This talk was given by Nakita Valerio at the University of Alberta for a panel discussion on Islamophobia: Intersections & Cross Currents in honour of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

intersections islamophobia

Peace be upon all of you

First of all, a huge thank you to Professor Janice Williamson for making the time and necessary efforts to create space for this kind of dialogue here at the University. I am honoured to speak among so many talented colleagues and recognize that there are many brilliant thinkers who could be up here instead of myself, so I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Islamophobia and its intersections based on my community work and personal experiences.

We have to be brief so I want only to touch on a few points about Islamophobia as it relates to feminism. Before I do that though, since we primarily have well-intentioned allies in the room and since the theme for today is the intersectionality of Islamophobia, I need scarcely point out that literally anyone on earth can be a Muslim – regardless of gender, orientation, origin, race, ability, economic status or any other social variable. Islamophobia is therefore related to and can permeate all other forms of discrimination. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim that didn’t have some kind of compounded discrimination by virtue of their intersectionality. Even a rich, white, heterosexual cis-male convert to Islam, experiences marginality from the greater non-Muslim global community due to Islamophobia, and also endures the hardship of being a largely ignored or even resented minority within a minority of the Muslim community, not to mention being highly socially isolated. While the discrimination he faces is (undeniably) significantly different than, say a veiled indigenous female convert to Islam or African, African-Canadian and Afro-Caribbean Muslims, it still holds that intersectionality and Islamophobia have to be understood as always going hand-in-hand. And that these will take different forms for different people.

We have to remember that human beings are complex and particular in their social groupings, and that they must not be rigidly compartmentalized according to one discriminatory signifier over another, nor does one necessarily have primacy over the other (particularly visible ones). We know that both oppression and privilege compound through race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability and economy, and that if people are to be understood in their entirety, we have to actually take the time to know them. There is too much shoot-from-the-hip activism these days based on a rigid understanding of an oppressed/privileged dichotomy and, the disturbing part to me, is that even with the best of intentions, people are regularly  being dehumanized in the process.  So some subtlety and patience is in order when dealing with these delicate intersections.

17408114_10101062487644245_1192139057_o

So that’s the first thing to note. The second thing, following from this, is that Islamophobia is therefore a feminist issue. What do I mean by this?

At the superficial level, Muslim women are disproportionately targeted by Islamophobic words, actions and rhetoric. Part of the reason for this can be our visibility and this is, in large part, due to the veil if it is worn. Veiled Muslim women are verbally and physically harassed and assaulted with increasing regularity and are also the targets of racial hatred, and I want to stress, regardless of their ethnicity. Even for “white” converts, the veil acts as a second skin which automatically signifies “colour” to prejudiced people uninterested in the nuances of what constitutes complex Muslim identities. And this is important to note this because within the Muslim discourse and within groups speaking about racial justice there is a tendency to dismiss the racialization that the veil automatically entails, whatever intra-community privilege we hold.

But Muslim women are not only disproportionately targeted by Islamophobia because they might veil. No, non-veiled Muslim women are also the excessive subject of xenophobic words, actions and rhetoric for a much deeper reason.

The Muslim woman represents the vehicle by which the people who hate us, call for the eradication of Islam. The Muslim woman who is pious and stubborn in her piety is declared subconsciously oppressed regardless of how loud she declares her piety to be her choice. The Muslim woman is seen as indoctrinated in Islam, a barbaric way of life that exists only to exact patriarchy in its highest form.

Muslim women, who practice the Deen, are regularly accused by those outside of Islam, of being in need of liberation not recognizing that we view Islam as our liberator. That the antidote to patriarchy for us, is a deeper understanding of Islamic philosophy and law, and not anything less than that. In fact, these accusations are not even limited to non-Muslims. There are countless “scholars” within the Muslim purview who reiterate these bunk theories that the more a woman practices Islam, the less liberated she is.

At this very university, I met with a prominent scholar of Islamic law and was shocked when he stated to other unveiled women in the room that I might be oppressed or duped because I choose to cover my hair for the sake of God, or I say Insha Allah, or I unapologetically leave the room to pray on time. And this stuff was said right in front of me, as though I was not even in the room. Muslims can be as colonized by Islamophobia as anyone and we have to view that, at least in part, as the trace of a colonial project that has spanned centuries.

The declared solution to the issue of Islam for both Islamophobic non-Muslims and Muslims with internalized hatred of Islam is to either eliminate it from the face of the earth or to temper it and secularize it so it is palatable enough to so-called Western sensibilities, as though Islam does not and cannot have similar desires, goals and expressions as other cultural systems around the world, particularly in Western Europe and North America where we have a rich shared history.

If a pious Muslim woman seeks to resist through submission, her intelligence is insulted and her agency is called into question. Islamophobia, in this sense, is merely one strong arm of patriarchy (even its synonym) crushing the right of a woman to choose how she lives her life. And going forward, that needs to change.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_n

Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

In this episode, Emily explores her evolution in understanding about why Muslim women wear the hijab – what it means, how they feel when they wear it and how it stands in opposition to consumer capitalist culture. She also talks about her own personal expression of womanhood in light of these realizations and how these have changed from caring about the male-gaze to feeling confident and body-positive with herself, irrespective of what everyone else is thinking or doing.

In case you missed it, France’s recent ban of the Burkini or modest Islamic swimwear for women has caused massive outrage online from those opposed to secular extremism and anti-feminism. Critics, rightfully, argue that social homogeneity always leads to oppression (particularly of vulnerable minority groups) and that the policing of womens’ bodies (whether it be in how much or how little they are wearing) has deep roots in oppressive patriarchy.

The Burkini ban has sparked economic backlash, with sales for the item soaring online among Muslims and non-Muslims alike – because frankly, who doesn’t love SPF 50 fabric that prevents skin cancers, helps you avoid slathering on chemical-laden sunscreens all while dressing as modestly as you feel because people can do whatever they want with their bodies?

Now plenty of rich businesspeople have kindly stepped up and said that they will pay the fines of whichever women decide to wear the Burkini and get caught by the French police officers who are now being sent to the beach to literally check and make sure women are wearing as little clothing as the law now dictates. That’s great but the laws which treat Muslim women as second class citizens remain unaddressed. Maybe France should have thought about how much they don’t like seeing the hijab while they were busy fetishizing it at the height of colonialism. And don’t be telling me #notallFrenchpeople because I don’t see anyone shouting #jesuisMuslimah in the streets at this atrocious affront to civil liberties.

I feel like this entire blog should be in italics or caps lock because I just.cannot.control.my.rage.today.

Not only is it horrific that the reasons cited for the Burkini ban are concerns around the womens’ “hygiene”, but the fact that this is being celebrated by French secular so-called feminists is atrocious. This is not a win for oppression against women because: IT IS OPPRESSION AGAINST WOMEN.

I know this because I see some sexist men online celebrating the ban because they claim that the Burkini isn’t modest enough anyway. And even more insanely, when a Muslim woman was forced to disrobe under the threat of being pepper-sprayed by armed police officers in public on a beach in Nice, these extremist fools had the audacity to question why that woman was even on the beach, asking sarcastically if swimming is obligatory in Islam.

Are you people kidding me?

As my dear friend and colleague, Liz, pointed out, we also need to look at whom these laws serve. Do these laws serve the minority of women who may be forced to veil, or worse, women who are kept at home (banned from the beach) by abusive husbands or male relatives who are then free to go where they like? Do they allow women freedom of movement or restrict it? The answers are clear.

Why is it that extremists obsessively unite around women’s bodies to either clothe or disrobe them?

Muslim women are at the apex of extremism on all sides: the anti-religionists, the Wahhabists, the anti-Feminists and unsympathetic Muslim women who fail to realize that violent assault is the next step in this program.

Secular and religious extremists share the target of the female body, maiming her together by tearing at her clothes, one stretching them to make them longer, the other ripping them to take them off. And these misogynists are cheered on by women who believe themselves to be both liberated and liberators. The same women who bare their breasts (which they are free to do but #notinmyname) and claim that veiled Muslim feminists might think they are free but they don’t know just how oppressed they are. God forbid that a Muslim woman should also be a person of colour and have white supremacists on her back too.

Seriously, people.

Back off.

And what is it with other Muslim women shaming the woman forced to disrobe? This woman was assaulted by armed police officers with the force of the law behind them in broad daylight on a crowded public beach. She was forced to undress under duress. We don’t even know if she was given the option to leave. Would it be different if she was wearing a bikini to begin with and they made her remove it entirely? Why the sudden lack of empathy and strong judgment for your coreligionist?

Empathetic, feminist women (you know who you are): this is a trying time for all of us.

Stay strong and know that whatever happens, as long as you get home safe in the face of assault from all sides, you did the right the thing. And if you don’t, you do not have yourself to blame. It is not in your head and it will only get worse as long as this behaviour is permitted to continue.

I believe you are a victim of many perpetrators.

I believe it is getting increasingly difficult for you.

I believe that you feel suffocated and overwhelmed sometimes

and that those times are multiplying in number.

I know just how angry you are.

I will say this as long as I can,

even if my voice quivers from fear or from rage.

I will stand with you,

even if my covered knees shake.

I believe you.

We will fight for justice together, insha Allah.