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.
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.
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.
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.