Co-opting Narratives of the Other
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
This is the famous assertion made by renowned author and political activist Arundhati Roy. The term, “giving voice to the voiceless”- with which we are now all too familiar finds its roots in the contours of classic imperialist thought, where the “civilized” (essentially Western, white connoisseurs of knowledge and development) have gained more of a “self” by going out to “help” communities of the so-called third world. Of course, at the heart of this self-acclaimed charity lies the responsibility of representing the marginalized of those communities.
Representing women (as well as children) continues to be a profitable business for the Western media. Indeed, anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and their children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. This logic thus suggests the need to re-write the stories of suffering of these individuals.
And yet, whereas the old and tired variations of “giving voice to the voiceless” have sought to narrate these stories, the latest recreation of this phenomenon is to provide the platform from which women can narrate their stories of suffering themselves. This is done in a space sponsored and confined by the same Western discourse that has continued to dictate representations of their communities.
By now the identity of these communities is a no-brainer; they are the communities of the “global south”, the “third world”, of any essentially non-Western community. Among many, anthropologist Homa Hoodfar notes that for the past two decades, Muslim women in particular, have been the most pervasive subjects of discussion in Western media. She attributes this phenomenon to the notion that,
“Failing to contextualize non-western societies adequately, researchers simply assume that what is good for western middle-class women should be good for all women.”
Due to this tendency, as well as a general fixation on the lifestyles of Muslim women, marriage and the veil (the two topics most dubbed as features of otherness in Muslim culture) are the most enduring subjects covered by western media.
In the one camp, honor killings, child marriage, forced marriage and forced veiling appear as some of the most prominent headlines here.
In the other camp, which is equally dangerous, appear the outliers of this discourse, the narratives that seek to illustrate just how normal (normal here denoting consensual) marriage and choices of dress can be for Muslim women.
This month, The Independent published an article titled “Bravo DKNY for a Ramadan Collection that Shows Muslim Dress Means More Than a Burqa.” The author, a Muslim Pakistani writer by the name of Bina Shah, seeks to illustrate how the choice of fashion line and models is itself a “controversy” that contrasts starkly with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights to uphold France’s ban on the niqab. Images of the models, proudly identified by the author as two Middle Eastern women; one fashion editor of Styles Magazine and the other a fashion designer in Dubai are attached. This collection of DKNY, she claims, shows that Muslim women can be “effortlessly chic and modest at the same time.”
This statement, along with the title of the piece, suggest that it is OK for Muslim women to dress in a manner different from the quintessential styles offered by Western brands like DKNY, in “long, flowing dresses, long-sleeved shirts, coats, and even a three-quarters-length leather jacket.” At the same time, this is vaguely pitted as an alternative to the now imposed ban on the niqab and more conservative forms of Muslim dress. The logical flaw in this argument is evident, for the author fails to establish relevance between the two, instead referencing both DKNY’s Ramadan collection and the niqab ban as “controversies.” There is a vague assumption here that with the ban on the niqab, Muslim women would be at a loss for what to wear.
Another peculiar piece published on The Huffington Post this month reads, “Force or Choice? American Muslim Marriages.” The crux of this article is the notion that forced marriages are- as though this is a surprise- not representative of Muslim marriages in the US. To nail home the point, images and stories of Muslim couples are attached to illustrate just how consensual these marriages are.
Some will ask what the problem with these representations are if their goal is to break essentially racist and orientalist perceptions of Muslims and Islam. The problem, simply, is the apologetic undertone used in articles like these for the very existence of the identity of “Muslim women” and the perceived dictations of Islam. It is the notion that there is a need to illustrate, again and again, that it is acceptable for Muslim women to uphold different values and lifestyles than those established by western women.
The second important question here is who are “Muslim women”? And how is it possible to group such a large and diverse group of individuals, with varying geopolitical and cultural history into one homogeneous mass for which to speak? The remedy sought by western media, as we have come to witness, is twofold, to recruit on the one hand, Muslim women as writers of this literature and at the same time, seek to filter studies by categorizing Muslim women based on nationality. This seemingly strays away from attracting the critique launched at those who claim to provide voices for the voiceless, for at face value, “the voices” speak for themselves. Yet the end result is a co-option of their narratives, under the selfsame context and assumptions made about Muslim women and communities.
And this, after all, is a mechanism with which to reproduce colonialist dominance over representation and the production of knowledge. It is important to view systems of discrimination and racism as dynamic, where they seek to develop immunity from criticism and therefore create new mechanisms – outliers- with which to address dissent.
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Yasmine Nagaty is a political science graduate of the American University in Cairo currently working in a Cairo-based NGO Misr El-Kheir. Her interests include postcolonial theory and feminism as well as creative writing and poetry. She was raised in Botswana and the Gambia and is especially interested in the construction of identity and the process of narrating the self and the other. Find her writing at landscapesofcairo and on Twitter: @yasmine_nagaty