Lana Oweidat is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the Writing Center at Goucher College. Oweidat teaches writing and rhetoric courses with an emphasis on Islamophobia, border discourses, and transnational narratives. Her research tackles tutor training, feminist rhetorics, as well as anti-Islamophobia pedagogies, and multilingual composition. Oweidat’s work appeared in The Peer Review and Humanities, in addition to other publication venues.
Disrupting Empty Multiculturalism: An Appeal for Critical Intersectional Approaches to our Feminisms
It was after the first Muslim ban went into effect in 2017 that the SIG on Arab and Muslim identities had their second meeting at CCCC. During the hour meeting, a white scholar talked extensively about her research and was interested in receiving feedback from Muslims on the way her research represented them. A visibly marked Muslim woman was eagerly waiting for her chance to speak. When she finally got the chance to talk she told us that the Muslim ban has affected her personally—just a couple of weeks ago she was harassed because of her veil, as someone attempted to rip it off, which led her to run home, lock her door, and not leave the house for two days fearing the same thing might happen again. Given the limited time of the SIG meeting, we could not do much to help besides listening to her experience.
In 2013, Lady Gaga released a song called “Aura” (previously titled “Burqa”) in solidarity of veiled Muslim women. An excerpt of the song reads as follows:
I am not a wandering slave I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
Do you want to see me naked, lover?
Do you want to peek underneath the cover?
Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura? … Do you wanna touch
me? Let’s make love.
I use these two examples as articulations of uncritical multicultural practices that enact violence on marginalized people, in this context Muslim women. Like Sara Ahmed, I perceive these encounters with the Muslim Other as mechanisms that “open up prior histories” and have larger implications (8). Although these two incidents take place in different contexts, they speak to a broader issue of problematic engagement with difference. I applaud the white scholar in Incident #1 for her attention to matters of ethical representation in her research, and I understand the importance of using SIGs for help with scholarship; however, I left the meeting concerned. Instead of examining the power structures creating violence, they were reinforced. And instead of making space for stories of marginalization and oppression, the group was catering to the emotions and research of a white person—an example of what bell hooks calls “white consumption of the dark Other”—a kind of dominance that would be maintained by the efforts of the Muslim Other in this context (30). Similarly, Lady Gaga likely had good intentions, as her first two lines can be perceived as giving a strong message of empowerment in solidarity with Muslim women who wear the burqa, and who are subject to the negative stereotypes presenting the burqa as a form of invisibility, enslavement, and passivity. In these moments of ethical violations, it is important to examine the modes of domination, and the power structures of these encounters, while resisting certain uncritical intersectional practices.
Lady Gaga reminds her fans that wearing a burqa is not in contradiction to having agency. However, the rest of the song appropriates the burqa to correspond to an Orientalist representation of it as a sexualizing artifact, one that needs to be lifted and domesticated to appeal to the Western gaze. This, in turn, correlates with a neoliberal feminist logic that conflates empowerment with transparency (openness with unveiling). And that is how Lady Gaga wears and portrays her burqa as an Orientalist sexualized tool, which is in complete opposition to its function from the perspectives of Muslim women. For Muslim women, the burqa aims at de-sexualizing the way people perceive them. This shallow solidarity at the intersections of racism and sexism that aimed at promoting a sense of tolerance for the Muslim Other has contributed in this instance to fetishizing their cultures and appropriating their artifacts.
Here I join Michelle Coplean and Rebecca Dingo’s appeal to white and Western feminists to be more attentive to the nuances of racialized power relations in geopolitical contexts, and I add that this attention is especially important while attempting to build solidarity and inclusion. I ask: Are we inscribing the very systems of oppressive power in spaces that should defy it under the umbrella of solidarity, intersectionality, and inclusion? How can we, as feminists, better achieve the goals of intersectional politics? As Jennifer Nish notes about “everyday rhetorical acts” that “even when they seem to be doing ‘good’ in terms of civic engagement” (as is the case in both incidents), they “do not avoid, but actually contribute to the larger systematic logics through which…violence occurs” (1 emphasis in original). This contribution is maintained in part through inattention and uncritical acceptance of intercultural power dynamics.
Take, for example, the veil as a Muslim artifact sitting on the intersection of race and gender, which complicates our understanding of different forms of solidarity and engagement. Just as questions regarding power and recognition manifested in the two incidents described earlier, the Muslim veil raises opportunities to more critically examine these questions. How can we challenge and disrupt the reproduction of the U.S. Empire through the site of the Muslim veil? How can we enact intersectional ethical engagement and activism in those circles and beyond?
In the context of Western imperialism, the Muslim veil is subjected to many ugly charges of foreignness, strangeness, and alienation (Sheth). This perception contributes to the logos of the imperial power that perceives the veiled Muslim woman as antithetical and hostile to the values that are essential to the Western cultural identity: equality, freedom, transparency and openness. Due to the intersectionality of her religion and gender, the veiled Muslim woman is visible to the Western eye and is marked as an oppressed Other. Therefore, the Muslim veil, as Minoo Moallem and Laura Nader argue, “is a foundational trope for Orientalism and colonialism” (qtd. in Maira 632).
Despite the appropriation it has faced in Western discourse, the veil has proved itself to be resistant to colonialism throughout history (Sheth), which explains why there is an urgent need for Western imperialism to subdue/discipline/Westernize it. The Muslim veil functions as a powerful rhetorical tool for the deconstruction of Western binary thought. Dialectical engagement with veiled Muslim women creates a liminal space to disclose and examine one’s own assumptions, and, in this case, the Western bias against the veil and the embedded systems and discourses that perpetuate and normalize such bias.
Once we begin to reflect on the problematic nature of Western encounters with the Muslim veil, we can begin to consider ways to make these encounters more ethical. As many feminists of color have been advocating, we need to resist the “add and stir” model of diversity that promotes empty multiculturalism. Rather than sprinkling marginalized people into our discussions and classrooms, we need to think of ways to center their experiences and voices, while making visible the power dynamics that govern our cross-cultural encounters. In the SIG meeting there was an intentional effort to center Muslim voices, but the white scholar insisted on utilizing that centralization for the benefit of their own research rather than in support of a group that is undergoing tremendous oppression. In this case, rather than doing the real labor of intersectional work, we resorted to catering to whiteness. The result replicated the colonial discourses of violence that the group was gathered to resist.
In an age where our understanding of colonialism becomes more fluid and more discursive, the practice of labeling those who do not conform to the Western understanding of freedom is a form of colonialism. This understanding of colonialism does not take into consideration the material conditions of a culture, the specificity of its practices, and the desire of the people to embrace such practices. In this sense, it denies discursive subjectivity and agency to Muslim women. The Western understanding of them highlights the way these women are studied “primarily in terms of their object status (the way in which they are affected or not affected by certain institutions and systems)” and evaluated on the basis of how far they have measured up to the goal of achieving Western ideals (Mohanty 40).
The field of feminist rhetorical studies has made strides in exploring ethical engagement with difference; however, we must still address the gaps and limitations of these forms of intersectional solidarity, especially when it comes to Muslim women’s identities. We need to constantly reflect on our actions and silences in spaces where “ongoing neocolonial relationships” take place (De Lissovoy 284). We must further explore the complexities of being situated in a globalized world with a clear emphasis on making visible the network of power relations that keep discourses of Orientalism, imperialism, neoliberalism, Islamophobia, etc. in place, as well as on understanding the mechanisms that allow these discourses to stay intact—including those guiding Western responses to the Muslim veil. When those structures remain intact, we, as the discourse theorist James Zebroski says, “do the very thing the discourse exists to prevent: we make it visible, we de-naturalize it, its prohibitions, its exclusions and taboos” (535). Therefore, I think it is crucial not only to denounce moments of shallow intersectionality and empty multiculturalism, but to also examine how oppressive systems of power are being enacted, constructed, and circulated in feminist circles. We need to identify points of intervention in our scholarship, activism, and praxis, while considering how our solidarity manifest itself in those spaces. We must seek, rather than allow to remain obscure, the possibilities these interventions hold for our field and beyond.
The significance of intersectionality as a theoretical and analytical framework was among the prominent themes of the CFSHRC’s Wednesday night event at CCCC. One comment in particular captured the evening’s spirit for me: we “can’t just check the box and be done with intersectional work; it’s life-long work” (Table 9). Audience members at each table highlighted different means to achieve this goal. From among the suggestions made, I find the emphasis on “listening” crucial for intersectional work and ethical engagement across racial divides. Audience comments included: “Listen more, talk less,” “Talking with and listening to,” and “Listen better.” My assumption is that the reference is to “rhetorical listening”— a concept that Krista Ratcliffe defines as “a performance that occurs when listeners invoke both their capacity and their willingness […] to promote an understanding of self and other that informs our culture’s politics and ethics” (emphasis in original 204). This understanding, according to Ratcliffe, “means listening to discourse not for intent for but with intent—with the intent to understand not just the claims, not just the cultural logics within which the claims function, but the rhetorical negotiations of understanding as well” (emphasis in original 205).
Rhetorical listening, then, allows us not only to find commonalities with the Other, but to also acknowledge and engage with difference (204). Employing rhetorical listening as a tool for cross-cultural ethical conduct builds “stamina to sustain conscious and explicit engagement with race” (DiAngelo 66). This, in turn, exposes the “foundation of (superficial) racial toleration and acceptance” that whiteness promotes—a kind of tolerance that paves the way to empty multiculturalism (64).
I believe that sitting a little with the questions that Ratcliffe poses is key to understanding the uneasiness of those cross-cultural encounters:
Why is it so hard to listen to one another? Why is it so hard to resist a guilt/blame logic when we do listen? Why is it so hard to identify with one another when we feel excluded? Why is it so hard to focus simultaneously on commonalities and differences among ourselves? And how do the power differentials of our particular standpoints influence our ability to listen? (Ratcliffe 198)
These questions allow for examining “rhetorical negotiations of understanding;” investigating the construction of whiteness as a racial discourse and uncovering the universalism and the invisibility of whiteness. In addition, they expose the subtle ways in which whiteness gets reinscribed in cross-racial encounters—as evident from the examples provided in my talk.
Self-awareness and attention to positionality are also important to ethical engagement, as noted in the comments by audience members. One table highlighted the importance of “Self-awareness” as a way to disrupt “empty multiculturalism” and another commented on the importance of “Raising student awareness of their own positionality.” This critical attention to positioning contributes to intersectional work and to confronting biases; individuals become more aware of how embedded in and influenced they are by multiple discourses, especially ones they cannot “see” like “whiteness.” Whether in SIG meetings or classroom discussions in which different forms of allyship and engagement manifest themselves, we should be mindful that, as one table noted, “being an ally is an active thing;” it requires constant examining of one’s positioning, biases, privileges, etc. Therefore, this kind of labor is never-ending.
From the Microtalk
- Ahmed, Sara. “This Other and Other Others.” Economy and Society, vol. 31, no. 4, 2002, pp. 558-72. 12 Feb 2015.
- Coplean, Michelle and Rebecca Dingo. “Beyond Drive-by Race Scholarship: The Importance of Engaging Geopolitical Contexts.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol.15, no.4, 2018, pp. 306-11. DOI: 10.1080/14791420.2018.1533988
- De Lissovoy, Noah. “Decolonial Pedagogy and the Ethics of the Global Discourse.” Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 31, no.3, 2010, pp. 279–93. ERIC. 2 Dec. 2017.
- hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992.
- Maira, Sunaina. “‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and U.S. Orientalisms”. Feminist Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, 2009, pp. 631-656.
- Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press, 2003.
- Nish, Jennifer. “Representing Precarity, Disavowing Politics: The Exceptional(ist) Appeal of Humans of New York.” Peitho, vol. 20, no.2, 2018, pp. 364-399. 20 Jan. 2019.
- Sheth, Falguni A. “The Hijab and the Sari: The Strange and the Sexy between Colonialism and Global Capitalism.” Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 2, no. IV, 2009, 7 Nov. 2016.
- Zebroski, James Thomas. Thinking through Theory: Vygotskian Perspectives on the Teaching of Writing. Boynton/Cook, 1994.
From the Response
- DiAngelo, Robin. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 3, 2011, pp 54-70.
- Ratcliffe, Krista. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 2, 1999, pp 195-224.
To cite this page:
Oweidat, Lana. “Disrupting Empty Multiculturalism: An Appeal for Critical Intersectional Approaches to our Feminisms.” Peitho digital insert, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2019. https://actionhour2019.cfshrc.org/lana-oweidat/