Why feminism needs to ditch colonial attitudes to claim inclusivity

Welcome to the age of post-ism. Racism is over, ageism is over, classism is over and so is sexism too, or at least this is popular thought. However, feminism is needed more now than ever and yet our feminist movement is beginning to eerily reflect the sort of attitudes we should be striving against, and at times blatantly demonstrating racist and illiberal attitudes.

Feminists have in the past seemed ill at ease with the religious, who have in some cases campaigned against abortions and gay marriage – the cornerstones it could be argued of modern feminist achievement. However with more dangers against women from the state than ever before, how can Western feminism become more inclusive of minority values, and in turn the religious?

First we must reflect on what feminism has always been about – was it to focus solely on the individual of the day or to empower women to be able to make decisions about themselves, for themselves? Focusing on a specific religious action with little understanding of context can cause unnecessary divides, whereas uniting on common ground such as wage disparity, maternity rights, and homelessness is plain common sense. Women: the all too often disproportional victims of austerity should not focus on language of gendered Orientalism; but that of liberty. We should not take on the policy of the media of deliberate misunderstanding and misinformation – but support our fellow women to make the decisions they want to make, even if we don’t share the same religious or moral values.

Values of equality and a sense of social justice do not belong to one ethnic, religious or social group and we should not act as such. ‘Colonial Feminism’ is an emergent term, based on a view that difference must be civilized by a liberal, enlightened West. It is closely tied to the term ‘white-knight syndrome’ where sufferers rush to the aid of any they perceive to be in any form of distress.

Recent news stories have highlighted some of these attitudes and actions amongst the feminist community. When Hannah Yusuf discussed her belief that covering her hair as part of her Muslim faith, could also be a feminist statement: In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion.

She received almost instant negative responses on social media regarding her personal and spiritual beliefs. Almost all of them focused around the fact that the commenter felt they were more entitled to judge how Yusuf should be dressing, despite her being an educated, informed adult. The problem is, for as long as the headscarf is forced upon some women, either through the State or by community pressure, it becomes justifiable to wonder whether a stranger is wearing the hijab out of her own free will...” This is a clear example of so called ‘colonial feminism,’ which appears when religious issues and in particular women’s issues intersect. The fact that this commenter feels they have the entitlement to question the personal attire of any Muslim woman is alarming at best; and a racist undertone at worst.

What other group of people would have their personal decisions questioned in such a way, other than the religious. Many a bad fashion choice could be called into question, yet they are not judged by the collective. This sense of the woman’s body belonging to not only her but to the society to investigate has concerning and misogynistic undertones.

Equally when Jewish Belz educational institutions released a letter regarding a religious statement of their belief that driving was not permissible for women, there was uproar at both their comments and the women who sought to defend their personal faith. Those like Chaya Spitz who stated I respect my community custom [of not driving]… The expectations from women and men may not be the same, but they are equally demanding on both sexes.” Comparisons were made to supporting Saudi Arabia in the UK and the women who endorsed the ban were dismissed as naive and brainwashed. Shulem Deen went so far as to say it was a damning and pernicious lie that Hasidim accept restrictions of their own free will” – comments such as these were repeated in articles and news reports for days until the school overturned its ruling and policy. Yet no one took words of the practicing women themselves who both agreed (and disagreed) with the policy as legitimate.

Religion is not the problem but communication is. Creating a false distinction between the feminist and the religious outlook leads to isolation, as demonstrated in recent hashtag campaign #dontneedfeminism although this is not by any means supported by those of faith alone. Some have tried to claim a feminist identity outside the liberal sphere by coining the term ‘Islamic Feminism’ and proudly reclaiming lost female Muslim icons. Rather than belittling the efforts of women who are striving to express their religious identity and empower themselves within their own capacity and perceived role, we should focus on the issues that affect women caused both by men and more widely the state.

Catherine is a design graduate and is pursuing an MA in Youth and Community work, with the long term aim of becoming an a Community Art Worker. She is the co-founder of a youth group for Muslims and is passionate about Interfaith work. She writes in a personal capacity.