A tip of the hat to Ophelia Benson for bringing this to our attention. Let’s go through the links:
First, Adele Wilde-Blavatsky writes an article called “To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals”, which is originally published at The Feminist Wire, apparently on 13 April.
Second, only two days later, a “collective response” eventually signed by over 80 self-identified feminists appears on 15 April, replying to Wilde-Blavatsky’s article. It is not clear to me how many of these people signed the letter when it first appeared, but unless I’m missing something it was a rather large number.
Third, Wilde-Blavatsky gets her further reply published at Butterflies and Wheels on 1 May.
As far as the original issues go, I don’t have strong feelings. I’m not especially taken with “the hoodie” as a garment. Hijabs can sometimes be very attractive – and unlike some of the people involved I’m clear on the difference between a hijab (the primary meaning is the Muslim headscarf, though you can read up for yourself about how the expression relates to “modesty” in general) and a niqab (which veils the face). For what it’s worth, I argue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, against bans on publicly wearing “the burqa” (which is how Westerners tend to refer to various garments or combinations that almost totally cover women’s bodies, including their faces). I also argue that undue deference should not be paid to people’s wishes to wear these various garments/combinations if they are indirectly proscribed, in certain circumstances, by religiously-neutral laws of general application or by, for example, the reasonable work requirements of employers.
So, I’m not out to ban the niqab, let alone the hijab, although I don’t think we should recognise a positive right to wear them that prevails over otherwise-justifiable and generally-applicable laws, work requirements, etc. For more, consult the book. I’m not going to argue it all here. Suffice to say that nothing in this post is motivated by an extreme position, such as wish to ban any of these garments entirely.
Nor do I agree with all of Wilde-Blavatsky’s own extreme rhetoric about all-pervading patriarchy and male power, etc. The subordination of women to men remains common in virtually all extant cultures, but it would be better to refer to its actual extent in different places, social strata, milieux, etc., than to make such sweeping statements (hiding too much away in false moral equivalence). Furthermore, there is a fair bit in Wilde-Blavatsky’s reply that I take issue with, not to mention my dislike of her tone of obsequiousness to her attackers at various points (they’ve effectively waived any claim even to respect and civility from her).
Still … the struggle for gender equality is ongoing, and it merits our support. Also, I do agree with Wilde-Blavatsky that there is a difference between the hoodie (however annoying I might personally find this fashion choice) and the hijab. I.e., only the latter expresses a moral imperative that a woman not show her beauty – in this case her hair – to the world. This imperative can be regarded variously as misogynist, gynophobic, sexually puritanical, and/or offensive to men (who are apparently unable to see female beauty without being gripped by uncontrollable lust). One way or another, I am opposed to the Islamic concept of female “modesty”, and I sympathise with those feminists who look askance at the hijab … and moreso at the niqab, jilbab, chadri, etc. But I don’t want any of these banned.
Whether I agree with Wilde-Blavatsky beyond that, I’m not actually sure. What I want to draw attention to is the way she was treated. Instead of someone writing an article that simply deals with her arguments in a thoughtful manner and on their merits, we see an inflammatory letter produced very quickly and ultimately signed by a very large number of people. This looks more like a lynch mob than someone wanting to engage in reasoned discussion with the original writer. Then, look at the kinds of things that get said in the collective letter, such as this:
a respondent posting as “The Feminist Wire” (who later identified herself to be Wilde-Blavatsky), attempted to counter some of these objections by obfuscating whiteness and showcasing a lack of knowledge of the history and function of the hijab. To defend her position, the author cited her intimate connections with people of colour and informed her critics that “acknowledging the differences between women in terms of race, religion and culture” was politically divisive. We know these to be common defensive responses from those in positions of privilege. And our response is as common: “Listen.”
Wilde-Blavatsky rightly objects to this in quite strong words, and she deserves support on that much, at least. We really need to stand up … and call out this sort of thing whenever we see it. It is deeply anti-rational, anti-intellectual, and just plain bullying to attack your intellectual opponents on the basis that their arguments are “common defensive responses from those in positions of privilege” and to tell them, in effect, to shut up and “Listen.” Then, of course, we get this sort of rebarbative and reductive jargon:
In writing this, the author has all but stripped women of colour of an intersectional understanding of violence against women, one that is attuned to both patriarchal and racist violence. Instead, Muslim women and women of colour feminists are reduced to a piece of cloth and the experiences of people of colour and practioners of an increasingly racialized and demonized religion are repeatedly questioned and denied.
Some of the points made in the collective response sound reasonable in themselves – e.g. I agree that ideas of “false consciousness” are problematic and at least need discussion – but it is difficult to take the collective response seriously when it sanctimoniously claims to welcome debate on difficult issues of patriarchy and race. Given the way this response was actually handled, the signatories look more like they want to shut down any dissenters from their political position. Even more troubling, Wilde-Blavatsky was not allowed to reply, and apparently even her original article has been removed from the site where it originally appeared (along, consequently, with the collective response to it). So she has, indeed, been shut up by the bullies, at least in her original forum – which is why her reply has ended up being published at Butterflies and Wheels.