by Hasret Cetinkaya
Photo by Teycir Mastour and Aïda Hammad, sourced from https://lesfoulardsviolets.org and used with permission in this blogpost
On the 7th of March 2021, Switzerland voted in favour of banning face coverings in public spaces, including the wearing of the burqa and niqab. The proposal was put forward to referendum by the Egerkingen Committee which is linked to the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a right-wing populist party. Under the direct-democracy system in Switzerland the proposed ban was brought to the people’s vote without support from the Swiss government and parliament. The vote in the referendum was carried by a narrow majority (51,2 %). This campaign specifically targeted Muslim female bodies and deployed a rhetoric of ‘saving’ these women by supposedly saying no to extremism. The full-face veil was considered an expression of ‘an extreme form of Islam’ and it constituted a problem which had to be ‘deal[t] with before it gets out of control’, as declared by Jean-Luc Addor, the spokesman for SVP. This so-called defence of Swiss and ‘Western’ values asserts once again that Islam is a ‘contaminating’ and dark presence in the European public sphere. The fact that the referendum took place during a global pandemic and the era of masks is rather ironic. Is it bad timing or a deliberate sign of ‘Western’ cultural-insecurity?
With the developments in Switzerland, alongside the banning of Muslim women’s clothing—particularly the hijab and niqab—in other European countries such as Austria, Denmark and France, I want to argue that these events ought to compel us as feminists to explicitly declare our solidarity rather than staying silent on the matter. Such is all the more urgent in light of how the political right has adopted a language of both protection and emancipation of Muslim women. In this way, the image of threat from ‘dangerous brown men’ (Bhattacharyya 2008) has been articulated such that they pose a danger for both Europe and the Muslim woman, who are in need of a paternalistic form of care. Wendy Brown has argued that ‘the masculine norms of feminine sexual comportment remain the tiresome battleground of these conflicts’ (Brown 2012, 1). This is particularly important in conflicts that deploy the language of war, extremism and radicalism in the name of women’s rights. This recent vote in Switzerland has to be understood as an extension of the logic of right-wing ‘femonationalism’, and the articulation of Islamophobic and racist sentiments through the guise of a concern with the freedom and human rights of both Muslim women, as well as women of colour more broadly speaking (cf. Farris 2017).
The last few weeks have shown a remarkable indifference towards the events in Switzerland. The mainstream media and public feminist discourse have been preoccupied with others events, ranging from the treatment of Meghan Markle and the deep-seated racism of the British monarchy, to the neo-conservative Turkish governments withdrawal of the Istanbul Convention. These events have called forth expressions of solidarity to a greater extent than the Swiss ban. It compels us to ask under what circumstances do we express solidarity and in what ways have we become desensitised to—as a matter of ‘truth’ or nature—the open performance of Islamophobia.
The diagnosis of these events might seem similar (the case of the Turkish governments withdrawal aside), but should not be conflated beyond the obvious fact that they point to the racial structures, which are both global and local. The concept of a ‘racial structure’ speaks to the way in which power differentially organises human life and its value according to ideas of racial difference and White supremacy, thus understanding racism as a shared way of being and doing in the world (which we all participate in to a greater or lesser extent), as opposed to a description of individual action per se. The racism of the monarchy has both captured and surprised ‘us’ despite its recent history and the embedded nature of anti-Black racism in European Culture. Like racism against Muslims, anti-Black racism is part of a common–sense that goes unquestioned (Farris 2017). This juxtaposition of responses, however, and the differential critical attention attributed to these two modalities of racial prejudice, begs the question: does the feminist struggle for equality meet a limit-point when it comes to solidarity with the lives and desires of Muslim women?
Such a question urges us to return to Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) point in asking about the conditions under which the subaltern may come to speak. Taking this one step further, we might ask whether we even have the conditions to create relations of solidarity to be forged with our Muslim sisters, instead of speaking in their place and on their behalf. I am asking myself these questions after reading the following statement on social media in the wake of the Swiss ban, and on International Women’s Day:
As a Niqabi, I wouldn’t feel celebrated as a woman if I don’t fit the script, even by some Muslim sisters. You cannot be advocating for all women rights, until you start listening to us. We see beyond your words, and see how you perceive us in your actions […] The only time you come and stand beside us, is when it amplifies your following, or status, such as today, the ban on the Niqab. Am exhausted by the fake support we receive, and how we are belittled behind closed doors, even sometimes so openly too, indirectly. Beyond the veil, we are housewives, dreamers, Drs, scholars, changemakers, politicians and so much more. So tell me, how can I trust you to speak on my behalf as a niqabi, when you belittle the cloth that covers my face. (Thaminah, quoted with permission from the author)
The problem of support and representation posed by this young niqabi woman in relation to advocates of women’s rights, captures both eloquently and powerfully the dilemma I seek to amplify here. It points to the selective solidarities of mainstream white feminism and the frames of the ‘grievable life’ (Butler 2016) which determine the worthiness of solidarity and support.
The Swiss ban and the debate which have followed it, disclose the widely held sentiment that the wearing of the niqab or burqa is never something done by Muslim women on a voluntary or wilful basis. By wearing these garments, women are considered to be symbolically precluded from engaging on an agentic basis in public space by their male family members. Central to this articulation is its presupposed opposite, a ‘free’ and ‘autonomous’ subject whose liberty is measured against the index of exposed flesh. The concern with whether they made their decisions themselves is a performative manoeuvre, insofar as Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab are rarely consulted in decisions over the meaning of their attire and the intentions they hold in their wearing of the veil (Ghumkor 2019, Zakaria 2017). Their position, whatever it might be, is not perceived to be reliable. Instead, decisions are made on their behalf, positioning European states as praiseworthy for supposedly taking care of the well-being of Muslim women, for knowing what’s better for them, for constantly invoking other forms of domination and paternalism in the name of protecting them and providing them with their fundamental rights.
These garments of ‘unfreedom’ are also considered to jeopardise the security of nation-states as these women hide their identity from the guardians of liberty. If anyone had doubts, the always already dangerous Muslim body ought always be clearly identifiable, both visible and invisible as citizens and Muslims respectively. The Swiss campaign slogan ‘Stop extremism! Yes to the veil ban’ ties women’s clothing to ‘radical’ and ‘political Islam’, but in reality should be read as ‘stop any visibility of Muslimness’. Any signs of Muslimness is seen as refusing modernity and secularity in an otherwise public sphere governed by ‘reason, enlightenment, and the rule of law’ as well as the principles of ‘freedom, equality, tolerance and universal justice’ (Brown 2012, 5). In this case being visibly Muslim through so-called ‘extreme’ clothing is considered unjust and unequal and thus intolerable. At the root of this framing are the deployment of old colonial tropes that despite their frequent usage never exhaust themselves.
It is in this context that the value of feminism or the left that is well-adjusted to Islamophobia need to be questioned. Acknowledging that Western feminism as well as the left are no strangers to Islamophobia, we have to question their discomfort with Muslims, and particularly Muslim women. Is the silence towards racialised Muslim bodies a tacit form of agreement with the agenda of compromising on the urgency of anti-racist work in the name of women’s empowerment? Is it really the case that most feminists are uncomfortable with Islam and feminism alongside one another and thus decide not to engage in that constellation? Regardless of the position one takes in relation to these questions, by dismissing the importance of religious dress for some Muslim women, we risk ignoring and possibly even enabling state-sanctioned injustices.
Not only is the female body the ground upon which body politics are negotiated, it is once again the place where decisions for the women rather than by the women themselves. As Sherene Razack argued nearly 20 years ago: ‘the body of the Muslim woman, a body fixed in the Western imaginary as confined, mutilated, and sometimes murdered in the name of culture, serves to reinforce the threat that the Muslim man is said to pose to the West and is used to justify the extraordinary measures of violence and surveillance required to discipline him and Muslim communities’ (Razack 2004, 130). It is thus through the targeting of the female body and their clothing that the supposedly undeniable patriarchy of Muslim cultures can be disciplined. And in the meantime we might ask ourselves, what we can do? Do we stand by uncritically, without questioning the common-sense of Islamophobia and the narratives underpinning such laws and policies? Do we question how it is that such bodies which are deeply infantilised and cast as having no reason and speech can be humanised through the act of undressing, or at least dressing less?
Whilst I understand that many white feminists wish to remain quiet on matters that do not have anything to do with them, I am disappointed with the lack of solidarity and I wonder if there is no ground for solidarity with Muslim women? ‘Saving Muslim women’ from the veil so that they might be wearing ‘belly shirts and blue jeans’ (Abu-Lughod 2002, 785) is the opposite of solidarity and negates to see how desires, sensibilities are historically shaped (Mahmood 2011). It only calls forth one particular mode of being – one that is decidedly European in nature.
Is this silence a strategic move to shore up their own precarious positions within the structures of power that shape society? Or, does solidarity always have to fit a particular agenda and image of feminist freedom? Which is, in nuce, to ask whether feminist solidarity with Muslim women has limits because the ‘just’ cause of feminism as the reduction of women’s ‘oppression’ cannot be associated with an otherwise perceived ‘unjust’ Islam?
Feminist solidarity is always going to be complex, as it has to be built (Mouffe 1992), and the issue is that for many feminists there is a non-equivalence between their feminism with Islam, as there is no or very little recognition of ‘common interests’ (Mohanty 2003, 7), but that is not straightforwardly the case at all. bell hooks has argued that solidarity is an expression of women being united in their struggles despite their differences in race, class and sexuality (hooks 1986).
Whilst some comrades on the left may retort that Islam is a religion and therefore a matter of choice, different to class, sexuality or race, I want to argue instead, that the nature of Islamophobia as a racial structure, understands Muslimness as an object of racialisation in European modernity and its discourse. So whether solidarity is understood as an ‘affective orientation toward the other’, ‘a mode of communication’ or ‘a form of political alliance’ (Littler and Rottenberg 2020), the lack of these elements individually and all-together is worrying in relation to such events as those in Switzerland.
In one sense, far too many of us do not feel uneasy enough with the events that have taken place, and as a result have no desire to change this policing of Muslim women’s bodies. It is in this respect that it is not only the political right (radical and mainstream) and centre that is adopting a rhetoric of women’s rights and feminism against Islam, but also that feminists through their silence come to de facto express a rather ambivalent position when it comes to the struggles of Muslim women. That said, it should also be noted that some feminist groups supported the ban, and that some Swiss feminists actively opposed it. The Swiss activist group Les Foulards Violets have been strong feminist leaders in opposition to the ban.
bell hooks has suggested that it is only when women ‘actively struggle in a truly supportive way to understand our differences, to change misguided, distorted perspectives, [that] we [can] lay the foundation for the experience of political solidarity’ (hooks 1986, 138). Islamophobia contributes to those distorted perspectives, and the representation of the Muslim woman’s veiled body is central to that image. Solidarity, if it is to be worth it at all, must aim to dismantle structures of racialisation instead of reinforcing them. Although reality is always more complicated than any of us care to admit, we nonetheless owe it to all everyone, as feminists, to strive towards building relations of solidarity. Solidarity is the doing of feminism operating both across difference and geared towards an alternative egalitarian future.
Hasret Cetinkaya is a post-colonial feminist ethnographer working in the field of critical social-legal theory and human rights. She has recently completed her PhD at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway. Her research is on the self, ethics and power within the culture of human rights and the law. Hasret’s doctoral research examined the ways in which human rights discourse and liberal feminisms have reasoned about the phenomenon of ‘honour’ beyond ‘honour-based violence’. Hasret tweets @cet_has1 and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.