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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Brown and white men and other stories ...

Courtesy of Washington Post

A cartoon that appeared recently in Washington post reminded me of a topic I have often discussed in classes and I have written about in my book Islam in Europe, notably the construction of the Muslim woman as subaltern.
The cartoon powerfully points out the aporia of the woman over whose body two men, representing ‘Islamic traditionalism’ and ‘European secularism’ respectively are challenging each other.
Gayatri Spivak has pointed out this aporia in her discussion of widow self immolation in colonial India:
"The relationship between the imperialist subject and the subject of imperialism is at least ambiguous. The Hindu widow ascends the pyre of the dead husband and immolates herself upon it. This is widow sacrifice… The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of "White men saving brown women from brown men." White women-from the nineteenth-century British Missionary Registers to Mary Daly-have not produced an alternative understaning. Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgIa for lost origins: "The women actually wanted to die."
The two sentences go a long way to legitimize each other. One never encounters the testimony of the women's voice-consciousness. Such a testimony would not be ideology-transcendent or "fully" subjective, of course, but it would have constituted the ingredients for producing a countersentence.
As one goes down the grotesquely mistranscribed names of these women, the sacrificed widows, in the police reports included in the records of the East India Company, one cannot put together a "voice." The most one can sense is the immense heterogeneity breaking through even such a skeletal and ignorant account (castes, for example, are regularly described as tribes).”
I do hope some of my students will recognize in this cartoon some of the points we have been making on the notion of the 'subaltern'. The burkini controversy, just as the burka one and the headscarf one before it should prompt us to peer behind the arguments of those who want to ban and thus regulate, manage. and manipulate women's bodies as well as those who want to utilize the burkini in their own projects of constructing the pious 'Muslim woman'. In recent years, debates about European Muslim women have relied on similar tropes that reproduce aporia, disempowerment and, effectively, the colonization of their bodies.
The debate about the dress codes of European Muslim women and their acceptability is not a novel one. Muslim notions of modesty, have often been subverted and colonized by patriarchal practices seeking to restrict women's autonomy. The issue mobilized social forces inspired by liberalism and feminism and generated valuable criticisms of patriarchy in Muslim communities. On the other hand, the 'out of place' look of covered women in European public spaces has provided fertile ground for the transformation of the issue of female Muslim attire into a potent mobilizing symbol for xenophobic, right wing forces only too happy to jump into the bandwagon of the secular, liberal and feminist opposition to the practice of covering and, often, to incorporate these discourses into their own arguments.

In all these debates the proponents of the ban use arguments that identify in covering patriarchal oppressive practices that are detrimental to the dignity of Muslim women, or safety and security problems or, finally, barriers to intercultural communication and social cohesion.

What is remarkable however, and should be noted, is that this debate is also one conducted over the absence of the women in question, as it largely leaves the affected women in a position of aporia, voiceless and powerlessness in the midst of a cacophony of opinions offered by western politicians, human rights activists and feminists on the one hand, and Muslim community leaders on the other: veiled women constitute the battlefield between abstract discourses of emancipation and discourses of cultural autonomy that emphasize the lack of competence of the part of liberals and feminists to criticize an essentially reified 'muslim' culture and tradition.

Muslim women come in all sizes, shapes and with all kinds of voices. Secular, religious, fanatical, moderate, modest and we need to hear them.

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