Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Egyptian activist, feminist, and social networker, a self-described “Secular Liberal Feminist Vegetarian Individualist,” previously known for posting a picture of herself wearing nothing except for red shoes, socks, and a red flower in here hair in an act she said “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”, recently posted another controversial image of herself. In it, Elmahdy, naked, and another unnamed and faceless woman in partial covering, are defecating and menstruating on the ISIS flag.
Given what ISIS is, and their most recents acts of terror and extreme and violent ideology, at first glance, I look at an image like that and my immediate reaction is “Fuck yes.” A young female activist risking her life and taking a strong, empowered stance against the forces of misogyny, suppresion, violence, and the ill that she sees in her respective communities, deserves some respect. You see, as a women of color who grew up in a patriarchal, repressive religious environment, I want to support radical, feminist dissent against all oppressive, patriarchal forces internationally, including different extreme forms or manifestation of religion. I want to especially support dissent and activism against oppressive violence and extremism that would impede on freedom of the people.
But as a Westerner radicalized here in the post-911 Midwest, I know a thing or two about how we in the United States think that dissent should look, for us, I mean them…no, I mean us. I know about our imperialist militarized interest, Islamophobic gaze, and how they manifest, how they swarm on criticisms of Islam or the acts of extremist and fringe factions to justify their own capitalist, racist, murderous intentions and desires and involvement in the Middle East and Asia. I know how we latch onto extremism or unrest in the region to justify vilifying them and involving ourselves in their affairs.
It, then, doesn’t surprise me that the blogs that have been praising the latest from Aliaa Magda Elmahdy are the likes of “Bare Naked Islam”, (a boisterous ignorant, dangerously nationalistic, and deficient Conservative blog) “Victory Girls Blog” (a “Foward-Thinking” Conservative Women’s blog — yeah, sure) and “Times of Israel” (a site whose title indicates their little interest in fair reporting of the war being waged on Gaza, and whose content confirms as much).
These are the same people who turn around and support anti-choice and anti-queer legislation domestically. These are the same people who had a problem with the “Mosque” on Ground Zero. These are the same people who support Israel and dehumanize Gaza and Palestinians beyond reprieve. These are the same people who support the militarized police state and brutality domestically, standing behind the likes of George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson. They are the same people who call homegrown feminism a man-hating scourge that destroys families and corrupts inate biological gender roles. They’re bigots, through and through, against all sorts of progress or radical thought, even glad to chip away at the freedoms we have now to bring us back further, but the moment they think a Muslim or Global South woman or group’s progressive or radical ideology or belief works in their favor, all the sudden they’re for it.
So it follows, I can’t help but side-eye our interest in activists and stories of dissent in the Arab and Asian world or against Islam. I can’t help but side-eye the efforts of groups like FEMEN, as many Muslim women themselves do. I cannot help but side-eye when I read articles written by white women, under the guise of “feminism”, who exploit and appropriate the struggles of Muslim women and use them to their ends without listening to what their dissent looks and sounds like. We are only interested in them rejecting the things that make them less like us and more like an uncomfortable, unrecognizable “Other”. We are only interested in speaking for them. Increasingly, you hear stories about bans on hijab and other forms of Muslim head covering, the violent attacks against Muslim women who wear them by Westerners who claim it is for the sake of “secularism.” A corruption of the ideas of “freedom” and “secularism” is becoming popular in the West, but it is really just stealth racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.
I also have to respect the Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, African, and/or Asian women who disagree with Elmahdy’s tactics and expression, and who more keenly understand the politics of their respective regions, communities, and religion, and who, among themselves, can more adequately address the problems and systems that plague it.
So how are we, as Western feminists, going to step our game up and question the imperialist, racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, manipulative interests infiltrating our ranks under the guise of “women’s rights”? How are we going to show support of these people and women without a privileged and problematic gaze? That remains to be seen.
Written by Briana Urena-Ravelo