By Dina Wahba
When I first started studying gender I was very provoked by the position taken by Arab and Muslim feminists living in the west on feminism, Islam, women’s rights and other relevant issues. For me, they were not radical enough, almost apologetic and not outspoken against the types of patriarchy I have been struggling with back home.
However, with time, and as I lived in the West (in the UK and now in Germany), I started to understand how Muslim women feminists who live in certain Western countries can be in a very precarious position. The sheer racism and discrimination, whether in practice or discourse, that one deals with on a daily basis forces one to take reactionary positions. This is not to say that one deviates from one’s own beliefs, rather it is those same beliefs that force you to take certain positions, because you uphold those values, feminist values.
This is not about Cologne
Since I arrived in Germany last October, I have been witnessing different forms of racism towards various people but most specifically my young male Arab friends. I resisted taking a stance or writing something. I refused to speak to Western audience to avoid making the same mistakes Muslim feminists before me made and I criticised them for. We, or at least I as a feminist from the Middle East, have an agenda and priorities and they do not necessarily include investigating masculinity and ”defending” men against racism. We are still dealing with issues around violence, and political, personal and other freedoms. Nevertheless, I must admit that, just like my predecessors and those I harshly criticised, I have become so outraged, so provoked, so angry in the aftermath of the public discourse in Germany around what happened in Cologne that I had to say something.
Young, able, male “brown bodies,” North African and Arab-looking men seem to be marked and targeted. There is a history affiliated with those bodies, I do not even know where to start or who to quote. Post-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon points out this in his book Black Skin, White Masks in which he shows how “the Negro” is depicted: “The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly”. There is an entire colonial historical narrative filled with racism, hatred, fear and stigmatization. What is expected of those bodies has already been decided years ago. They are hypersexualised savages.
Throughout history, over and over again, these narratives were called upon when needed, to justify slavery, colonisation, occupation and discrimination. Building on Gaytri Spivak’s famous quote, “White men saving brown women from brown men,” now it is the ”white women” who are threatened, not even the brown ones anymore.
Women as markers of nations
Only now, we come to the women, at the very end of our discussion. Every time, wherever you go in the world it is the same. I have been working on violence against women in three different countries for years now, and in the aftermath of every horrendous incident, women are often everyone’s last concern. We first talk about who the perpetrators are, speculate about why, and maybe blame the ”victim” a little in the process, and then we finally ask: what about the women?
The general discussion in the wake of Cologne seldom discussed the women. What services were they provided, if any? What are their immediate and long-term needs? Aside from expelling every brown-looking person, what kind of measures will be put in place to ensure that no other woman, white or black, would ever have to go through such an ordeal again in the future? The lack of constructive discussion was not surprising to me; what was surprising was the use of women bodies to trigger discussion about everything else other than the welfare of women.
The pictures used by some German media outlets, like Focus magazine, and are being circulated in social media, pictures of a black hand violating a white woman’s body or black spots/hands on a white woman’s body, are textbook examples of how women’s bodies are seen as the markers of nations and the carriers of identity. There is massive literature on gender and nationalism that highlights how identity contestations are often battled on the bodies of women. We saw this in Iran, Egypt and now in Europe. Women’s issues are seen and used to demarcate “Us” from “Them”. The unnecessary, provocative shoving of Egypt in the whole debate is a clear example: The rhetoric goes, this is not how we treat our women. This is how they do it in “their” backward countries but not here.
The academic in me is very tempted to quote people like Sara Ahmed and many others who worked on refugee issues and asylum seekers and wrote volumes analysing rhetorical discrimination in the wake of 2001, the invention of crises and the fetishisation of brown bodies, which one can vividly relate to today’s Germany. With all the proof, indepth analysis and sophisticated arguments that fill stacks of books and are easily accessible everywhere in Europe, it seems that most people will make a conscious decision to close their eyes and refuse to read or listen.
What am I defending?
My article is not necessarily in defence of the stereotypical image of the Arab man: patriarchal, violent, does not respect women, etc. Rather, it is about the Arab men out there who are resisting layers of oppression; the fighters, not in the mucho Jihadi hyper masculine way but in the sense of agency and survival. The ones who are vulnerable due to their unfortunate positionality but are far from being victims. Refugees, asylum seekers, migrants without papers, those who are displaced and marginalised. Those who fleed persecution in their home countries only to find racism here in Europe.
Thousands of Arab men and boys, along with women, whose lives have changed forever are facing secondary victimisation and traumatisation through beating, intimidation or further persecution. For those men and women. Because I am a feminist, I stand in their defence.
*Dina Wahba is an Egyptian academic and women’s rights activist currently based in Germany, where she is pursuing her PhD in the Free University in Berlin. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from Cairo University and her MA in gender studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Wahba worked with several Egyptian, regional and international organisations such as UN Women, the League of Arab States and Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). She has been involved in several initiatives that aim at promoting women’s rights and women representation in the political life after the revolution.