That is not a message Muslims learn in our holy book, the Koran, nor is the face veil prescribed by the majority of Muslim scholars (2010). And in the light of the #metoo movement, Eltahawy tweeted of her experiences of being sexually assaulted during the holy pilgrimage of Haj at the age of 15: ‘I have shared my experience of being sexually assaulted during Haj in 1982 when I was 15 in the hope that it will help fellow Muslim women break silence and taboo around their experience of sexual harassment/abuse during Haj/Umra or in sacred spaces. Let’s use #MosqueMeToo’ (2018.) Eltahawy in an interview with PRI’s the World said that since that tweet, she had been accused of being a Zionist agent and receiving money from Islamophobic groups (2018):
This, of course, was just an attempt to shut this down. This is not about how a woman dresses. This is not about where a woman was. It’s not about sacred space or secular space. This is about patriarchy — enabling and protecting misogyny that allows men to sexually assault us. Whether it’s in Mecca when I’m on pilgrimage or a nightclub….Europe’s ascendant political right is unapologetically xenophobic. It caricatures the religion that I practice and uses those distortions to fan Islamophobia. But ultra-conservative strains of Islam, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, also caricature our religion and use that Islamophobia to silence opposition. Salafi ideology, which is unapologetically misogynistic, has left its imprimatur on Islam globally by convincing too many Muslims that it is the purest and highest form of our faith (www.pri.org 2018).
She states that cultural relativists don’t want to offend anyone by protesting the disappearance of women behind the veil – or worse, and that the best way to support Muslim women would be to oppose both the racist political right wing and the niqabs and burqas of the Muslim Right wing. Women should not be sacrificed to either. We need to talk about the dangers in equating piety with the disappearance of women.
AGENCY AND ‘CHOICE’ IN THE VEIL
For the Left Islam in particular is seen as the most authentic voice in its struggle against the Western inspired and racially informed hegemonic aims of transnational capital. Religious and cultural forms of dress in particular are often seen as an act of resistance to capitalist sexualized femininities and colonial Legacies. Veiling in its various forms especially the niqab and burqa has come under intense media and political scrutiny in recent years with two competing interpretations: the first centres on veiling as a symbol of patriarchal force and an oppressive culture. In Islam veiling is to protect a woman’s modesty and keep her pure from the gaze of men. Reasons of piety, morality, modesty, virtue and divinity are frequently given by veiled women which would define those not wearing a veil as impure, immoral and wicked. It also defines the female body as a sexualized one: there for the male gaze, with the male being a very basic creature who is unable to view the female as anything but lustfully with intent to violate.
The second has emerged party in response to this, that covering is a choice which symbolizes women’s empowerment and resistance to western hegemony and capitalist sexualized femininity. Veiling has become a symbol of backlash to Western hegemony and capitalist sexualized femininity and questioning or critiquing it is instantly seen as Islamophobic. The Left focus on agency and resistance of women in Muslim majority countries and communities set within a rejection of the right’s stereotyping of women in developing countries and a critique of Western version of autonomy, liberation and agency. Within these narrative what is being said is that women are either hyper-sexualized creatures or completely shrouded in a veil. Why is empowerment situated in a woman’s attire and why is veiling empowerment? Why is woman defined only through dress and image and there no dialogue about an individual’s humanity and contribution to society? This is the double bind between patriarchy and racism which structures women’s choices to cover or not.
HOW IS CHOICE INFORMED?
Universally the process of deciding in itself is seen as empowering regardless of the circumstances, contents or effect. The framework around choice is cognizant with the neoliberal idea of the individual as rational calculating entrepreneurial and self-regulating. It ignores how choice is formed within networks of discourse, historical context, and the importance of unconscious investments and contradictory positionings.
Ultimately, once again, it is the female body that is the site of governmentality. A whole face, whether by the choice or forced, is because of texts producing discourses as truths about the female human. Defining the female’s humanity through her body, its attire and presenting this ‘truth’ of covering her body equating to being a more superior, ‘better’ and legitimized human being is not different to Western commodification of female sexuality and the ‘truths’ produced about how wearing certain attire will define you as a woman. Choice, therefore in the veiled woman is informed by ‘truths’ that have been produced defining a female’s morals and ethics solely in her dress which is illogical and reductive, as is a woman’s ‘choice’ to engage in the mass consumerist option of cosmetic body modification and/or dress being informed by ‘truths’ about advancement of the self and she being defined by dress and physicality. Why governmentality always focus on the woman’s body, remains a mystery.
The niqab and burqa are invested with almost animate powers and seen as essentially oppressive or essentially empowering. On the neoconservative Right it has become emblematic of women’s suffering and used by Right wing politicians such as Sarkozy to situate the veil itself as a threat to Western values while leaders such as Barack Obama have chosen to emphasize individual personal choice but have ignored the broader problems faced by women in Muslim majority societies (Phipps 2014). Both forms of politics homogenize a diverse set of populations’ values and practices across the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia. They also ignore the fact that covering has been utilized in very different ways depending on the context. Both Left and Right narratives are simplistic and do not reflect the body of ethnographic research revealing the complexity of contemporary headscarf veil cultures and the numerous reasons why women might choose to cover their hair, bodies and faces. Veiling is seen as a homogeneous signifier, whereas its use is varied from culture to culture country to country. A variety of social and economic influences and interactions, some of them not positive as well as fashions throughout history have helped shaped the choice in wearing of the veil (Power 2009).
Utilizing the female body as a site of governmentality is especially true for the theocratic republic of Iran and like other Islamic states, it maintains religious laws and has religious courts to interpret all aspects of law. Veiling for women is mandatory and The Iranian police announced in 2014 that since the revolution in 1979, they’ve warned, arrested or sent to court nearly 3.6 million women because of having bad hijab (The Guardian 2018). For 40 years there has been forced veiling of women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia for longer. The punishment for not adhering to Islamic dress codes and Islamic behaviour regarding gender relations, marriage, artistic expression, sexuality and sexual identity is flogging, imprisonment, stoning and execution in Iran (Amnesty International 2018). For 40 years Iranian people have fought against human rights abuses, and in Western media there is little detailed debate around this.
Since the revolution there has been various policing groups cruising the streets of Iran. The Revolutionary Guards in their Jeeps are prevalent on the streets on Iran, as are the morality police, stopping cars or people who display any hint of counter revolutionary activity, including showing strands of hair, wearing makeup or being in the presence of a different gender not related to-proof in the form of a document is required. There is also 3 million Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group who cruise the streets of Iran in cars and stalk the pavement looking for any un-Islamic dress code and behaviour, arresting, hassling and imprison anyone displaying anti-Islamic activity (Wikipedia 2018).
Even in 2018, having ‘bad hejab is punishable by physical assault by the morality police. In April 2018, the Guardian reported on a woman being assaulted in the streets of Tehran for showing hair. There have been mini protests about forced veiling of women in Iran and in December 2017 in Tehran a young woman stood on top of a 5 foot utiity box on one of the capital’s busiest streets, took off her headscarf and waved it on a stick for all to see, as a protest against forced veiling by the Iranian regime, the consequence of flouting it being flogging and imprisonment (Amnesty International 2018). Many other women courageously followed this symbolic gesture, standing on boxes without a hejab, it being waved on a stick as a form of protest. A total of 29 women have been arrested as of May 2018, and not heard of by their families since (The Guardian 2018).
My Stealthy Freedom is an online movement that was commenced in 2014 by Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-born journalist and activist based in the West. This movement started from a Facebook page where women from Iran post their photos without scarfs, and by the end of 2016 the page has surpassed 1 million Facebook likes. It is dedicated to posting images of women with their hejab removed. Many women have submitted their pictures without hejab, taken in various locations: parks, beaches, markets, streets, and elsewhere as a movement for freedom (Facebook 2018).
Many human rights groups are excluded from debate by Left wing groups as much of the contemporary Left approach to gender issues with Muslim majority communities and countries is framed by the anti-imperial critique and the fear of playing into neoconservative agendas. The Left wing group Stop the War Coalition in 2007 excluded the political group Hands off the People of Iran due to its statements about abuses of women’s and LGBTQ rights by Islamic governments (Independent 2007). Posters about forced marriage are routinely taken down from schools in case they would upset Muslim parents and being accused of cultural insensitivity or playing into new conservative imperialism (forwarduk.org.uk 2008). And recently in relation to multiple linked cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by Asian men in Rochdale in 2012 it was claimed that one of the victims had reported her rape in 2008 to the police, but her report had not been followed up, due to police fears of being labelled racist (Telegraph 2012).
The Left: We Must Not Weaken Anti-Imperialist Camp
What Left wing groups do is ‘Otherise’ and Orientalise millions of individuals by silencing human rights abuses in Muslim countries. The Left wing group Counterfire which started in 2010 as a split from the Socialist Workers Party, and founded by John Rees the Left-wing British political activist and writer who is a national officer of the Stop the War Coalition, regularly debate class and feminisms on their website. However they define woman as only the Western woman, excluding any others, such as the Middle Eastern or African woman. Stop the War co-founder Lindsay German in her article A feminist Manifesto for the 21st century (2015) outlines women’s oppression within only Western frameworks, ignoring the many other forms of oppression that are rooted in for instance African or Muslim countries. She says: ‘Women’s oppression is a product of class society which has existed for thousands of years’, ignoring the fact that women’s oppression in many countries is and has been as a result of religious law. There is no talk of women who go through FGM, stoning, forced marriage and honor killings, whereas this is something that has affected millions of women. She also talks about how: ‘…women are more than ever regarded as objects defined by their sexuality. The commercialisation of sexuality with its lad and ladette culture, its pole dancing clubs and its post-modern Miss World contests keeps women being judged as sex objects as if nothing has changed since the 1950s’ (2015). Once again, this situates women as docile passive bodies with no agency and autonomy with no debate on how agency can be formed.
Orientalising and Otherising by Western Left wing groups, is fundamentally an oppressive and racist practice. It masks the fact that in some of its values particularly those related to gender, Islam is a conservative religion which shares much with its counterpart, Fundamentalist Christianity. Contemporary progressive and Left-wing frameworks risk justifying gender-based oppression in the name of anti-imperial resistance. The Left’s backlash to the right’s positioning of Muslim women as a downtrodden counterpart of the liberated West can also create cultural essentialism and homogenizing the Muslim woman and constructing her essentially different from her Western counterparts in unhelpful ways. Can a Middle Eastern woman be a slut like her western sisters? Is she allowed to be? Is what she does always politicized or will she ever be seen as an equal to Western women?
Haideh Moghissi (1999) has argued that ‘in the name of anti-imperialism and in the current climate of Islamophobia some western groups and thinkers have become apologists for Muslim Fundamentalism; a destructive defensiveness which denies the more punishing aspects of Islamic regimes’ (Phipps 2014: 71). Phipps has explained how Meetoo and Mirza (2007) have highlighted how minority ethnic women:
…lack protection because governments and organisations are fearful of being seen as racist when taking a positive stance in relation to problems attributed to culture… There is a tendency to walk on eggshells when discussing such issues at schools [and universities]. The dismissal of crimes as cultural in nature has been identified as a factor in the lesser protection of the rights of minority women in Western States as immigrant and minority communities are left to deal with their own problems. ‘Culture based’ crimes are often also denied or minimised by progressive groups due to fears of racism and a reluctance to create universalising gender-based analysis when these crime should in fact be positioned as cross cultural forms of violence against women (Phipps 2014: 58).
Otherising’ extends to Western narratives regarding cultural appropriation. This actively participates in ensuring that non-white, non- Western cultures remain as ‘Other’, treating them with kid gloves and as different. This patronising homogenization of culture also has much in common with marketing culturally ‘authentic’ products such as clothing, music and food and experiences such as package tours which allows travelers to meet ‘natives’ (Phipps 2014). In this arena of homogenizing cultures, the ‘authentic’ is represented by Western selections of who is and isn’t an authentic representation in ‘authentic’ and it often excludes native feminists who wish to use frameworks other than cultural or religious ones terming them disloyal (Phipps 2014: 62).
Therefore famous Middle Eastern individuals who don’t’ fit the mould of academic, political activist or the oppressed refugee don’t get much publicity in the UK media, and have found support and success in the USA or the rest of Europe. The Afghani girl rapper Sonita Alizadeh grew up in Herat, Afghanistan, under the rule of the Taliban and started rapping at the age of 13. After fleeing Afghanistan she gained support and publicity in the USA where she now lives. Iranian movie star such as Golshifteh Farrahani who has won numerous acting awards at Cannes and having left Iran has found fame and success in Europe and the USA where she lives. Famous sportswomen like Laleh Sedigh, an elite Iranian female driver who has broken barriers by superseding men in car racing, is not given any publicity in UK media. Even ‘deviant’ Middle Eastern identities such as Lebanese porn star Mia Khalifa, get more exposure in other European countries and the US, as does female Iranian authors such as Roxana Shirazi who has written a sexually open and unvarnished account of her life in Iran and adult life in rock n roll. Unlike the rest of the world, all UK media outlets blocked any publicity regarding her book ‘The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Bred Backstage (2010). She believes this is because her hyper-visible sexual expression as an Iranian woman doesn’t serve either the Left or the Right’s political agenda.
Centuries old customs relating to gender and sexuality that doesn’t fit into the Left and Right’s stereotype also is kept hidden in Western narratives. For example Iran’s rich erotic past which is abundant in Iranian literature, poetry and paintings. Like India’s legacy of Kama Sutra, Iran has also revealed itself to have an intensely erotic past and a delicious platter of sexual practices. The depiction of sexuality and erotica in Persian literature and paintings is due to ambiguous sexualities that were never labelled as lesbian or gay. Because the Western model of knowledge is deemed as the truth about the human, even academic discourses interpret the universal human experience through the Western model of knowledge and there is a lack of analysis and examination of the history of gender structures in countries like Iran. In Persian culture like the ancient Greco-Romans, sexuality even up to mid-20th century was not categorised and labelled and seen as just a beautiful bond amongst two females or two males. This is abundant in Classic Persian literature and poetry (12 to 15th century) which has overflowed with same-sex themes.
Janet Afary in her book Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (2009) outlines how throughout Persian history homoerotic passions were accommodated and falling in love with a youth and celebrating that love were recognized practices. Not just situated within the context of pederasty, this practice was bound by rules of courtship such a giving gifts, reading poetry, body building, and mentorship. Sometimes men exchanged vows known as brotherhood sighehs (temporary marriage lasting from 1 hour to 99 years). With women same sex relations known as sister-hood vows were recognized practices. Such courtships involved an exchange of gifts and bound in elaborate rituals. Tradition dictated that one who sought another as ‘sister’ approached a go-between. The go-between would take a tray of sweets in the middle of which lay a dildo (which was made of wax or leather) if the beloved agreed to the proposal they would then take vows of sisterhood, drink fruit juices and on Friday evening spend the night together(Afary 2009).
In the Middle East it is also very common to see two male friends holding hands in the streets of Iran and male relatives and friends kissing each other on the cheek affectionately whereas in the West that would construed as homosexual behaviour. Iranian men are very tactile and in a way gay men in Iran can get away with much more public displays of affection because no one could tell if they are just a friends or gay.
In Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution (2009) Pardis Mahdavi and in Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (2009) Janet Afari, have outlined the experiential in a theocratic Islamic state. In a country where Islamic law owns one’s body its reproductive organs, and agency, where multiple marriage and temporary marriage from 1 hour to 99 years is encouraged and widely practiced for multiple reasons, where millions of Basij and morality police stalk the streets to prosecute and punish those not adhering to Islamic codes of dress and behaviour, there has been a huge rise since the revolution in 1979 in women excelling as doctors, engineers, architects, and film makers and lead the way over men (Afary 2009; Mahdavi 2009).
In both Left and Right narratives, constructions of straw men and men serve to close down debate and search for solidarity or commonality. The Left’s reluctance to criticize human rights abuses that are prevalent in the Middle East or Africa even when faced with evidence of gender-based oppression appears that there is gender blindness in the broader field except when women’s issues are set within neocon projects and will continue to link Islam as a religion to Islam as state or political project.
The Left, and increasingly dominant in academia and anti-war/anti-capitalist activism, is a criticism of the way women’s agency is always couched within the frameworks of Western knowledge and narrative and that we should not think that this is the universal model of liberation and autonomy. This line of argument conveniently avoids important debates about the structural and contextual with little or no discussion of the influences and conditions which frame women’s lives; the experiential, and the material histories of particular practices. It also ignores important questions in particular to the possibility that these communities like many in the West may be dominated by socially advantaged men, and more importantly ignores millions of voices who are suffering. Fighting neoliberalism and imperialism by the symbol of the veiled woman as empowerment and resistance to western capitalist sexualized femininity isn’t only dangerous but orientalist.
It is quite unfortunate that many groups from human rights to Western feminists to Middle Eastern activists are seen to be in alliance with the Right in arguing for the importance of universal human rights and contending that anti-racism should not take precedence over equality for women or LGBTQ people. It is unhelpful that in Left wing suggestions white women helpers are seen to be motivated by a desire for superiority. The term ‘white saviour industrial complex’ has recently been used to express the idea that saving victims plays an important role in the construction of some Western identities.
RISE OF SO-CALLED ISLAMIC PRACTICES
Honour killings, child marriage, forced marriage, genital cutting, stoning, forced veiling have been a big part of justification for the historical colonisation of Africa and the Middle East and more recently for projects such as war on terror. The problem is that a lot of practices are not exclusively Islamic or and do not apply to every Middle Eastern, African or Muslim person. However they are increasingly being adopted by a new generation of Muslims and in Western immigrant Communities as a backlash to imperialism and Islamophobia by holding onto ‘nostalgia’, ‘culture’ and ‘identity’. The irony is that by actively engaging in demonized signifiers of their so-called identity to show allegiance and loyalty to what they see as their culture which is being attacked by the West and capitalist sexualized femininities, new generations of Muslims are playing out the Right wing neocon’s caricature interpretation of what their culture is. Hence the vicious circle: Left wing silencers of such issues leading to a problematic justification of gender oppression in the name of cultural or political liberation and concealing the operation of radical Islam as a form of neo-conservatism.
Also, certain acts of violence have been labelled as Muslim Phenomena on the Right, whereas parallel forms of violence in Western society would not be labelled as such. For instance honour based violence is not applied to white parents who might have violently punished their daughters for dating a black person or men who have killed their partners for having affairs instead labelling it as a crime of passion (Phipps 2014: 69). Similarly, mass killings such as those in American high schools or the case of Stephen Paddock the Las Vegas shooter who opened fire on a crowd of concert goers in 2017, are not labelled as terrorism.
On both sides of the debate there tends to be an emphasis on culture and identity at the expense of structural issues. In Right wing ethnicisation where the actions of individuals, such as the Rochdale case, can be seen an essentialist expressions of a culture and in silences on the Left where human rights abuses in Muslim communities aren’t debated for fear of playing into Islamphobic narratives.
Sahar Aziz (2012) notes that ‘Muslim women continue to be inadequately represented in Mosque and community groups’ leadership. Women who vocally challenge patriarchal practices are often labelled as agents of Islamophobes or self-promoters. Often times, character assassination becomes a substitute for much needed discussions’ (Aziz: 2012).
On both sides there is lack of focus on historical and cultural factors-culture is often treated as a monolith with no attention to how practices are produced within power relations. Subjectivities are not merely an expression of culture and religious practice. The role of global capitalism and economic imperialism are ignored in the way that they shape cultural practices and an intersectional approach is vital to move the debate beyond the simplistic subordination vs resistance framework
Kambiz Moss from the Worker-Communist Party of Iran emphasises the cultural relativist mentality of anti-war /anti-racism groups in the West: ‘for them universal law doesn’t apply to human rights abuses in Islamic countries’ (2018). He also talks about representation of these abuses in the UK media vs USA: ‘The political and economic ties the UK have with Iran doesn’t make it expedient to highlight or talk about human rights abuses there, unlike the -Americans who are more hard-line than Europe’ (telephone conversation May 2018).
Universities by only working with Western texts are participating in Otherising, as well as avoiding conversations in the classroom about human rights abuses in Muslim communities for fear of being racist. I feel that there needs to be debate about these issues in classrooms and schools ans universities, without walking on egg shells around them in order to treat human rights abuses as a universal issue, and not continue to Otherise those marginalised voices by staying silent for fear of racism.
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