Sylvia Poggioli in her NPR series “Exploring the Status of Women in Europe” portrays the oppression of Muslim immigrant women living in the Europe. I am disappointed that Dr. Poggioli, who actually has been in the US academia, resorts to the sensational news-making tool as a journalist in NPR, one of the most liberal media. By doing so, just like her colleague Geraldine Brooks does, she also fails to analytically “explore” the world of Muslim women.
Brooks famously concludes her book Nine Parts of the Desire (1995) with a hope that immigrant Muslim girls in the West will at least have a choice as they have the “chance” to adopt and assimilate to the Western culture, and thereby they have the opportunity to liberate themselves. Dr. Poggioli, on the other hand, seems to start losing even such a hope of “change.” She states that, “twelve years later, I met many Muslim women who still have not found their places and are still torn by two cultures.” She is explicitly disappointed that the change has taken place in the opposite direction, as more women have adopted the veil and reclaim their identities as Muslim. However, Poggioli would not overgeneralize(!) the status of Muslim women in Europe, but account for the “liberated” women:
“But I also met many Muslim women who are asserting themselves much more forcefully — either in identifying with European secular culture and demanding the same rights as their Western sisters, or by appropriating Islam for themselves, through a new female perspective. Or in a combination of the two.”
From a secular and western feminist perspective, Muslim women need to either abandon Islamic tradition or reform it in order to be liberated. What is it that the western feminists are missing in their analysis? Can they eventually contribute to the advancement of Muslim women? Does their argument reflect the imperialist foreign policy of the West? Are they consciously trying to impose neoliberal ideals on the Other women?
Unfortunately, especially thanks to Bush administration, western feminist discourse was so often used as a tool to ignite war on the Muslim world that the whole discourse became stigmatized as neocolonial and cultural imperialist. As an Islamic feminist, anthropologist and a grad student in Women’s and Gender Studies in the US, I have collaborated with my western feminist colleagues enough not to claim a conspiracy theory that they all have a hidden agenda as such. Rather, I would like to stress that elitist feminists like Brooks and Poggioli will not be able to bring any resolution to the conflict of the Muslim women, as long as they keep scapegoating Islam as a religion, homogenizing its discourse, dismissing intersectionality of the problems, dehistorisizing the culture, and ignoring the larger discursive hegemonic powers that simultaneously inform the formation of such conflicts at the first place.
What is specifically problematic about Sylvia Poggioli’s NPR news coverage/ documentary narrative?
1. The narrative is populated with many terms and concepts such as “fundamentalist,” “secular,” “islamic feminist,” “political Islam,” so and so forth. She takes their meaning and function for granted, rather than acknowledging that these terms have been long contested, and been re-defined over and over again in different contexts. As such, if she should use these terms as a tool to construct her framework, she needs to define them well, indicating the ways in which she personally employs them. Who does she call fundamentalist; veiled women or the terrorists? If veiled women are the fundamentalist by definition, how exactly do the women with veil/niqab become a threat to the national security in Europe? How does she define agency? (For instance, why do we tend to frame it as “agency” when a woman opts to wear a miniskirt while framing it as oppression or false consciousness when she opts to wear niqab?)
2. Poggioli resorts to a now-cliché-narrative of the “resurrection of Islam” in the modern age. This is also a contested discourse. Can the emerging public visibility be interpreted as “resurgence of religion” or “return of the repressed?” Had these religious people gone or completely assimilated before? Or were they simply marginalized and pushed into the periphery? Do the religious find now a new space to articulate their voice and practice their faith without any reservation? Or, have the demarcations, categories, dichotomies of identity such as religious, modern, secular been simply spurious from the start? Does the deconstruction of categories demand a critique of the “regimes of Truth” which had constructed them at the first place?
3. By no means, I claim that there is no gender oppression whatsoever in the Muslim communities in Europe (or in anywhere). If I claim that I am an Islamic feminist, that self-evidently means that there are patriarchal oppression to fight against. Indeed. I do support those women’s right whom are victimized by the patriarchy of any sort. However, putting the blame on Islam as religion does not take us (feminists) anywhere. To solve a problem, we first need to articulate the components of the problem and materialize them. That is, the gender oppression in the immigrant communities of Europe cannot be portrayed without addressing the intersectionality of class, ethnicity, nationality, race, and diaspora. Islam as a universalized, dehistorisized, and decontextualized category is only a ghost target. It needs to be situated within its discursive tradition(s). It needs to be demarcated into different categories before analyzing it, such as Islam as religion, cosmology, ontology, philosophy, ethics as well as jurisprudence, life style and everyday praxis. As such, there is no monolithic and homogeneous Muslim women group as a category. “Muslim women in Europe” is a superficial contextualization which is inherently meaningless.
4. Poggioli’s depiction of Muslim women of Europe is not nuanced, if not flawed. She magnifies a part of the population and dismisses the other parts that will disrupt the coherency of the oppressed Muslim women narrative. She interviews the “local” women who happen to be mainly secular feminists. I cannot help but reflect upon the Gayatri Spivak question: “can the subaltern speak?” It is not only that the “emic” voices are mediated by a white western journalist, but also that the emic narratives are not THE emic ones anyways, but SOME particular emic voices. My mother worked as a teacher for a Turkish immigrant community in Germany for three months. I have been to many European countries and first-handedly observed the status of those immigrants. Yes, there are many multilayered complicated issues with these communities. Yes, there are still SOME arranged marriages; there are still SOME bride and groom importation; there are still SOME strict patriarchal family structures; there are still SOME domestic issues; and yes, they are ALL need to be addressed. However, it should be noted that these are ONE part of a bigger whole.
5. What is also missing in the picture is the photographer and her toolkit. The question of multiculturalism is employed in her series in a way that speaks for the fascist/racist/elitist fears of the Other. She promotes the not-very-innocent-melting pot ideology in which the Other is expected to be assimilated by the hegemonic western culture. What lies beneath this ideology is the unspoken assumption of western superiority over the rest-ern cultures. Poggioli’s series is manufactured intrinsically by a euro-centric discourse. We should keep Foucault in mind while reading any documentary series as such. That is, the production of knowledge is never a neutral process.
PS: For more analysis on how media re-presents the truth, please look at Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent:The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988); or watch the documentary “Manufacturing Consent”
Feyza Burak Adli
Spring 2012, Brandeis.