A BBC documentary asked if the feminist movement is fracturing. Could the same question be asked about Muslims and Palestine, wonders Faisal Al Yafai?
Muslim women should lead the debate on the hijab as much as Palestinians voices should be heard about Al Aqsa
"White women should shut up about the hijab." That startling statement by the Egyptian-American author Mona Eltahawy began a BBC radio documentary last week about the fractures within modern feminism. Anita Anand, author of a biography of the Indian suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh, explored the argument that the voices of black, Muslim and working-class women have been sidelined in favour of the white, middle-class women who dominate discussion of feminism in the West.
But Anand was exploring a further position on this issue, which has become more popular in the past decade, that white women have no right to comment on issues affecting black or Muslim women. This reduction of political movements to silos of different interests, where only people from one group can comment on the issues that affect that group, is taking place not only in the discussion on women's rights. It extends into the discussions about race, about Middle East politics and about religion.
This is what Eltahawy says in A Split in the Sisterhood: that when white women start talking about the hijab, it immediately makes the Muslim community circle the wagons, feeling that they are under attack and need to defend their faith.
“That's why I want anyone who is not a Muslim woman to shut up about hijab; you're making my job so much more difficult.” When the voices of Muslim women are typically excluded from the public conversation, for white women to speak about these issues means that the public discussion becomes about them, their interpretations and prejudices, and less about the lived-experience of Muslim women.
Look elsewhere and the same issues arise. Last week, the Syrian-American artist Mona Haydar released her second music video, Dog. Her first, Hijabi, went viral four months ago, attracting more than a million hits – and catapulting Haydar into the conversation around American Islam.
In Dog, Haydar criticises Muslim religious scholars who preach piety but secretly make approaches to her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many on Twitter took her to task for generalising about all religious scholars or all Muslim men – and, equally unsurprisingly, some on Twitter took Haydar's words as implying precisely that.
The US Muslim community, on social media at least, appeared to circle the wagons, criticising Haydar in the terms that women who attack the feminist movement are attacked: you are airing dirty linen in public. You are splitting the Muslim community. You are getting a platform because of your looks and crowding out other – the implication was more worthy – voices.
Or take what is happening on television screens across the world right now, the story of Palestine and the clashes in Jerusalem. Despite leading the news agenda, Palestinians themselves are curiously absent. The reporters and the analysts are from other parts of the world, deciding what issues should be addressed, what questions should be asked, how the whole issue should be framed. Rarely, when Palestinians gathering outside the mosque are interviewed on camera, do they see their protests as a question of religion, but a question of rights. However, the religious framing persists.
That is because, in all of the cases above, the public discussion about these issues is mediated by gatekeepers, almost all of whom are white, middle-class, non-Muslim men. It is these gatekeepers who provide “permission”, implicit or not, for the women, the Muslims and the Palestinians to speak. Which means, knowingly or not, the speech that gets aired is only what those gatekeepers are comfortable hearing.
The root of this is power and privilege. Those gatekeepers who currently have power will fight in order not to give it up. But it goes further than that. Some of the gatekeepers with power don’t see themselves as being all that powerful. The white, middle-class women who dominate western feminism are, themselves, fighting the much wider domination of men. Artists like Haydar are creating a space for themselves in the music industry; how can they, at the same time, make space for the views of Muslim men? Palestine is already barely discussed in the international media given the severity of the occupation; what does it matter if those speaking for Palestine are not Palestinian?
That's where these conversations usually reach an impasse, because there doesn’t appear to be an easy answer. And that impasse itself facilitates the status quo: there are still panels full of men talking about women, and panels full of non-Arabs talking about Syria and Iraq.
But surely silos are not the answer. The Pakistani author Rafia Zakaria says in the documentary that, rather than silencing white women, it is precisely these women who should open doors for others. That recognition that the issues are connected is essential: A Split in the Sisterhood discusses who can speak for Middle Eastern women; Haydar's song addresses all-female panels; Palestinians have questioned why Palestinian female activists seem excluded.
Beyond that is the requirement to listen. It means white women listening to the experiences of black women. It means Muslims listening to the experiences of other Muslims - non-Arab Muslims, female Muslims – and how those experiences are different. It means those of us who write about the Middle East must be open to hearing the views of people on the ground in Jerusalem, in Raqqa or in Mosul, even if those views are uncomfortable.
"White people are not used to having their privilege questioned. White people are used to talking,” says Eltahawy. That could apply to all the rest of us, too, who are not black women, who are not Muslim women, who do not live in Palestine. The privilege of speaking entails the responsibility to listen.