We still need to move beyond cultural relativism vs. universalism

published originally at Womyn’s Gathering official website

by Catherine and Ferial

Published on 03/05/2018




After an announcement regarding the rejection of a woman’s application to the Kvinnorum gathering on the basis of racism, there has been renewed controversy over an article written by us and published by Feminist Current in September 2017. As a result of this renewed controversy, we have decided to address some of the common misunderstandings of our first article. We hope that this article will be useful to women who are genuinely interested in a radical feminism that is helpful to all women.


We will not reiterate the events leading to the rejected application specifically, as these have already been detailed in statements released by Kvinnorum and by the Womyn’s Gathering. We support Kvinnorum’s decision to reject this application for all the reasons outlined in the two statements. As women of colour we frequently experience racism within the feminist movement, making it difficult or impossible for us to participate. It is encouraging to see that, for once, such behaviour has met with consequences.


The difference between our opinions and those of this woman and her supporters is that we believe that in the current political climate of extreme Muslim-hatred in the Western world, the unqualified criticism of Islam does far more harm than good. We therefore advocate that the feminist critique of Islam always be accompanied by a recognition of the power of racism in Western societies and of its serious effects on the lives of women. Feminists’ arguments against Islamic head-coverings must take this into account to avoid inadvertently contributing to the racist abuse of women from Muslim backgrounds. The Womyn’s Gathering statement clearly explains the reasoning behind this approach:


“The dominant Western right-wing narrative (and mainstream narrative in some countries, such as France) at this point in history is that patriarchy only exists in Muslim countries. The failure of feminists to challenge this narrative allows the denial of the severe patriarchy of our own society. This does not mean denying the existence of patriarchy in Muslim countries, but it does mean trying to avoid falling into the right-wing, racist discourse so beloved of Western governments eager to turn Islam into a scapegoat for all the world’s problems.


“When feminists do not act with this reality in mind, it makes it more difficult to combat the issues that affect women in Western cultures. If patriarchy is seen to be located only in Islam, then there is no need for feminism in Western countries, because women here are already liberated. It becomes all the more difficult to say that white men rape women too, that white men too are perpetrators of violence, and we women living in Western countries suffer from this. Thus, these arguments harm all women.”


The article proceeds in four parts. The first addresses the oppression of women from Muslim backgrounds in France, to illustrate why this issue is so urgent; the next three parts address common misconceptions about our arguments. It is long, but we think it is important to explain our ideas fully since many women seem unwilling or unable to do this work for themselves. We hope that those women who genuinely care about this issue and about the women it affects will take the time to read and carefully consider what we have to say.



  1. The oppression of women from Muslim backgrounds in France

  2. The comparison (made by us) between western beauty practices and Islamic head-coverings

  3. The comparison (made by women responding to our article) between French laws banning Islamic head-coverings and the Nordic Model on prostitution

  4. The comparison (made by women responding to our article) between feminist struggles against Islamic head-coverings in Western countries and in Muslim-majority countries


I. The oppression of women from Muslim backgrounds in France


The last two weeks have been marred by a number of instances of violence against women from Muslim backgrounds in France, which have circulated widely on social media while remaining largely ignored by French feminists.

  • On April 11th, the French Council of State released a verdict over the rejection of French nationality of an Algerian woman (married to a French citizen) who had refused to shake the hand of a male French official at her citizenship ceremony in 2016. The verdict confirmed the denial of citizenship to this woman.

  • On April 14th, a woman wearing a headscarf reported her experience at a convenience store (a “tabac”) to collect a parcel that had arrived for her via post. The shop had posted a notice outside forbidding women entering wearing head coverings. The female staff member refused to give the woman her package unless she removed her headscarf, and insulted her.

  • On April 16th, a woman wearing a niqab was roughly handled by police (images have circulated of her lying on the ground as police officers immobilise and handcuff her). She was held in custody for two days before being released with charges that roughly translate as contempt towards public officials, violently resisting arrest and making death threats against a public official.


News about events such as these circulate almost daily on French anti-racist social media, indicating the level of discrimination faced by women from Muslim backgrounds in France. Women wearing Islamic head coverings suffer considerable discrimination in housing and employment, large amounts of physical and verbal harassment and abuse in public, and widespread discrimination in access public services. What follows is a collection of screenshots of newspaper articles from a wide range of different newspapers – keep in mind that these are only a selection of the few examples of discrimination that make it into the media; the full extent is likely to be much worse.


In addition to these examples, we have also heard through our networks of women wearing the headscarf being excluded from feminist groups and unions; a (male) doctor refusing to perform an abortion on a woman wearing a headscarf; and a (female, feminist, abolitionist) psychiatrist saying that if a woman wearing the headscarf appeared at her clinic, she would refuse to see her. The clothing of women and girls from Muslim backgrounds is the target of intense scrutiny, in a way that would never be applied to women of other ethnicities: girls have been suspended from school for wearing long skirts or headbands; in the summer of 2016 armed police on some French beaches made women remove long clothing.


Finally, the most commonly cited search term on pornhub from French men – apart from variations on the word “French” – is “beurette”, a pejorative term for an Arab woman. This suggests more than anything else the deeply gendered and sexualised nature of this oppression.



II. Beauty practices


In our first article, we used the image of Australian right-wing politician Pauline Hanson removing the burqa (which she wore into the Parliament in August 2017 as a publicity stunt) as a starting point for our discussion.

“…the burqa is not the only oppressive patriarchal practice that Hanson engaged in in parliament that day: she was also wearing makeup. The practice of spending significant amounts of time and money — from adolescence to old age — applying toxic substances to one’s face in an attempt to attain unrealistic standards of beauty defined according to the preferences of white males is commonplace in Western society. The effects of this on women’s physical and mental health are surely significant, and surely more widespread than those of the burqa, which is only worn by a very small segment of the population. Yet strangely, it is rarely spoken about. The same goes for high heels, hair removal, cosmetic surgery and a range of other “harmful cultural practices in the West,” as Sheila Jeffreys calls them in her book Beauty and Misogyny.”


Note that we named the burqa as an “oppressive patriarchal practice” – hardly the sentiment of “pro-burqa islamists”.


The decision to begin the article with this was deliberate: we wanted to place Western beauty practices and Islamic head-coverings on the same level from the start. In this comparison, we tried to draw attention to the fact that, looking at this image from a Western perspective, our eyes go straight to the burqa; but in doing so we miss the fact that Hanson was also engaged in a number of other practices that are also problematic from a feminist perspective, but which are less visible to us because they are commonplace within Western society (as well as in non-Western societies, where beauty practices originating in the West are routinely imposed on women).


Women spend enormous amounts of time and money on these Western-style beauty practices, which are harmful to our physical health and to our psychological well being. For example: high heels lead to extensive long-term damage to feet, joints and backs; hair removal is painful, time-consuming and expensive; the wearing of deodorant has been linked to breast cancer; and no one really knows what the eventual harms are of wearing makeup day-in, day-out for most of a lifetime. More and more, women undergo plastic surgery to increase breast size, remove fat, change the shape of faces and genitals. Constantly surrounded by images of unattainable patriarchal beauty standards, our self-esteem is crushed. We become reliant on beauty practices and many of us can no longer go outside without them.

The work of radical feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys is helpful in understanding the link between Western beauty practices and Islamic head-coverings. In her excellent 2005 book Beauty and misogyny, Jeffreys argues that these practices should be included under the UN concept of “harmful cultural practices”, which was created to “identify and eliminate forms of harm to women and children that do not easily fit into a human rights framework” (Jeffreys 2005 p.28). The large majority of practices that the UN currently defines under this label are most commonly practiced in non-Western countries. These include FGM, widow-burning, child marriage and female infanticide. Jeffreys argues that Western beauty practices fulfil all the criteria set out by the UN to define HCPs:

·      Harmful to the health of women and girls

·      Arising from the material power differences between the sexes

·      Being for the benefit of men

·      Creating stereotyped masculinity and femininity which damage the opportunities of women and girls

·      Justified by tradition

Thus, Jeffreys does exactly what we did: she makes the link between Western patriarchal beauty practices and non-Western patriarchal practices, placing them on the same level. Why is this argument acceptable from Jeffreys but not from two young women of colour?


Following Jeffreys, we see Islamic head-coverings and Western beauty practices as situated on a continuum of harmful cultural practices emerging from all patriarchal cultures. These practices are not isolated from one another, but often share common origins and operate according to related logic.

Jeffreys demonstrates this through a comparison of makeup and the Islamic head-coverings. You can read this extract yourself on pp.37-40 of the free pdf of Beauty and Misogyny. Here is a particularly interesting quote:

“…Kathy Peiss suggests that the beauty products industry took off in the USA in the 1920s/1930s because this was a time when women were entering the public world of offices and other workplaces (Peiss, 1998). She sees women as having made themselves up as a sign of their new freedom. But there is another explanation. Feminist commentators on the readoption of the veil by women in Muslim countries in the late twentieth century have suggested that women feel safer and freer to engage in occupations and movement in the public world through covering up (Abu-Odeh, 1995). It could be that the wearing of makeup signifies that women have no automatic right to venture out in public in the west on equal grounds with men. Makeup, like the veil, ensures that they are masked and not having the effrontery to show themselves as the real and equal citizens that they should be in theory. Makeup and the veil may both reveal women’s lack of entitlement.” (p.38)


Jeffreys makes the point that these practices may seem opposite: respectable women in Muslim culture may be expected to cover their heads and bodies so that men are not sexually aroused by them, but in the West women are expected to dress in such a way that men will be sexually aroused by them. However, she argues, they both fit into the virgin/whore dichotomy according to which women are always judged according to their sexual desirability to men.


In making the comparison between makeup and the burqa in our article, we were not trying to say that Western beauty practices are better or worse than Islamic head-coverings. Let’s play around with this idea for a minute: we could say that makeup is worse than the hijab in terms of health effects because of the long-term effects of repeated chemical exposure. But we could also say that the burqa is worse than makeup because it covers even the contours of the face while makeup only places a layer over the surface. And surely we would say that breast augmentation surgery or labiaplasty are worse than any form of head-covering because they attack the very physical integrity of our bodies? And, of course it is terrible that head-coverings are imposed on women by the state in some countries, but isn’t it in some ways worse that in Western countries women have so internalised our self-hatred that we basically impose beauty practices on ourselves?


In other words, attempting to rank these practices is impossible and counterproductive: the point is to recognise the relationship between them, which is a tactic that brings women together across differences in the way patriarchy oppresses us rather than dividing us.

We know that many of the women criticising our article as “Islamist” are familiar with this critique of beauty practices. However, they do not make these arguments as loudly, as publicly, and as often as they make critiques of Islamic head-coverings. This leads to an analysis of Islamic head-coverings which is isolated from its situation on a continuum of harmful cultural practices from all cultures. This discourse is vulnerable to appropriation by right-wing forces who like to portray Islamic head-coverings as the only/the worst form of oppression of women. It also appeals to the unconscious biases that we all have from living our whole lives under white supremacy. This is deeply harmful in Western societies in which women wearing head-coverings face severe discrimination (see part I).


In our article we therefore opted to minimise our critique of Islamic head-coverings, since these critiques are frequently made by radical feminists as well as in the mainstream white supremacist media. Instead we devoted more space to critiquing western beauty practices, which are more often overlooked. We stand by that decision.


III. Comparison with the Nordic Model


In response to our article, a number of women have compared the French laws banning Islamic head-coverings to the Nordic model on prostitution.

  • There are two laws banning Islamic head-coverings in France: the first (2004), bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools; and the second (2010), bans the wearing of face-coverings in public places.[1]

  • The Nordic model on prostitution involves the criminalisation of men who buy prostituted women and the decriminalisation of prostituted women. Crucially, it should also include support for prostituted women and access to exit programs should they want to leave.



    [1] We refer to these as laws as banning Islamic head-coverings because despite their neutral framing, this is their intention. The most common “conspicuous” religious symbol commonly worn in France is the headscarf; the Christian cross is considered “inconspicuous”, or can easily be made so; the Jewish kippah and Sikh turban have never created much controversy. If the French government truly wanted to promote secularism by opposing religious symbols, it could simply have banned all religious symbols, conspicuous or not.


There are at least two reasons why this comparison is false and unhelpful.


Firstly, in terms of power the groups targeted by the laws are situated at polar opposites in the societies in which they operate. The Nordic model advocates the criminalisation of sex buyers, i.e., men. Men are the most powerful members of society. The Nordic model recognises that men are those with power in the prostitution relation, and indeed that their demand is the cause of prostitution, and therefore it punishes them. It also recognises that women in prostitution usually end up there due to poverty and other forms of vulnerability (such as past sexual abuse), and offers support to women in compensation for this.


In contrast, the French laws banning the wearing of Islamic head-coverings target one of the most powerless groups in society. Women wearing Islamic head-coverings are not only less powerful because they are women, they are also maligned as Muslims (and as Arabs if they are Arab) and for wearing head-coverings (see part I). In other words, this group is among the least powerful of all according to both sex and race.


These women are victims of discrimination and oppression by wider society (see part I). According to the arguments of the women who criticise our article, they are also victims of the men in their communities who impose head-coverings on them. In that case, why do these same critics advocate a law that punishes the victims? This is exactly the opposite of the design of the Nordic Model, which explicitly targets perpetrators rather than victims.


In addition, the 2004 and 2010 laws against Islamic head-coverings include no provisions to support women and girls affected by the laws, as the Nordic Model does through the provision of exit programs. Instead, it prevents some of the most vulnerable members of French society from accessing schools and public space respectively, without doing anything at all to address the systemic issues that lead them to wear head-coverings in the first place. This is simply punishing the victims.


The second reason why the comparison between the Nordic Model and Islamic laws advocating head-coverings is false is that prostitution and head coverings are different things. Prostitution involves the repeated penetration of women’s bodies by multiple men over an extended period of time, in which “consent” is secured through a financial transaction. It seems insane to compare such violence to a piece of fabric, even one that covers the face. While these two practices are not completely unrelated and both are patriarchal and oppressive from a feminist perspective, the level of harm they cause is incomparable.


IV. Combating head-coverings in Western countries vs. in Muslim-majority countries


A third common response to our article is the idea that criticising the ban on head-coverings in Western countries such as France and Australia is somehow disrespectful or ignorant of women’s struggles against head-coverings in Muslim-majority countries such as Algeria, Iran or Saudi Arabia (whether imposed by the state or more informally by social norms). We wrote about this in our article, but it seems to have been missed (or ignored) by many.


“Context is important. Wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa in Australia or in France is not equivalent to wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Algeria. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Algeria, Muslims hold power and comprise the majority of the population. In this context, fighting against the imposition of these garments by the state or by broad social pressure makes sense as a feminist goal. In Australia and France, Muslims are an oppressed minority and women from Muslim backgrounds are doubly targeted by racism and misogyny. In this context, singling out these garments has very different effects.”


Again, the issue is power relations. In Western countries, people from Muslim backgrounds (and particularly women) comprise an oppressed minority (see part I). In Muslim-majority countries, there is generally no racism or discrimination against Muslims as a group. This means that the effects of actions combating head-coverings will be very different. In the West, actions against head-coverings will inevitably be co-opted by the extreme right (or by the mainstream, as in France) and result in the increase in racist misogyny on women from Muslim backgrounds, whether or not they wear Islamic head-coverings, as in France. This means that feminists in Western countries must be extremely careful about what we say if we want to avoid making the lives of women from Muslim backgrounds more difficult.


Some women have responded to our article by saying that women from Muslim backgrounds who they know personally or whose work they have read support the French laws against head-coverings. This is no doubt true, though we think it is likely that many women would recognise the parallel between the forced imposition of head-coverings on one hand and their forced removal on the other. Further, we have been approached by many women of colour and/or from Muslim backgrounds who have thanked us for our work, saying it articulated ideas they held themselves.[2]



[2] We have also been thanked by many white women, who have told us that the racism they saw in the radical feminist         approach to this topic has long bothered them, and even that it prevented them from becoming radical feminists.


The opinions of one (or a group of) women personally concerned with an issue do not negate the opinions of other women personally concerned with it. It is unacceptable for white women to selectively use the words of women of colour they agree with to attempt to silence other women of colour. Women of colour – particularly those who are personally concerned with an issue – have every right to hold differing opinions. White women do not have the right to use the words of other women of colour to shut down these opinions.




We commonly see a number of double standards being applied in relation to this issue, including:

  • A disproportionate focus on, even obsession with, Islamic head-coverings, without an equivalent focus on related practices originating in Western culture

  • The demand that women wearing Islamic head-coverings remove them immediately, a demand rarely if ever placed on women performing Western beauty practices

  • The requirement that women from Muslim backgrounds combat head-coverings as a matter of urgency, when this requirement is not placed on Western women to fight equivalent practices as their highest priority

  • The failure to consistently apply the knowledge that all women make compromises over the patriarchal practices we accept in order to live the best life we can under the specific set of constraints that apply to each of us


There is another double standard: women of colour are expected to adopt the priorities of white/Western radical feminists. In practice, this means we must prioritise the fight against transactivism and the sex industry. If we do this, perhaps by drawing on our experiences as women of colour to make arguments about these topics, we are praised. But if we talk about racism without linking it to an issue seen as specifically radical feminist, we are often seen as liberal feminists. If we dare to question the dominant radical feminist approach to the headscarf, we are branded as Islamists.


We have taken the time to learn about transactivism and the queer movement, even though these do not affect the lives of many of us living in non-Western contexts; but there is no reciprocity. The large majority of white and western feminists do not take seriously the effects of colonialism and imperialism of Western countries on the countries of the global South, and on the lives of women of colour in the global North. We do not receive anything like the kind of support that we offer.


We are not white women and we will never be treated as such. We refuse this imposition of the priorities of white, western women. We will continue to work towards the construction of a genuinely anti-racist radical feminism.