Beyond “Equal Representation”: Some Thoughts on Racebending Villains of Color in White-Dominated Sci-fi and Comic Book Films

startrek1SPOILERS AHEAD: Don’t read further if you plan on seeing “Iron Man 3″ and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

I remember when “Batman Begins” was in development, I felt uncomfortable learning that Ra’s Al-Ghul, an Arab villain from the Batman mythology, was set to be the antagonist. The idea of an iconic American superhero battling an Arab terrorist sounded like a perfect set-up to propagate America’s so-called “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pitting Batman against an Arab enemy during a time when real-life Arabs and Muslims are increasingly regarded as “threats against western civilization” didn’t seem like a coincidence to me at the time, nor does it now (I’m not going to delve into the disturbing fascist, capitalist, and pro-police state politics in “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” but there have been many excellent critiques which you can read here, here, and here).

When audiences discovered Liam Neeson, an Irish actor, ended up being Ra’s Al-Ghul, my initial reaction was mixed. On one hand, I was relieved that we didn’t see a stereotypical dark-skinned Arab man blowing up Gotham city, but on the other, I knew what this character was meant to represent: Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, etc. Not too long after the movie was released, I read some comments on discussion boards where some fans were upset that Ra’s Al-Ghul wasn’t played by an Arab actor. Several years later, I heard the same sentiment expressed when a white actor was selected to play the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” (the character is Latino in the comic books). Most recently, outrage has been directed at the casting decisions for Iron Man 3’s “The Mandarin” and Star Trek’s “Khan Noonien Singh” (pictured above), played by Ben Kingsley and Benedict Cumberbatch, respectively.

I have enormous respect for those who advocate for equal and fair representation for people of color in mainstream western film and television. Mainstream media is a powerful tool/weapon wielded by the interlocking systems of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. For this reason, it is challenging for men and women actors of color to find prominent roles in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Even more difficult is finding roles that don’t perpetuate racialized and gendered stereotypes. With this in mind, I can understand why advocacy groups protest against casting decisions that choose white actors to play iconic villains of color. When roles for people of color are so limited and scarce in an industry dominated by white actors, producers, writers, and directors, I can only imagine how difficult job-searching must be.

I also recognize that villains of color like Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, Bane, “The Mandarin,” and Khan Noonien Singh are beloved by many fans, including fans of color. Indeed, when I watched “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” it sounded ridiculous and even laughable when a white man declared his name to be “Khan Noonien Singh,” but I don’t believe having a South Asian/Desi actor playing him would solve the racism here. Similarly, an Arab actor playing Ra’s Al-Ghul would not challenge anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes (quite the opposite!). The problem is with these characters themselves and the fact that they exist in the first place. Exoticized names like “Ra’s Al-Ghul,” “The Mandarin,” and “Khan Noonien Singh” are not real names Arabs, East Asians, and South Asians would ever have for themselves. Any South Asian who looks at a name like “Khan Noonien Singh” would find it absurd. It looks as if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was combining different South Asian surnames to make something “exotic sounding.” It’s yet another example of white writers creating inaccurate and exoticized names for their characters of color, while also portraying them as stereotypical, racialized villains.

Personally, I don’t want to see another brown-skinned terrorist character in a Hollywood film, especially in a blockbuster like “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” In a “Star Trek” episode, Khan Noonien Singh is described as “probably” being a Sikh (because what we really need to see right now is a Sikh terrorist blowing up London). Aside from the obvious vilification that is at work here, when one considers the increasing anti-Muslim violence and terror that is afflicted upon Muslims and Sikhs, it is even more offensive to see brown characters relegated to playing terrorists (even if they are played by white actors). Similarly, I never wanted Ra’s Al-Ghul or Talia Al-Ghul to be played by Arabs. At the same time, I don’t like the fact that white actors are used as stand-ins for villains of color who have exoticized South Asian and Arabic names. The problem is with the source material and how and why these characters were created. A lot of times, we understand these characters with respect to the story and the worlds they inhabit, but I think it’s important to go beyond that and question the context in which these characters were created.

An excellent post about “Iron Man 3″ points out that “The Mandarin” was created in 1964 and was used to perpetuate “the whole ‘Iron Man as capitalist versus Evil Chinese Communist’ mindset.” Patriotism and pro-war propaganda aren’t new to American comic books, nor are they going away any time soon (e.g. Frank Miller’s Islamophobic “Holy Terror” book). I haven’t done too much research on the context in which Ra’s Al-Ghul was created, but descriptions of him on the DC comics database states that he is an “international immortal eco-terrorist” who was born to a tribe of nomads “somewhere in Arabia.” When one sees the noticeable anti-Iran propaganda in “Batman: A Death in the Family,” it’s hard to imagine that Ra’s Al-Ghul being Arab and a terrorist is something coincidental (sidenote: the writers demonstrated they clearly don’t know the difference between Iranians and Arabs in that book).

I’m not saying people of color shouldn’t play villains in these stories, but I also think the following question needs to be considered seriously: where do we not see people of color portrayed as villains? If I wanted to see brown and black people vilified, all I need to do is turn on CNN. The demonization of African-Americans, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, and other communities of color have been well documented by countless anti-racist writers, scholars, and activists. Do we really need to see more villains who look like us and our families? I get that villains like Khan are respected and admired by fans and, yes, it is racist for filmmakers to assume that people can only sympathize with him if he is played by a white actor. I found myself sympathizing with his character, too, but at the end of the day, he is an “invisible” South Asian character who is a terrorist. This is why it’s so frustrating and upsetting – it loops back to the stereotype that brown people are already locked into.

When “Prince of Persia” came out, I joined the voices of other bloggers and fans of the video game who spoke out against the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role. It is true that “Prince of Persia” is an Orientalist fantasy written by a white man, but I still felt it would have been powerful to see an Iranian actor play a heroic lead role – something that is extremely rare, unlike villainous roles. The decision to cast a white man was a harsh reminder that (1) the majority of these characters in popular western science fiction, fantasy, and comic book stories are created by white male writers, and (2) Orientalism will always construct “the Orient as the West’s other” and therefore belonging to the West. As Edward Said said, Orientalism is not only inaccurate and dishonest, but also “a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the ‘Orient.'” In other words, when applied here, a white man is cast to play the prince of Persia because the Orientalist owns this character and the world in which he lives. White people are cast to play Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, and Khan Noonien Singh because they are creations based upon racialized, gendered, and exoticitized constructions of the “Other,” therefore owned by their white creators and reproduced in whatever manner they wish.

I’ve had this conversation with a few friends, but I was pleasantly surprised with what “Iron Man 3″ did with “The Mandarin.” By no means is “Iron Man 3″ devoid of being racist and problematic, but I thought it was really clever how they literally dismantled “The Mandarin” character. For half of the film, we were led to believe that “The Mandarin” was a Chinese, yet “Arab-looking,” terrorist who wished death upon western civilization, but it is later discovered that he was just a British actor being used by a white male villain named Aldrich Killian. The British actor, played by Ben Kingsley, didn’t even have a clue that people were being killed. In other words, “The Mandarin” simply does not exist as a character in the film (worth noting is that when the director Shane Black was asked about “The Mandarin” back in 2011, he replied by dismissing the character as a “racist caricature”). What Aldrich Killian did was deliberately create an Orientalist caricature of a “foreign” villain that American society would fear and feel threatened by. The real threat didn’t come from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Syria, which are all mentioned as possibilities by Tony Stark and his friends, but rather from a white man in Miami. It seemed like the filmmakers were trying to hold up a mirror for America and commenting on how easy it is for people to believe that a racist caricature like “The Mandarin” (who is an Orientalist mix of different cultures) is actually real. I also felt that the director was essentially saying that a character like “The Mandarin” is so ridiculous and racist (his name alone is appalling enough) that he shouldn’t exist to begin with.

What’s also interesting to note is that a lot of white fans have been complaining about how “The Mandarin” was ruined (their rage about this can be seen/read everywhere from YouTube videos to blog posts to discussion boards). After the film was over, I heard a young white man sitting behind us express how angry he was about “The Mandarin.” He said, “Shane Black f***ed this movie up! The Mandarin is not like that in the comics, he’s an evil Asian guy! He’s supposed to be Asian!” I couldn’t help but think about how disturbing it was that people like him were angry because, what, they didn’t get to see another “Yellow Peril” narrative? We don’t need more “Yellow Peril” movies (we’ve already seen a couple of them released this year: “Red Dawn” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” Click here and here if you can stomach reading the racist tweets people posted after watching both of these films). One of my favorite responses to these complaints comes from someone with the username “Whatever,” who wrote:

“-sniffle- I didn’t get my outrageously racist villain because he was instead revealed to be a powerless figurehead created by a white man playing on the xenophobic tendencies of the United States. I’m so upset. Wah. -_-“

Is this message in “Iron Man 3″ going to end Islamophobia? Certainly not. It doesn’t erase the other nationalistic and racist elements in the film, like that horrible scene involving Muslim women wearing niqabs (which is why I won’t call “Iron Man 3″ an anti-racist film). I understand the argument that erasing “The Mandarin” character would also mean erasing an opportunity for an Asian actor, but why don’t the filmmakers open non-stereotypical roles for these actors? The sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book genre in American film is overwhelmingly white, but God forbid if people of color start filling roles for characters who have always been imagined as white (we all remember what happened when some “Hunger Games” fans found out that Rue was black). What would happen if Batman was black? Or if Superman was brown? Or if the “X-Men” films centered on Storm instead of Wolverine? Or if the lead character for the next “Star Wars” film was a woman of color? Why do people of color have to settle for villains or supporting characters or the-black-person-dies-first character? (it still happens – remember “X-Men: First Class”?)

While I respect those who advocate against the racebending of villains of color, I think further steps need to be taken. The framework of “equal representation” for people of color leaves many potential problems unchecked and unexamined. For instance, when “Argo” was released, there were blog posts that voiced outrage over Ben Affleck, a white man, playing a character who is Latino in real life. However, nothing was said in these posts about the pervasive Islamophobia and demonization of Iranians existing throughout the film. Similarly, if we focus solely on “equal representation,” we overlook the racism that it is engrained in these villains of color. We need to move beyond “equal representation” and recognize characters like Khan Noonien Singh, Ra’s Al-Ghul, “The Mandarin,” and other villains of color as racist caricatures. We need to challenge the writers who are creating these villains and telling these stories. We need to challenge how these racialized and vilifying stereotypes fit into larger discourses in society, as well as the role they play in perpetuating racism, sexism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. We need to challenge why these characters exist in the first place.

It’s because people of color deserve more than “equal representation” in western science fiction and fantasy stories. They need better, dignified, non-stereotypical, honest, and unapologetic stories that highlight upon their experiences. They need stories that don’t tokenize them or pretend that things like racism don’t exist. They need stories where they are not only centered, but also radically challenge and disrupt these white-dominated genres. These kind of stories are told and need to be told by people of color themselves.

UPDATE: Coco made these important points in the comments, which I wanted to share here. Re-sharing with permission!:

“great post! I want to add on to your last point, which is that fair representation can only occur when we tell our own stories where we are not caricatures of our race but actual human beings. But the way racism is entrenched in western media and societies, it is not that non problematic narratives involving non-white people don’t exist, they simply aren’t heard because they aren’t promoted, financed, etc in the same way as white dominated narratives and so are forever left in the margins. Power lies in the hands of the capitalist racist hetro patriachy and the mainstream media is one way it perpetuates itself.”

When Men on the Left Refuse to See Their Sexism

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post cites examples of misogynistic language, gender slurs, sexual objectification, and other forms of sexist oppression.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article on Vice that was oddly titled, “You’re a Pussy If You Think There’s a War on Men.” It seemed clear that the author, Harry Cheadle, was referring to an awful “reverse sexist” and anti-feminist article about “The War on Men,” which asserts that women are to blame for the “dearth of good men” and must “surrender to their nature” while letting “men surrender to theirs.” Cheadle writes in defense of feminism and exposes the absurdity of claiming that men are “oppressed” by women. While I agree with his arguments that men need to stop blaming and fearing women, the sexist use of the word “pussy” in his title couldn’t be overlooked. After a brief conversation with friends who also found it offensive, I decided to write an e-mail to the author. I expressed overall support for his post and agreed that men need to be held accountable for their sexism, but I also pointed out that using the word “pussy” as a slur to characterize men as “cowardly” and “weak” is still misogynistic because it relies on degrading a woman’s body. It reinforces the sexist logic that being called a woman or, in this case, a body part of a woman, is always negative, demeaning, and shameful. It reminds us that in order for men to feel truly insulted, they must be compared to women because women, as heteropatriarchy teaches us, are weaker and inferior to men. I mentioned in my e-mail that I had no problem with calling men out on their laziness, lack of accountability, and insecurities. However, using the word “pussy” to describe their fear of women is counter-productive and perpetuates sexist attitudes.

I never heard back from him, but a few days later, a friend of mine noticed a status update on Cheadle’s public Facebook wall*, which read:

Just got an email from someone who A) assumed I was an ally in the “feminist struggle” B)Took issue with my use of the word “pussy” in my article “You’re a Pussy if You Think There’s a War on Men” and C) informed me that “the term is not only misogynistic, but also inaccurate since the vagina is actually quite tough, not weak.” asldkfjalsjf adlsj foiasj doia e

When it was asked on the comment thread about whether or not he identified as an ally, Cheadle responded, “I just hate whiners and knee-jerk anti-feminists. I don’t really feel that I’m a part of the whole feminist enterprise, and I don’t really want to be.”

Not sure what he meant by “feminist enterprise,” but I was taken aback when I read these comments because I felt that I was being supportive of his article’s overall message. The quote he used from my e-mail (point C) was actually me paraphrasing common anti-sexist responses to those who equate the vagina with “weakness.” I also pointed out in my e-mail that women have done a lot of work on gendered insults and the impact they have on society. What I noticed the most, however, was his refusal to acknowledge the sexism in his title, which he never chose to change.

I share the above as an example of something I want to discuss in a broader context: sexism and misogyny from men in Leftist spaces and their refusal to hold themselves accountable, even when they are called out on it. What does it mean when a man speaks in defense of feminism, but then, after being informed of his sexism, rejects being an ally in order to absolve himself of any accountability? What are the implications for women who self-identify as feminist when men can easily reject feminism or disassociate from it to excuse and normalize their own sexism? In this post, I will discuss how this refusal of accountability contributes to violence against women, beginning with the usage of misogynistic language, then addressing the various manifestations of sexist oppression, and concluding with points on doing work to end this violence.

1. Misogynistic Language

Whether we are men who self-identify as anti-racist, advocate against homophobia, hold leadership positions in radical movements, rightly express outrage against right-wing misogynists and patriarchy at large, write articles that condemn all forms of injustice, or all of the above, none of this gives us a free pass on sexism, including sexist language. Gendered insults like “pussy,” “cunt,” “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” etc. are so normalized and acceptable that we hear them in classrooms, workplaces, activist groups, and from our friends and colleagues. In mainstream media, the frequent and increased use of the “b” word on prime-time TV shows over the past decade only reinforces this acceptability. Even in popular video games like Batman: Arkham City, women characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are repeatedly called the “b” word by both good and bad male characters (and when women gamers address sexism in gaming, many men respond by trivializing the slurs and making misogynistic attacks). The pervasiveness and normalization of misogynistic language is not simply limited to particular movies, games, songs, or novels, but rather reflective of the sexist and patriarchal values that shape society. These sexist values, as bell hooks explains, are “created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

There is a long violent history of these words being used to shame, exploit, persecute, rape, and murder women, especially women of color, who face racism and misogyny simultaneously.  Sikivu Hutchinson explains that linking the word “bitch” with “bad girls” has strong racial connotations since “black women have always been deemed ‘bad’ in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for pornographic exploitation.” Azjones0210 mentions in her blog post that the Oxford dictionary includes a definition that states “bitch” is a “black slang” for “woman.” She elaborates:

[O]ur culture has attached the word “bitch” to the character of a black woman so many times that it deserves to be integrated into our formal language system. Regardless of the word “slang” existing within the definition, it is still there. This is not present for other racial groups in the way it is present for black women. This says to the world that when I walk down the street, and people see me and identify me as black, it is acceptable to connect the word “bitch” to me and everything that it carries way before I even open my mouth or complete any sort of action.

AF3IRM, a feminist and anti-imperialist organization whose membership identifies as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” addressed the history of the word “slut” for women of color and how it continues to be used against them:

This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

When white men and men of color who proclaim to be “progressive” and “anti-oppression” refuse to stop using misogynistic language, they participate in another form of violence against women and end up damaging activist spaces that are supposed to be safe. A typical response is to blame women: “But women say these words, too!” Another excuse is that they were using the “b” word as a “compliment” in a “reclaimed context.” A couple of points need to be addressed here: (1) Some women of color and white women believe in reclaiming gender slurs, and some disagree. (2) Whether or not the women in our lives say these words, men should never say them. A woman saying the “b” word compared to a man saying it is very different. Given the history and present day realities I mentioned above, men are in no position to “reclaim” those words nor do they have any right to tell women not to say them. I’ve seen white men and men of color who self-identify as anti-racist use the “b” word in ways to exert dominance over others, including other men (e.g. “Man up, bitch!”), or to “humorously” refer to a group of male and female friends (e.g. “Got a new phone, send me your numbers, bitches!”) None of this is “ok,” no matter what the “intent” is.

When describing racist and/or homophobic women, there are men with progressive politics, whether white or of color, heterosexual or gay, who somehow think it is permissible to use misogynistic language and slurs. Again, this is unacceptable. We need to go beyond “restraining ourselves” from using these words. Instead, we need to eliminate misogynistic language from our vocabulary and challenge the ways in which this language has shaped our perception and attitudes towards women. This doesn’t negate the activist work we already do nor does it diminish the racism of racist women, but rather calls for us to work against sexist oppression and take responsibility for unlearning the serious ways in which we’ve internalized sexist socialization.

2. Men on the Left Perpetuating Sexist Oppression

In addition to misogynistic language, sexual harassment, rape, and the silencing of women is disturbingly common in Leftist spaces. In a hostile white supremacist and heteropatriarchal climate where many women, especially women of color, cannot call the police because they do not want to strengthen the state or be further victimized by it, working collectively against misogyny and gender violence within activist movements is crucial. If a male activist threatens a woman, or follows her home, or sexually harasses her in a meeting or a rally, or tries to silence and shame her, or rapes her, this man must be held accountable. What’s disturbing is how white men and men of color appoint themselves as “leaders” and use their “activist credibility” or “celebrity” status to hide and excuse their own sexism. On one hand, there are male activists who reject feminism, as discussed above, but then there are men who consciously insert themselves into feminist discourse and assert authority over it. Hugo Schwyzer, for instance, persistently defines himself as a “male feminist,” yet doesn’t see the harm he causes when dismissing his history of engaging in sexual relations with students or writing about how he almost murdered his ex-girlfriend and then made himself the “hero” for not following through with it. Angus Johnston of Student Activism describes this crime as an act of gendered violence and explains that “in all his (Schwyzer’s) writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today.”

When writing about “slutwalk,” Schwyzer described his role as “herding sluts” and then gave racist responses to criticism from women of color. Elsewhere, Schwyzer wrote an outrageous article that tried to justify degrading sex acts against women (read Tiger Beatdown’s important response to his post). By declaring himself a “feminist” and advertising himself (as seen on his website) as an “author, speaker, professor” who “shatters gender myths,” Schwyzer dangerously tries to legitimize his sexism as feminist discourse. Refusing to check his white male privilege and power, which has undoubtedly contributed to his “celebrity” status, Schwyzer allows other men to see his behavior and beliefs as “feminism.” When it is taken into account that Schwyzer proudly sees himself as “paternalistic,” it isn’t surprising that he deflects criticism so defensively. His refusal to see this violence is evident in his own words:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

I have seen similar refusal from white men and men of color that I’ve come in contact with. Last year, I wrote a post, “Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions,” where I mentioned a male photography “activist” who took an invasive, zoomed-in photo of a woman’s body and shared it on his Facebook for public viewing. When white men and men of color left despicable and sexually objectifying comments, I was alarmed to see one of my “friends,” a man of color who asserts himself as a “leader” in his local activist community, participating in this objectification. When I and another male friend/ally wrote to him about this, he responded by denying that anything ever happened. We went back to the photo and noticed that he had deleted his comment. We and a few other friends (women and men) who saw the comment earlier must have been “seeing things” (sarcasm). After confronting him on this, he went on about how his friend, the man who took the photo, is an ally in anti-racist struggle and has even gotten arrested for taking photos of the police. The troubling implication seemed to be that if a man does important social justice work and got arrested several times, it somehow “erases” his misogyny and the harm he caused by sexually objectifying women.

Along with shamelessly lying that he ever commented on the photo, this man never took action against the photographer. Despite the messages my friends and I sent to people in our network and asked them to report the image, it still remained posted. A couple of weeks later, this same man commented on another photo, this time of a woman modeling in a bikini (which appeared on my news feed even though the person who posted it is not on my friend’s list). As men left perverted comments, he encouraged their objectification by saying: “Be careful. some of the puritanical leftists will gouge our eyes out. we must remain serious at all times. after all, we are activists. humor is banned at all times :)” (smiley icon in original).

When friends and I wrote to him and voiced our outrage, we never received a reply. Some of us, including myself, deleted him, but still see his hypocritical “anti-patriarchy” comments posted on mutual friend’s walls. I sent out messages to many of these mutual friends and while some were definitely outraged, others excused his behavior due to his activist work and “leadership” role. So, men who perpetuate sexual objection or other forms of sexist oppression can get away with it just because they do “important work” overall? What does this say about sexism and misogyny? That these issues are “secondary,” “not as important,” and disconnected from struggles against other forms of oppression? What some failed to take into account was how men like him are not unique in Leftist movements.

As my friend Sitara wrote in reference to a white male activist in her community:

What does it mean for our movement that a known abuser (who has REFUSED to address his actions in any meaningful way) has put out a call to form a national revolutionary organization whose platform includes “rejecting patriarchy” in all its forms, including “familial roles”? Answer: nothing good.

In Courtney Desiree Morris’s very important post, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements,” she describes the numerous encounters she had with abusive men:

There were men like this in various organizations I worked with. The one who called his girlfriend a bitch in front of a group of youth of color during a summer encuentro we were hosting. The one who sexually harassed a queer Chicana couple during a trip to México, trying to pressure them into a threesome. The guys who said they would complete a task, didn’t do it, brushed off their compañeras’ demands for accountability, let those women take over the task, and when it was finished took all the credit for someone else’s hard work. The graduate student who hit his partner—and everyone knew he’d done it, but whenever anyone asked, people would just look ashamed and embarrassed and mumble, “It’s complicated.” The ones who constantly demeaned queer folks, even people they organized with. Especially the one who thought it would be a revolutionary act to “kill all these faggots, these niggas on the down low, who are fucking up our children, fucking up our homes, fucking up our world, and fucking up our lives!” The one who would shout you down in a meeting or tell you that you couldn’t be a feminist because you were too pretty. Or the one who thought homosexuality was a disease from Europe.

Yeah, that guy.

While she points out that many of these men were probably not informants, “the work that they do supports the state’s ongoing campaign of terror against social movements and the people who create them.” I suspect that many male readers will read the examples shared above and think, “Well, I’ve never done any of that, so I can’t be sexist.” However, this belief is an “innocence” mindset that fails to address our responsibilities as well as the ways in which we are complicit in reproducing oppression.

3. Accountability

There needs to be clarification that not all men benefit from sexism and heteropatriarchy in the same way. Certainly, the ways in which gender and race intersect must be taken into account.The framework here isn’t “all men are the same” or “men are the enemies,” but rather that white men and men of color need to practice accountability and understand the different, though interconnected, effects interlocking systems of oppression has on them (e.g. heterosexual cis-gendered white men benefit from both white supremacy and patriarchy). Men of color are horribly demonized and victimized by racist forces in society (as are women of color), though this should not absolve them of sexism and misogyny. White women can exert power over men of color and women of color through racism and reinforcing white supremacy, though this doesn’t lessen the importance of dismantling heteropatriarchy (which is interlocked with white supremacy).

As Morris writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do. We all must do the work because the survival of our movements depends on it.” Abusive male activist “leaders” maintain power not only by reproducing heteropatriarchy, but also because they are upheld by those who actively support them, which includes both men and women. This support is not always a result of passive or naive internalization of sexist oppression; there is active participation, too. When this complex process is failed to be understood, men may dismiss how harmful sexual objectification is, for example, and make excuses like, “Well, women were commenting on that photo, too” or “But, women weren’t offended by that photo.” Instead of using other women to justify our sexism, we need to challenge heteropatriarchy and work within a framework of accountability. Another mistake that many men (not just those with radical politics, but also those who consider themselves liberal or progressive) make is think they are “outside of patriarchy” just because they read feminist literature, attend patriarchy workshops, have women friends, etc. When we are called out on sexism, instead of getting defensive and claiming that we are “not sexist,” we should be more concerned about whether or not we are reinforcing sexism, either through our language, our behaviors, actions or non-actions, etc. I believe bell hooks’ words are relevant here:

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another… While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.

This is not about men taking on “savior” roles, but instead taking responsibility for their complicity. We are complicit when we are silent about misogyny within movements; we are complicit when we tell women to ignore sexist oppression;  we are complicit when we laugh at misogynistic “jokes”; we are complicit when we encourage sexual objectification instead of challenging it; we are complicit when we continue friendships with these abusive men despite knowing the damage their misogyny is causing; we are complicit when we make the conscious decision to refuse listening to those who are calling us out on being silent or participants in any of the above.

Responsibility doesn’t mean we should speak for women either. As I was sharing with a friend, I often get tired of calling white people out on their racism all the time and think it’s important to have solidarity from anti-racist white allies. I don’t need white people to speak for me, for instance, though at the same time, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of racism while my white friends just stand around and do nothing. Similarly, it’s not enough for men to simply say, “Oh that’s messed up,” when they see or hear the sexism of male allies. It is important to confront these men, especially if these are men we work with, study with, have friendships with, etc. If we say or do nothing while women are struggling to address these issues, we are only resuming our complicity.

We need to seriously reevaluate and question what is happening in our communities. If a powerfully positioned “leader” in a radical space that strives to end all forms of oppression is a man who uses bullying, shaming, violence, and other oppressive tactics towards members in the group, why is this injustice allowed to continue? Why is he standing on a podium, dominating the mic, and leading a large rally of people who are seeking to end oppressive behaviors like his? Why is he held up as a “representative” for his community, being interviewed by the media, quoted in newspapers, or featured on popular blogs when there are women within the group who are not only fighting against the state’s racist, sexist oppression, but also against the misogyny within their communities? Oddly enough, when men tell women that they should “ignore” sexism or put their experiences with abuse “on hold” for the sake of “the greater good,” there paradoxically is an acknowledgment that abuse is taking place. And yet, despite this recognition of injustice, no action is taken.

We need to stop giving legitimacy to these men and start holding them accountable. We have to stop promoting them as “leaders” and start listening to the voices that matter. There needs to be collective action and communities need to work within a framework that understands that if we do not fight misogyny and heteropatriarchy, especially within our own groups, then our work will amount to nothing. Refusing to address these problems, as Morris crucially reminds us, has dangerous consequences and will work to strengthen the oppressive forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperialism and other systems of violence and domination that seek to destroy us. Whether its men who write articles about women’s rights, men making speeches about ending patriarchy at activist rallies, or men who just think they “cannot be sexist” because they are “nice guys,” our work and words mean nothing if we deliberately refuse to accept and practice accountability. As so many anti-racist women of color and white women activists, academics, and community leaders have articulated in their work, heteropatriarchy and other oppressions cannot be dismantled if we do not also work to eliminate them within ourselves.

Photo Credit: #Leftfail

*I was reluctant to share this status message since I’m not friends with the author, but it was pointed out to me that his Facebook wall is open to the public. After verifying this myself, I decided to re-share.

UPDATE: Other readers have pointed this out already, but I recognize that “Vice” is not a leftist website. I apologize for the confusion and meant to clarify that. Later in the post, I mention that it is not only the sexism and misogyny in leftist spaces that should be a concern, but in all spaces, including on popular websites.

Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought for a while, not only because of the observations I’ve made from white and people of color friends and allies, but also because I, too, have been guilty in mocking the “accented” English of people in my community and other communities of color. The imitation and mockery of these “accents” are sometimes conducted for seemingly “harmless” comedic purposes, but nonetheless those of us who speak the colonizer’s language in any form of what is commonly defined as a “Standard English” accent in white English majority-speaking countries tend to overlook our privilege and complicity in attributing stereotypes to bodies of color and perpetuating the harmful racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”

Being raised in the United States and attending a predominately white public school was never devoid of racism, but it is important to note how my white friends, classmates, and teachers would frequently comment on how “amazed” they were that I “didn’t have an accent” (remarks that I still get). Since a “Standard American English” accent is not regarded as an accent in U.S. mainstream media and society, sounding like all the other white kids and the white people I watched in popular film and television meant that I spoke “normally.” While I faced racism throughout my public school years, my being brown yet “sounding white” definitely made some part of me, no matter how small, feel like I “fitted in” or “belonged” to mainstream white America. It also made me feel superior to the (few other) South Asian students who, unlike me, spoke English “differently” and were more Otherized because of it. Even though I was racialized like them through the lens of the white gaze, my “non-existing accent” gave me an unfair advantage and created a dichotomy which I participated in, too: they were “FOBs” while I was at least “Americanized.”

At a previous workplace, I recall the difficultly one of my Indian co-workers faced due to his accent. He was explaining a transaction to a white customer, but she grew impatient and shouted, “I can’t understand you! I can’t understand you!” I stepped in and explained verbatim what my co-worker said and the woman understood and thanked me. I couldn’t help but notice what had just happened. My co-worker, although perfectly understandable and far more knowledgeable than me with regard to the work field, was yelled at because of the way he spoke, while I, a fellow brown man, was treated respectfully and as more “competent” because of my white suburban American accent. Interesting enough, we had a white co-worker who received compliments daily because of his European accent (I won’t disclose the exact country for privacy reasons). I lost count of how many times customers commented on how “attractive” his accent was, whereas our Indian co-worker was treated as “unintelligible.”

The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).

Unlike “Standard English” accents and various dialects of the language in North America and other English majority-speaking nations, stereotypes of accents described as South Asian, Arab, Iranian, African, East Asian, Latino, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American, and so on, are racialized and mark bodies as “incompetent,” “backwards,” uncivilized,” “subordinate,” “goofy,” and even “threatening, “sinister,” and “evil.” As noted in the example from my workplace, South Asian (or “Desi”) accents are not considered “desirable,” “cool,” or “comprehensible,” while British, Australian, or New Zealand accents are. In American TV shows and Hollywood films, there are countless examples of how Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color with accented speech are demonized, ridiculed, degraded, and/or used for comedic purposes. These media representations have a real impact on society, as Carla Chamberlin-Quinlisk (a former professor of mine in undergrad) explains below:

Accent, however, is more than a theatrical device and has also been linked to real life perceptions of competency, intelligence, and credibility.  In educational contexts, including language learning communities, non-native speaking students and teachers face judgments of academic or professional incompetence based on their language status (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Kamhi-Stein, 2004; Liu, 1999; Thomas, 1999).  Moreover, decades of studies on language attitudes confirm that linguistic variation (accent and dialect) filters listeners’ perception of speakers’ intelligence, socioeconomic status, competence, education level, and attractiveness (Cargile, 1997, 2000, 2002; Cargile & Giles, 1997; Edwards, 1982; White et al. 1998).

As I continue this discussion, it is important to be conscious of how intersecting factors like whiteness and maleness play significant roles in giving people racial and gender privileges over others, despite sharing the same accent. Furthermore, what I want to focus on primarily in this post is how white people and people of color like myself, who speak with white or “Standard English” accents, participate in mocking so-called “foreign accents” and reinforce demeaning stereotypes about communities of color. When I and other people of color imitate these Otherized accents, we do so for a number of reasons – for laughs (especially around white people), for dramatizing stories we recount, for mockery of people we may know, etc. What we fail to see is how imitating these accents serves the purpose of disassociating and differentiating ourselves from non-native English speakers of color, as well as making strong implications that they are “backwards,” “silly,” and most importantly, forever stuck in the “pre-modern.”  In other words, we characterize them as “FOBs” who will always be sexist, illogical, violent, barbaric, and uncivilized because of their non-western cultures (as if white people with their “normal” and “civilized” accents cannot be sexist, violent, barbaric, illogical, etc.).  They, unlike us, are not “modernized” and can never assimilate “properly” into western society or be compatible with the west’s “superior” values. White supremacy undeniably marks all people of color as inferior, but when we reproduce these narratives of “modern” versus “pre-modern” in our own communities, we become complicit in normalizing the logic of white supremacy.

Additionally, we make spaces of exception for certain “FOBs.” That is, even though these individuals have accents, we don’t regard them as real “FOBs” because they are our friends, they live in the west, study in western universities, dress western, have “progressive” feminist politics, and so on. The real “FOBs” are the ones who, in addition to having accents, are bound to their “foreign” cultures and therefore must have “barbaric” and “oppressive” values.

Even in these spaces of exception, people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having “less credibility,” regardless of their education status. This is especially true in educational and workplace settings.  It’s upsetting how such hostility towards people of color with accents come not only from white people, but also from people of color who have white accents. I have consistently heard white people who self-identify as anti-racist and feminist refer to people of color with accents as the “immigrant generation” – a description used as code for “FOB,” and therefore “sexist,” “regressive,” “morally and intellectually inferior,” etc. Admittedly, I and other people of color who sound white participate in maintaining these gross generalizations and stereotypes.  In our discriminatory attitudes and jokes about the way they “mispronounce” words, we fail to take into account the struggles they face daily due to the racist perceptions of their accents. We fail to see how women of color with accents, for example, are further racialized and exoticized in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture and seen as more loyal to cultures, tribes, or countries that are marked inferior, savage, and uncivilized.

Some people of color mock the way other members in their community speak as a way of gaining “acceptance” by white people. For a long time, I imitated Desi accents around my white friends, classmates, and co-workers who would burst into laughter every time.  I decided to stop when they thought it was “ok” for them to mock the accents just because I did it.  While it’s certainly not the same thing when I imitate the Desi accent around only people of color, the privilege of not facing challenges because of our white accents rarely enters the conversation. I have heard others say things like, “I can’t stand the Desi accent, it’s annoying,” or “I hate the way Indians/Pakistanis talk,” or make innocent-sounding statements like, “Desi accents are hilarious!” These comments don’t take into account that there are real South Asians who actually live with the reality of racist remarks, angry looks, discrimination, and harsh judgment due to the stereotypes linked with their accents.

As many anti-racist feminist writers and activists emphasize, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and complicity. Although, for example, people of my skin color and religious background are demonized, discriminated against, and victimized by racist laws, there are certain advantages I have as a U.S. citizen and heterosexual male who speaks with a white suburban accent. If I apply for a job, my name, skin color, and religion are clear disadvantages, but my white accent will open more possibilities for me than for South Asians who “sound foreign.” When white classmates poked fun at me with “Apu accents,” they got more of a kick out of it when they did it to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students who, in their minds, “spoke like that.” I had the advantage of saying, “I don’t speak that way,” which also served as a way of stating, “I’m not like them, I’m more like you.” I didn’t have to worry about being laughed at or feeling ashamed every time I opened my mouth. This does not dismiss the fact that people of color face racism on the basis of their skin color alone, but rather highlights on how we should recognize the different yet interrelated ways racism impacts us all.

I don’t deny that there are anti-racist ways in which people of color imitate the accented English of their communities. There have been times when I used a Desi accent in ways that I felt were empowering and a form of resistance against racism. We perform these accents to counter the stereotypes that are projected unto us and others in our community. However, we also need to remember that we have the privilege of “switching off” the performed accent and go back to speaking with white accents that will never be mocked, degraded, vilified, and judged.

I also don’t deny that people of color with western accents are sometimes perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them. In 8th grade, my English teacher sent me to an ESL class simply because I failed one test (I didn’t read the book!). Last summer, I interned at a counseling center and was told by the office manager that I had “a bit of an accent” after I told her I was born in Pakistan. I felt insulted and offended by both of these incidents and I would think to myself, “How could they say I have an accent? I don’t!” Until I was called out on how problematic my framing of these experiences with racialization were, I didn’t realize that my anger implied that there was something wrong with having a South Asian accent.  What I later addressed with my internship supervisor was not so much about whether or not I had an accent, but rather, what does it mean to have an “accent” and how are real people of color, who don’t speak English with “general” or “standard” western accents, perceived and treated? Instead of distancing ourselves from people of color who speak English “differently” and trying to make ourselves look more “acceptable” or “assimilated,” we should be confronting racist stereotypes and attitudes that are associated with “accents.”

As people of color who have the privilege of “sounding white,” we need to challenge the ways we imitate the accented English of people in racialized communities. White people, especially those who claim to be anti-racist allies, should never imitate these accents or feel that it is “ok” for them to do so.  I’m sure others can relate to these stories, but my parents and other family members constantly faced discrimination not only because of their skin colors, but also because of their language status. When I taught English to immigrants and refugees two years ago, one of the things that stood out to me was how the students wanted to learn English so that they could be understood at their jobs, apply for jobs, or not feel ashamed in front of their children.

In white-majority societies where the “speak-English-or-get-out” culture is very hostile towards non-English speakers, we need to take responsibility for our privileges and complicity seriously and stop stereotyping people of color with so-called “foreign accents.”  What does it say about the power of colonialism and the settler-state when people of color deserve mockery, shame, ridicule, and vilification for the way they mispronounce words in the colonizer’s language?  When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” We also need to challenge ideas about what it means to be “modern” and how stereotypes about “accent,” like race and religion, serve as markers for those who are cast as “pre-modern” racial Others.

Responses to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

My Facebook news feed has been buzzing with critiques of Mona Eltahawy’s latest article, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  When the original piece was published in “Foreign Policy” magazine, there was a small debate on a friend’s Facebook wall about how Mona continues to frame her work in problematic ways and assumes the role of a native informant for white western audiences.  Critiques of her article have been dismissed by some as mere “debate” or “differences in opinion” without any analysis of how Mona self-appoints herself before western audiences as a spokesperson for all Arab women and confirms simplistic and dangerous Orientalist narratives that play into the larger, racist discourses on Islam, Muslims, and the “Muslim world” (a “reductionist term,” as Dena Al-Adeeb writes, “used to name women from countries ranging from Morocco to Indonesia”).

The vast number of critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women call attention to how Mona’s simplistic analysis and characterization of Arab women as “helpless” plays into larger discourses that have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way the US oppresses racialized people in Muslim-majority countries. This construction of the “helpless woman of color” who must be saved from the “dangerous man of color” has a long history of sexual violence, colonialism, and racism.  As Andrea Smith explains in “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” when European colonizers enslaved Native women, they argued that “they were actually somehow freeing Native women from ‘oppression’ they supposedly faced in Native nations.” When white colonizers would mutilate the bodies of Native men and rape Native women, they proclaimed “Native women can only be free while under the dominion of white men, and both Native and white women have to be protected from Indian men, rather than from white men.”

If we look at the violent US invasion and military occupation in Afghanistan, we see how the legacy of colonialism continues when Afghan women’s struggles against patriarchy and misogyny are used as propaganda to advance war – one that continues to bomb, torture, and rape Afghan men and women. I don’t believe Mona Eltahawy is calling for the west to intervene in struggles against patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, but I present these discourses and histories to show how critiques of her article are not “pointless” or “personal attacks,” but serious and important. Performing as a native informant is dangerous, not only because of the racist stereotypes it reinforces, but also because of the way it silences the countless Arab and Muslim women and men who have been fighting against misogyny and other forms of sexist oppression. Egyptian journalist and activist Gigi Ibrahim, who blogs at “Tahrir & Beyond,” writes the following in her response to Mona:

What is very troubling is her belief that she is the “voice” for so many unheard women, who are oppressed and beaten by their husbands or shunned by the patriarchal Arab societies. She is the beacon of hope for Arab Muslim women living the male-dominated Middle East forced to wear the niqab and do slave work at home. Not only does she believe that she is speaking for these women, but she believes that she is one of the few (if not the only) who is brave, eloquent, and educated enough to vocalize these suppressed voices to the Western media like FP, BBC, CNN, who are of course incapable to reach these suppressed creatures, Middle Eastern women.

Nahed Eltantawy mentions some of the Arab women missing from Mona’s article: “Tawakkul Karman, Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi, and Egypt’s female protesters, from Asmaa Mahfouz, Gigi Ibrahim, Nawara Negm, Samira Ibrahim,” and many others who challenge the “weak” and “helpless” western stereotype of Arab women.

As Shaista Patel explains, the Muslim native informant, whether it is Mona Eltahawy, Irshad Manji, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is always “honored and respected by white men and women to silence and shame Muslim women who critique these Muslim native informants.” Just this morning, I was sent a blog post written by a white American man who wrote: “What amazed me is the backlash by Arabs themselves against Eltahawy, and specifically the backlash from Arab women” (I’m not going to link to his post, but you can put this quote into Google and find it). He suggested that the Arab and Muslim women who wrote these critiques had “issues with the actual speaker” (Mona) and that their criticism stemmed from “the fact that the Arab world’s dirty laundry was being aired so openly in front of a Western audience.” Later, he equated his personal experiences, where Arab women told him not to speak for them, with the experiences of Mona being criticized for her article. This example of closely identifying with a native informant in this manner is not too different than the debate that occurred on my friend’s wall, where a white woman proclaimed her “respect” for Mona as a way to dismiss and silence an anti-racist critique from a Muslim woman. By accusing these critiques of making “personal attacks” against Mona or having issues with airing “dirty laundry,” the actual concern of these critiques, such as Mona’s problematic framework, analysis, and simplification of Muslim-majority countries is completely missed.

This isn’t the first time Mona has performed this way either. As many know, Mona strongly advocates for governments to ban the niqab. Her position is not merely about having “different interpretations” of Islam when the debate is showcased on CNN or other western mainstream media outlets. It’s troubling how the images are juxtaposed when we see Mona debate with Heba Ahmed, a Muslim woman wearing niqab – the former is seen as the “good,” “progressive” and “integrated western” Muslim, whereas the latter is the “bad,” “regressive” and “radical foreign” Muslim. This fits so easily into the west’s dangerous good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Such dichotomous thinking is engrained in the US’s oppressive international and domestic policies, which are violent for people in Muslim-majority countries and Muslims in the west. One needs to question how Mona’s anti-niqab stance is seen through the white imperial gaze.

One must also question what many of the critiques have expressed outrage over: the extremely disturbing Orientalist images used in Mona’s article. The pictures, which I have decided not to post (trigger warning if you haven’t seen them already) depict nude women in black body paint with only their eyes left bare. I agree with Roqayah Chamseddine that these images are “arguably an oversexualization of what Mona Eltahawy has long despised, the niqab” (her response is shared below). What impact do these pictures have on real Muslim bodies who wear the niqab and how are these images viewed by governments that want to police how Muslim women choose to dress?

Speaking as a Pakistani Muslim man, I believe it is important for all men, including myself, to not deny the existence of patriarchy and misogyny, as well as the ways in which we are complicit in participating in sexist oppression, whether it’s done consciously or through the way we’ve internalized and constantly perform sexist socialization. None of the critiques written by Arab, Muslim, and South Asian women dismiss the reality of patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries, and I believe it is important for all men to understand that as well.  These responses are criticizing the oversimplification of patriarchy which relies on a racist construction of “helpless Muslim women” and “dangerous Muslim men” (“imperilled Muslim women, dangerous Muslim men, and civilized Europeans,” in the words of Sherene Razack), which Mona Eltahawy participates in. They are not saying patriarchy doesn’t exist or that men don’t have any responsibility or that no one should be outraged. Personal attacks against Mona should be condemned and no one should silence or shame anyone for speaking about gender violence within our communities. Patriarchy is not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations – it exists everywhere, including in western nation-states that continue to deflect attention away from its misogyny by focusing on the misogyny of “darker” countries. As I wrote in my previous blog post, so many anti-racist women of color feminists have articulated that personal and state violence needs to confronted on both fronts simultaneously, and without relying on the state that wants to destroy marginalized communities. There is a responsible role Muslim men and all men have in dismantling patriarchy, which includes unlearning the sexism we participate in, and I think one of the most important things we can do is listen to these voices.

I’ve shared some excerpts from the responses to Mona’s article below. The first two comments were from an online discussion on a friend’s Facebook wall and are being re-shared with permission:

Shaista Patel:

I think that we need to understand that these debates are entrenched in various power relations. Mona has the backing of the mainstream (read racist) media and society, while somebody like a Sunera Thobani is condemned for giving a speech to a group of feminists in an auditorium. Nobody saw that as a healthy debate when a complaint was filed against her, and her life was under threat. By critiquing Mona and her work, we are not taking away the fact that she was sexually harassed, just like we’ve never wanted to discredit the abuse Irshad Manji’s faced at the hands of her father. It is when a Mona, Irshad Manji and an Ayan Hirsi Ali become the native informants, perform in a way that sits very well with the white Western society’s construction of the ‘Arab world’ and the “Muslim world”, when Bush asks us to watch Nilufer Pazira’s “Qandahar” while bombing Afghanistan and killing and mutilating people that we know that these debates/discourses aren’t necessarily productive for us racialized bodies, especially those whose lives are under threat every single minute of every single day. I have been asked to engage with the Zionists in debates, with the racists in debates but look at who I am and what I have to say and the sheer hostility I would have to and have faced several times from these white folks wanting to sit at the table and have a discussion while people who look like me are being killed every single day. Mona’s work is seductive to white people and some Muslims with liberal and racist politics because of what she has to say, and how she’s supporting the war politics of the West.

Lise Vaugeois:

I want to add more points: Sunera Thobani is vilified every time she opens her mouth. I have great admiration for her persistence in continuing to speak in public in spite of the relentless and attacks on her person. The other people we are talking about here, e.g. Manji and Elthahawy et al, are making a very good living by saying what mainstream financial/political interests want people to believe. Maybe these “pundits” genuinely believe what they are saying but – it sure works in favor of their own careers as well as the larger economic goal of arms manufacturers to create villains (in this case, brown Muslim folks) who can only be contained by mobilizing national militaries to exterminate them. And then there’s the goal to discredit all Middle Eastern governments and their peoples, in order to justify destroying their infrastructures and fully control their natural and human resources. These public relations games all feed into larger political goals that, unfortunately, are difficult to see for those of us who want to believe that genuine debates actually happen in the public domain. Power relations shape all public debates and are thoroughly scripted to make existing power relations appear “reasonable and good.”

This piece makes many good points, regarding disturbing (to say the least) treatment of women’s bodies in the region. The problem, however, is how Mona frames this. This isn’t about a single conglomerate of men working in synch to repress women. And it isn’t about ‘hate’ either — can we confine people who should be made into partners for the fight for gender equality into being the enemy? Additionally, can we say this ‘war’ is particular to the region or part of the great GWOFB — global war on female bodies (cough)? My ultimate issue with this piece (the ..terrible, terrible photos chosen by FP aside) is that it’s in English. It’s to an American audience. The only thing that it is conducive to is further fueling the flames of the plight of ‘poor Muslim women’ and the general perceived weakness women of brown skin, unable to help themselves. This hurts more than it helps. The piece had potential – but in Arabic.

Lastly, the author mentions that the uprisings were sparked by a man and she hopes they will be defined by women. But they are being defined by women (and men too and there’s nothing wrong with that). Some of the most known names and the most fierce personalities to come out of the uprisings have been women: the AlKhawaja sisters of Bahrain, Tawakkul Kamran of Yemen, Asma Mahfouz of Egypt.

The general treatment of women in the so-called Arab world is deplorable, but it is not exclusive to the region and is not merely a social or moral byproduct.

And we cannot, ever, underestimate any woman or group of women’s ability to be able to see the violence and injustices being done unto them. For us to assume so is to be compliant with that violence and injustice.
Roqayah Chamseddine:

The laundry list of crimes committed against women, including “virginity tests” and genital mutilation, are serious charges which should not be ignored nor should they be denied. Eltahawy, in her attempt to highlight indefensible crimes against women, reaffirms the banal archetype of the poor, helpless woman of the Middle East-North Africa.

Eltahawy pens a lugubrious tale, where women of the Middle East-North Africa seem to have been forever chained to the floors, as captives. History is conveniently left out of this verbose condensation. There is no talk the Arab women of her native Egypt who defiantly took part in the forceful, countrywide revolution against the British occupation of both Egypt and Sudan in 1919, which led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922; women, men, merchants, workers, religious leaders, students et al. held unified strikes against the British occupation on a daily basis, not in separate stalls but in the company of one another.

It can be argued that Mona Eltahawy’s piece superficially condenses a complex subject into an easy-to-swallow ‘them vs. us’ dichotomy, where the role of totalitarian leaders and authoritarian politics are both grotesquely marginalized in order to mournfully examine the cruelty of men, purposefully grouped into one easy to attack assemblage. They hate us, she laments, in a most puerile manner. Men hate women. A dichotomy which not only appoints Mona Eltahawy as the representative for all women of the Middle East-North Africa, but has caused many of her backers to argue that women disagreeing with her premise are suffering from a sort of internalized oppression, brought about due to a stigmatized, negative identity they have come to accept due the reoccurring torment women face at the hands of men. The argument that women are hapless casualties of either mans domineering, possessive ”hatred” or of our own inability to see ourselves as such. It is an irony of sorts.

There are also unanswered questions:

1. Why not publish the article in Arabic, therein engaging with the intended audience more directly?
2. Why choose Foreign Policy as the platform and not a media outlet which would direct her piece at those she addresses?
3. Why is there so much orientalist imagery present? If she was not aware that these photographs would be used, did she take it up with Foreign Policy after realizing this?

(read the rest of her response here: Us and Them: On Helpless Women and Orientalist Imagery)

Sara Salem:

At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.

Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.

My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)

My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?

Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.

Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.

(read more: A response to Mona el Tahawy)

Leila Ahmed:

These were just some of the concerns I had as I read just Eltahawy’s opening lines. And I found almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.

It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the “war” on women in the ways that make most sense to her. And certainly I have no quarrel whatsoever with the will and desire she gives voice to — of wanting to improve the condition of women in the Middle East and bring to an end the wars and other injustices to which they are subjected.

There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk given at the Radcliffe Institute by Nadje al-Ali, a professor at the University of London, on the devastating costs for women and children — in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East, as she declares in her title, and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny. Ali, on the other hand, who, like Eltahawy, is a staunchly secular feminist, is passionately concerned above all about placing the social costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the very forefront of our consciousness here in the United States.

(read more: Debating the War on Women)

Samia Errazzouki:

The issue is framing and presenting women in the region as a monolith and pitting their struggles against the backdrop of an argument which points to “hate.” The argument dismisses the role of figures like Tawakul KarmanZainab and Maryam al-Khawaja, and others — women who rose through the revolutions and were present in the public sphere during protests and demonstrations, standing alongside their compatriots demanding change and an end to injustices of all kinds. These women stood up as individuals and not as self-proclaimed representatives of Arab women.

Eltahawy points to “hate” as the source and cause of the injustices committed against Arab women. She scapegoats the rise of the Islamists, but Maya Mikdashi debunked that argument a couple months ago:

“Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.”

Yet, Eltahawy entirely neglects the socioeconomic roots of gender inequality, the rise of authoritarian regimes in a post-colonialist context, the remnants of dehumanization and oppression from colonialism, the systematic exclusion of women from the political system or those who are used as convenient tools for the regime. There is more to gender inequality than just “hate.” Arab women such as Leila Ahmed and Lila Abu-Lughod, among others, have proven this fact time and time again.

The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.

(read more: Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’)

Ayesha Kazmi:

While Muslim women’s discourse has become compromised by politicians who seek to “rescue” Muslim women from Muslim men, it is possible to skilfully highlight the systemic violence and abuse of Muslim women without sensationally fanning the likes of Samuel Huntington. I find it deeply insidious that Mona repeatedly associates the Arab man with the dark ages – the same Arab man that George Bush, Tony Blair and now David Cameron seek to rescue us from. I am fully aware of where I have repeatedly heard this precise conflation – and it reeks of the odious “clash of civilisations” hypothesis. Is it possible that Mona entirely subscribes to the Western definition of who and what she is, or is she involved in a stealthy political game? From here, it is really difficult to tell but the end result of her article, which was to fragment global feminism, is deeply troubling and most unforgivable; irresponsible at best.

(read more: Oh, Mona!)

Dalia Abd El-Hameed:

Failure to contextualize the issues and to take the economic factor into consideration to show that women’s problems in the Middle East is a monolithic tragedy of patriarchy, is reductive to women’s struggle in their multiple lived realities.

Paintings in the article depicting Arab women naked and painted in a black niqab-style, covering all their bodies with black except for their inviting eyes are really disturbing. One quick stop at the “The Colonial Harem” by Malek Aloula and you’ll understand why these images are orientalist and stereotypical; they reinforce the image of weak covered beautiful woman sending a nonverbal message:  “Save me…I am weak, beautiful and naked.”

(read more: What 6 Egyptian Women Say About Mona Eltahawy)

Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi:

El Tahawy’s article conjures an elaborate battle of the sexes where men and women are on opposing teams, rather than understanding that together men and women must fight patriarchal systems in addition to exploitative practices of capitalism, authoritarianism, colonialism, liberalism, religion, and/or secularism.

The battle against misogyny does not follow a “men hate women” formula. It cannot be reduced to a generic battle of the sexes spiced with a dose of Islam and culture. It cannot be extracted from the political and economic threads that, together with patriarchy, produce the uneven terrain that men and women together navigate. It is these lessons that one would have to engage before meting out an indictment about the politics of sex, much less envisioning a future of these politics. There is no one answer because there is no single culprit, no single “culture” or “hatred” that we can root out and replace with “tolerance” or “love.” Similarly, the absence of a sustained and critical attention to sex and gender cannot be solved, syllabus style, by a separate glossy special “Sex Issue,” the content and form of which reproduce what it purports to critique.

(read more: Let’s Talk About Sex)

Additional Readings:

Mona: Why Do You Hate Us?

The Hypocrisy of the “Why They Hate Us” Rhetoric of Muslim Native Informants

Mona el Tahawy and the Transnational Fulful al Nidham

My Response to Mona Eltahawy’s “Why Do They Hate Us?”

Mona el Tahawy or Native Neo-orientalism

Dear Mona Eltahawy – Colonial Feminism

Confronting Personal and State Violence Simultaneously

Within the past month or so, a couple of friends were telling me about the racism and sexism they continue to experience in social justice spaces. Yesterday, another friend was telling me about her experience with abusive “activists” who refuse to take any responsibility for their racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.   I know I have addressed this before on my blog, but what does it say about the power of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy when we constantly face the internalization and reproduction of these oppressive forces within our own communities where we are supposed to be safe?

It is disturbing how misogynist men in particular can carry on with their celebrity “activist” status after being called out on their sexism. It is as if making the choice to march in the street, chant a slogan, and organize rallies and meetings suddenly purifies an individual of their racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The practice of self-labeling as “liberal,” “activist,” “progressive,” or “radical,” especially in this day and age of social media, has come to mean that anyone who takes a stance on a social justice issue is devoid of responsibility and accountability.  Making unwanted advances at women and objectifying them is “ok” just as long as the heterosexual male activist was arrested by the police in the past and, at the end of the day, “does important work.”

There isn’t much I can add because there is already an important article written about this: “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements.” The author highlights on the frightening reality of informants who infiltrate activist movements for the purpose of destabilizing them. She stresses that misogynists make the perfect informants, and whether or not these misogynists are working for the state, they effectively weaken movement building and perpetuate gender violence that only makes marginalized communities even more vulnerable to the state that wants to destroy them.  Here’s an excerpt:

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements.  Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Also, this:

We have a right to be angry when the communities we build that are supposed to be the model for a better, more just world harbor the same kinds of antiqueer, antiwoman, racist violence that pervades society. As radical organizers we must hold each other accountable and not enable misogynists to assert so much power in these spaces. Not allow them to be the faces, voices, and leaders of these movements. Not allow them to rape a compañera and then be on the fucking five o’ clock news. In Brandon Darby’s case, even if no one suspected he was an informant, his domineering and macho behavior should have been all that was needed to call his leadership into question. By not allowing misogyny to take root in our communities and movements, we not only protect ourselves from the efforts of the state to destroy our work but also create stronger movements that cannot be destroyed from within.

I believe these points must be stressed over and over again.  I remember a friend reminding me that our communities cannot survive if our politics don’t confront gender violence, misogyny, and heteropatriarchy. As the author writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do.” This is not a call for men to think of themselves as “saviors” of social justice movements, but rather to look at their own complicity. How have we raised our voices over women and refused to let them speak? How have we interjected ourselves into discussions where we should have shut up and listened?  How have we stood silent when a fellow male activist, whom we respect and admire, got away with sexual objectification, misogyny, disgusting sexist jokes, and sexual assault?  How have we participated in this abuse without holding ourselves accountable?  These questions are important because it is dangerous how misogynist male activists use their power to deflect attention away from their abuses. It is dangerous because these individuals do not think of themselves as sexist or misogynistic, but rather as people who do “important work” that apparently “no one else can do” and therefore must be excused.

I’ve been thinking about all of this with relation to the Muslim community. I was exchanging messages with another Muslim friend and we were talking about a popular article that was being re-posted a lot on Facebook: “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques in Attempt to Reform American Islam.”  I’m not sure if I’ll get into a full critique of it in this post, but my issue with the article didn’t have anything to do with launching gay-friendly or women-led mosques. I support women-led prayers, ending gender segregation in mosques, welcoming LGBT Muslims, and eliminating sexist oppression in our communities. I didn’t take issue with any of that because I believe Islam advocates respect and rights for every person, irrespective of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. All of us have to make our spaces respectful, accepting, and appreciative. Muslim unity means that we acknowledge the vast diversity in our Ummah, and instead of making everyone conform to a singular and narrow interpretation of Islam, we need to learn how to show respect and appreciation for each other. Faith is personal and it is not something that should be policed by any person or by any government.

What I found problematic about the article was how it’s framed in a good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on my blog that got quite popular – one was about ending gender segregation and the other was entitled “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress.” Both posts were critical of Muslim communities, but what bothered me was how many white liberal non-Muslims would link to those posts and make comments like, “Looks like someone is being critical of his culture, good job!” or use my posts to pit me against the rest of the Muslim community. As if I am the “good Muslim” and everyone else is “bad.”  What this reinforces in a society that calls itself a “melting pot” (where people are supposed to assimilate into one identity as opposed to having multiple identities) is an “us versus them” mentality. We don’t need to look any further than the Orientalist wars to see how this plays out: “Good Muslims” are state-friendly, whereas the “bad Muslim” is anyone who isn’t and therefore must be categorized as a potential threat to western civilization as we know it.

I felt the article about progressive Muslims played into that dichotomy and it became apparent when the author would mention a progressive Muslim and then talk about the death threats that particular person received. As if being a “good Muslim” in the eyes of white liberal Americans means you have to pit yourself against your community and be threatened by your fellow Muslims.  If Muslims don’t fit this narrow definition of a “progressive” Muslim, then they are either issuing death threats or they are “regressive” and practicing “draconian ways of Islam.” I don’t deny that death threats are a problem or that it doesn’t happen; what I’m critiquing here is the way this is presented in simplistic ways and within an American-centric, pro-secular narrative. Such framing runs consistent with the logic of white supremacy because the construction of “American Islam” becomes the “superior Islam,” i.e. “superior” to the way the rest of the world practices the faith. Also, secularism is left unchecked, as if secular states are not violent. Secularism doesn’t mean everyone lives in peace; the majority of wars have been secular, and homophobia doesn’t come solely from conservative religious people, it’s part of heteropatriarchal white supremacy. I believe we need to decolonize and build societies that we actually want to live in – based on interrelatedness and mutual reciprocity.

Another thing that stood out to me in the article was how it mentioned Asra Nomani with no criticism at all of how she recently came out in defense of the NYPD-CIA spying on Muslim students. In the past, she has advocated for the United States to “adopt” the “Israeli model” of profiling, and she also supported Peter King’s hearing on the “radicalization of Muslims.” If to be a progressive Muslim means we should advocate gay-friendly and women-led mosques, shouldn’t we also challenge the way Islamophobia has become embedded in state policies, law enforcement, educational institutions, media, etc.?  How will our communities survive if we defend such oppressive practices and laws?

What I’ve noticed for a while now is that Muslims who confront oppressive forces within our community and Muslims who confront Islamophobia and racism often work in isolation from one another. Just wanted to stress here that this is only based my personal experiences, so I don’t want to discredit or ignore those who do confront interpersonal and state oppression simultaneously, but for those who don’t, sometimes it feels as though it is either we talk about one or the other. The challenge then becomes about reconceptualizing how we organize our struggles. How, for instance, can we work together and eliminate oppression within our communities without relying or depending upon the state to help us? A couple of friends recommended the Incite! anthology “Color of Violence” (cover pictured above) to me and I’ve just begun to read it. Perhaps understanding the following strategy developed by “Incite! Women of Color Against Violence” can help us think about connecting our struggles in more effective ways:

There are many organizations that address violence directed at communities (e.g. police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and so on). There are also many organizations that address violence within communities (e.g. sexual/domestic violence). But there are very few organizations that address violence on both fronts simultaneously. The challenge women of color face in combating both personal and state violence is to develop strategies for ending violence that do assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence and do not strengthen our oppressive criminal justice apparatus. Our approaches must always challenge the violence perpetrated through multinational capitalism and the state.

With this in mind, white supremacy impacts marginalized communities in different ways, so the point here isn’t to organize around “shared oppression,” but rather understanding that our struggles are interrelated. We need to fight sexism, misogyny, and homophobia within Muslim communities, and we need to fight racism and Islamophobia directed at us.  Our responses to Islamophobia should address the interlocking systems of oppression and how our own internal struggles (i.e. oppressing women, threatening to kill LGBT Muslims, discriminating against Muslims based upon race, gender, class, etc.) make us weaker, enables state violence against us, and threatens our survival. Informants, like ex-FBI informant Craig Montielh, have used misogynistic tactics, such as pursuing sexual relations with Muslim women, for the sake of obtaining information and reporting to higher authorities. Misogyny not only makes great informants, it is also makes our community more vulnerable to this violence.

The question we have to ask ourselves is when are we going to wake up on sexism and gender violence in our community and how it is so strongly connected to our fight against Islamophobia and racism that targets both women and men?  So many times, I’ve heard and seen racist non-Muslims interject themselves into conversations among progressive Muslims and then vilify anyone who dares to even acknowledge institutionalized oppression against gendered, racialized, and queer bodies (and yes, this includes the non-Muslims who have used my blog posts for racist purposes).  This defense of state oppression is used by misogynists, racists, and homophobes alike who not only want to neatly categorize marginalized communities, but also infiltrate and divide them.

Why Eliminating Sexist Language Matters

Contrary to popular belief, it's not always about this guy.

If you’re going to advocate for social justice and organize in your community, you need to be actively resisting the potential reproduction of oppressive hierarchies. In other words, if you’re going to fight against capitalism, for example, don’t create a discriminatory “chain of command” reminiscent of the very system you’re fighting against!  This includes being conscious of offensive and harmful imagery, language, slogans, and so on.  Reproducing racist, sexist, classist, and ableist hierarchies within social justice movements isn’t uncommon, sadly, and if we don’t challenge oppression within organizing, the struggle itself will be undermined.  How can you bring about “revolution” when you’re benefiting off of the people you’ve marginalized, excluded, exploited, and stigmatized?  Where is the “change” when people are still struggling against oppression, even within social justice groups?

It is always discouraging to see oppressive hierarchies surface in our own communities because these are spaces that are supposed to be safe.  Recently, I noticed a status message that shamelessly insulted and degraded Muslim activists who have been criticizing the Obama administration.  It isn’t necessary to name this person, though it is disturbing how some people who claim to be “representing” the Muslim American community feel so comfortable ridiculing others.  The message included sexist, masculinist remarks like, “American Muslims need to grow some balls and join the electoral system,” and “American Muslims need to grow up and stop being cynical,” and “American Muslims need to stop whining and victimizing themselves.”  When I critiqued the sexist language used by this person, I received a reply that didn’t address any of my points.  Unfortunately, the person who wrote the message didn’t take responsibility for his sexism either.  Instead, I was told I “misunderstood” what was meant to be a motivational message to get Muslim Americans to participate in “American democracy” and not “whine” about Islamophobia.

I’m not interested in attacking or denigrating this person. I bring up the discussion only to critique the victim-blaming and heteropatriarchal politics that exists in our community.  Indeed, there is a lot to deconstruct when you hear someone say, “American Muslims need to grow some balls” and accompany the statement with remarks like “grow up” and “stop whining.”  As many feminist critiques have pointed out, sexist language makes women invisible and reinforces heteropatriarchal domination. Telling Muslim critics of the Obama administration to “grow some balls and join the electoral system” removes Muslim women from the discussion and, subsequently, from the voting process.  Furthermore, “grow some balls” means to “man up,” which is code for anti-female directives such as “don’t be/act like a girl” (because girls are inferior to boys and men, so if you act like them, you lose your “manhood,” your “natural inclination” to be “superior”). Since male-centered language asserts problematic universalist ideas such as the term “man” equaling “people” (and vice versa), Muslim critics of US wars only consist of men who “lack the balls” to do “macho” stuff, like voting to get president Obama re-elected.  Subsequently, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist critiques of the administration are characterized as “whiny,” “childish,” “angry,” and “self-victimizing,” which are all code for sexist perceptions of so-called “feminine” traits, i.e. “sissy,” “girly,” “oversensitive,” dwelling in “self-pity,” and so on. Because women are not part of this conversation, the “Muslims for Obama” are “manly” men, whereas Muslims criticizing Obama are the “girly” men.

Unfortunately, anti-racist and anti-war activists are not outside heteropatriarchy either.  bell hooks offers a feminist critique of Paulo Freire’s book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” because of its “tendency to speak of people’s liberation as male liberation.” hooks points out that Freire, like other brilliant political thinkers, including Frantz Fanon, Albert Memni, and Aimi Cesaire, “speak against oppression, but then define liberation in terms that suggest it is only the oppressed ‘men’ who need freedom.”  Missing from their incredibly important works about “colonization, racism, classism, and revolutionary struggle” are anti-sexist politics. By no means is this saying that their works are not important or significant. In fact, as hooks points out, the works are still valued by feminist activists, but with the understanding that focusing exclusively on heterosexual male liberation perpetuates sexist oppression and must end.  Centering analysis and language on men resisting racist, classist oppression erases women’s struggle against racism, colonization, sexual violence, and misogyny (not only within their communities, but also outside).  It is also worth noting that hooks discussed her concerns with Friere, who “supported wholeheartedly this criticism of his work and encouraged me (hooks) to share this with readers.”

Within white-dominated feminist groups, harmful language arises out of failure in resisting discriminatory hierarchies and acknowledging different histories.  AF3IRM, a transnational feminist and anti-imperialist organization, expressed concerns about the “SlutWalk” movement by addressing “the issue of sexual violence and continuing victimization of rape victims by police,the justice system and other agents of authority.”  AF3IRM and other women of color called upon “SlutWalk” to reexamine its use of the term “slut,” which carries a long history of exploiting and oppressing women of color around the world. In their statement to “SlutWalk,” AF3IRM write:

Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly “reclaim” the word “Slut”. It was never ours to begin with. This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

Another recent example of using offensive language in social justice organizing can found in the “occupy” movements that began on Wall Street. Many indigenous communities in North America have stressed in their critiques that the land being “occupied” by anti-capitalist activists is stolen indigenous land and already occupied. Under occupation, racism and sexism are wielded as weapons against the colonized, therefore use of the term “occupy” dismisses histories and realities of those who live under colonial occupation.  Resistance to this criticism, which is meant to make the movement stronger by centering anti-colonial politics, represents the ongoing cultural genocide of Native peoples.  That is, Native peoples are thought to be “extinct,” therefore their struggles against colonialism and sexual violence are “not important enough” to get the white-majority “occupy” activists to reassess the language it uses.   Recently, the “occupy” movement in Albuquerque, New Mexico decided to change its name to “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” out of solidarity for Native communities.  As one writer explained:

For many indigenous people, the term ‘Occupy’ is deeply problematic. For New Mexico’s indigenous people, ‘Occupy’ means five-hundred years of forced occupation of their lands, resources, cultures, power, and voices by the imperial powers of both Spain and the United States. A big chunk of the 99 percent has been served pretty well by that arrangement. A smaller chunk hasn’t.

Beyond the way sexist language reinforces maleness as the “norm,” which is undoubtedly important to critique because it eliminates women from, well, existence, there are connections that need to be made between sexist language and the heteropatriarchal system which is foundational to the United States. Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith argues:

It has been through sexual violence and through the imposition of European relationships on Native communities that Europeans were able to colonize Native peoples in the first place. If we maintain these patriarchal gender systems in place, we are then unable to decolonize and fully assert our sovereignty… Implicit in this analysis is the understanding that heteropatriarchy is essential for the building of US empire. Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy. Just as men are supposed to naturally dominate women on the basis of biology, so too should the social elites of a society naturally rule everyone else through a nation-state form of governance that is constructed through domination, violence, and control (emphasis added).

If we apply an anti-colonial analysis to sexist language and the heteropatriarchal nation-state, we can see how arrogant and pompous statements like “America is the greatest nation on earth” are very masculinist because they promote absolute domination and self-entitlement to rule, invade, bomb, and occupy other countries. When Muslim American community leaders assert that Muslims “proudly” played a role in the “founding” of America, they are aligning themselves with the built-in structures of heteropatriarchy and colonialism, as well as dismissing the fact that many of the Muslims they refer to were African slaves forced to this continent.  What does it mean to be the “greatest” nation on earth?  Who determines “greatness” and why is it so important for America to be the “greatest”?  I am reminded of when a good friend told me, “Women have no country” and that the building of the nation-state is masculinist, as is evident in the way it flexes its military power.

"You want to fight sexism and challenge the nation-state?! What are you, crazy?! Think like a man and be more practical."

With this in mind, it is very telling when certain individuals, particularly those who believe they have more authority than others in their communities, resort to sexist language in effort to defend and deflect criticism of the heteropatriarchal nation-state. When anti-war stances are shot down with degrading insults, it becomes that much easier to brush the person off as some “whiny,” “cynical,” and, um, “ball-less” nuisance.  Sexist language often intertwines with ableist slurs like, “you’re crazy,” “you’re delusional,” or “you’re just being hysterical.”  Because women are perceived in heteropatriarchy as “weak” and “irrational,” ableist words like “crazy,” “delusional,” and “hysterical” are easily assigned to them, and especially more damaging to women with dis-abilities.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is synonymous with being “rational,” “brave,” and “courageous.”  When heterosexual male community organizers ridicule anti-racist feminists and assert themselves as “more practical,” they are reinforcing sexist masculine notions that anyone who disagrees with them is “hysterical” and  an “emotional reactionary.”  They’re not “thinking with their head.”  If these anti-racist feminists are women, the attitude is, “Of course they would say that, they’re women.” If these anti-racist feminists are men, the attitude is, “What a bunch of pussies.”  Interestingly, if being masculine is all about “toughness” and “bravery,” then what is to be said about the countless number of women who often put themselves in danger to fight not only against misogyny and sexual violence, but also against racism and colonialism?  What is to be said about the Native women and other women of color who not only fight sexist oppression in their own communities, but also actively challenge the nation-state itself? As bell hooks says, “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Working within the colonial framework, telling people to “shut up” about their criticism of Obama and join the “voting system” (as if voting ever abolished racism, sexism, classism, etc.) only serves to maintain, not disrupt, established power structures and “secondary marginalization,” which is described by Smith as politics premised on the “most elite class” furthering “their aspirations on the backs of those most marginalized within the community.”

It is understandable if the reality of struggle rarely being safe bothers us because it reveals the lack of support and solidarity. No one should ever feel compelled to put themselves in danger for their God-given human rights. I point it out here to emphasize on heteropatriarchy’s dangerous use of language and how its sexist labeling degrades, vilifies, and erases (rhetorically or violently) anything that doesn’t conform to the heteromasculine status quo. If we are going to fight sexist language, the established hierarchies need to be decolonized, and society must base its principles on interconnectedness, mutual accountability and reciprocity, and liberation for all people.  I recall the words of Cellestine Ware:

Radical feminism is working for the eradication of domination and elitism in all human relationships. This would make self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of society as we know it today.

The downfall of sexist language is very much part of the revolution she calls for.

The Dervish and the Princess (Or How Men Fantasize About a Woman’s ‘No’ Being a ‘Yes’)

Whenever I have discussions about men “misinterpreting” women, within the heterosexual context, I remember a Sufi parable I once read about a dervish and a princess.  The story is part of a collection of Sufi tales that originate mostly in classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and South Asian literature and oral traditions.  Described as “teaching-stores of the Sufi Masters over the past thousand years,” the selections serve as a way for students to increase knowledge and perception, as well as obtaining a better understanding of their fellow human beings and the world around them.  It is noted that many Sufi tales “have passed into folklore, or ethical teachings, or crept into biographies.”  They are also commonly valued as “entertainment pieces.”

The story about the dervish and the princess is interesting because I believe it touches upon a number of serious issues that are relevant today. Perhaps to some, the reality of men “misinterpreting” a woman’s friendly behavior, for example, as flirtatious or “leading him on,” may sound harmless, but in order to understand why this is serious and even dangerous, it’s important recognize the oppressive forces at work within patriarchy that makes abuse, violence, and rape against women acceptable. It becomes more than just “misinterpreting,” but rather exercising masculine power and domination facilitated by oppressive hierarchies already in place, as well as maintaining and constantly constructing these social structures.

Heterosexual men are socialized to be homophobic, to be sexist, and to represent a singular mold of “masculinity,” i.e. be tough, aggressive, dominating (especially over women and other men), and even violent. It is common for many to interpret the previous sentence as a “generalization” about men.  However, this is not an attempt to vilify men, but rather to honestly discuss the indoctrination of patriarchal and sexist thinking that surrounds us.  bell hooks provides an important comment on masculine socialization in her book, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love”:

Whenever women thinkers, especially advocates of feminism, speak about the widespread problem of male violence, folks are eager to stand up and make the point that most men are not violent. They refuse to acknowledge that masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men.

hooks cites Terrence Real, who argues that “violence is boyhood socialization.” That is, the way society “turn boys into men is through injury,” detaching them from feelings, sensitivity, and expressiveness. The phrase, “be a man,” Real continues, means to “suck it up and keep going.”  Images of men being violent, aggressive, and sexually promiscuous are celebrated in popular films, television shows, video games, comic books, advertisements, literature, etc. These images, along with the way boys are socialized early in childhood contributes to the normalization of male domination over women.

When men are taught to expect and/or demand sex on the first date to “score,” or prove their “masculinity” and show off to their male peers, it isn’t about getting to know someone on a deeper, personal level.  It becomes a game. There are strategies that men have to play in order to “score” with a woman – whether that means paying for movie tickets or the dinner bill, or behaving like he’s interested in what she’s talking about. Such socialization is dangerous because it leads to date rape, touching women sexually against their will, and other abuses. Charlene L. Muehlenhard writes a scenario in her piece, “‘Nice Women’ Don’t Say Yes and ‘Real Men’ Don’t Say No: How Miscommunication and the Double Standard Can Cause Sexual Problems,” that I found relevant:

Imagine that a man is with a woman and he wants to have sex with her (or feels he should try to have sex with her, so that he can avoid the stigma of being sexually inexperienced).  He does not attempt to discuss their sexual desires; instead, he tries to interpret her behaviors. She is wearing tight jeans and a low-cut blouse, and she is willing to go to his apartment to listen to records. He interprets this behavior to mean that he is interested in sex. He begins to make advances. She says no. He assumes that she is merely offering token resistance to sex so as not to appear promiscuous – and, even if she does not mean to, why was she “leading him on” with her “suggestive” clothing and behavior?  He thinks of jokes he has heard about unmasculine men who stop their advances after being told no, he thinks of movies in which the woman first resists the man’s advances but soon becomes overwhelmed with desire, and he thinks of his male friends who all have sexual stories to tell. He has sex with her in spite of her protests.

As mentioned earlier, it is more than just about so-called “misinterpretation,” but about male domination and fantasy. A friend, Shaista Patel, shared some important points on how fantasies are about “symbolic violence for the fear of losing a dominant position and hence the object of love (whether it is the woman, the clique one belongs to, respect of other men) is inherent.” Furthermore, these fantasies are not just symbolic violence, but also personal violence.  This fantasy also “emanates from a position of not only dominance, and hence the fear of losing it, but from a position of disempowerment, where a sense of engulfment by the woman, or other men, makes the man take a woman’s ‘no’ as a ‘yes.'”

What’s horrible about this is that women are blamed for men’s abuse.  It is a woman’s fault she was raped, abused, assaulted, etc. because she was being “too flirty,” because she was “leading him on,” because she “smiled at him” in a “certain way,” because her clothing was “too provocative” or “suggestive,” because “she was asking for it.”  Victim-blaming only serves to normalize and continue heteropatriarchy and misogyny.  Of course there is more to comment on this subject, but for the purpose of this post, I thought it would interesting to hear what others think.  I think the Sufi story below could lead to an important discussion.

The Dervish and the Princess

A King’s daughter was as beautiful as the moon, and admired by all. A dervish saw her one day, as he was about to eat a piece of bread. The morsel fell to the ground, for he was so deeply moved that he could not hold it.

As she passed by she smiled upon him. This action sent him into convulsions, his bread in the dust, his sense half bereft. In a state of ecstasy he remained thus for seven years. The dervish spent all that time in the street, where dogs slept.

He was a nuisance to the princess, and her attendants decided to kill him.

But she called him to her and said: “There can be no union between you and me. And my servants intend to kill you; therefore disappear.”

The miserable man answered: “Since I first saw you, life is nothing to me. They will kill me without cause. But please answer me one question since you are to be the cause of my death. Why did you smile at all?”

“Silly man!” said the princess. “When I saw what a fool you were making yourself, I smiled in pity, not for any other reason.”

And she disappeared from his sight.

***

Idries Shah’s commentary:

In his “Parliament of the Birds,” Attar speaks of the misunderstanding of subjective emotions which causes men to believe that certain experiences (“the smile of the princess”) are special gifts (“admiration”) whereas they may be the very reverse (“pity”).

Many have been misled, because this kind of literature has its own conventions, into believing that Sufi classical writings are other than technical descriptions of psychological states.