Neither burkinis nor makeup: why we need to stop seeing every choice made by women as “empowering”

I have written the following as a response to the article by Helen Pluckrose, Why I No Longer Identify as a Feminist, in a feminist Facebook group of my former bachelor programme. I was thinking about writing a blog post on the issues mentioned in this comment, but finally decided that the comment itself is long enough to be published, after some editing, as a post 😉

I finally had time to read the whole article and I agree with all of the [critical] comments above, about the diversity within feminism, the nature of being a victim and the importance of smaller, every day struggles as well as intersectionality as a way not to silence the voices of WOC and LGBT people in the movement. So in general I don’t agree with the author – I also don’t identify with her brand of liberal feminism (I believe I’m closer to radfems, mostly because of closely relating patriarchy with the capitalist economy).

Still, I think she makes some very valid points, especially about setting universal rules that we, as feminists, want all people to abide by. This sentence sums it up:

A Western liberal feminist can, on the same day, take part in a slut walk to protest Western women being judged by their clothing and accuse anyone criticizing the niqab of Islamophobia.

Stuff like that happens and IMHO it shouldn’t be accepted. Regarding Islam specifically, I would say Muslims in general are oppressed in the Western world, and I understand the need among progressives to refrain from criticising elements of Muslim culture when even left wing governments pander to racists with pointless, oppressive laws such as the burkini ban. Do I believe that the burkini itself is oppressive, as a symbol of religion claiming that women’s bodies should be covered bc of “modesty”? Yes. But in the same way that the make up industry is oppressive, telling women they need to conceal all “imperfections” before they leave the house (think of rules requiring from women to wear make up at work). That does not mean that I would ban make up (it would be hypocritical, as I often wear it myself 😉), but I will support anyone criticising its role in women’s oppression. In the same way, I think we should be critical of sexist aspects of any religion, including Islam. By avoiding such criticism and claiming that a niqab is a tool of liberation (maybe it can be in a some convoluted way for women protesting islamophobia, but I have yet to see an argument that would convince me something like that makes sense) we are harming the movement. Of course I welcome women covering their hair or faces in the movement, the same way I welcome women after breast enlargement surgeries, wearing high heels etc. But let’s not claim any of these things is “empowering” or feminist. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need them, or, more specifically, treat less harmful stuff like make up or veils as fun accessories, free of any symbolism. But we’re not there yet.

Regardless of these examples (Islam & Western fashion trends), cultural relativism is a concept extremely harmful to activism and fields like foreign politics. I remember for the UCU [University College Utrecht] intro sociology course we had to read the book “Cosmopolitanism”, which aims to be about a more sophisticated approach to communicating between cultures. But for most people, cultural relativism is a kind of a tool to avoid some difficult decisions about defining one’s beliefs. It’s easy to say, while confronted with something that makes us uneasy, “it’s just their culture, we should allow them to do what they want”. And once we establish that we actually don’t agree with something foreign to us, let’s say Female Genital Mutilation practised in some African cultures, thinking how we could stop this practice from our countries brings associations of violently promoting one’s ideology across the world: Christian colonialism, jihad, the expansion of Soviet Union, Afghanistan / Iraq invasions etc. But obviously the kind of value promotion we as feminist could & should do has nothing to do with military “interventions”, but rather with supporting our opinions with arguments/science and solidarity with people fighting oppression within their own cultures. The author of the article points out to silencing people criticising Islam from within, or speeches by oldfashioned “TERFs”. We should be really careful not to do stuff like this: the “strategy” of silencing in itself (often in the name of creating “safe spaces”) is pointless and dangerous, and refraining from criticising something from a feminist standpoint because it’s not from my or yours own culture seems even worse.

(Of course, we can make misguided statements about other cultures because we simply don’t know enough about them, and that’s why priority should be given to the voices of people belonging a certain culture. But we can also not know our “own” culture very well and it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment from which we know “enough” to criticise – which is why we shouldn’t let the idea that “it’s not our culture so we don’t know it” silence our criticism.)

After I published the text above, someone else commented:

Criticizing a Muslim woman living in a “modern” Western “liberal” country for the choices she is allowed to actively & individually make about what she wears, and believing you know better than her in regards to what she SHOULD wear isn’t feminist.

My reply:

I wouldn’t criticise people for being religious and expressing it through their clothing either (even though I’m not a fan of religions themselves). But I don’t think it’s a feminist choice to cover your body or hair because of religious laws (of a religion that is very patriarchal). And what this article very accurately points out is that some people in the feminist movement are against slutshaming women for what they wear in Western societies, which comes mostly from Christian traditions, while silencing people criticising the same slutshaming aspects of Islam. To take an example from the article, I think Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a dangerous right winger, but the way I’ve seen her described in some feminist spaces is simply vile. People won’t listen to anything she’s saying while using swearwords to describe her. Same with the 2nd wave feminists who say offensive stuff about trans people. This is the way in which modern feminism sometimes silences narratives of the oppressed who don’t fit our idea of a “good oppressed person”, or don’t follow the rules of safe spaces.

And with stuff like the burkini ban, I’m quite conflicted about it because while I think every woman has the right to decide what she’s doing with her body, I personally still see the tradition of covering oneself as something deeply unfeminist (also I’m not sure how closely it relates to the religion itself – I know female Muslims who don’t even cover their hair?).

Also I was raised in a pretty patriarchal religion (Catholicism) myself and have some experience with internalising harmful patriarchal ideology. Of course it wouldn’t help if people were criticising me personally for eg. following the Catholic Church directions regarding contraception, but encountering critiques of Church’s policy as such really helped me to form my own opinions.