A video clip emerged online this week. It shows a Muslim woman, Rose Hadid, wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I come in peace,’ being escorted, not politely, from a Donald Trump rally, after making a peaceful protest against his exclusionary policies.
This image comes to mind again and again today as I browse the news. Why? Because I see, from a mix of media outlets, complaint after complaint after complaint that ‘feminists’ and ‘LGBT campaigners’ have not spoken enough about the horrendous attacks against women in Cologne, Germany, that took place on New Years Eve. In fact, that isn’t quite right. The complaints are more specific. The complaints are, in fact, that we are not talking enough about Islam, race, and border controls in relation to the Cologne attacks.
As you will almost certainly have seen, since it has been the lead-in to nearly all of the Cologne coverage, some of those involved in the attacks may have been asylum seekers (although at the time of writing, the Guardian had reported that no asylum seekers have been confirmed as involved in any of the sexual assaults; only crimes of vandalism and/or theft.)
The clear implication (and in many cases, the outright assertion) made in these opinion pieces, tweets, interviews, and indeed, in many casual conversations, is that feminists should be more outspoken in denouncing immigration in general and Islam in particular. I am cautious to stride into this complex and long-standing debate with anything remotely approaching a tone of presumed authority, but when I see how much racism and anti-Islamic sentiment is being pushed forward in my name, as an English, feminist, queer woman, it leaves me with such a sour taste that I feel the need to say something.
First, the lazy claim that ‘feminists’ do not speak about the connections between Islam, race, and feminism is very clearly not true. Feminists around the world speak, march, write about these things every day. Salma Yaqoob, Rania Khan, Shireen Ahmed, Sam Ambreen, Shami Chakrabarti, Maya Goodfellow, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Ava Vidal, Shane Thomas, and Musa Okwonga* spring to mind as people who have written about these subjects now or in the past – and as I haven’t exactly pushed the boat out looking for names to add to that list, and this list is by no means extensive, it doesn’t seem to me as if anyone claiming that ‘feminists do not speak about’ this subject is either well-informed, nor particularly adept at research.
But, of course, ‘talking about’ these subjects is not what they mean, and we all know it. What they mean is that these knowledgeable, thoughtful, nuanced voices are not saying what they want them to be saying. Why, they say, angrily, are there no experts on this subject who agree with me? This proves that the experts are all wrong, or brainwashed, or lying, or scared of Musim reprisals. Right? I’m reminded of climate change skeptics who complain that the majority of scientists and climatologists believe that climate change is man-made, as if this is evidence of some outrageous bias against their theories, rather than evidence that perhaps their theories are due for a reboot.
I suspect most of the people asking this hypothetical question ignore the writers I mention because they are not drawing anti-immigration conclusions from attacks like Cologne. These feminist and/or LGBT campaigners are not concluding that we must water down the painfully weak rights that refugees already have in order to protect Western women from foreign misogyny. This is probably because they are feminists, as opposed to racists pretending to be feminists. It is not surprising that feminists or LGBT activists would focus on violence against women and LGBT people, rather than using those topics as a proxy to talk about something else.
(Incidentally, even if these people outright admitted their complaint is that the ‘liberal left’ never talks about these things from anti-immigration, anti-Islamic perspective, it would be way off the mark. There is a constant stream of casual anti-Muslim sentiment from supposedly liberal, supposedly feminist, supposedly progressive voices – from Kate Smurthwaite, to Richard Dawkins, to Cathy Newman in the UK; from Bill Maher to Hillary Clinton to Sam Harris in America, there is an endless stream of sneering, faux-concern, dog whistle racism, generalisations and assumptions, about the supposedly inherent sexist and homophobic nature of Islam. Even the BBC, the famous UK cornerstone of Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad recently screened a huge show presented by Reggie Yates that focused for an entire episode on the “homophobia problem in the black and Asian communities.” I use this example not as a criticism of Reggie Yates – it is very far from my place to make any such criticism – but rather to show how ridiculous the assertion is that “no-one is talking about” the subject. The portrayal of Muslims in general as sexist or homophobic or both are rife in the media – and not just the famously anti-immigration right-wing papers like the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun.)
It is not new or surprising that racists use feminism or LGBT rights as a proxy for attacking other minorities. There is, of course, a very long history of using the narrative of protecting white women from sexual violence as a justification for enslaving and murdering black and brown-skinned men. But it is embarrassing – worse than embarrassing; it is disgraceful – that so many white, Western feminists and LGBT people, like myself, have sat comfortably for too long while this is done in our name.
Two things about this framing of the issue alarm me in particular. The first is the erasure of Muslim women, and Muslim LGBT people. Second and first generation immigrants who are LGBT, refugees who are women – many of them escaping the very brutalities of Isis that get laid at the door of all Muslims. It is surely no coincidence that many of the writers I list above get forgotten when a generalisation is made about what ‘feminists’ write or speak about. Despite being tireless campaigners and spokespeople for women’s rights, in the mainstream press, black and Muslim feminists tend to be seen as Muslim first, feminist second. The concerns raised uniquely by Muslim feminists are boxed away as ‘Muslim issues’, or, perhaps, ‘Muslim women’s issues’, while concerns raised by wealthy, white women like women in boardrooms, breastfeeding in parliament, and even the line of succession in the monarchy are reported as ‘women’s issues,’ that should be important to all women, despite these issues affecting only a tiny minority of women. This allows the dangerous myth to foster in some sections of society that violence against women and girls is predominantly perpetrated against white women by black or Asian men, and, as we have seen repeatedly this can have terrible consequences both in terms of victims that do not fit this narrative being silenced or ignored or disbelieved, and in terms of the issue being exploited by the far right to stir up hatred.
When anti-Muslim hate crime rises (in the past year, in the UK, it went up by 70 per cent), 60 per cent of the victims are women. This goes largely unseen because in this false dichotomy of ‘Muslims’ versus ‘feminists’, Muslim women are invisible; inconvenient to the narrative.
The second alarming thing about this dichotomy is the way it makes the rights of immigrants or asylum seekers living in the UK conditional. I despise homophobia and misogyny as much as the next person, but my right to be accepted as a UK citizen is not conditional upon my dislike of bigotry, and nor should it ever be. We should not be telling the immigrant population (perhaps even less so those who seek refuge in the country) that they are welcome, but only as long as they adhere to a value system that is not even shared in full the country’s most honoured institutions, let alone by the whole population. When Prince Philip’s position is conditional upon him subscribing to values of equality for women and queer people, when MPs have to swear an oath of intersectional feminism before taking office, when our greatest educational institutions don’t boast proud and celebratory statues dedicated to slaveowners, then perhaps we can demand to know your views on gay marriage at the border controls before we let you in, but as things stand right now, the idea that it is immigrants, asylum seekers, and Muslims who are keeping the UK away from being a magically progressive utopia is, I promise you, not catching on, not because feminists and LGBT campaigners are cowed by Islam and don’t want to discuss immigration, but because it is frankly ahistorical to the point of total delusion.
Allowing a disparity in how we measure people’s rights as citizens is profoundly dangerous. Across the Atlantic, we see how conditional rights can look. In the nation that prides itself on being the cradle of freedom, for Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, freedom is not quite the same as other people’s; you are expected to know that don’t have the right to argue with the police, that you don’t, even as a child, have the right to play with a toy gun, that you don’t have the right to walk down the street if everyone knows that some people will find your appearance frightening. You are free but only if you abide by the conditions that have been attached to your humanity. If you break those conditions, then your humanity itself is up for debate.
Muslims living in the UK, whether born here or not, should not be told they have to accept ‘liberal’ values any more forcefully than anybody else is. Immigrants should not have to prove they are twice as patriotic, twice as committed to ‘British values,’ (whatever they are), twice as hard-working as everybody else in order to be welcome. That this is already the case in practice for some first and second generation immigrants is saddening; to demand it be explicitly enforced as government policy is chilling.
And yet these demands that we treat immigrants differently, that we apply different standards to people on the basis of where they were born, is supposed to be feminist, somehow. Open-mouthed people who want to make everything into an argument against immigration stare at women and queer people who do not, and express baffled rants as to our motives. Why do we not care about the women and LGBT victims of Isis, they yell at us. Why do we not show more solidarity with them, by mocking the prophet Mohammed with cartoons, or banning hijabs, or marching against immigration?
Why indeed. Because we do not show support or solidarity with the victims of Islamic terrorism by attacking Muslims, when the people most victimised by Isis are Muslims themselves. We do not show solidarity with gay victims of terror or their families by mocking their religion – we show it by offering them asylum and working to make sure that our LGBT communities are not racist once they are here. We do not show solidarity with women who have been victims of sexual assaults by detaining women and children in centres like Yarls Wood, where rumours persist of sexual assault cover ups – we show it by providing counselling, legal aid, and good quality housing. You do not show solidarity with me, as an LGBT woman, by making the lives of people I know and care about more difficult. You will not turn us against each other, no matter how frustrated you are that not everyone shares your xenophobic interpretation of world events.
So please do not keep asking why feminists aren’t using horrific events like the attacks in Cologne to push an anti-immigration or anti-Islamic agenda. Please do not imagine, not for a moment, that you are protecting me by restricting other people’s rights in my name. It is not in our interests, as women, or as LGBT people, to make our, or anyone else’s humanity conditional. It is so easily done. It is so easily made to feel normal. And what does it look like? To you, I suppose it looks like something foreign, or from the past – a white hood, a pink triangle, a bloodied coat hanger. To me, it looks like something that I see now, that I keep remembering again, and again, and again. It looks like a leading presidential candidate’s henchmen escorting a woman, while she conducts a peaceful protest, from the premises, because of her faith, while the people around her celebrate it as ‘freedom.’
*I am not sure if the latter two identify as ‘feminist’ as such, but Musa Okwonga has written about the Cologne attacks in the New Statesman from the perspective of gender violence and misogyny and both have written about how the two issues intersect, so I’m including them on this list.