The public voice of Muslim women

January 17, 2016

My research suggests that Muslim women tend to experience harassment as a result of expressing their views in public.

Originally published at The Immanent Frame

In an essay on The Immanent Frame back in 2011, I sounded the alarm about the ubiquity and mainstreaming of hate speech directed against Muslims in Norway. That item was published a mere month before a white, Norwegian, right-wing extremist—who claimed Christian conservative leanings, and who had, since 2006, drenched himself in the netherworld of far-right online conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims in Europe—committed the worst terrorist attacks in modern Norwegian history, killing seventy-seven people in Oslo and at Utøya on July 22, 2011.

In that essay I was concerned with a state of affairs in Norway in which anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments had become so ubiquitous in the media and in public discourse—and legitimate and necessary critique of “religion” so conflated with hate speech—that few seemed to have the stomach to engage in any form of counter-speech, and hate speech against Muslims was hardly ever prosecuted.

Some years prior to this, realizing that there was a new generation of often well-educated, socially mobile young Muslim Norwegians who were born and raised in Norway and trying to make themselves heard in Norwegian mainstream media, I had set out to interview a number of them about their experiences with readers and with the media editors who provided them with access to the mediated public spheres in Norway.

In the course of working with these informants between 2009 and 2013, it became clear that most, if not all, had experienced harassment as a result of expressing their views in public. Given the general societal climate, in which the populist, right-wing Progress Party had, since 1987, mobilized on the back of popular concerns over immigration and the increased public presence of Islam in a Norway that had historically conceived of itself as being relatively homogeneous, this was hardly a surprising finding. More disturbing, though, was that there appeared to be a gendered pattern to the harassment, with my Muslim female informants more likely than their male counterparts to have experienced various forms of harassment—including death threats and even violent assaults—as a result of their public participation.

And it was not as if this harassment only came from non-Muslim Norwegians: many of my female informants found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place as they were targeted by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. A number of my female Muslim informants received hate messages and threats from conservative Muslim males who considered them to have taken up roles in public and to dress and behave in ways they deemed “inappropriate” for Muslim women. Others received hate messages and threats from both Norwegians with salafi-jihadist sympathies and those with discernibly right-wing symphathies for having publicly spoken out about violence and terror perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Scholarly discourse on hate speech has long been dominated by scholars whose approaches often seem to seek recourse to abstract and formalistic thought, rather than to the actual experiences of individuals targeted by hate. In academic texts, we rarely get a sense of what hate speech actually looks and feels like, of how individuals targeted by hate speech experience it, or of the repercussions it may have in their lives and on their willingness and ability to speak back. Scholarly debates on free speech and its dark twin, hate speech, stand to gain from integrating empirical experiences with various aspects of hate speech, particularly on the part of minority individuals often targeted by it.

Here are just a few of the threats my female Muslim informants received:

Judith Butler writes that “the public sphere is constituted time and again through certain kinds of exclusions: images that cannot be seen, words that cannot be heard.” Historically, there is of course nothing new in attempting to prevent women from expressing their views in public, whether in the Western or the Muslim world. Mary Beard has referred to “the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard.” With reference to the abuse on various social media that women speaking in public regularly face, Beard pointedly argues that “many more men than women are the perpetrators of this stuff, and they attack women far more than they attack men.” Beard also contends that “it’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Mysogynist hate speech is by no means a peculiarly Norwegian, Scandinavian or European phenomenon. Danielle K. Citron has cataloged the myriad ways in which relatively new and largely self- or unedited online media platforms may act as enabling circumstances for harassment and abuse that can add serious burdens to individual lives.

Speech that silences speech

Katharine Gelber contends that the very purpose of hate speech is “to exclude its targets from participating in broader deliberative processes.” For Jeremy Waldron, hate speech undermines not only formally equal rights to citizenship in liberal, secular, and democratic societies, but also equal rights to human dignity as a “public good” in a Rawlsian sense. Hate speech is, according to Waldron, a “world-defining activity” designed to make the visible world it creates “a much harder world for the targets to live in.”

Gelber describes the “hate speech acts of hate speakers [as] acts which are capable of inhibiting the ability of their targets to speak back.” Several of my informants who have withdrawn temporarily or permanently from mediated public spheres on account of their exposure to hate speech provide empirical examples of this.

But not only that: the demonstration effects of exposure to repeated and continuous hate speech may inhibit the willingness and ability of the wider group of which such individuals to engage in counter-speech. Individual experiences with the most vicious forms of hate speech often gets very well and very rapidly known among minority communities, demonstrating to communities what happens to individuals who speak back, and thereby enforcing silence.

The Norwegian context

What might seem paradoxical, then, is not so much the fact of particularly gendered hate speech in Norway, but the fact that it is happening in a country that has long prided itself on its achievements in the realm of gender equality. Norway has, in recent years, been regularly rated as one of the most gender equal societies on the globe. In Norwegian self-understandings, relative gender equality plays an important role.

But women’s rights and relative gender equality did not emerge out of thin air in Norway. It was, in fact, the result of sustained and long-term mobilization. The feminist struggle in Norway was, in part, cross-political, but arguably dominated by secular feminists on the political left. Norwegian feminismhas been characterized as a form of “state feminism.”

As in many parts of the modern Western world, the main proponents and beneficiaries of state feminism in Norway have been highly educated, white, middle class women. Norwegian state feminism—which has, more often than not, been secular and a-, if not anti-religious—has historically displayed some notably illiberal tendencies in regard to the life choices and aspirations of women of working-class and minority background.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that public discourses casting Islam and Muslims as embodied threats against both women’s rights and gender equality should have become pronounced in Norway by the 1990s, or that many Norwegian secular state feminists took the lead in promoting and legitimizing such discourses.

It was not as if this trope is particularly new in the framing of Muslims in Western countries. But after 9/11, the trope of Muslims as embodied threats against women’s rights and gender equality went viralwith the so-called “war on terror.”

In the new political and social climate, calls for “white men (and women) to save brown women from brown men,” to paraphrase Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apt formulation, would steadily increase in secular pitch and ferocity. The Muslim male would henceforth be identified in many Norwegian social imaginaries as a potential or actual oppressor denying Muslim women in his immediate surroundings their freedom in the name of Islam, the Muslim woman as a potential or actually liberated figure embodying a purported universalistic passion and yearning for “freedom.” In this set-up, young Muslim women would emerge as the most problematic figures of all for secular feminist hegemonic conceptions.

Young Norwegian Muslim women have, in this context, often found themselves to be between a rock and a hard place. Though often appreciative of the life choices and opportunities for education, employment, and the pursuit of a career that Norwegian society has to offer, many of them have also been exasperated by a public and mediated discourse that have, more often than not in recent years, cast them in the role of victims of a male patriarchal tradition by virtue of their background in and adherence to Islam, rather than as active agents in the shaping of their own destinies and aspirations.

Charles Tripp has noted that “to be a Muslim in the modern world is both to be shaped by that world and to take part in its shaping.” In my research, I found Muslim female informants deeply engaged in feminist literature, issues, and concerns profoundly shaped by the Norwegian context in which they lived and had been raised. And much like other researchers in this field, I found that they—by virtue of choice and preference—generally expressed themselves in an accessible language describable as “secular,” with limited references to Islamic foundational texts.

Many of my female Muslim interlocutors were highly ambivalent about their role in and engagement with the mediated public sphere in Norway, which they saw as requiring a mode of expression that was often polarizing and sometimes even contrary to what they believed in. They were well aware of the fact that, as Muslims, they made for good copy for most mainstream Norwegian media. They were aware that they were privileged—both on account of their background (in comparison with women from other minorities in Norway) and on account of their gender (in comparison with their male co-religionists). But among the mainstream liberal media editors (generally White, middle-class and non-religious) who regulated their access to mediated public spheres, I found numerous instances of the subtle imposition of a clear hierarchy that privileged voices of Muslim background willing to engage in auto-criticism of Muslims and Islam and to express views aligned with the editors’ own comprehensive rather than political liberal views. One female media editor even went to the lengths of getting one of my conservative Muslim female interlocutors to describe herself as an “extremist” in the title of a commissioned op-ed— a none-too-subtle means of rendering her public voice irrelevant or marginal by means of tendentious labeling.

The long-standing idea of freedom of expression as constituting a free “marketplace of ideas” may be acomfortable illusion to many. But freedom of expression is, of course, not equally free and accessible to all in a given society. The “words that cannot be heard” belong, all too often, to women, even in liberal-secular societies that count as advanced in terms of women’s rights and gender-equality, such as late modern, neoliberal Norway.