by Sara Salem

There is nothing new in using women as a cultural battleground. Women have regularly been used symbolically to signify and reproduce nations, cultures and religions; and the norms and values that constitute these. When the French colonized Algeria, for example, they used the status of women (thus constructing this status as a homogenous fact) to ‘prove’ how backwards and uncivilized Algerian (read: Muslim) culture was, and therefore to justify their civilizing mission. The fact that (some) women were covered, for example, supposedly showed the need for the French to liberate them—a narrative that actually still exists in France today, where calls to ban the burqa were made based on saving and/or civilizing French Muslim women.

The Algerian freedom fighters manipulated the French assumption by using women to carry weapons. Since the French assumed that women were passive, they did not check them thoroughly at checkpoints. This allowed many women to smuggle weapons to the freedom fighters. So again, we see Algerian men using stereotypes about Algerian women for their own benefit (although one could argue that Algerian independence was a struggle both Algerian men and women supported and fought for). It is also important to not assume that Algerian women were unaware of their roles, but that the end was more important than the means.

Campaign poster for a far-right political party in Switzerland, using women’s bodies to delineate civilized Europe from the backwards Muslim world.

Another example is the way in which women’s bodies have been used in nationalist movements. Nadia Fadil, for example, argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it had emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for the men to assert themselves as political and modern subjects. She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalised women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s mainstream media in Europe, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims and/or Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive and modern Europe is, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/or as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (despite this drawing them into a capitalist structure of repression). Not only does this create a narrative of women in Europe being ‘free,’ which is far from the case; it simultaneously creates the narrative of women who do not look like European women (whatever that is) or act like European women as backwards/traditional. Once this narrative is constructed, it becomes the lens through which women in non-European cultures are understood.

Today we see many actors within Islamic movements using the bodies of women to construct certain narratives as well. Women must be conservative, remain pure and untouched, because they represent the nation and, more broadly, the ummah or global Islamic community. Any laws or movements that are seen as trying to “liberate” women are usually branded as imperialist and/or western and therefore to be rejected. While it is true that many women’s movements in the Middle East are imperialist in nature and use Western feminist rhetoric, it is useless to categorize them all in the same way.


A picture that circulated in Egypt showing the difference between a veiled woman and an unveiled woman, thus using women & their bodies to make a point about what they see as “Islamic morality.”

In both cases, it is not women’s best interests that are taken into account. When a European fashion magazine prints a picture of a woman wearing a bikini and represents this as her being “free” because she wears less than other women, it is not out of a genuine concern for women’s freedom. Similarly, when an Islamic website wants to ‘protect’ women from immoral behaviour, they are not necessarily doing so out of a concern for women, but rather because of bigger religious assumptions about the danger women pose to the community.

Women lose out because it is already pre-decided what “liberation” and “oppression” mean. It is not a choice. Women who cover their hair in the Netherlands are seen as oppressed by their culture and religion; and women who dress in a “Western style” are seen as oppressed by consumerism and a sex-obsessed culture. And within these binary narratives, how free are we as women, to choose what we want to wear, be, think, feel, or do?

So You Think You Know Muslim Women? Campaigning Against Stereotypes in the Netherlands

This is complicated even further if you are a non-white woman, because then it is not only patriarchy reproduced by men that affects you, but also imperial notions of feminism reproduced by white feminism. A case in point is Laura Bush’s plea to “help” liberate women in Afghanistan that functioned as a justification for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is no accident that her plea found wide resonance in some circles, where yet again Muslim women’s bodies were seen in a certain way—a process which Muslim women themselves, in their heterogeneity, have no control over.

The solution is therefore more complicated than simply “allowing” women to speak or choose. We are all constructed by intersections of identity, and so different experiences and positionalities will ultimately affect our choices. At the same time, it is necessary to stand up to the use of women’s bodies in attempts to legitimize culture, nation, war, humanitarian assistance, or anything else. This use inevitably embeds certain narratives about women that are difficult to deconstruct, and also rarely strengthens grassroots women’s movements in any meaningful way.

You have to understand the Arab mind,” Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. “The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.

New York Times, December 7, 2003.

This racist, dehumanising and imperialist understanding of the Eastern world is more than rampant in the West and its armed forces: It’s ingrained.

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Sara Salem is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her work focuses on historical and institutional perspectives on political economy, and centers specifically on the recent wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Her interests include decolonial theory, third world feminism, critical political economy, and theories of post-development. She has lived in Zambia, Egypt, and the Netherlands, and is especially interested in Southern Africa and the Middle East, and formulating new forms of knowledges through decolonizing discourses that were naturalized through colonial processes. Blogs at Neo-colonialism and its Discontents Tweet her @saramsalem

22 thoughts on “The Symbolic Use of Women

  1. This is an absolutely idiotic article. I stand with my Muslim sisters in taking off the hijab if they so choose. Liberate your body and mind from ideology and choose for yourself.


  2. Is saying, “well those women couldn’t be oppressed by having their bodies so strongly policed, it’s their culture, they must be used to it – they mustn’t know better” not just another way for white westerners to pass off responsibility for their actions ? their actions, meaning the support western governments and consumers lend to predominantly Muslim countries ? do you think these countries would be able to exist and function the way they do without us ? do you think capitalism only exists in the West meanwhile other countries are stuck in some kind of ideal, pastoral feudalism ? we buy products from these countries and give them military “humanitarian” aid – we already influence what happens there. as an immigrant this reminds me very strongly of British / white liberal feminists discourse on sex work – especially the way they pretend there are not specific socio-economic circumstances that force women esp immigrant women into sex work – this allows them in turn to go on endlessly about how we should respect sex workers’ choice to do sex work, since it’s no different than the choice to do a cushy office job – although, you know, that choice never presented itself to women who do sex work because they are bared from those kinds of jobs by a combination of racism, xenophobia and classism. Ultimately, liberal feminists’ support for sex workers’ choices is very profitable – it helps liberal feminists protect their job from immigrants etc. isn’t the same happening here? the constant attacks on western women who “wear very little” are strongly classed – because yeah you might see someone in a bathing suit in a fashion magazine, but most of our images of vulgar / excessively sexualized women are distinctly lower / working class – middle / upper class women know how to dress “tastefully”, you know – never mind all the classed implication of middle / upper class morality etc. Respectable middle class feminists find “vulgar” working class women very embarrassing, saying that they’re “slaves to capitalism” and really, really oppressed by their enjoyment in wearing “vulgar” clothes is a nice way to shut them up and get them out of the picture, you know.


    1. I wish for the day when men are required to live by laws and codes of conduct decided by groups of women.where men answer to the women of the world.ive never had a problem answering to a woman.if you truly love and respect a woman than you value her thoughts and opinions.and respect her is not blind it’s vision with understanding.


  3. I do think that there should be a universal standard for human rights that is applied across cultures; and, specifically, this standard must be rigorously applied to the treatment of women and girls across nations and cultures. However, I do not think that women should be forced to dress or behave in one way or another. My aim as a feminist is to help ensure that women have rights, are aware of their rights, truly believe in their opportunities, and can make informed decisions. When it comes to the decisions they make, that is their business and not mine. To make it mine would be to go against the point: that women should be free to make their own decisions about their bodies and anyone who is not that woman should leave her to it or support her. I do not think that a woman wearing a hijab is by necessity any more or less free than a woman wearing trousers or a mini skirt.

    I think this article does a nice job of exposing the hypocrisy of many discussions (both in Europe and in Middle Eastern countries) about the relationship between women’s bodies (clothing choices) and freedom. Why is it that naked woman=freedom in the images you have chosen? Although I am hesitant to deny the importance of female sexual agency, even in Western contexts women tend not to be free sexual agents so much as free to be repeatedly victimized by cultures that still view women’s bodies as property and relish in women’s sexual liberation as an excuse to use, mistreat, and discard women for their own pleasure. I would not trade my right to wear what I want, have sex with consenting partners, and travel as I please (as well as not be murdered or jailed for being raped although that does happen even in North America or Europe even in secular contexts), but I do not think that my life choices or way of life should be forced on another person. I know plenty of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab. They are bright, hardworking, independent, and strong-minded women. Who am I to tell them that their informed decisions are less valid? For women I run into whom I do not know (including women in full covering, and even the woman I saw in the grocery store who was wearing a burkha) I suspend judgement.

    If I am to be brutally honest, maybe I worry about how she is treated at home, and maybe I worry about the specter of female genital mutilation (and yes, I have friends who were subjected to this practice). But I remind myself that wearing articles of clothing associated with particular religions and belonging to those religions does not equate to victimization and that unless someone is being hurt and asks for or needs my help I’d best not be a judgmental jerk. And in many ways the issues I worry about when I run into these women are not too different from the ones I worry about when I see women of any background on the street, or when I am dealing with women in crisis across cultural contexts (including friends).

    I actually ran into a family the other day and the mother and little girl were wearing hijabs and long skirts. I was wearing fishnets and a kilt mini skirt. The little girl stared at me like I was the most fascinating thing she’d ever seen. For a moment I felt like I was the fascinating, exotic, other. And yet, in the next moment the two of us looked into each other’s eyes and despite differences in clothing, race, religion, culture, and age, I felt very strongly that we recognized one another as fellow human beings. And this exchange epitomizes my perspective on the issue: As far as I am concerned we are all just people.


  4. I think the line between freedom and opression is drawn when women are specifically forced to do or not do something. Not when supposedly they are manipulated into doing something. One fact in certain: European women will never be killed in the so called “honour crimes”, Muslim women (not all of them, of course) will always be in danger. When I go to Saudi Arabia, I do not expect to act like in my home country. I must submit to its rules (for example, not being allowed do drive). Or, more recently, to not eat croissants in Syria (no matter how stupid this seems). The same should apply for muslims living in Europe, they should accept certain rules, and that’s that. What’s with the double standard?
    And yes, we are free to work, to dress the way we like. What’s wrong with that? Why do you assume that we are victims of the so called sex culture? We are not victims at all. The normal society is the one in which men don’t go berserk when they see women’s hair. Freedom is when you can go out whenever you want, alone, without asking permission. And yes, dressing the way you actually like, for YOURSELF, not thinking that you hurt some macho pride. Have you read Eli Shafak’s “Hounour”? It speaks from the inside the concrete, physical abuse muslim women suffer, not an invented one.


    1. Is it really that easy to divide women into European women and Muslim women? There aren’t European Muslim women?

      And how do you work out that “European women” are never in danger of honour killings? Certainly in the UK, huge numbers of women are killed by their partners every year. What is the specific important difference between a culture which fails to protect women and their children from violence by their boyfriend our husband and one which has the concept of honour killings? How can you assert the former’s superiority?


  5. Nice post, thank you! Some of the points reminded me of an article I read during my Master’s degree, which I think you would enjoy if you haven’t read it: Christine Walley, “Searching for ‘Voices’: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations,” Cultural Anthropology 2:3, 1997 (Here’s a link:

    She talked about Algeria too, and how at the same time the French were going on about liberating Algerian women, women in France didn’t even have the right to vote.

    Thanks again!


  6. beautifully written piece with deep understanding of how woman herself fails to realize that her sympathizers mostly work for some hidden personal have pointed Algerian women case, I don’t find it much different from what Pakistani woman faces..”damned if you do and damned if you don’t”..ironically, she is expected to join a million march along “na-mehram” when a religious leader needs a mob to show his power muscles and other times she is dictated segregated gender confinements by his same tongue


  7. Some interesting (though oft repeated) points made. One viewpoint struck me though:-

    “..statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (despite this drawing them into a capitalist structure of repression).”

    Now I thought (shock/horror) that women working/earning money was probably quite a good thing. Let alone that capitalism is just an economic structure based on a marketisation of labour, goods and services. What causes oppression isn’t capitalism or any other form of economics. In the case of women it’s patriarchy and social convention backed up by religious dogma, all of which many. many women support and buy into.


    1. Hi

      I think economics does have an impact on women, as capitalism represents another system of repression that intersects with patriarchy, racism, etc. Saying women are oppressed only by social convention backed up by religion is simplistic, as women’s oppression is more complicated than that, as is the whole “women buying into it” statement.

      This of course will depend on one’s views about capitalism itself, which I take it are not negative ones on your part. Too long to get into here, but many feminists have already dealt with the issue of capitalism, class and women and so I wouldn’t want to repeat what others have already said (again).


    2. ‘Social conventions’ is rather a broad term. In my view, it’s not possible to divorce ‘social convention’ in a meaningful sense (the choices people make as directed by social pressure, from the options materially available) from the prevailing economic reality. It may be possible that there is a form of capitalism which is not based on patriarchy, but the capitalism that exists today is an entirely patriarchal structure dependent on (to put the whole thing very simply) women as providers of unpaid labour (childcare and home-making) and consumers. For a woman to work and thereby make herself independent is a radical act, but the structure of capitalism means that she must outsource the unpaid labour she would otherwise have done. If MEN would step up and share the burden of that labour, we would be getting somewhere

      Not far enough though for a lot of feminist theories and feminists, whose goal is not to be equal with unequal men (just as James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time – why would the Negro want to become equal to the White man, who has nothing desirable in his way of life but power?) but to achieve a fairer society for all than will ever be possible under a hierarchical structure like patriarchal libertarian capitalism.


      1. I think you and Sara are putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s perfectly feasible to imagine a capitalist society that isn’t oppressive. Capitalism doesn’t dictate how men and women behave towards each other – there could be a capitalist economic system in which the sexes are perfectly equal, or one in which women dominate men.

        The issues you (validly) raise e.g. men not taking an equal part in childcare, may be allowed by capitalism, but are not capitalism’s fault – they could just as equally arise in hunter gatherer, subsistence farming, or communist societies.


        1. As I said, in my opinion, if men would equally share the burden of domestic labour then gender equality under capitalism might result, but the other inequalities perpetuated by capitalism would continue. I agree with your last point, but I don’t think it’s a criticism of anti-capitalist feminist theory. I stand by my defence of Sara’s point that capitalism as it presently stands is patriarchal AND capitalism as it presently stands is based on inequality. I think political philosophy can fall into the trap of ignoring material realities and existing power structures in debates like this.

          This is my last reply as we’re talking about a point in parenthesis, and the author has already replied to you, so I feel we are taking up too much space. Go ahead and have the last word if you will.


      2. Well just to say, I think you’re confusing what capitalism allows and what it’s responsible for. Oppression is caused by what’s in human beings hearts and minds.

        Anyway, many thanks to you and Sara for responding.


  8. Wow! Sara – hats off for a superb article. It is well written, balanced, informative and, quite frankly, a little bit disturbing, which means your writing was extremely effective.
    It highlights what “freedom” means, it has a very subjective meaning… thanks, this article is for keeps.


  9. Excellent article with great images & video. Swiss poster – wtf?

    This is such a huge issue for White feminists. I personally find it incredibly difficult not to impose Western notions of emancipation when thinking about women under patriarchy in cultures elsewhere. It’s something I’m always mulling over and trying to understand how to be helpful.


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