When Feminism & Islamophobia are Two Sides of the Same Coin

This post is a response to a question I got asked during my Instagram takeover of amaliah.com’s story (@thebrownhijabi). I mentioned my fascination with “the way liberal feminism colludes with islamophobia” and was then asked to elaborate – which I did, but which I want to do more now.

How do liberal feminism and Islamophobia work together?

First off, we need to define what I mean by “liberal feminism”. To me, this is the type of feminism that reduces the goals of feminism to “equality with men”, assuming “women” and “men” refer to two homogenous categories of people where “men” always have the upper hand over “women”. Such feminism doesn’t acknowledge inequalities between women and women at all, and due to its preoccupation with men>women it fails to consider that amongst men, too, there are inequities and oppressions. In fact, “equality feminism” takes a very normative, white woman as it’s unspoken subject searching for equality, and doesn’t recognise other oppressive power dynamics which structure the world and thus shape our gendered experiences – e.g. white supremacy/capitalism/etc.

That means to not fundamentally want to change the capitalist, racist, colonial, punitive world order we live in, but to want more chance of being the operators of its violent machinery.

In aiming for “equality with men” this sort of feminism also fails to critique the world’s problems on a larger scale or to demand a paradigm shift in the way we think about power because it solely asks for women to have what powerful men in the current power structures have. That means to not fundamentally want to change the capitalist, racist, colonial, punitive world order we live in, but to want more chance of being the operators of its violent machinery.  For example, Hillary Clinton becoming President would have been deemed a major achievement in the eyes of liberal feminism because it sees a woman take up a position of power usually retained by men. However, in this celebration there is no critique of the way power currently works in the world, no critique of the presidential power model, the violent neoliberalism of the United States, its global supremacy in historic and international dynamics of oppression, or the USA’s foreign policy. Without such critiques this sort of feminism celebrates some women accessing power in a violent world, at the expense of the women such violence is enacted upon – poor women, women of colour, disabled women, women in the countries the USA punishes and wars with, etc. etc. This is the feminism I’m referring to when I talk of “liberal feminism” – feminism with a normative white woman subject and her desire to, paraphrasing bell hooks’ words, become the dominator rather than disrupt relations of domination. (For more on what I do think feminism should look like check here.)

So how does this type of feminism collude with Islamophobia?

Well, let’s briefly recap what I mean by “islamophobia” first, too. I have previously suggested Islamophobia is more than interpersonal prejudice and instead “the formal, encoded and systematic understanding of Muslims as inherently criminal; the understanding that “Muslimness” is the cause of violence. This understanding means that the rights of Muslims can be eroded and violently violated… without much outcry from the general public. We can arrest and detain without charge, stop and search without conviction, etc”.

In light of this conceptualisation of Islamophobia as an accepted understanding of Muslims across key institutions in the West as Other, less than human, different from the norm, innately violent and thus deserving of all they face – how and what has this got to do with feminism?

Well, liberal feminism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin because both assume and proclaim two very similar (and connected) tenets which are crucial to the dehumanisation and Othering of Muslims that ultimately justifies Islamophobia. These are that:

1. The main oppression Muslim women face in the world comes from Muslim men and Islam. These two factors (often conflated and reduced to a vague “Muslim culture”) are seen to hold Muslim women back and remove their autonomy as well as deter their liberation more than any other single issue (racism, islamophobia, sexism, colonialism, foreign policy, stereotypes, border violence, xenophobia, etc.). This understanding of Muslim women carries colonial and orientalist framings into the present day, with the 2016 Casey Review into social integration in the UK, for example, concluding that “unequal treatment of women” in some communities in the UK stemmed from “cultural or religious values” – an explanation which does very little to explain women’s issues but more to paint “cultural and religious values” as inherently oppressive to Muslim women; reinforcing that their single biggest issue is their own culture/religion, which they require saving from.

2. Both liberal feminism and Islamophobia use this vague pinpointing of “patriarchal culture” as a basis to Other Islam and Muslims – suggesting sexism is something unique to them and a basis on which to differentiate Muslim people. Therefore, both end up weaponising their understanding of Muslim women as oppressed by Muslim men and Islam to subsequently attack Muslim men and Islam in the name of “women’s rights”. This harms Muslim men in particular but Muslims in general because it means that the following is used to justify Islamophobic practices: ‘because Muslims oppress their women, we now oppress Muslims. You’re misogyny justifies our dehumainsing you to surveil, detain and deport you as well as to enact violence upon foreign countries we consider to have that same “culture”’ (see the images/rhetoric around “saving women” during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan…). Obviously all these practices also negatively affect the very women they are somehow done in the name of protecting, too…

both end up weaponising their understanding of Muslim women as oppressed by Muslim men and Islam to subsequently attack Muslim men and Islam in the name of “women’s rights”.

What is the outcome of liberal feminism and Islamophobia making the same assumptions about Muslims that allow us to dehumanise them and justify violence against them?

Firstly, in a very basic sense it’s deeply concerning that Islamophobia is justified by a feminist banner; that violence against Muslims in general and Muslim men in particular is a way to liberate Muslim women. This is concerning not only because it is blatantly untrue (foreign occupation, war, bombs, drone-strikes, home-raids, surveillance, negative-stereotypes, dehumanisation, gendered islamophobic violence, Muslim women have abuse hurled at them, being kicked down stairs, being banned from wearing the clothes they want to wear, and etc are all “violence against women”!!!), but also because it 1) places misogyny as a problem only of Muslims, allowing the rampant misogyny in the West to go unheeded, but also 2) it ignores the racist, misogynistc, islamophobic, colonially-informed oppressions Muslim women face in their day to day lives in the West. It makes assumptions and talks about us, but does not listen to or adhere to our demands.

Moreover, a key (and dangerous) outcome of the collusion of both liberal feminism and Islamophobia is that Muslim women’s liberation becomes understood in a very narrow and unchanged framework that continues to oppress them, because it is basically argued that Muslim women’s liberation lies with becoming sexually available to white men. This often plays out in terms of the fascination and obsession with undressing and uncovering the body of the Muslim woman, but is also more broadly insinuated through the demand to assimilate into whiteness/secularism (the only Good Muslim Woman is an ex-Muslim woman). From research I did last year into how the British state perceives Muslim family units in Britain it is clear that their reproduction is seen as problematic because the children of such families are seen as “cultural Others”. To me then, the demand for assimilation is not only cultural but implicitly sexual –  a fantastical desire to “punish” Muslim men, to “take their women” and thus halt or even reverse the staining of white-Britishness – whilst simultaneously doing Muslim women the favour of “saving us” from Muslim men. (Fears around the racial boundaries of Britain’s whiteness threatened by men of colour are palpable throughout the last century.)

Pauline Hanson’s “burka stunt” in Australian parliament.

I want to reinforce this idea that liberal feminism and Islamophobia collude to suggest Muslim women’s oppression lies with becoming sexually available to white men because it plays out in increasingly violent ways today. Historically, imaginings of Muslim women have always had sexual overtones. For those of South Asian or Middle-Eastern descent there are tropes of the simultaneously sexually repressed, submissive woman, and the secretly hypersexual belly-dancer or karmasutra goddess. For those of African descent are tropes of the hypersexual, animalistic, sexually lascivious woman and simultaneously, the powerless slave subjected to domination. These multiple racist imaginings trap many types of Muslim women into sexual frameworks and colonial male gazes. And I believe that our bodies remain under such gazes today, too, because the way that Muslim women are treated by society, especially when we resist this desire for our sexual availability – through our bodies, selves or ideology – we are dealt with through domination in the patriarchal imagination.

What do I mean? Well, the Islamophobic act of a man ripping off a woman’s headscarf (to go with a familiar one) symbolises control over the Other and even punishment of her which I would argue is also guided by a sexually-charged male gaze aiming for subjugation and humiliation: domination of the Muslim woman in the patriarchal imagination. I remember Dr Irene Zempi telling me that in her research she found that women who wear the burka in Britain have routinely faced comments from men including, “take it off”, and “give us a flash”. Such comments carry out the exact function I am talking about – Islamophobic dehumanisation, humiliation and domination through a sexualised racist gaze which whilst clearly oppressive and violent, presents itself as “freeing”. “Take it off” as a comment levelled at Muslim women perfectly represents how both the feminist and the Islamophobe become complicit in our broader dehumanisation.

“Take it off” as a comment levelled at Muslim women perfectly represents how both the feminist and the Islamophobe become complicit in our dehumanisation

In recent years this can be seen also in the rise in demand for “hijab porn” including the particularly horrendous permutation of it dubbed, “refugee porn”. German researchers found that demand in Germany for this type of pornographic content has risen dramatically since 2015. To my mind this directly relates to the argument I am making about the collusion of liberal feminism and Islamophobia. Because both work together to dehumanise Muslim people on the assumed basis that Muslims are inherently misogynistic; they subsequently both frame Muslim women’s liberation in colonial, assimilationist language which is particularly sexualised. “Refugee porn” presents perhaps the extremity of where this logic leaves Muslim women. Pornography in general represents violent heterosexual fantasies of domination and degradation; “refugee porn” goes further then, representing the domination and violation of the racialised, exotic, already-traumatised, Other by the Proper Heterosexual Male Citizen: ‘The theme of most refugee porn is that of the mysterious, foreign woman who is seduced, conquered and dominated – mostly by white men‘. Vice report that, “demand for hijab porn is high. If you type the word into the search bar of Pornhub or xvideos, you’ll see thumbnail after thumbnail of porn featuring the headscarf” which indicates to me a representation of the truly victorious white conqueror: he violates the Othered woman’s body without even removing the symbol he has so longed for her to “take off”, in fact, the headscarf now becomes an exotic element of the interaction and increases the humiliation.

This very viscerally exemplifies the violence of the collusion of liberal feminism and Islamophobia to me. Both work together to suggest that the plight of Muslim women is the reason to dehumanise and persecute Muslims. (In the West it is one of the most crucial reasons – gender remaining the single most important point over which Muslims are most likely to be shunned and condemned). It leads to the conclusion that Muslim women’s only liberation lies in us becoming sexually available to the white male gaze (not in tackling islamophobia, racism or any of the overlapping supremacist systems that Muslim women’s positionality so well exposes) – and it simultaneously reveals the lie that hides in plain sight: that Europe/the West is devoid of misogyny.

Both work together to suggest that the plight of Muslim women is the reason to dehumanise and persecute Muslims.

Understanding the collusion of feminism and Islamophobia helps us to see the hypocrisy, irrelevance and violence of so much feminism. Here it becomes directly complicit in violence against women. To me this is not only dangerous, but a betrayal. It allows and justifies islamophobia on local and global scales, making it seem justified to those who are generally “liberal” because it is done in the name of women’s rights… and that is what I meant by the fact I am fascinated by the collusion of liberal feminism and islamophobia.

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