Women’s rights, gay rights and anti-Muslim racism in Europe

By: Jin Haritaworn (2012) European Journal of Women’s Studies 19: 73-80

Site editors’ note: This is Dr. Jin Haritaworn’s Introduction to a special focus whose first half is in the current issue of European Journal of Women’s Studies on “Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, and Anti-Muslim Racism in Europe.” The issue includes two articles that critically address queer migration:

El-Tayeb, Fatima. “‘Gays Who Cannot Properly Be Gay’: Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19, no. 1 (2012): 79-95.

Petzen, Jennifer. “Contesting Europe: A Call for an Anti-Modern Sexual Politics.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19, no. 1 (2012): 97-114.


Soon after ‘9/11’, the date when ‘it’ – from the death of multiculturalism to the wars without end – supposedly began, we received the first warnings that a new era of racism and neo­colonialism was dawning, enlightened by the sign of women’s rights. Days after, when ‘war frenzy’ had already broken out, Sunera Thobani told a US conference on violence against women that a global upsurge in militarism would increase patriarchal violence everywhere, and that bombing Afghani women would not further their emancipation (see Thobani, 2002).1 Paola Bacchetta, Tina Campt, Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, Minoo Moallem and Jennifer Terry, in their October 2001 statement ‘Transnational feminist prac­tices against war’, urged us to critically examine the gendered tropes of the emerging war, with the rich tools that we already had, to ‘analyze the thoroughly gendered and racialized effects of nationalism’ (Baccheta et al., 2002: 302). In particular, they noted the ‘absence or co-optation of Muslim women as “victims” of violence or of “Islamic barbarism” ’, and the invitation to ‘women seen as “white” or “Western” ’ to present themselves ‘both as “rescuers” of non-Western women but also as evidence of the so-called “civilizing” efforts of Europe and North America’ (Baccheta et al., 2002: 306). Such rescue narratives, familiar from Spivak’s and other critiques of colonialism as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak, 1999: 284–311), have, if anything, gained volume and speed. More and more problems have been amassed into their remit: from the unveiling spectacle which accompanied the invasion of Afghanistan, to the moral panics over forced marriages, honour killings and the ‘burqa’, which swiftly joined the existing archive of racialized deficiencies of people of colour, both ‘here’ and ‘there’ (besides work cited by authors in the collection of articles included in this special section of EJWS, see for example, Bhattacharyya, 2008; Fekete, 2006; Incite!, 2006; Razack, 2004; Riley et al., 2008; Wilson, 2007).2

If these analyses of feminist complicities and convergences with the projects of racism, militarism and neocolonialism have partly succeeded in mobilizing critical counter-publics, most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer and sexualities studies and activisms have been slower to take up racism and war as queer issues. This is partly a reflection on the lesser mainstreaming of LGBT vis-a-vis feminist agendas, leading some to inoculate gains that are recent, precarious and blatantly ambivalent from what may seem like premature critique. Nevertheless, the loudest critics of liberal rights and protections agendas have ironically included those who are most vulnerable to homophobia and transphobia, and yet likelier to become visible as targets for state killing, than for state protection and recognition. Some examples: When the Obama administration added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of identities protected by the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, transgender, queer youth and queer of colour organizations such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, FIERCE and the Audre Lorde Project (Sylvia Rivera et al., 2009) highlighted that their constituents had much to lose, and little to gain, by strengthening a criminal ‘justice’ system that systematically harasses and incarcerates people of colour, including and especially those who are gender non-conforming. And when the far right threatened to march on East London this spring under the pink mantle of the East End Gay Pride, inter alia in the name of protecting vulnerable queer Muslims, queer Muslim organizations Safra Project (2011) and Imaan (2011) came out strongly to scandalize the organizers’ close overlaps with the English Defense League, and make clear that they cared little about queer Muslims living in East London (see also Bent Bars, 2011; Decolonize Queer, 2011). The growing homonationalism of gay leaderships in Europe has also become the subject of several queer of colour-led interventions in France and Germany (www.espace-locs.fr; SUSPECT, 2010a; Yılmaz-Günay, 2011). The least abashed critiques, however, have probably come from the global south. African activists and commentators have explicitly named the stance by northern activists and their govern­ments towards sexual politics in Africa neocolonial (Aken’Ova et al., 2007; Ndashe, 2010; ActionAid et al., 2011). And despite much backlash, a transnational Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is growing under the leadership of Palestinian queers, which in ‘pinkwashing’ has given us a widely understood tool, also taken up by Fatima El-Tayeb in this issue of EJWS, in order to expose sexually exceptionalist formulations of racism, militarism and coloniality (Hilmi, 2011; see also Moumneh, 2009).

Inspired by these queer and trans activisms, as well as the feminist critiques which precede and overlap with them, an emerging body of scholarship has come together on the intersec­tion of queerness, racism, war and coloniality.3 Most prominently, Jasbir Puar (2007) broke theoretical as well as empirical ground in her analysis of ‘sexual exceptionalism – the emergence of national homosexuality, what I term “homonationalism” – that corresponds with the coming out of the exceptionalism of the American empire’ (as well as Britain; Puar, 2007: 2, 11). This coincided with numerous other analyses grounded in other geopolitical contexts and events, some of which include Adi Kuntsman’s work on Russian-speaking queer migrants’ ‘violent belongings’ in Israel/Palestine (Kuntsman, 2009), Gloria Wekker’s (2009) analysis of homonostalgia in the Netherlands, Nadine Naber’s (2011) account of ‘Imperial feminism, Islamophobia and the Egyptian revolution’, Suhraiya Jivraj’s and Anisa de Jong’s (2011) interrogation of the parameters for queer Muslim organizing in the Netherlands, several collections on Palestine/Israel (GLQ, 2010, 16(4)), the Caribbean (Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, 2010, No. 3), queerness and raciality (Kuntsman and Miyake, 2008) and postcolonial sexuality (Darkmatter, 2008, No. 3), and indeed forerunning interventions by authors represented in this special section themselves (El-Tayeb, 2003; Petzen, 2004).

Yet as these issues are starting to gain currency, partly as a result of these risky interven­tions, the critiques (and sometimes the issues) ironically disappear from view. This was brought home to us by the debate over citationality that took place at the concluding panel of the Sexual Nationalisms conference in Amsterdam (27 and 28 January 2011), the first of what may well become a series of well-funded international conferences. Even though queer of colour and allied scholars had made considerable efforts to point out existing work and potential invitees to the organizers, the conference call for papers and inaugural session opened a strikingly white horizon for theorizing ‘sexual nationalism’. The conceptual and practical limitations of this were highlighted by the ways in which racist statements were enabled and anti-racist statements blocked in the conference and its aftermath.4 Beyond the question of canonical violence, or which critiques circulate and which get stuck, disappeared or turned into the unrespectable margin (see also SUSPECT, 2010b; and the 2011 special issue of Feminist Legal Studies, 19(2), on the liabilities of queer anti-racist critique), we can ask if we can afford to ‘forget’ tools that we urgently need right now. In theorizing gender and nation, or making sense of intersectional violence (raced, classed and gendered, spec­tacular and banal, interpersonal and institutional), we have a large archive of feminist thought at our disposal, starting with the rich theorizations of transnational, migrant, Black, Muslim, Arab, postcolonial, indigenous and women of colour feminists (e.g. Abdulhadi et al., 2011; Amos and Parmar, 1984; Bhavnani and Coulson, 1986; Crenshaw, 1994; Incite!, 2006; Phoenix, 1987; Sudbury, 2006; to cite but a few). These knowledge formations have important lessons to bear for sexuality studies which, especially in Europe, have not undergone the same contestations and decolonizations, and largely lack a culture of dealing with difference (but see Cruz-Malave and Manalansan, 2002; Ferguson, 2003; and the 2008 special issue on Queer/Migration in GLQ 14(2–3)). This is exacerbated by a European academy that remains comparatively white, male-dominated and proximate, socially and sometimes personally, to the political problems in question – a tendency which if anything will increase with progres­sive neoliberalization. As a result, homonationalism, homo-neocolonialism and other abuses of hetero-, homo- and transnormative whiteness may continue to go unchallenged, or be actively reproduced, even as the topics are getting ‘hot’ (see also Jivraj and De Jong, 2011).

If awareness has dawned that there has been an instrumentalization of ‘our’ rights (sometimes stated in shock), the contributors in this cluster, from both queer of colour and white perspectives, demonstrate that the problem goes beyond a racist (newly gay-friendly) state. Rather, as Sarah Bracke will propose in part 2 of this cluster on women’s rights, gay rights and anti-Muslim racism in Europe (see next issue), these discourses exist at the levels of the state and of the feminist and queer movements (what Paola Bacchetta calls homona­tionalism 1 and homonationalism 2, in Bacchetta and Haritaworn, 2011). The authors in this cluster thus problematize a liberal ‘we’ of sexual rights that can afford to look both ignorant and innocent.5 Besides documenting the patronizing treatment of women and queers racialized as Muslim, the doubtful invention of new traditions and core values of women-and-gay-friendliness, the willingness by some feminist, gay and increasingly also transgender (see Haritaworn, 2011) activists and opinion makers to loyally repeat the nation (Haritaworn 2008), and the new conditions of alliance between feminists and gay men, the articles that follow ask important questions about the bigger picture. Fatima El-Tayeb reads the racialized homophobia debate against neoliberal, post-racial figurations of the European city it is set in (here Amsterdam). In accounts of the creative city, gays, interpellated as model gentrifiers or ‘creative classers’, embody the neoliberal cosmopolitan values of diversity and mobility. Muslims, in contrast, appear as immobile, or with a pathological mobility – Mbembe’s (2003) ‘walking dead’. They are variously displaced or reduced to the provision of cheap exotic food and other items of consumption. Tracing the convergence between gay assimilationist or homonormative activism and racism and neoliberalism, El-Tayeb refuses the dominant pitting of ‘gays vs Muslims’ by introducing us to the multi-issue politics of the Dutch-based queer of colour collective Strange Fruits, in which queer and trans Muslims have played leadership roles. Importantly, El-Tayeb highlights the productiveness of Islam as an interpellator for the majority of racialized Europeans, who are alienated through precisely these gendered and sexual boundary redrawings.

This theme is also taken up by Jennifer Petzen, who draws on Yasemin Yıldız’s (2009) proposition that Islam is the constitutive outside of an integrating Europe which is coming together over shared core values that must be defended from a common enemy outside and within. She traces the productive possibilities which this has opened up for feminists (including some migrant feminists), gay activists, politicians and opinion makers in Germany, who have coalesced in novel ways along the reshuffled boundaries of the nation. She traces this across the metonymic debates about the veil, honour crime and forced marriages which, besides disciplining heterosexualized Muslim female subjects, have also become grounds for white gay men to translate ‘their’ suffering as akin to that of Muslim women and, therefore, intelligible to a wider audience.

It is time, then, to unpack these alliances, and build new ones that can truly transform the interlocking systems of violence and oppression that we are facing.



1. Thobani has continued her work despite facing numerous ad hominem attacks in the Canadian and US, including some feminist media (e.g. King, 2011).

2. That these rescue scripts rarely translate into more resources for vulnerable women is illustrated by the forced marriage and honour crime discourses, which swiftly joined neoliberal, punitive and anti-immigration agendas by creating new grounds for incarceration, deportation and border fortification, at the very time that refuges and services for Asian women were having funding withdrawn and being closed (Razack, 2004; Wilson, 2007).

3. Among other events, the Mapping Homonationalism conference organized in Berlin in December 2010 brought together transnational activists and academics working on these issues.

4. At the same concluding panel, Dutch sexuality theorist Gert Hekma was able to call Muslims pedophiles and make fetishistic statements about black people’s sexualities. Hekma had already announced his plan to defend ‘white secular ideas above a Muslim ideology that has no good record when it comes to these [gay and women’s] rights – not in Holland, Europe or the Middle East’ more than a week earlier, in an email to the organizers and panellists (19 January 2011). Besides Fatima El-Tayeb and I, the two queer of colour panellists, no one responded to this at all, and it is likely that business would have proceeded as usual had we not withdrawn from the panel. The organizers subsequently released a public statement whose lack of accountability was compounded by how the blame for the bad diversity work was put instead on the few people who had worked to challenge the racism at the conference (www.sexualnationalisms.org/state­ment-february-2nd-2011.php).

5. It is important to examine how what at first sight appears to be a confusing granting and taking away of rights and entitlements, and the progressive erosion of civil rights and civil liberties within a regime that is nevertheless democratic, is not just an aberration from the inclusionary project of the nation-state (and its supranational equivalents) but rather, in contexts of imperfect decolonization, its fulfilment (e.g. Bassichis and Spade, forthcoming; Smith, 2007).



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