Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (1)


In a park in Isfahan, Iran, 2005.

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: Using labels which fasten on skin colour, ethnicity or religious identity to treat whole groups of people as Blacks, Chinese, Jews or Muslims, is racist. And there is plenty of it around. If we think of Islamophobia – which literally means a fear of Islam – as another form of racism, we get a better measure of what is going on.

Racisms, in whatever version they appear, always serve the people in power. Far too often one hears comments about Muslims which would be immediately recognised as racist if they were said about black or Jewish people. And often these days such comments go unchallenged.

And as the Charlie Hebdo outcry has made clear, many feminists, Marxists and liberals find any accommodation between feminism and Islam well-nigh impossible. This leaves a space easily filled by cultural racism.

In a series of posts we shall aim to disentangle some of the ideas which make Islamophobia seem acceptable to many people who otherwise loath and deplore global inequality and imperialist wars. Our aim is make it easier to speak out against this hatred of Muslims and Islam.

To do this, we use gender as our lens. It is a powerful device for seeing through racisms that can otherwise seem self-evidently correct. Sexist ideas and practices are often places where a dominant ideology does not quite cohere, where slippages, and contradictions, allow us to glimpse of what is actually going on.

We begin this series of posts on Feminism and Islamophobia with a brief note on cultural racism and ‘the veil’.

The racism targeting Muslims has roots in a long history of ‘Orientalism’. This is Edward Said’s term for the ways the West disparagingly describes the East to claim superiority and justify imperial forays[1]. Orientalism has been deeply embedded in European thinking since the time of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition through to British rule in India. The new oil wars in the Middle East, Israeli apartheid and the different uprisings of the Arab spring, all come with their own versions of Orientalism attached.

Orientalism is about the West appropriating Eastern styles, resources and labour, while despising Muslims. Islam is presumed to be rigid, formulaic and fanatical. Mindless genuflection, camels, funny clothes, palm trees, heat, indolence – these stereotypes are so familiar and taken-for-granted that they do a good job of hiding colonial penetration and Western domination.


Brighton Pavilion begun in 1787

Orientalism works particularly well as a racist ideology because it is rests on prejudices that are class-ridden and deeply sexist. The class discourse focuses on both Middle Eastern peasants and a new entity called ‘the Arab street’.

The peasants are presented as people who have farmed along the Nile for millennia, living lives of Biblical backwardness, unchanged since the time of the pharaohs.[2] The ‘Arab street’ is a patronizing way of talking about urban working class people, the 20 million who live in Cairo, the millions in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Benghazi and Sana. The implication is that this ‘street’ is inhabited by a cowering mob of resentful, angry, and probably homeless, men.

As with class, the contradictions around gender are also deep and amazingly powerful. Orientalism links explicit and repressed sexuality and the putative danger and violence of Islam. Just consider the stereotypes. Middle Eastern men wear skirts round their legs and tea towels on their heads. They are small, sly, and monstrously cruel to women.

Yet in Afghanistan these same men stand up to the mighty armed forces of the US and NATO while dressed in turbans, shalwar-kemiz and flip-flops or plastic shoes. In Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, young, dark, bearded, death-defying, fundamentalists are somehow terrorizing the west.

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A young Pashtun man, Afghanistan

The sexualized stereotypes of Middle Eastern women are also fraught. On the one hand, there are belly dancers, lascivious women, the Seraglio and harems of the Sultans and Pashas. On the other hand, there are whole countries full of silent, veiled women who need to be saved from their fathers, husbands and sons.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres-996865

Odalisque by Ingres

As Edward Said put it, an association between the East and sex is one of the most persistent themes of Orientalist discourses. It is an association which discredits Oriental ‘fecundity, yet titillates, suggesting sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, and deep generative energies’. Thus, all women and men – as Arabs, Turks, Middle Easterners or Muslims – are sexualized and treated as members of a single homogeneous category.[3]

To understand Orientalism, it helps to think about how cultural racism works. Anthropologists have long fought against predatory, and often crass, appropriations of their professional speciality, ‘culture’. But the battle was already lost in the 1970s when governments and businesses began to dub everything cultural, from ‘management culture’ to multiculturalism.[4]

In the 1970s, when identity politics was replacing the radical social movements of the 1960s, the process was dialectical. The radical legacy of the 1960s had made overt racism and sexism illegal, and ensured that after Vietnam the US did not invade another country for a generation. Yet ‘culture’ was appropriated by the political right and became a mask for racism and sexism. Once the notion of identity gains currency, no matter how sophisticated the analysis, people end up being squeezed into boxes. Identity politics is used to homogenize ‘good’ identities like ‘women’, ‘gays’, and ‘Native Americans’. But the same logic can as easily homogenize ‘bad’ identities like ‘pathetic veiled women’ and ‘terrorists’.

British right-wingers in the UK Independence Party may emphatically deny they are racists. But they target migrants, and people of colour, by insisting they are just defending British culture. Similarly, in the US, new forms of cultural racism are used to punish black schoolboys who admire and copy masculine black working class styles. [5]

Cultural racisms, like other racisms, are systemic and develop as an aspect of ruling class power. The words of a US Army interrogator shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 are chilling and specific:

Of Afghan clans and Saudi tribes we knew nothing until we had started to pick up a rudimentary knowledge in Bagram [the American prison and torture centre near Kabul]. We were only beginning to see how cultural differences and ethnic divisions could be manipulated towards our ends. [6]

Cultural racism is a chimera, a monster that can fit itself around almost any prejudice going. And by using culture as a gloss for religious difference, it is becomes easy to target Muslims of all kinds. In Islamophobia, racialized differences are marked superficially by beards and veils.

However, other purported differences are understood to be unalterable and more than skin deep. These are the traits believed to lurk inside Muslims as part of who they are. The stereotypes are familiar, and not unlike those used to stigmatize others. So Muslims can be said to be emotional and irrational. They are primitive, not modern, and as such they are savage, tribal and prone to fanatical belief. In short, Islamophobia is a racism which combines colour, ethnicity and religion. As such it is a powerful weapon in the armoury of those who seek to divide and rule.

Since 9/11, Islamophobia (AKA the war on terror) has become hegemonic – a dominant discourse of the US and UK governments. It has been used in the UK and the US to protect elite interests through fear and force, to justify increased government controls over ordinary lives at home, and to scapegoat the most vulnerable – migrants, refugees and Muslims.


John Simpson of the BBC wears a burqa to disguise himself as he enters Kabul in 2001.



Though there are honourable exceptions, most writing since 9/11 has exoticized Arabs and especially Afghans. Clearly, the US and UK governments have a vested interest in such othering. But they have done the job so thoroughly that many people who oppose the American wars have succumbed to their spin.

Nowhere is this clearer than in discussions of ‘the veil’. In a generic way, ‘the veil’ is now associated particularly with Islam, but, of course, this has not always been so.

irish collenn

Irish Colleen


Virgin Mary

TurkeyDVD 1051

Turkish bride and groom, 1982

In practice, any head-covering and ‘the veil’ can symbolise oppression, resistance, modesty, liberation, beauty, or many other things. But generalizing arguments often appear compelling because they suggest that wearing a headscarf, or ‘veiling’ is a unitary phenomenon. Yet the rhetorical power of the imagery of the veil lies in its vacuity, in its emptiness. So what ‘the veil’ means in any situation depends on who is describing the phenomena of veiling, for whom and to what end. And in this way the rhetorics of veiling have proved a versatile political tool.[7]

It is useful to remember that religious beliefs and practices in class societies can be used in two completely contrary ways. Versions of Islam can sanctify inequality and legitimate ruling class claims to power – think only of the holier-than-thou Saudi Arabian regime, or that of the Ayatollahs in Iran.

prince charles

Englishman visits Saudi Arabia

Somewhat confusingly, versions of the intolerant secularism of the European Enlightenment can do the same job – think of Richard Dawkins and the French laws against veiling.


Englishwoman in headscarf


More Englishwomen in headscarves

Equally, however, religious beliefs and practices can express the aspirations of the oppressed, as they do in many versions of activist Islamism today. Again, somewhat confusingly, the secular systems of morality of many humanists and socialists can do the same job.

Both conventional versions of Islam, and radical, revivalist Islamisms are sometimes used to shore up elite power, and in other cases to challenge such power. So it is not surprising that veils and veiling, as symbols of versions of Islam, can also play this double role in the cultural racisms and culture wars of the 21st century.

So, for instance, Saudi princes on official visits to London or Washington wear ‘traditional’ robes, thus inviting comparison between their great wealth and power and wealth and that of politicians or the English monarchy. This is a conservative position which supports class privilege. By the same token people in both the Middle East and Euro-America also focus on the veil to identify and castigate the ‘fundamentalist’ threat from Muslims. They contrast the ‘repression of Muslim women’ with their own Middle Eastern or Western ‘enlightened emancipation’. This is often an argument made in countries where working class and peasant women wear headscarves, and elite women do not.


British workers in World War 2

(Later posts in this series on Islamophobia will explore the ways that ‘enlightenment values’ can be used to link secularism, ‘modernity’, class privilege and gender in a particularly pernicious way.)

Sorting apples for export, Turkey 1984

Sorting apples for export, Turkey 1984

On the other hand, veils and veiling practices and head-coverings of all kinds may also be ways of expressing resistance to political oppression and exploitation. And they have been used by Islamists and other Muslims to signal loyalties and interest that may not be particularly ‘religious’ or sectarian at all. (As a comparison, consider the Dalai Lama wearing ‘traditional’ dress as testimony to his moral authority.)


Palestinian Demonstration

A fascination with veiled Middle Eastern women and veiled men has been a part of western orientalism for centuries.


English Orientalist


Tuareg Oriental

So it has long been available as a short-hand way of expressing the changing character of hostility to Muslims and to Islam. ‘Resistance veiling’ became a particularly important way to express popular dissent after the 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran against the Shah, a US ally. Yet also in 1978, just next door to Iran, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There, the only people who consistently fought against the brutal Russian occupation of the country were Islamists. In this situation the US position was opportunistic. They gave arms, money and refuge to the Afghan mujahidin, with their harsh gender regime and their insistence on women veiling.

Or consider another example. In 1982 the Syrian dictatorship of Hafiz al-Assad destroyed the opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood by bombing the city of Hama and killing 40,000 people. By 1990 many women in Damascus who were not particularly religious showed their hatred of the regime in the only they could by covering their hair with a headscarf, or donning a full veil.

During the final decades of the 20th century attention to veiling increased as the shape of global politics changed. The changes were complicated: neoliberal governments became more ruthless and exploitative of ordinary people, the Cold War balance of power altered, while Middle Easterners turned to Islam to express their opposition to the oppressive dictatorial regimes which ruled them.

It is worth noting how this new interest in ‘the veil’ on all sides is reflected in academic and more popular books and articles on the Middle East. The numbers which include ‘the veil’ in their titles are quite astonishing. ‘Beyond the Veil’, ‘Under the Veil’, ‘Up the Veil’ – there is no end of variation. Nor are images of veiled women neutral. Salacious cover photographs are redolent with Orientalist import – Iranian women in black chadors, Afghan women with mesh-fronted charderis suggest that all the women underneath are identically ‘Muslim’ and identically subject to Islamic strictures.


Dresses for Sale, Isfahan, Iran, 2005

Confusing and contradictory justifications for veiling abound. On the one hand, women are assumed to be weak and in need of protection from threats to her honour. On the other, society must be protected from women whose unbridled lust can seduce men and cause trouble between them.

Or veiling practices may be said to cover the shame of women’s dependence on men. Or they may act as measure of the control of men. Or they may be seen as a mark of the complementarity of women and men. In short, ‘veiling’ may be held to indicate virtually anything informants and the analyst want. The problem is that there is no single garment, nor any single woman or man, who dresses as she or he does for any single reason.

In its crudest form, much of what is written about veiling in the Middle East depends on constructing two extreme and apparently exclusive points of view. One is the view of the outsider who claims the moral high ground by categorizing others as identical ‘Middle Easterners/Muslims’. The other is the view of the insider who knows intimately that dress styles depend on choices which relate to each individual and their unique material and social circumstances.

And what is more, such generalizations about veiling or ‘women’s dress in the Middle East’ almost always assume that differences between women and men are categorical, comprehensive and completely understood. However, a moment’s reflection shows that this is not so.

First, there are considerable differences within each apparently natural gender category. That is, different individuals who are ascribed membership of one gender category are by no means anatomically identical, and some individuals confound local gendered dichotomies. A splendid paper by Paula Sanders which makes just this point, as she explains how intersexed people were assigned a gender by medieval Muslim jurists.[8]

And of course anatomy is not destiny. People differ in their emotional interests, intellectual character, sexual predilections, and social choices. Such differences disrupt local and analytical certainties about gender.

This leeway between dress and gendered identities is all too often ignored in accounts of clothing in the Middle East. Yet it is worth remembering every time one hears talk about ‘the veil’.

Three brief, very different, examples can suggest the elasticity of the relation between dress and identity.

Among Durrani Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan in the 1970s, pastoral households that had only the labour of young girls available to them often dressed these children as boys and expected them to shepherd small flocks of sheep and goats.

Or consider the Omani transvestites, known as xanith, who all wore pastel-coloured men’s robes, known as dishdashes. They walked with a swaying gait and reeked of perfume, but were not allowed to wear women’s clothes. And we learn from Unni Wikan, the ethnographer, that ‘attempts by transsexuals to appear dressed as women have taken place, but were pushed by imprisonment and flogging’.[9]

Or consider Bruce Ingham’s experience in Qatar. He was driving with an Arab friend, and on that particular occasion dressed completely in Arab clothes. As they were travelling, his companion notices a car obviously in trouble on the other side of the road. He recognized the car as belonging to one of his sisters and he swerved rountd to see what was the matter. Bruce stayed in the background as was proper, though his companion was amused to see that his sisters immediately covered their faces with their black head shawls.


Arab man

‘Don’t worry’, the man explained. ‘It’s only the Doctor and he isn’t an Arab, so it doesn’t matter’.

‘Ah, yes, but he’s wearing Arab clothes. So it does matter’, the sisters replied.

These examples remind us how a gendered identity is embodied and clothing is not some added extra. It is not some post facto ‘symbol’ of difference, but rather that the medium is the message. Knowing this helps locate ourselves. We start from the idea that inequalities of gender reinforce, justify and reproduce other, wider social inequalities In discussions about ‘the veil’. We are democrats and feminists, but we take the side of ordinary people, including Muslim believers, against the states and imperial system that oppresses them.

[1] Edward Said, 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge.

[2] An excellent starting place to start reading about this is Timothy Mitchell’s Colonising Egypt, 1991, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[3] Said, 1978, p. 188.

[4] Ali Rattansi’s Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction offers a balanced critique (2011, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[5] For more on this, see our earlier blog, Punishing Bad Boys.

[6] Quoted in Chris Mackey and Greg Miller, The Interrogator’s War: Breaking al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, 2004, London, John Murray, p. 451.

[7] For more on the many meanings of the veil, see Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper and Bruce Ingham, eds., 1997. Languages of Dress in the Middle East. London: Curzon. (To download click here).



Burqa Barbie

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