Feminism versus Culture?


The question of feminism in the space of race and religion is one that can often be divisive, particularly given the history of the word ‘feminism’ and the connotations it presents.

A recent post by an Aboriginal Feminist titled "Aboriginal Feminism – So what does this entail?” highlighted some of these difficulties translating ‘western’ feminism to the Aboriginal - and by extension, culturally diverse - space.  For example, she cited the use of the didgeridoo.

"One such example I can think of are the constant questions we get about women playing the didgeridoo. It is considered culturally inappropriate for women to play this instrument which is commonly interpreted by mainstream feminism as sexist. However, black women don't tend interpret it this way, rather it is seen as “men's business” and therefore a respected part of culture.”

She continues by illustrating something I have found difficult to articulate without sounding exclusionary myself.

"If it were an issue, it would be an issue for black women to challenge. White women challenging this would not only come across as an act of imperialism, it would also severely diminish our right as black women to enact change within our own communities.”


This may be part of the reason why the concept of feminism is so divisive and polarising in communities, such as for example, the Muslim community that I am familiar with.  At times, the very act of mentioning feminism immediately sidelines you from being a participant in the discussion.   It is assumed you then embody the value system of ‘Western Feminism’, a concept disparaged and associated with man-hating, bra-burning and a rejection of any traditional role and expectation in society.

Unfortunately at times, the world of western feminism seems to reinforce these perceptions.  A classic example is that of Femen, a group who claim fight patriarchy in its manifestations in religion, and to speak on behalf of ‘oppressed Muslim women’ among other things.

To be fairly frank, I don’t get it.  However, as a covered Muslim woman, I don’t think I was ever going to ‘get’ protesting through toplessness.  More critically however, by deciding that wearing the hijab was oppressive and actively fighting against it, two things happen:

1. The perspectives, beliefs and norms of those whose right they are claiming to protect are actually ignored, and

2. The right of Muslim women to fight for their rights is undermined.

There is no doubt that there are oppressed Muslim women around the world, but there seems to be a lack of nuance as to how to fight that oppression.  This arises from a lack of understanding of the cultures in which these women operate.

If the very act of fighting FOR someone silences the very person that is meant to be liberated…should it be done at all?  Personally, I feel that groups like FEMEN do more damage to Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab and follow the religion in their own ways than it does to help those who are oppressed through its misinterpretation.

The question then is this: how do we talk about feminism in a space that respects the diversity of races and religions as well as the norms and beliefs they expect and demand?  

A tougher nut to crack indeed.

What do you think?

Is feminism even really a word that we, as culturally and linguistically diverse women, use without being tainted and rejected by our communities? 

TBC... cross-cultural-feminism-cartoon-1

PLEASE EXPLAIN: Why my clothing choice matters to you?

A small incident occurred in my life a couple of weeks ago that I had trouble processing.

On my way to a flight, travelling through airport security, the lady standing at the metal detector stopped to ask me  about my head covering.

"What do you mean it's because of your religion?" I was asked.

"...uh, it's what I wear for a hijab.  I am a covered Muslim woman and I have to wear this because it's compatible with my field engineering job..." I was a little confused and at this point frustrated; they were holding up the entire line and the questioning was causing an unnecessary scene.

"Yeah look it really isn't religious enough.  Aren't you guys supposed to wear the..." She trailed off, looking at me.

"You mean the full veil/hijab?"

"Yes, that.  You have to wear that for it to be religious.  Guys who wear turbans can't come in with a baseball hat covering their hair and say that is religious, because it is a baseball cap, not a turban.  Look do you have a veil with you to prove that this is religious?"

I looked at the lady, incredulous. Was she serious?

"No, I don't carry an extra scarf with me in my hand luggage".  The lady didn't seem to pick up on my dry tone.

"Oh okay. Well in the future, carry with you a scarf so you can show the security"..

"Wait, wait a minute." By this point I had all my luggage and was ready to leave, but I just had to clarify. "So you're telling me that I can't wear what I am wearing because it isn't religious enough for you and I need to bring a 'proper scarf' with me to prove to you that I am Muslim?"

"Yes. Do you understand me and where I am coming from?"

"...no, not really. But I'm going to go catch my plane, I'll just go with it. Thank you for your advice..."


Women's bodies, in particular Muslim women's bodies, seem to be a battlefield for all sort of political debates and concerns, exemplified by the never ending French battle with the burqa/niqab/hijab.  This particular incident and raised questions on two levels: one a personal level, and one around the question of Muslim women, their clothing and bodies in general.


Firstly, it must be clear that I am not assigning blame to the security lady per se, as such an incident is likely due to a combination of ignorance, poor training and miscommunication.   If a Muslim individual had made the same comment - 'this isn't religious enough' - I would have taken umbrage for a completely different reason.  In this case however, it is more an unfortunate reflection of the understanding of Muslims and their traditions in Australia society.  

There are two sides to this coin.  On one hand, there is an onus on the Muslim community to go out and educate the wider community on traditions, so as we are not taking on a 'victim mentality', as we did so often after September 11.

On the other hand, it is also important that members of our security forces, particularly those in sensitive areas such as the airports, be properly educated and trained.  It is quite likely (though I am making the assumption) that the training consisted of explaining "what a Muslim woman looks like" and subsequently only showing the traditional/stereotypical image of a Muslim woman in the classic hijab.

Unfortunately (ahem, surprised?), not all Muslim women look the same and dress the same, and as the community matures in Australia, looks will diversify further.  Stereotypes should not be the way we expect our community to look.  

Perhaps recommendations can and should be made to the security department in order to improve their training.  If their existing programs are already quite extensive, perhaps it was an isolated case...? The tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt (although in this case, that may be counter intuitive).


On a personal note, it was uncomfortable being told by a complete stranger that I wasn't dressed 'religious enough'.  I don't take offense to much at all, but I personally felt affronted by someone judging whether or not I was practicing my religion appropriately or 'enough', particularly by, essentially, a random individual...

Religion is a purely personal thing, and so is clothing choice.  In a nation which prides itself on all sorts of freedoms, the fact that individuals are made to feel uncomfortable due to either choice may require us to have a look at ourselves, and if our societal norms and expectations are eroding those freedoms.


The second point this incident raised is related to the debate about Muslim women and Muslim bodies more generally.  The existence of organisations such as FEMEN and the responses from the Muslim women around the world exemplify the battlefield that is the 'Muslim Woman'.  I might leave this point for another day actually, there is a lot to it...