The rise of Right-wing governments across the world, especially in majoritarian democracies like the United States and India, bodes ill for the established hallmarks of progressive politics. Feminism and free speech are the two obvious signifiers of progress. The existence of equality and emancipation for women and the freedom for free expression of dissent are two common benchmarks to measure the egalitarianism of a country. However, with the rise of Right-wing regimes, the implications of free speech and feminism may no longer cater to emancipation and equality.
While Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are exemplars of fascism, the regimes that they represent are leaving no stone unturned to appropriate, co-opt and empty the signifiers of a free and equal society, and recast these signifiers with fascist re-interpretations. For example, while Trump is a classic case of a misogynist and sexual predator, his daughter Ivanka Trump uses the axioms of feminism to camouflage her father’s reputation. This not only provides a convenient alibi for Trump as he passes one anti-woman policy after another, but it also sets the grounds for the normalisation of misogyny under the garb of feminism.
Fascists calling themselves “feminists” is nothing but the sheer normalisation of fascism and discrediting of what feminism actually means. This also makes the struggle for feminist emancipation even harder. Or let us take the example of Milo Yiannopoulos, a celebrity controversy-baiter. Yiannopoulos is known for his hate speech against gay rights, #BlackLivesMatter, Muslims, immigrants and transgenders; he has even made a career out of inflammatory utterances. But he defends his words under the garb of free speech, while at the same time advocating a shutdown of universities like UC Berkeley, where a speaking event of his was cancelled owing to violent protests by students. Yiannopoulos’s heroes are Ronald Reagan and Trump himself whom he endorses on the ultra-conservative website, Breitbart; his fascist credentials need no further corroboration.
Free speech and its ‘discontents’
It goes without saying that right-wing governments spell extreme vulnerability for large sections of society, just as they herald majoritarianism in the form of white supremacy or Brahmanical Hindutva. Right-wing governments are also synonymous with wide-ranging restrictions of what acceptable speech should be. For example, the arrest of the JNUSU President and two other students in February last year indicates zero levels of tolerance for expressions which threaten the sovereignty of the Indian Republic and espouse self-determination for Kashmir. The Patriot Act in the United States imposes unmitigated restraints on free speech and even seems to be in contravention of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech and expression are severely restricted if the tyrannies of the nation-state are questioned. But the selfsame rightists at the helm of affairs portray themselves as the champions of free speech when it is directed against the deprived and the disenfranchised. The speech acts of Yiannopoulos are a case in point.
Fascists calling themselves “feminists” is nothing but the sheer normalisation of fascism and discrediting of what feminism actually means.
If Rightists use free speech to prey upon minorities, then one must raise questions about the ethical dimension of free speech itself. Is the purpose of free speech ‘to mortify and inflame a marginalised demographic’, to quote Deborah Eisenberg? Is causing offence deemed to be of greater significance than recognising the vulnerability of precarious lives and what Teju Cole calls “unmournable bodies”? These concerns are mostly ignored in a liberal defence of a morally blind universe which assumes that everyone in society has the equal and same opportunity to utter offensive speech. Such liberal myopia results in complete obfuscation of the difference in power between the majority and the minority communities.
A statement from a recent article on the politics of offence reads, ‘Any act of questioning Islamic history and historical figures, is just as much anti-Muslim as questioning the veracity of the claims of a Ram Mandir or Ram Setu are anti-Hindu. To question one, and not question the other is bigotry and chauvinism.’ This statement is extremely puerile inasmuch as it obliterates the fact that the rise of Hindutva in India has been premised on the Ram Mandir issue, and that the bloody trail of violence left in the wake of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement has seen the killings of hundreds of Muslims.
Questioning the veracity of the Ram Mandir and the Ram Setu is an endeavour to question the saffronisation of history, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the perpetual demonisation of Muslims as ‘Pakistanis’ who have no right to belong in the land of Ram Rajya. The price of being anti-Hindu in India is high. Only a liberal myopic neutrality to the power of the majoritarian religion in the public sphere will result in making a callow analogy between being “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Muslim”.
Muslim women’s bodies have become the critical sites on which nations and citizens are conceived as civilised and modern
The article quoted above contends that there is a mutually exclusive relation between rationalism and ‘identity politics’. The convoluted argument goes somewhat like this: universities like JNU are witnessing the rise of identity assertions by Muslims, which includes a defence of Islamic feminism. This has resulted in the speech-policing of rationalists and has impelled needless hyperbole about Islamophobia. As a result of this, free speech in universities is under threat.
These arguments are based on three flawed suppositions:
1. The assumption that only the liberal unencumbered self embodies reason and rationality, one which has been debunked by the literature on Communitarianism.
2. The assumption that free speech must be divested of ethical concerns about extant vulnerability, especially those of minorities (this dilemma was addressed at length within the intellectual circle of PEN in 2015).
3. The assumption that the political assertion of Muslims for their right to recognition within a democracy (which has a history of anti-Muslim violence) immediately results in Muslims’ antagonism for free speech. The third supposition is too knee-jerk and immature to merit any engagement.
Unfortunately, in portraying the politically assertive Muslim as being ipso facto inimical to free speech, liberals are oblivious of the fact that the minority actually requires and exercises free speech and expression in claiming rights and recognition within a democracy. Moreover, the cliched liberal caricature of the anti-free-speech Muslim often slips into right-wing celebration of the tolerant Hindu who is obviously superior to the intolerant Muslim.
Consider this statement from an article on ‘free speech absolutism’ in Swarajya magazine: ‘the Hindu society has been more tolerant of the abuses hurled at its faith and its deities given the sheer frequency with which it happens and the monumental amount of vitriol that is spewed against the Hindu religion, all under the garb of liberalism and free speech. One might even say that the Hindu society has all but stopped reacting to such provocations.’ It is amusing to note that though Hindutva and leftists and liberals seem to occupy opposite sides of the dilemma on free speech, both sides hold common ground in their delineation of Muslims as perpetually butt-hurt on questions of their religion. The reasons behind this startling similarity are not hard to discern: both Hindutva and left-liberalism are dominated by Brahmanical Hindus.
The cliched liberal caricature of the anti-free-speech Muslim often slips into right-wing celebration of the tolerant Hindu who is obviously superior to the intolerant Muslim.
The bogey of secularism
Muslim women’s bodies have become the critical sites on which nations and citizens are conceived as civilised and modern, while Muslims (both women and men) themselves are consigned in the pre-modern, 'in-assimilable' stage as inhabiting rigid, regressive traditions and as being irredeemable apologist of patriarchy. Modalities of collective and individual cultivation – certain ways of dressing, speaking, and behaving – primed in distinct conceptualisations of self and body are naturalised and congealed in nationalist constellations and foisted through discursive frameworks. These enactments of behaviour may not actually be ‘secular’ and often map onto ways of being of the majority religion and culture, not unlike men who are viewed as transcendental and gender neutral and who come to occupy the default ideal against which difference is rendered, which Simone De Beauvoir delineates in The Second Sex.
Even though modern secularism is uniformly correlated with women’s emancipation and presented as a wonder drug to the quandary of gender and sexual fiats by religious bodies, sexual difference was ascertained to be an admissible premise for inequality not solely at the originary moment of secularism but well into its history as Joan Wallach Scott tells us. This secularising and engendering mechanism enforced singular discursive framework for the management of sexual and religious difference and yoked those frames to the operations of power. These mechanisms corroborate Scott’s contention that gender injustice and other discriminations surviving in secular regimes are eclipsed and overshadowed when secularism and religion are expressly counterpoised.
Rather than pre-empting the absence or diminishing of gender and sexual difference, the liberal secular subject acts out a particular facet of it. There is an exigency for rethinking universalising claims apotheosised into secularism which have been mobilised in contradistinction to Islam to normalise gendered, allegedly secular, national identities, and to reconsider the position that secularism is the only route to women’s empowerment.
Questioning the gender politics of Hindutva
Portraying the Muslim community as patriarchal and uniquely misogynistic is a very useful tactic of the Sangh Parivar. This image of the patriarchal Muslim is carefully cultivated to furnish the Hindutva conspiracy of an imminent Sharia imposition in India. This conspiracy adds grist to the Hindutva mill which is fundamentally arraigned against Muslims. In other words, insisting that Muslim men oppress Muslim women as per the rules of Sharia law is politically useful for Hindutva: (1) it helps construct the Hindutva narrative that Hindutva is needed as a preventive measure to save India from Sharia takeover (which is a Hindutva hallucination, to say the least) (2) it gives the perfect cover-up for the atrocities committed against Muslim women by the agents of Hindutva. The Sangh Parivar’s tom-tomming of the triple talaq issue among Muslims was a textbook case of the majority community pointing to gender hierarchies within the minority community in order to highlight the latter as illiberal and barbaric. This portrayal of Muslims as essentially misogynistic — and the inability of left-liberals to counter it-- helped the Hindutva agenda of making triple talaq an electoral issue while contesting the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Thus, an extant issue for Muslim women is used as a pawn by the agents of Hindutva to fashion themselves as saviours of Muslim women.
This is not to argue that Muslims are untouched by patriarchy. Triple talaq persists in being one of the gross violations of the autonomy and dignity of Muslim women, exacerbated by the hegemonic voice of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which is a self-fashioned authority on Muslim personal laws in India. However, it must be remembered that the intransigence of the AIMPLB is a reflection of the Indian state deliberate indifference to the question of Muslim women’s rights. The Indian state and the AIMPLB have had a symbiotic relationship; during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, the AIMPLB was at the forefront of agitations against the payment of alimony to Shah Bano. While Rajiv Gandhi encouraged the orthodoxy of the AIMPLB, he simultaneously ensured that the gates of Babri Masjid be unlocked. In effect, in a miscalculated move to balance out competing bigotries, Gandhi played to the gallery of triumphant Hindu majoritarianism while turning a blind eye to the rights of Muslim women. Today, the BJP government has picked up where the Congress left. By using triple talaq as an excuse to push for a Uniform Civil Code, it has thrust the archaic AIMPLB into a defensive cocoon. Meanwhile, Muslim women’s voices continue to be ignored; on the contrary, Sadhvi Prachi has asked them to marry Hindu men instead in order to escape the evil of triple talaq. Organisations like Hindu Samhiti exhort Hindu men to take Muslim women as their wives. The gender politics of Hindutva, in a nutshell, is aimed at erasing the identity of Muslim women under the pretext of liberating them from their community.
As one commentator notes, "where Muslim group’s identity assertion and influence is predicated on its separateness, and independence from the majority religion culture, group leaders appeal for a kind of primordial fealty and uncritical conformity to the status quo, thus, stonewalling any attempts at introducing progressive reforms." Against the obscurantism of the AIMPLB and the Hindu state in India, there are several organisations run by Muslim women which are engaged in sincere activism in eradicating the practice of triple talaq and emancipating Muslim women from marital abuse. For example, Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman, founders of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and Khadija Banu who is the founder of Rokeya Nari Unnayan Samiti have undertaken efforts to convince the Muslim community that the practice of triple talaq is not defensible in either the precepts of the Quran or the canons of constitutional justice. BMMA also led a successful struggle for Muslim women’s entry into the Haji Ali dargah. Their laudable feminist exercises are instances of Muslim women striving to reclaim their religion from sexist interpretations.
Portraying the Muslim community as patriarchal and uniquely misogynistic is a very useful tactic of the Sangh Parivar.
Ijtihad and Islamic feminism
Crucial to the enterprise of Islamic modernism was the reclaiming by Muslims of the tradition of ijtihad or independent interpretative exploration of religious texts, which would facilitate individuals and society to be at once modern and Muslim, and assist Muslims in framing a compelling gender sensitive Islamic discourse within a renewed perception of Islam. For Muslim women under the ascendancy of patriarchal restraints inflicted in the guise of religious prescription, the insights of Islamic modernism, and conducting their own tafsir (Quranic interpretation) encouraged them to uncover the patriarchal encroachments into Islam and their own lives. Columnists in Zanan in Iran put forth Islamic readings of gender equality and justice. Sisters in Islam, based in Malaysia, issued booklets challenging wife-thrashing condoned in the name of Islam. Fatima Mernissi’s Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Inquiry reveals the fraudulence of misogynist hadiths attributed wrongly to the Prophet Muhammad. Amina Wadud’s Quran and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective clarifies the tenets of gender equality and social justice found in the Quran.
In ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Un-reading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, Asma Barlas extricated patriarchal meanings projected onto the Qur’an. Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam further refines her hermeneutic reflections on women and gender and underscores the connotations of gender jihad apropos which some consensus exists that it better captures what ‘Islamic feminism’ is all about. At the crux of Islamic feminism, and its primary breakthrough, is a powerful Qur’an approved credo enunciating the full equality of all insaan or humankind traversing the public-private spectrum that entails gender equality in the religious aspect of the public sphere (in the religious vocations and in public religious ritual) and also demonstrated the necessary correlation of gender equality and social justice.
Islamic feminism has been successfully applied in the revision of the Moroccan family law referred to as al Mudawwana which is now the most gender-egalitarian sharia-grounded civil code there is, and also apparent in the revised new draft of the Family Code in Indonesia, codified by a commission of religious scholars (half of them women) appointed within the Ministry of Justice. The assumption that the doors of ijtihad were locked and that there is an antagonism between Islam and critical thought has been partly responsible for perpetuating the orientalist and fundamentalist theory of conflict between Western feminism and an enduring Islamic patriarchy. To us, it seems far-fetched to expect that all individuals who speak about Islam, albeit pejoratively, or about its co-opting and appropriation by violent actors, necessarily need to wield proper degrees in Islamic studies. However it is viable and only fair to ensure that such anti-Islam voices purportedly citing primary source religious texts and religious beliefs reference their scrutiny and interpretation to individuals who have formal academic grounding and qualifications in the hermeneutics of the theological texts and beliefs of the Islamic faith.
Some of us decide for Muslim women in absentia that their religion and culture are the obstacles – notwithstanding the fact that the political, financial and social circumstances aren’t empowering Muslim women either.
Co-optation of feminist discourses by Islamophobes and Post-Muslims
Western powers, the United States for instance, anchors liberal, secular concepts (of women’s ‘empowerment’, democracy, religious moderation) in the employment of unbridled might, and have rationalised militarily invasions, or violent state projects on the pretext of saving, rescuing and civilising supposedly misinformed, manipulated, and oppressed Muslim women in the Muslim world. The American war in Afghanistan is a textbook example. This problematic feminist discourse of liberation and strategic co-optation of women’s rights clouds the lurking economic impulsions behind American initiatives of the 'War on Terror', foils the culpability of the United States and cold war geopolitics in generating the impoverished and disadvantaged circumstances of Afghan women predating the surfacing of the Taliban, and obscures the CIA’s well-documented support for the Taliban regime. So to even speak in a neo-colonial, patronising rhetoric of saving Muslim women reeks foul of a misplaced sense of superiority and saviour complex, a display of arrogance that merits suspicion and censure. We must understand Muslim women as suffering from structural discrimination and violence – the stratified impediments and deprivations of being female, as affiliates of a persecuted religious minority, and as overwhelmingly poverty-stricken - much of it state-engineered in the Indian context.
Lila Abu Lughod was right when she said, “we have become politicised about race and class, but not culture.” Perhaps this needs reform. Perhaps those among whom this Orientalist impulse to ‘rescue Muslim women’ while concurrently demonising their community, culture, and faith is alive and well, should necessarily be politicised, just as their generalised, presumptuous tropes of docile, mute, vulnerable, agency-less, caged Muslim women, (and not a full, complex person) that warrants this obsession bordering on neurosis with the woes of Muslim women, require destabilising. Here’s the question that concerns us: when someone with caste and class privilege claims to sympathise with the situation of a Muslim woman like Nahid Afrin, or a Shayara Bano, and instead of passing the mike, to ask them, to listen to them, to disseminate their voices, take it upon themselves to speak for them and silence their voices, and, in effect, do some semblance of epistemic violence to them, are they, then, coming from a place of sincere solidarity, or ardent Islamophobia, or, are naively oblivious to the implications of racial politics of speaking for Muslim women like ourselves as if we didn’t exist or have nothing to say? Some of us decide for Muslim women in absentia that their religion and culture are the obstacles – notwithstanding the fact that the political, financial and social circumstances aren’t empowering Muslim women either.
Apart from imagining themselves as messiahs for victimised Muslim women, non-Muslims also invent victimhood for Muslim women
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch-American author/politician of Somali descent who is a proponent for a consummate reformation of Islam, and has strongly appealed for a full-fledged West-led military war against the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims to “defeat Islam”, terming it "the new fascism" and "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death”, is emblematic of a continuum of pseudo-philosophers on Islam, and corresponds to a far more dangerous predicament in which formerly-Muslim-now-reformed voices who shove a corrosive anti-Islam agenda are endorsed as statutory and reliable experts, therefore, mainstreaming and institutionalising opinions that are both offensive and unsubstantiated. Interestingly, Anders Breivik, the right-wing mass-killer who massacred 77 people and injured 319 in Norway in 2011, referenced Hirsi Ali as a source of inspiration in his manifesto. What is more interesting is that Hirsi Ali manifested exemplary understanding for Breivik’s rationale that went into him launching into a murderous rampage, in effect, exonerating him since according to Hirsi Ali, poor Breivik “had no other choice but to use violence.” Ironically, liberal feminists who unequivocally endorse freedom and equality do not object to Hirsi Ali’s excesses in illiberality and inequality apparent in her condoning massacres, military invasions and a genocidal Occupation (as per her Benjamin Netanyahu deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his conduct in the Gaza war of his making which killed over two thousand Palestinians including over 500 children).
The darlings of the Islamophobic right, ‘post-Muslim’ women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Taslima Nasreen predictably espouse some garden variety of the outrageous notion that Islam is intrinsically hostile to women specifically and Western culture in general. Theirs are ideas we would, without difficulty, diagnose for what they are — and would most likely repudiate peremptorily — if not for the fact that Hirsi and Nasreen consciously identify themselves as ex-Muslims, as victimised individuals who claim ‘eyewitness’ knowledge/experience of Islam and Muslims as having lived in a Muslim-majority country and survived, and who expediently manipulate this immediate knowledge/experience to solicit and pretend expertise to sweepingly denounce Muslims and Islamic beliefs.
This ‘credibility’ as former Muslims bolsters fringe anti-Muslim zealots/ideologues as credible, bona fide champions of Muslim women’s rights and ‘rationalist voices’, when they are anything but. Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now anoints herself as a proselytiser in Islamic reformation, yet seems to be altogether detached from and combatively hostile to the very faith and the community she aspires to reform. This invites an obvious question: how can someone position themselves as a reformer of a religious community without accommodating the inclination to even constructively engage with that community? No single individual can hubristically claim to speak on behalf of a religion with over a billion believers. But there are extant many, many Muslim women’s scholarship out there which can be reckoned as genuinely representative of Islamic feminism, who these people should be turning to — not a few aberrant ideologues who augment the existing all-too-rife Islamophobic sentiments behind the veneer of saving Muslim women from Muslim men and Islam.
It is very tempting for both fascists and progressives to imagine the Muslim woman as the proverbial maiden in distress.
The unfair portrayal of Islam propounded by these ‘post-Muslim’ women are advanced contra what are understood as accepted norms of gender equality, by that means precipitating a certain gendered secular normativity. That is to say, what it entails to be a modern, secular woman is discursively constituted somewhat through the actions and representations of ‘post-Muslim’ women. The normalising machinery in which they are complicit circumscribes and delimits the possibilities of human aspirations for all women by shoring up a reductive, oppositional binary between a veiled, oppressed Muslim woman and a post-religious (secular Muslim or post Muslim), feminist, modern, consumerist woman.
Muslim women do not need saving
As Lila Abu-Lughhod writes, "A moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere, dissolving distinctions between conservatives and liberals, sexists and feminists. The crusade has justified all manner of intervention from the legal to the military, the humanitarian to the sartorial. But it has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics…Representing Muslim women as abused makes us forget the violence and oppression in our own midst."
Apart from imagining themselves as messiahs for victimised Muslim women, non-Muslims also invent victimhood for Muslim women. Everyone loves a sensational story of even supposed Islamic fundamentalism, as was seen in the media-generated hype over Nahid Afrin and the case of the missing fatwa. With great gusto, progressive activists and media channels were defending Afrin’s right to perform and sing. Their salivatory enthusiasm to denounce Muslim clerics was so immense that they forgot to listen to what Afrin had to say for herself, “I don’t even know what a fatwa is. Being a practicing Muslim, I don’t think singing is anti-Muslim. I am not afraid.”
It is very tempting for both fascists and progressives to imagine the Muslim woman as the proverbial maiden in distress; this tantalising urge stems from the fixation with Muslims as quintessentially misogynistic. It is essential to look past this stereotype to recognise the agency of Muslim women. If we want to move beyond ally theatre and towards true solidarity with Muslim women, perhaps it is essential to humbly acknowledge (1) that feminists did not discover equality and patriarchy; (2) that there are Muslim women out there who have evolved their vision of equality and discernment of patriarchy from the Quran and not from any feminist text; (3) that some Muslim women were reading emancipatory potential into and out of the Quran much before feminism (as historian Margot Badran has convincingly shown); 4) and it would be fallacious to assert that the Quran can be redeemed by calibrating feminism on to it. We can, however, attempt to redeem feminism of its imperialistic marauding baggage by de-secularising the venture of women’s liberation as Badran insinuates.
An overarching marquee of tokenist plurality in feminist discourse that obliterates constitutional epistemic differences between feminists predicated on women’s commonality and sisterhood, or that which negates the specificity of the movements of Muslim women owing to problems of incommensurability, is not inclusive, mature, or intersectional feminism, and no empowerment at all.
Afrin Firdaus Idris is a research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.
Heba Ahmed is a PhD student at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).