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Fighting the Hijab is a Diversion

Liberating women from the global south means a lot more than giving them low-wage jobs and freedom from headscarves.

The following was originally published here by Organizing Upgrade.

"Hijab is part of our culture!" yelled a young woman in a gold and yellow "hijab" Muslim headscarf, squared off against an older French blonde, whose chin and shoulders were pulled back, signaling how offended and taken aback she was. "You think feminism is taking off the scarf?" the young woman continued, "Why don't you stop the wars in our countries, stop the criminalization of Islam in Europe? We do not want to be in your country but we have no choice but to migrate, now you want to take away our culture, too?"

The feminist debate I had read about was happening before my eyes, western concepts of feminism clashing with the priorities of women from the global south. I was participating in AWID's (Association for Women in Development) international conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Surrounded by thousands of women's organizations, funders and feminists, I experienced moments of palpable women's solidarity, and also moments like this one – conflicts between political views and lived experiences emblematic of dynamics that have held the women's movement back. These power dynamics are as old as colonialism, and sometimes just as entrenched. Women with good intentions and social and economic privilege aim to "save" women who are marginalized, women of color, immigrant women, women from the popular classes.

I couldn't help but think of George Bush and his empire-building media spin –the claim that the US invaded Afghanistan not for access to oil and natural gas, but in order to "liberate the women." His message of "women's liberation" was accompanied by media images of the burqa, head-to-toe covering sometimes with only a mesh opening for breathing. This convinced many to support US military occupation. What many missed after Afghanistan dropped out of US headlines was the subsequent integration of Afghan women into the globalized economy, as piecemeal garment workers and other low-wage work. The liberation that was promised, as it turns out, was actually integration into the lowest rungs of globalized capitalism – sweatshop-style garment work, sewing clothing for women in the global north, in living rooms and factories that produce for subcontractors of large corporations. Underneath the claims that this "access to money" liberates women, imbedded in the designer labels on women's clothing around the world, a neoliberal restructuring is underway in the entire region.

What this approach did not include was any consultation with, or leadership from, the very women experiencing this form of oppression, or communities trying to fight it. Too often, we progressive feminists in the west can fall into those same traps, assuming we know what's best for other women, uninformed or informed by dubious sources, and misusing economic and social powering a way that reinforces power imbalances that hurt our movement.

What would the  Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) have to say about this situation? Equally committed to the fight against fundamentalism as they are to the fight against the occupation and exploitation, their perspective is unique, and western feminist have much to learn from it.

I encountered similar themes in the preparatory assembly towards the World Social Forum in Tunisia. Despite the vastly different history and conditions, I heard about similar social justice movement questions: how to lift up self-determined feminism, a women's movement from the grassroots, how to fight both oppression and exploitation, and how to build solidarity across differences. But there, in a social movement setting, I got a taste of what a more coherent, grassroots approach to women's rights looks like.

In the crowded auditorium of a community college, the women's assembly speakers were under a multi-lingual banner that read "Tunisia: Home to the World's Social Movements." About a third of the crowd listening with headsets so we could hear interpretation in different languages, as the women laid out several pages of demands. Some wore scarves around their necks, others on their heads, some not at all. They were Tunisian, and they had brought together women's organizations from the entire Maghreb/Mashreq region. Building off the role their country's social movement played in sparking the "Arab Spring," they approached the forum process in an inclusive, regional way.

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