Earlier this month, the launch of Machteld Zee´s book, Heilige Identiteiten (Holy Identities), caused some debate among Dutch feminists. In it, she writes about academics and commentators whose reluctance to criticize Muslims contributes to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In a speech at the book launch, Jolande Withuis opened an attack on the feminists she called “useful idiots.” These were the so-called “multiculti believers” who are used by patriarchal Islamists to further the “creeping Islamization of our society.” Withuis contrasted these naive feminists to Matchteld Zee, whose book she publicly praised. Zee claims to have revealed the “plan” behind de fundamentalistische Islam to implement sharia law in European countries and rob us of our women’s rights.
The ideological script
Withuis was quickly joined by other opinion makers like Elma Drayer, journalist at the national newspaper de Volkskrant, who welcomed Zee’s new brand of feminism as the right way to ward off “Islamic-inspired misogyny.” Their claim is that Zee’s research is simply stating neutral facts, since her kind of feminism is above left and right wing politics. This new generation of feminists is not “hindered by obsessions from the seventies” to avoid being too right wing. They don’t sacrifice their feminist ideals to “blind political correctness.” They have broken free of left wing, academic elitism, and are apparently led by nothing more than their wits and common sense. Or so the story goes.
In their efforts to depoliticize feminism, these commentators present the debate as a generational conflict: the 70s-inspired leftist multiculturalists versus the politically neutral, true defenders of women’s rights. What they don’t want us to see is the hardcore political ideology behind their own position. Their ideas about Islam echo those of populist right wing parties, and their talking points follow the exact same script: Cologne, sharia law, genital mutilation, and headscarves.
For instance, try to spot the differences between Wilders’ fear-mongering about refugee men earlier this year and Withuis’ comment, “the sexual violence that took place on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, among other places, clearly illustrates how the presence of masses of men from primitive-patriarchal cultures threatens women’s freedom.” Wilders used this dramatic case of attacks on women to rise in the polls by bashing whole migrant populations for being backward. But after the international attention for Trump’s deeply misogynist statements, is it still necessary to explain that sexual violence is equally rooted in Western culture?
While Withuis is outraged about Muslim women’s rights being infringed upon by sharia law in Europe, the rights of Muslim citizens in the Netherlands are in fact subject to a more immediate threat. And it comes from the two men vying for power in the next Parliamentary election. Where is the outrage about the VVD’s election program that calls for denying immigrants social welfare benefits according to whether they are culturally integrated enough? Where is their anger about how the PVV’s program calls for different treatment under the law (deportation) of immigrants convicted of a crime?
Instead we hear Elma Drayer’s outrage about female genital mutilation and we are admonished by Withuis for not having supported Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As usual, Hirsi Ali is presented simply as a woman with a compelling personal story, when in fact she makes her living as a neoconservative ideologue working for right wing think tanks in the US. Her personal experience, and the issue of female genital mutilation more generally, are used to conjure up imaginations of the most barbaric patriarchal violence and associate it with Islam. It’s clear that the concern for women directly affected by and working on the issue is not genuine, since this is not seriously engaged with as a practice in all its varieties and relations to Islamic and other traditions.
Hirsi Ali’s fundamentalist idea that Islam, by definition, stands in opposition to Western values reduces discussions about Muslim feminism to a simplistic conflict: the veil is oppressive and unveiling is emancipatory. This is a worrying trend we see across Europe today and shows ignorance of the diversity of political and personal meanings and contexts of the practice of veiling while presuming the superiority of Western interpretations of Muslim practices. This is the view put into practice by Cisca Dressenhuys, who Withuis congratulates for having banned veiled women from working on the editorial staff of feminist magazine, Opzij.
These ideas are in line with a tradition of colonial-style arrogance, which makes it no surprise that this is the only kind of feminism that that we see the gentlemen at Geen Stijl supporting. But there is also another feminist tradition. One of solidarity with all struggles against oppression. This is the tradition in which we, and many young women along with us, respect and position ourselves within. The statements of support we received following our protest action (and wrongful arrest) against Wilders’ hijacking of women’s rights to bash (Muslim) refugees in Spijkenisse earlier this year are a modest testament to that.
Feminism is, at its core, based on a broad vision of human emancipation. And anyone who sees that as “betrayal” has failed to grasp the basics. Defending this tradition of feminist solidarity is all the more urgent in the current European context, where racism and Islamophobia are on the rise. If only the feminists who are now dominating the public debate were no more than “useful idiots” for the right wing. The reality is much more serious. Their own ideas share so much in common with those of racist, patriarchal, extreme-right wing nationalists that they are irreconcilably at odds with feminism.
By Domitilla Olivieri, Catherine Black and Donya Alinejad
UPDATE Since the piece was published in the NRC, a good friend brought to our attention that earlier this year, Machteld Zee also presented her research as a speaker at a “freedom colloquium” held by Vlaams Belang, an ultra-nationalist and conservative-right wing political party in Belgium. There, Zee was received warmly by the party’s leadership and members. At the event, she shared a stage with Geert Wilders and was applauded by his supporters. Click on the image above to watch the video of the whole event.
This opinion piece was published yesterday(under a different title) in the Dutch national newspaper, NRC Handelsblad. This is an updated English language version of that piece. It was published yesterday on the blog of Donya Alinejad.
Donya Alinejad is post-doc researcher on gender, diaspora and belonging at Utrecht University.
Domitilla Olivieri is Assistant Professor at the department of Media and Culture Studies (MCW) at Utrecht University.
Catherine Black is a PhD student working on oxidative stress in depression and anxiety disorders.