Some strands of feminism have a long history of serving as adjuncts of Western imperialism. Today they also enable domestic prejudice. Gore Vidal once mocked George Bush’s idea of democracy promotion as being synonymous with: ‘Be free! Or I’ll kill you’. In a similar vein, some feminists today want to ‘liberate’ Arab-Muslim women by constraining their freedoms. These women can’t possibly know what they really want, you see. The European feminists, like Bush, know what’s best for them. What could my sister — who studied at a co-ed university (in Peshawar!) but turned to wearing the hijab after moving to Canada — know about her interests? She must be told by the enlightened Westerner. She must be liberated.
Ignorance and racism combine in this potent form of messianism to sanction prejudice which increasingly targets Europe’s immigrant communities. Like the Orientalists of yore, this brand of feminism insists on seeing the brown or black woman in the subordinate role, wistfully awaiting a Westerner liberator. They are childlike, they must be protected in the same manner that a responsible parent protects an unruly nestling. They must be saved from the hijab, or — God forbid! — the veil. To protect their freedom of choice, their freedom to choose must be revoked.
Today more and more assertive Muslim women living in the West are taking up the hijab, as a defiant assertion of their identity and independence. It is no longer just a religious symbol, it is also often a political symbol. But of course, the addled mind of the colonial feminist cannot fathom this — or the idea of diversity. It must cloak cultural supremacism as defence of a presumed universal value; it must elevate its cultural preference into a universal desire. It must erase all other, inferior, aspirations, such as those of the Arab-Muslim woman to choose how she dresses, what she does or does not want to wear. It must enshrine its own preferences in an official ban, and demand that others — the minorities — must assimilate. They must comply, or else be deemed un-emancipated. Prejudice against such unenlightened women thus becomes legitimate. Indeed, it becomes a moral imperative. Racism becomes a virtue.
Today militant disbelief is a far more potent threat than religious radicalism. It is perhaps no more implacable than religious fundamentalism but the instruments of mass destruction available to it are immeasurably more awesome. Its quixotic crusades are more numerous and far bloodier. Given its monopoly on power, it is often a shorter distance between its ideals and catastrophe. As, among others, John Gray has shown in Black Mass, children of the Enlightenment — from the Communists, National Socialists, Capitalists, to Neo-conservatives — have all rationalized mass-slaughter in the name of progress. Racism, likewise, is always in the service of a presumed noble ideal. As Sven Lindqvist highlights in his splendid work on Western colonialism, there was a time when, inspired by Darwinian ideas, the extermination of inferior races was seen as a necessary, indeed moral, imperative by enlightened Europeans. It was necessary for human progress. Natural selection could be expdited by unnatural destruction.
And so — as Kurt Vonnegut would say — it goes. Sarkozy’s government is once again at war with the 367 French women who wear the veil according to a July 2009 report. The Progressive London conference is rightly highlighting this issue to protect womens’ right to choose what they wear. But colonial feminists will have none of this. A reader forwards us this letter sent to the Guardian by one Frankie Green who illustrates all the stupidity and ignorance described earlier.
Let us hope discussion went further than the facile idea that this supposed ‘right’ is primarily about religious symbolism and the need to not embolden right-wing racists, and dealt with the question of what exactly it is about women’s bodies, hair and faces that requires their obliteration, and why women are shamed and blamed for men’s apparent inability to control themselves at the sight of bare female flesh. If conference-goers debated how to best support the brave women worldwide who have campaigned against the gender apartheid and patriarchal inequality of these misogynist practices, that truly would be progressive.
The contempt that this letter shows for the wog needs no elaboration. In this world view the display of ‘bare female flesh’ becomes synonymous with emancipation. But it is the complete immunity of this type of reasoning to irony that makes it most frightening. It is this cast of mind that needs to be liberated from the veil of ignorance and prejudice that so hampers its capacity for empathy.