What Do You See? The Blinding Whiteness of Feminism

What Do You See? The Blinding Whiteness of Feminism

Warning: NSFW for artsy nudity.

I have been a self-identified feminist for longer than I have been a self-identified [insert any other label with which I currently associate myself here]. I also am of the belief that, in those immortal and eminently quotable words from Tiger Beatdown, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

Just as can be case with  ”anti-racism” and “social justice,” “intersectionality” can be something of an intellectual facade, a word that people use without actually working to actually integrate it into their worldview. Here is a quick and easy test to see if you actually think in intersectional terms.

[redacted image of a nude woman covering her genital area with the Quran]

Is it a picture of a depersonalized, headless female nude? Yet another representation of the exploitation of the female form? An example of a misguided attempt by a woman to use her sexuality to promote feminist ideals? And what of the caption as well as the placement of the Quran? Do they promote a unilaterally negative view of Islam? Indicate a Western woman bashing Islam instead of working on fixing gender issues in Western countries?

From the commonly-held white feminist perspective, i.e. one lacking in intersectionality and that focuses on Western gender issues to the detriment of all others, the answer is yes to all of the above. In that view, the picture represents a wrong-headed if well-meaning attempt at best and a hindering of feminist progress at worst. No doubt that a headless nude would rub someone from a Western gender context the wrong way. After all, out here, nudity is common and often presented in a way that robs agency from the person whose body is on display.

On the other hand, the Western constructs and problems around gender are not the only ones in existence, and this particular instance of nudity is tackling issues of gender that originate elsewhere.

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The image is of a person who is, like me, a female ex-Muslim, and was both captioned and posted by her. Unlike me, she was born and raised in Pakistan. As such, she has been in real danger ever since she went public with her deconversion. At the time the photo was taken, she chose to crop out her head for her own protection. To personalize her nude form by including her face for the satisfaction of the white feminist sensibilities regarding bodies would have put her very life at stake. People are frequently killed in Pakistan for far less in the way of what is considered to be an offense to Islam.

In terms of the nudity itself, with regards to the male gaze, her body is not presented in a particularly “sexy” pose: she is sitting fairly casually on the floor with no arched backs, bitten lips, or twisted hips in sight. To assume that her form is sexualized merely by not being covered by clothing speaks more to the viewer’s understanding of what female bodies are for than of the picture itself, or the woman in it, for that matter. Indeed, as she comes from a background where any hint of feminine shape or skin is considered seductive enough to drive men into a violently lustful frenzy, those who consider this picture to be pandering to the male gaze are aligning their views with the patriarchal oppression from which she hails.

Translation: "You won't be able to stop them, but you can protect yourself. He who created you knows what's best for you!"

Translation: “You won’t be able to stop them, but you can protect yourself. He who created you knows what’s best for you!”

Her critique of gender in Islam comes not from ignorance of it, but from immersion in a culture that defines itself by that particular religion. While other countries are “Muslim” or “Islamic” because they just so happen to have a large Muslim population, Pakistan was founded by Muslims as a Muslim country in rather deliberate fashion. Those promoting sexist laws and action there will invariably claim that what they do is in the name of Islam as justified by the Quran. If anyone has the right to say that Islam is misogynistic or the Quran problematic for women, it has to be a woman who has dealt with said sexism first-hand.

What of the nuance that I advocate as an ex-Muslim feminist atheist? It goes both ways. All Muslims aren’t sexists, but quite enough of them are that taking and posting a nude picture is an incredibly radical act for a Pakistani ex-Muslim woman, as it was for Aliaa Mahdy and, more recently, for Amina Tyler.

The problem with the lack of intersectionality in feminism has a long and deep history, from Ain’t I a Woman to The Feminine Mystique to Slutwalk. What are often framed as “women’s concerns” or “feminist issues” are, more accurately, the concerns of white women, especially white middle-to-upper-class women. Most attempts to broaden this focus are met with concerns regarding the of “dilution” of feminism, as if gender were the only issue that affects women.

Women of color don’t have the luxury of focusing on issues of gender without facing the related issues of race, religion, culture, class, and so on. Many of us live at the intersection of multiple oppressive forces. Depressingly, two entire decades after Audre Lorde‘s death, one of those forces originates with well-meaning, hand-wringing, pearl-clutching white feminists who want to claim us as part of their sisterhood without being truly inclusive about it.

True inclusivity would have meant that any feminist looking the image would consider who made it, to what it was responding, and why it appears the way it does before declaring it an example of a woman doing feminism wrong.

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

19 Comments

  1. I’m a well-meaning feminist from a WASP background and I thought “handbook for slavemasters of females” was a complex and powerful statement to unpack (note that as presented, it doesn’t blame the Quran for the harmful actions of its followers, but rather reflects how conservative Muslims use it as a symbol). I also wondered what the reaction would be of feminists who are still practicing Muslims. I wondered what the artist meant by the “source of femininity” – I don’t consider my own naked body to be the source of my femininity.

    Has anyone actually argued that it was either wrong-headed or detrimental to feminist progress? I’d like to know who so I can avoid their blog/twitter.

  2. Although there are a lot of well meaning white feminists when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, you’re right the issues in the forefront mainly effect middle class white women. Is there a way for whites to support women of diverse social classes, races, ethnicities, etc without looking like they are saving them or condescending to them?

  3. At the peak of third wave feminism, when I came of age. (Early 90s for you youngins). We felt that feminism was not insulated from sexuality, religion and ethinic background. Unfortunately reading “All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave: Black Women’s Studies” was only a drop in the bucket to understand how feminism effect nonwhite women. I feel like this is the focus of fourth wave feminism (if you could call this that). Understanding the way that women world wide and not just judeo-Christian backgrounds have to fight for equality differently.

    Thanks for a great post.

  4. Heina,

    Its seems to me that most of the prominent feminists are white. At least the ones I know of. I don’t know if its racism in the feminist community or if its just because most people in the west are white and thus most western feminists are going to be white. By the way, I saw that Pakistani Ad before and its translation. I’m certain that like me, you find it very offensive. It makes me glad we have the separation of Church and State in the US. Our religious right may not endorse forcing women to completely cover themselves by the also justify violating people’s rights, including women, based on their interpretation of their religion.

    • Wellllll, as a brown guy, I can tell you that Western society tends to select heroes that are white. If you’ve ever watched a movie like Prince of Persia, The Passion of the Christ, the Last Samurai, or many martial-arts style flicks, you’ll notice that either there’s a white protagonist or some historical figure in the movie, who would definitely not be European is played by someone who IS European in background. In my view this is because white is glorified as a standard of beauty & normalcy in Western society, and both whites and many non-whites alike have internalized this, and so society tends to prop white people up more than non-white people as figureheads and leaders. And well, when whites are propped up, they talk about the issues they understand most, which are white issues.

      So when you’re colored, and you walk into a community where most people are white talking about issues that mainly affect them, it’s kinda daunting. Trying to be a voice for colored issues in a mostly white field usually presents a situation where not many are listening or they listen, but don’t get it (I cannot count the times I’ve heard someone say they’re “post-racial” to me when I start talking about race issues….). People don’t mean malice by it usually (say as some misogynists at TAM do towards Rebecca), but god, people have a hard time just shutting up and listening to what you have to say. And if you’ve done this time & time again with what you feel is little progress, often you might decide it’s just too frustrating or too intimidating to seriously participate in these communities.

      So, numbers probably play somewhat of a role, but the white-is-normal status quo also has a very very strong influence on minority participation in causes like feminism.

      I’ve noticed this here even at Skepchick, and I’m REALLY glad that Heina finally came forward to say something about it.

    • An example would be, the Skepchick post about the more than men project, where they specifically encouraged white guys to contribute to project as to why we should have more diversity in the skeptic communites. (skepchick.org/2012/01/more-than-men-a-diversity-project/)

      And to me that was kind of offensive, because it seemed to miss the point that minority guys can be just as sexist. I saw that and thought to many of my Indian male relatives who are varying degrees of sexist who would see white guys blabbing on about being more diverse and think “ah, these are just a bunch of white guys talking about white issues, he doesn’t understand me” and completely miss the point of diversity. And so when I raised this issue, I kinda felt like I was being white-splained about why the issue I raised wasn’t valid…

      Someone literally told me:

      The project is about getting people involved who aren’t personally affected by things like racism and sexism to speak out on behalf of those who are. And getting involved and doing something to affect change.

      Speak out on behalf of me??????? What?! And this is what I’m trying to say here, when you raise minority issues anywhere (whether within feminism, or at taco bell to a friend), people generally don’t listen to what you have to say, and instead try to talk at you. And what needs to happen within feminism and elsewhere is that people who don’t experience the specific minority issues others do, need to stop talking and LISTEN to those others.

    • “Its seems to me that most of the prominent feminists are white”
      There are plenty of prominent feminists of color. But, as dr. dr. states “Western society tends to select heroes that are white. ”

      ” most western feminists are going to be white. ”
      ^ white feminists sometimes create an environment that makes women of color feel unwelcome or irrelevant by only focusing on upper middle class white women’s issues. This is how womanism came about, for instance.

      • There are many issues here with race and activism (this was an issue in Occupy too…):
        - When mostly white issues are the focus, many minorities feel like they just don’t want to participate because they’re not understood/their issues are missed
        - When you bring up minority issues people tend to whitesplain you with things like “oh that’s just because there are more white people” or “well I think the solution should be this…” even in feminism. Which shows to me that people don’t learn their privilege so easily, even when they’re not the most privileged group. (This applies to me as well, I’ve caught myself mansplaining or thinsplaining people…)
        - The target of feminist activism is often the white male and problems white males create. This often misses the issues that minority women suffer from white males & within their own families and communities (for instance, I can tell you indian women often suffer sexism in distinctly different ways than white women…)
        - White people think they can often speak for minorities

        I quote again via the more than men discussion

        The point is privilege. I’m white and male, you are mixed race and male. Society gives me more privilege than you and that is wrong. We’re aiming to subvert privilege and bring awareness of privilege to people who have it. Straight, white, able-bodied men have an easier time ignoring a lot more than someone who hasn’t hit the privilege bingo so hard. We are targeting them harder for that reason. They (we) have more investment in the status quo than almost anyone.

        I’m not trying to bash Skepchick here at all, I’m just trying to point out that racism is encoded everywhere, so nowhere is immune. While quite noble, the above statement misses any consideration for what minorities had to say about speaking on diversity. And this is what can be frustrating, white activists mean well, but they often really miss the mark on what minorities issues actually are or how minorities feel, and telling them this can either be a long process, or spark blowback. And eh, sometimes you just don’t want to deal with this.

  5. Thanks for an interesting post (actually, thanks for all of your posts – I keep on reading them but I haven’t commented on any until now). I’m swedish, and I’ve tried to raise similar topics in swedish feminist forums but it seems like people are completely uninterested of feminism outside of the white western world (including un-westernized cultures within our own borders). Also, many swedes seem to be too worried about being called racists so they can’t even bother discussing it. Do you have any tips on feminist bloggers/organizations about this topic?

  6. Sikivu Hutchinson at Black Skeptic’s blog wrote a post on Ida B. Wells recently that discusses this issue too. It is well worth reading.

    Criticaldragon, I think that is an easy answer. Of course there is racism in the feminist community. Racism is enculturated. I internalized racism right along with heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism and misogyny as a child. I didn’t know it. I fought it when I was able to recognize it, but that insidious stuff gets in anyway. It is in every community, even the most well meaning.

    • Handbasketexptess,

      Which is unfortunate really.

  7. “What are often framed as “women’s concerns” or “feminist issues” are, more accurately, the concerns of white women, especially white middle-to-upper-class women. Most attempts to broaden this focus are met with concerns regarding the of “dilution” of feminism, as if gender were the only issue that affects women.”
    ^Thank you for writing this. Thank you for this whole post! This is the reason I struggle to call myself a feminist as a woman of color. I definitely think race/culture/socio-economic status etc are far too overlooked in feminist circles. Please don’t stop writing about this. :)

  8. “While other countries are “Muslim” or “Islamic” because they just so happen to have a large Muslim population, Pakistan was founded by Muslims as a Muslim country in rather deliberate fashion.”

    Likewise, Israel was founded by Jews as a Jewish country in rather deliberate fashion. If one is illegitimate, so is the other. Can you discuss this too?

    • That isn’t at all part of my focus or within my scope as a blogger. There are plenty of critics of Israel and Zionism who can speak to such matters better than I can.

      • I understand. My actual point is that I know of no anti-Zionists that also attack Pakistan for its existence as a Muslim state founded to separate its people from mostly Hindu India. Proving that they are more biased towards Islam and against Jews than any just person should be.

        As an non-theist, I’m one of those “a plague on both your houses” people that gets it from both sides.
        End of rant.

        • I actually do know someone, who happens to be Pakistani, who regularly calls Pakistan a “Fake Country” and thinks it is ridiculous they are not all one country. But she’s not a prominent blogger either.

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