The Muslim feminist and the Orientalist gaze: why we need more cross-cultural discussion in the media

By Emke de Vries, Master student in Political Communication

Recently, Dolce & Gabbana revealed a hijab and abaya  collection. Also H&M used an Islamic model with a scarf in a recent campaign that embraces diversity. The adaption of the Islamic dress style by the fashion industry should, however, not be confused with a political standpoint. Nowadays the so-called Islamic fashion is one of the fastest growing sectors in the industry, estimated to be worth almost 200 billion euro by 2020. However the introduction of Muslim women into the global fashion industry could certainly help making the hijab more visible and accepted in the Western world. This acceptance has been critical since the beginning of the century, where the orientalist gaze seems to be still visible in the media landscape. In order to decrease this orientist gaze, we need more diversity and cross-cultural discussions in the media.

The idea of orientalism goes back to 1978, when the Palestinian-American researcher  Edward Said introduced the concept by his book Orientalism. Following his view, the West continues to uphold the perception of the East as less developed or backwards. Indeed, today, ideas of orientalism can easily be found in the representation of Islamic women in Western media.

From a Western point of view, the veil as Muslim women wear it often functions as a signal of women’s repression. It also is perceived as exotic and threatening.
And it is especially the veil that is also a point of discussion in the Western world. Since the 1970s and the second wave feminism, in almost the whole Western world a naked woman’s body became a reference to a woman’s right over her own body and sexuality. The right of a woman to dress the way she wants, showing as much skin as she want and have sex when she wants, has been a struggle in the feminist movement in the West since decennia.

In a recent blogpost, the researcher and journalist Rafia Zakaria takes this even further by arguing that feminism has been reduced to sexual liberation by “white feminism”. She names it a transformation of a deep and complex movement into one where emancipation is based on the consumption of sex.  “Within this movement, its biggest casualty is the stereotyping and exclusion of Muslim feminists, who struggle against terror, obscurantism and the weight of patriarchal domination, all relegated to a position of inferiority, based on their refusal to affirm that freedom essential means the freedom to have sex,” she writes.

It seems indeed true that feminist movements in the West are focused on issues that are at stake within their societies and do not always understand that these issues are perceived different within other cultural backgrounds. As media is focused on the Western world, the voice most often heard are those of white women (after white men). Within the feminist movement, the focus in media has been on sexual liberation as well as on de-sexualization of women’s bodies.

A recent example is the feminist group “Femen”, that protests against patriarchy and dominant religion by showing their (half) naked bodies, and especially their breasts. The protests are staged and receive a lot of media-attention. Femen has also been protesting against Islam. Recently at an Islamic congress, with writings of anti-Islamic texts on their bodies. However these protests have been answered with counter-protests by Muslim women.  “Nudity does not liberate me and I do not need saving,” appears on one of the anti-Femen Facebook pages. Once again this gap illustrates the black-and-white-difference that is being made by some Western feminists; only by achieving sexual liberation or even leaving behind their tradition and religion, Muslim women can truly be free.

In order to show the grey zones, and the wide variety of opinions and voices, cross-cultural discussions as well as diversity should be more central on national television. An example of engaging discussions on these topics can be found in the show Head to Head, produced by Al Jazeera, hosted by Mehdi Hasan.  In the episode ““War on women, war on liberty?”  feminist icon Naomi Wolf joins a discussion about whether feminism is dominated by white-middle-class Western women. Wolf’s latest book Vagina: A New Biography focuses on the relationship between women’s vagina’s and their brains as well as on “what women really need in a sexual relationship”. The book had recently been labeled as “essentialist, narcissistic and simplistic” and overall, as an example of “white feminism”. The stimulating and relevant discussion between Wolf and Muslim feminists as well as  feminists of color, that do not see diverse experiences in the feminist movement and do not relate to the experiences described in her book,  is central in the episode.

In the episode “Do Arab men hate women?”, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, who started a devastating critique of women’s rights in the Arab world discusses whether Muslim societies are inherently patriarchal and whether the narrative of Islam as sexist plays into geo-politics and Western stereotypes of the Middle East. Eltahawy for example argues that the veil (in this sense the niqab, that also covers the face) limits interaction and basic human communication that exists partly out of non-verbal communication. Dr. Shuruq Naquib, a British-Egyptian academic however mentions that when you are forbidding women to wear the veil, you are imposing your own views of how female agency should look like in the public sphere on others. According to her, some women express this differently and by not accepting the difference you are being a fundamentalist feminist in a repressive way for other women.

As these episodes show, cross-cultural discussions among a variety of experts can stir the debate regarding Muslims in the Western society. These debates can challenge stereotypes and make us look critical at our own prejudices and pre-conceptions. Especially in the current political environment, where Muslims are more and more perceived as quintessentially different from “us”. It is also needed for feminism; to remain relevant the movement needs to be inclusive and open to interpretations.

The task to show more inclusive debates is also one for national TV stations and media outlets. This could prove to be especially challenging in the Netherlands, where it has become clear that “Dutch tolerance” is actually an example of Dutch pragmatism and should not be confused with the acceptance of different views. Every discussion on cultural differences or minorities seems to be hijacked by offensive right-wing rhetoric.
As Luyendijk describes, the Netherlands seem to be disoriented at the current debate while confidence in integration has faded. More inclusive discussions and less judgement are perhaps a way to show the Dutch that true integration can only happen when there is respect and openness from both sides.