The TennGW "Red Burqa" Brohaha: Whose Cultural Imperialism???

Well, what an interesting weekend this has been in the blogosphere…

First, there is the smackdown going on between Browninfempower (BiF) of WOC Blog and DarkDaughta of One Tenacious Baby Mama over the ongoing Women of Color Carnivals and how more sexually radical women are (or aren’t) being represented within the larger movement…and a few others have gotten into the fracus…

..and now, we have this nice poopstorm brewing over an ad posted by a women’s group called the Tennessee Guerilla Women using the Muslim burqa as a symbolic campaign against repressive anti-abortion and anti-sex laws against women in the US.

I’ll save my comments on the former for another time..but the latter issue has me tied in knots due to my real misgivings over the fundamental issues raised.

Depending upon whomever you read amongst the feminist community, the TennGW “Red Burqa” campaign is either a brilliant stroke of “shock and awe” against the continuing attempt to roll back basic freedoms for women…or a gratituous and racist (as in “White Western elitist”) putdown of Islam and Islamic women who choose to defend that particular choice of covering as part of their stated beliefs…not to mention totaly wrong headed at a time when “the West” is assaulting Islamic nations as part of the “War on Terror”.

Now, I can respect — and even to a point concur with — the arguments of those like BiF and Liza at culturekitchen hat say that using the burqa as a symbol of all that oppresses women does indeed ignore the context of the current anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has undercut general Middle East politics and cultural debate throughout. And I can see just as clearly how it ignores the issue of how some Arab and Islamic women do defend (if not embrace) the hijab and the burqa as a symbol of their religious beliefs..even in resistance to the more fundamentalist, misogynistic forms of Islam practiced in many countries.

However…there are a few issues that force me to seperate myself a bit from that view.

To begin…let’s explain the context of TennGW’s campaign one more time, shall we?? It is NOT directed towards women in Iraq or Afghanistan or even Arab or Muslim women; it is directed towards women IN AMERICA who are indeed being threatened with the loss of basic American freedoms by the dominant ruling fundamentalist Right….who indeed openly state their preferred vision of covering up women that is quite similar to the fundamentalist Islamic concept of “burqas”. Here’s my first question: How in the holy hell is that in any way “cultural imperialism” or in any way a slam against Islamic women???

Please riddle me this: How does resisting laws proposed in Tennessee (and passed in South Dakota) outlawing a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (even one conceived against her will) represent “bigoted, racist, imperialist feminism” ??? I guess that “Islamic feminism” is considered more superior, more radical, more “feminist”, then, than more traditional liberal/progressive, “Western” ideas of female sexual autonomy and individual choice, then?? That’s the only conclusion I can come to after seeing this snippet of opposition to the TennGW ad from Liza at culturekitchen:

With this Red Burka campaign, you can see why they feel so estranged from American feminism.

In truth, I’d feel more comfortable describing this CafePress moment as one of utter stupidity wrapped in the ignorance and lack of cultural awareness that is typical of the privileged. I’ve always said that gringos of all kinds have the privilege of not having to learn about other people’s culture because American Empire needs its citizens to remain culturally clueless so it can spread like a virus far and wide.

Ahhh…pardon me, Liza…but since when did American women have to get approval from “Islamic feminists” to justify their basic rights as citizens to control their own bodies??? That some Islamic women may justify the burqa as their own symbol of feminist resistance from within Islam is their right and perogative, and all progressives should respect their position and give them the respect they deserve…but how does that relate to opposing restrictive laws here in the United States?? The fact remains that whether or not some women do accept the burqa, it remains a symbol of exactly the type of restrictive and punitive sexual code that is being imposed on many Arab women against their stated will in many areas. To label these women who do resist such a restrictive code as “imperialist Western elitists” is no less overgeneralizing and scapegoating than labeling all Islamic people (or all Arabs) as “terrorists” or “Islamic fundamentalists”…and, coming from people whom I assume would oppose restrictions on women’s freedoms, simply smacks of the same elitism that they throw like so much cowchips at the TennGW group.

Second point: It is so amazing to see how much some feminists and Leftists still can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to conflating critiques of Islam as a social belief system with “racism” or “cultural imperialism”…as if conservative Islam has replaced Communism and/or antiglobalization as the new progressive social movement against “Western imperialism”. It’s one thing to oppose the brutal and genocidal occupation of Iraq and the US/Israeli occupation of Palestine on general internationalist, antiimperialist and human decency grounds; it’s quite another thing altogether to embrace an “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” approach and blindly
ignore the more reactionary context of what Islam as a conservative institutionalized religion stands for. And before you drop the “anti-Muslim” card on me, my critique of Islam is based upon their status as an organized religion, in the same form that I would criticize equally Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism (sp?) or any other organized religion that uses the power of the State to impose restrictive and reactionary social views on other people.

In fact, I feel that those who are so quick to embrace “progressive Islam” as the next great Left movement (just like those who embraced liberation theology or other fad religious “progressive movements”) tend to ignore the structural bases of social repression in which MOST or ALL such movements tend to stand on…most of which are based fundamentally upon the second-class status of women and the full regulation if not total abolition of sexuality outside of the bounds of procreative marriage. There really is not that much difference between the Religious (Christian) Right’s advocacy of restrictions on women’s sexuality and the Islamic one..in fact, in many cases, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists will set aside their differences and unite together against the common shared threat of sexual liberation and sexual freedom that they say “feminism” (and homosexuality as well) represents.

It’s almost as if those who are so quick to drop the “Western imperialist” card on others who don’t embrace “progressive Islam” or “progressive Christianity” or other attempts to reconcile conservative social/sexual views with economic radicalism really are willing to impose their own conservative sexual biases on other, less “enlightened” women. Talk about a pot-to-kettle moment.

Now, this isn’t to say that Islamic people aren’t under attack from a brutal and aggressive form of White supremacy…far from it. The bombs are still dropping freely in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Occupied Territories (and are about to spread to Iran as well) and the underpinnings of simple White racism against any non-White person who gets in the way of the Imperial Guard is clear as day. But that’s the exact point….it is crass anti-Arab racism, not anti-Islamic thought, that ultimately lays the foundation for the violence and war there..Islam is only a symptom for the real disease of capitalism, inequality, and racism.

As tempting it may be to embrace Islam tourt court as the basis of resistance; as genuine Leftist sex radicals and secularist progresssives, we have to remain consistent in our insistence that while we respect the rights of individuals to express their personal faiths in whatever nonviolent way they wish, that does not give them the carte blanche to demonize those who choose to explore themselves otherwise.

The best that we as American progressives can do to help the Iraqis and Arabs (including those Muslim feminists who could use some real support) is to do our part to change the policies of our own government to end this imperialistic occupation and get our asses OUT of there ASAP….and then allow local forces to take over from there. After all our government has done to fuck things up, we have no moral standing to lecture anyone — let alone Muslims — on their actions.

In the meantime, we here in the United States of America have more than enough battles in our own plate to fight, and retaining basic rights of individual autonomy for women is one of the most important battles we face. The TennGW folks may have been a bit over the top with their Red Burka campaign….but they are a far, far cry from being anywhere near racist, imperialist, or elitist for their intentions. Rather than drown them with our own myopias and biases, why not support them with your time and money, and actually help them roll back the crusades of the Right here at home?? With all due respect to feminists within Islam, we have our own rights to take care of, too.

Of course, Kelley at Bitch | Lab is all over this topic, too..in fact, she’s made it a central pillar of her “F*ck Feminists” week…

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