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When Anti-Racism Becomes Anti-Woman: The 'Privileging' of Race above Gender

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Sadly, I was not surprised to read that brave Egyptian-American activist and writer, Mona Eltahawy faced a barrage of vitriolic abuse this week after the publication of her brilliant article 'Why do they Hate Us?'. Eltahawy's article (shock, horror) dared to criticise the worst excesses of patriarchal violence and misogyny so prevalent in the Middle East.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience. As editorial collective member of The Feminist Wire(TFW), I wrote and published : 'To be Anti-Racist is to be Feminist: the Hoodie and the Hijab are not Equals'. The article, which was in the hands of four TFW collective members before publication and was approved of as 'excellent' by two, generated not only a huge amount of online debate but also abuse in terms of my skin colour (white), character (non-Muslim) and motivation (imperialism). I was called a "racist" and "white imperialist" and was even accused of using the 'ties' of my mixed-race family to "obfuscate my whiteness." For what did I deserve this abuse? For questioning the hijab, not only in relation to majority of women who are forced to wear it, but also those women who have the privilege of 'choice'. For saying that the main parallel that can be drawn between the recent US murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi (if any can be drawn at all) are that they were both the result of a global culture and celebration of male violence and patriarchy. And for claiming that a hijab cannot be compared to hoodie in terms of its origin and symbolism.

Subsequently, The Feminist Wire collective (panicking in the face of hostility from their own members) published a response from 77 North American feminists. This response not only misrepresented and undermined my article but also my credibility as an author. The online debate that ensued was equally aggressive and unpleasant.

Although, some women (of colour and Muslim) defended my article and condemned the collective response as a 'pile-on', such women were either ignored or patronisingly told to read Audre Lorde. Thus making it clear that, according to their feminist ideology, whatever your skin colour or religion if you criticised the hijab you were a racist, imperialist Islamaphobe or an "ignorant hack" (as one woman politely put it).

Shortly afterwards, I was kicked out of TFW and both articles were deleted, citing 'an appeal to legal action' - TFW's founder initiating the threat of legal action. Thus, sending out a strong message that women who criticise the hijab (even though I also criticised the pressure to have breast implants) will be bullied and shamed into silence. It was something straight out of Stalinist or fascist state.

Thankfully, several feminists from Pakistan, Algeria, Senegal, Iran and the US, led by Maryam Namazie, picked up on it before it was removed and delivered their own response:

We extend our full solidarity to Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for such a clear and rare analysis from feminists in Europe and North America, in which women's resistance to the Muslim Right -including by resisting all forms of fundamentalist veiling - is made visible and honoured, rather than sacrificed on the altar of anti racism and anti imperialism.

Ophelia Benson, an atheist feminist from the US, also attacked the Feminist Wire response as "dishonest" and "patronising."

This is not some 'woe is me' tale or attempt at self-promotion. This is a defence of freedom of expression and a deep concern about where the logic of TFW debate takes us: into a black hole of cultural relativism. I have never stated that race and Islamaphobia do not play a role in hatred of the hijab. I have also never denied that the colour of a person's skin is a factor in racism either.

Has the anti-racist debate really become so closed-minded, divisive and fearful? That a white person cannot question any practice or ideology, if it is prevalent amongst people of colour? Does that mean to criticise porn one has to be a porn star? To criticise rape one has to have been raped? This is not to deny the power and authenticity of those with direct experience either. But since when did skin colour and first-hand experience become a barrier to critiquing something? And vice-versa, surely that means that women of colour cannot then critique 'white culture', whatever that might be? Which of course would be ridiculous.

The 'excuse-making of cultural relativism' and the politically correct face of anti-racism is ugly and dangerous. As Lauryn Oates concludes in her eloquent response to Eltahawy's critics:

Without voices like Eltahawy's, those of us on the outside looking in would be able to drown ourselves in the excuse-making of cultural relativism: they like being abused, degraded, violated. Our own society isn't perfect, so how can we criticize? At best, we might give "careful attention" to the most overt forms of misogyny, like FGM. At worst, we might just tell ourselves that the women are choosing it, so let it be.

Whatever our skin colour or religion, we simply cannot let racists, religious maniacs, Islamaphobes and misogynists own this debate on women's clothing and sexuality. We should not shy away from saying something for fear they might agree with us either. The basic human rights of women and girls are not relative to culture but are universal human values. Whether a choice is made freely or not, we still have a right to critique it, especially if that 'choice' harms or disproportionately affects females. I return to Fadela Amara's words, such people:

..define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is. They won't denounce forced marriages or female genital mutilation, because, they say, it's tradition. It's nothing more than neocolonialism. It's not tradition, it's archaic.

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