Are You Orientalist When Discussing Women’s Rights?

four women in Ankara wearing hijab and selling fruit

ANY FACEBOOK POST about a hijabi — whether she’s transforming herself into Disney Princesses or getting an inventive, new sports uniform — will attract a handful of people who feel entitled to state their opinions on her personal dress code. They sigh: “She’s so beautiful. If only she weren’t so so oppressed by that male-dominated culture.” Some will seize the opportunity to blast feminists in the U.S. for daring to demand equal rights while there are women in the world who wear the veil. Others will charge the poster with “glorifying oppression.”

Statements like the ones above rarely come from countries with gender parity. Rather, they are often used to divert attention from valid conversations about issues affecting Western women, such as rape culture, the wage gap, and reproductive health legislation.

This is not to say that our problems in the West are any more important than those faced by women and girls across Africa and Asia. Unlike what many would have you believe, it is entirely possible to be concerned with domestic and global issues at the same time.

When someone laments that a hijabi only wears the veil because she has been forced, brainwashed, or otherwise coerced into doing so, they deny her agency. She becomes a docile body, on which the patriarchy’s whims are writ. The same individuals who concern-troll her supposed oppression objectify the hijabi, in turn, by not allowing her choice and her voice into their discussion.

Feminism is not a one-size-fits-all movement. It must diversify in order to address the intersectional experiences of LGBTQIA individuals, the poor, and people of color and size. The belief that the same brand of feminism will fix everyone’s problems — i.e., It worked for me, so it must work for everyone. — is white woman feminism. Worse, it’s Orientalism.

Defined in the 1970s by literary theorist Edward W. Said, Orientalism refers to Westerners’ othering of non-Western societies, particularly those in the Arab world. It is the belief that non-Western people and cultures are backward, uncivilized, exotic, and monolithic, and it’s a pernicious form of white supremacy.

Regarding the specific effects of Orientalism on media portrayals of the Kurds, Dilar Dirik writes for The Kurdistan Tribune:

Even if these [so-called “Kurdish experts”] present themselves as wanting to “help” the Kurds, their often Western-centric, patronizing tones completely defeat this purpose. … Language is another important factor. While I struggled to find English sources for my Master’s dissertation last year, I could feel the quality difference between well-researched sources published by Kurds, unknown to the world, and poorly-written English works by foreign analysts, which were, for the lack of more English sources credited as  “pioneer” works, regardless of their shortcomings. Such assertions of scrappy “expertise” ignore the highly sophisticated work of Kurdish activists, journalists, political prisoners, politicians, authors, teachers and intellectuals, who are personally and academically far more equipped to provide a perspective on issues concerning the Kurds, “even if” their work isn’t available in English. [emphasis mine]

So how does one avoid Orientalism when talking about women’s rights?

First,realize that no matter how concerned and well-meaning they are, Westerners cannot help women abroad without input from those women. Listen to the people you want to help, not media reports about them. News organizations in the U.S. won’t tell you that Iranian women rioted when the hijab was required by law and when it was banned, or that they protested because of the state’s attempt to legislate something they believed was a personal decision.

Second, don’t deny the gender issues of your home country, or pretend that they are less egregious than those of non-Western nations. The world is a dangerous place for women. Period. Just because you have never been coerced into marriage, abortion, childbirth, or silence does not mean that your neighbors have had the same good fortune.

Also, keep in mind that the horror stories you hear about gender-based violence in other countries, while they may be indicative of many women’s experiences, do not legitimize the generalization of all men of a particular ethnicity or religion as monsters. We have not come close to eradicating rape and domestic violence in the West, and, although our judicial systems may appear to take these crimes more seriously, we prosecute and convict violent offenders at abysmally-low rates.

Third, acknowledge that your country may have contributed to the problems you want to fix. Because Orientalism paints societies as unchanging, it’s easy to believe that they have always held anti-progressive ideas about gender. The unfortunate truth is that, in many instances, Western colonization of non-Western nations erased indigenous cultures’ progressive ideas about gender and sex in the name of Christianity and “civilization” efforts.

If you want to avoid Orientalism, remember: the path Westerners take toward gender equality is not the only one — nor have we finished walking it.