On the Map: Liberation Won't Be Gained On Behalf of 'Others'

Poster 4 Tomorrow is a project based out of France that was founded this year to encourage artists to advocate “on behalf of those who don’t enjoy the same freedom of expression that you do” by designing posters that pronounce an explicitly political sentiment regarding the universal right to free speech. Right away this struck me as problematic. In order to truly work from a praxis of liberation, one must struggle with not for those who are oppressed, as speaking for the oppressed simply reifies their dehumanization (and by extension one’s own) and contributes to the oppressed persons’ being prevented from having an autonomous public voice. Replacing one master with another (albeit one who seems well-intended) is not a solution.

Furthermore, the 100 posters that have been chosen (by a conspicuously male-heavy, largely Western jury) from the 1,834 entries have an interesting recurring sentiment in the designs that jumped out at me: women who wear hijab are not free to speak.

But a number of Muslim women’s rights advocates who wear the veil beg to differ, and they are speaking just fine for themselves. Indirectly attacking women who wear hijab–whether by choice or not–is counter-intuitive to the promotion of freedom of speech and expression, as it positions veiled women in a double bind of silence whereby they are declared as having been duped by their culture or faith (and are, therefore, unfit to speak) and denies them agency in shaping their own lives. This sentiment is one of arrogance and domination, not one of solidarity.

Perhaps Poster 4 Tomorrow should take a cue from Hamid Dabashi about what solidarity might look like. At the very least they should lay off the paternalism and false generosity that serves to shift themselves–not the people they “speak for”–in a position of authority.

by Mandy Van Deven
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Nice analysis

Love the use of Freirian concepts applied to this situation, especially as exemplified by their treatment of muslim women -- I too have heard muslim women say that hijab is in fact liberating rather than oppressive and it's a strong argument.

However, here's a question that arises for me: if the posters help to facilitate a dialogue rather than just being a rigid endpoint of speaking for women, would that shift the way you interpret it?

I would wonder if they are partnered with any feminist groups that can actually take this message and help mobilize action around it. Can't really tell from their website, but I suppose if they were using the art as a means to facilitate dialogue it becomes *less* paternalistic...

Conversely, any words without action aren't "true words" in Freire's framework, so even if they were speaking "with the oppressed", there would have to be some action component... (which leads to the conversation about whether art in and of itself is a form of action...)

Anyway, thought-provoking post...thanks!

i ♥ Freire

Hey Q-

Thanks for your thoughtful response. The question here isn't whether there is a strong argument made by Muslim women for or against the veil. The question here is 'who is given the authority to speak in order to make those arguments?'

The problem with your assertion that this project may spark a dialogue is that a dialogue must include those whom are oppressed in positions of power in order to actually be a dialogue, and a dialogue (by nature) must happen in multiple directions simultaneously as an exchange of ideas. (A poster speaks in only one direction, the dreaded "banking system" Freire so heavily critiques.) It must also include action ("To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce."), as well as reflection. (Related: It certainly doesn't appear as though P4T are partnered with any indigenous resistance groups, and if they are, it would be even more problematic since that isn't made clear in any of their PR materials.)

I agree with you that there are degrees (i.e., less vs more paternalistic), but those degrees are still on a scale of oppression <--> liberation. Liberation does not cast the oppressed as being dependent on others in order to speak. That is just another manifestation of oppression. While I can appreciate the desired outcome of this campaign (perhaps my own collusion with/existence as the oppressor?), I also believe it is based on a sentiment that is (at its core) oppressive.

I agree with you, but...

...here I was trying to give them a generous read and you just reinforced my judgmental impulse. ;)

I too love Freire, but I think it's often misinterpreted and agree that this is not quite the path to liberation. Most of all -- and the piece that people seem to consistently overlook -- is that the dialogue has to advance some sort of "cultural action" which actually destroys the structural forces that maintain oppression. The only thing worse than the privileged speaking for the oppressed is the privileged speaking for the oppressed, patting themselves on the back, and then going back to their privileged existence without doing anything about oppression...

Have you seen examples of art used to facilitate dialogue about women's liberation well? I think it could serve as "cognizable objects" if used correctly, but rarely see instances where people see it through to action...

an agreeable agreement

That's a good question... and a challenging one. My first inclination was to say that I can't think of any, but upon further reflection thought that perhaps an example may be the <a href="http://cyberquilt.wordpress.com/how-to-cyber-quilt/">Cyber-Quilting Experiment</a>... or a <a href="http://www.clotheslineproject.org/">Clothesline Project</a>/<a href="http://www.takebackthenight.org/">Take Back the Night</a> speak out (assuming it was organized in a non-hierarchical way)... or some other community- and action-based work of artistic creation (maybe even some version of Habitat for Humanity?). Although <a href="http://nyc.thepublicschool.org/note/1924">this article</a> offers an interesting perspective, with really good questions to consider. And somewhere out there is an article titled "Art, Consciousness & Change" by Freire and Jolene Rickard, but I can't find one that isn't locked down by these 'pay to read this article' sites. Ironic, no?


Most definitely. I'm not opposed to indirectly reaping the benefits of the ivory tower. Send to mandyvandeven_AT_gmail_DOT_com.

I don't believe simply having knowledge leads to action--nor does Freire, for that matter--and there has been scholarly work done that I think is enormously interesting about the disconnect b/t values/beliefs and action. So I'm not sure that pushing a particular viewpoint is, in itself, going to result in movement down one path or another. Even if it is, though, if the movement is oppressive rather than liberatory, then we're back where we began. So the viewpoint itself must necessarily be multiplicitous and dynamic if it is to be liberatory.

To answer your last question, authorial intent would need to be established (here come the worms! LOL!)... however, since the posters' intent is pre-determined and stated by the P4T mission--which indicates it was not the posters' intention to elicit my particular reaction--the answer is no, they didn't do their "intended" job. Now, that begs the question of whether "intention" actually matters, or whether authorial intent actually exists in this context since the individual posters' authors are not P4T, or if authorial intent matters in a work of art or literature since it becomes the property and work of the collective imagination from the moment it is disseminated. And then that raises the question of if the work is authorless or multi-authored or both... and to these kinds of questions, I'm not sure a clear answer exists.

I agree with what you've

I agree with what you've written. I once saw a performance art piece where a white woman wearing hijab started dancing around, eventually stripping down to her underwear. I think it was supposed to be an empowering statement, but it failed. Those of us who do not come from this culture, who do not wear hijab, need to listen to the women who do, rather than making blanket statements about what oppression is.

Also, how disturbing is it that in the Russian nesting doll pictured above, there's a busty blonde woman in a tube top living inside the Muslim woman?

Also, how disturbing is it

<i>Also, how disturbing is it that in the Russian nesting doll pictured above, there's a busty blonde woman in a tube top living inside the Muslim woman?</i> - VERY.

Coming from a Muslimah with a Westernised education & background, this is one of many concerns that Muslimahs have with discussions on 'freedom of expression' and indeed feminism. Quite simply, even within feminist forums, we are regulated, watched and objected to a pre-imagined set of liberatory values. The fact that the 'veil' continues to be a facet, and often subject of feminist discourse, only reinforces the lack of willingness for Western feminists to 'see through' the diverse perspectives of Muslimah communities.

Can I urge all interested feminists to read: http://nuseiba.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/visiting-the-hijab-again/.

Poster 4 Tomorrow

To get artists to create for a purpose is a big deal. They are not encouraged to be polemic. I really think part of the problem with the premise is the confusion of art speak and political speak. You don't get a Guernica every day. The Guerrilla Girls did a graffiti in the early 1990s about women in Saudi Arabia not being allowed to drive, which I found no fault with.

Personally, I only go so far with religious views of women and the multicultural defense of certain practices as "liberating." I have heard this defense offered for genital mutilation of females: If you don't have a clitoris, men don't have sexual power over you. On the other hand, the women's movement and the humanitarian movement are rife with examples of privileged people directing the social movements of the "victims." In defense of posters, women's studies departments should say thank you ever morning to whoever created the poster from the late 1960s of Susan B. Anthony with the quote "Our history has been stolen from us...."

Not the most radical organization, but I bet a lot of political prisoners are grateful that Amnesty International is speaking on their behalf.

I can hardly imagine what it

I can hardly imagine what it must be like to, as a female, establish yourself in a career in some Muslim-majority countries.
A friend of mine works in a grad admissions office, and whenever she sees an application from a female student from Saudi Arabia or Iran, she gets very happy knowing that these women are at the top of their classes and have won international scholarships to study in the US. I also secretly applaud these women and wish them so much success when they retun to their countries.

When I read Mandy Van Deven's

<p>When I read Mandy Van Deven's post, I immediately thought of Houria Bouteldja's speech given at the 4th International Congress of Islamic Feminism that took place in Madrid, in October 2010. I apologize in advance for the length but it truly addresses the topic brought up in Mandy Van Deven's post brilliantly and it is worth reading:


Before getting into the subject at hand, I would like to introduce myself, as I believe that speech should always be located.

I live in France, I am the daughter of Algerian immigrants. My father was a working class man and my mother was a housewife. I am not speaking as a sociologist, a researcher or a theologian. In other words, I am no expert. I am an activist and I am speaking as a result of my experience as a political activist and, I might add, my own personal sensibility. I am insisting on these details because I would like to be as honest as possible in my reasoning. Truth be told, until today, I hadn’t really thought about the question of Islamic feminism. So why am I taking part in this colloquium? When I was invited, I made it quite clear that I lacked the authority to speak about Islamic feminism and that I would rather deal with the idea of decolonial feminism and the ways in which, I believe, it should be related to the more general question of Islamic feminism. That is why I thought I would lay out a few questions that could prove useful for our collective questioning.

Is feminism universal?
What is the relationship between white/Western feminisms and Third World feminisms among which we find Islamic feminisms?
Is feminism compatible with Islam?
If it is, then how can it be legitimized and what would its priorities be?

First Question: Is feminism universal?

For me, it is the question of all questions when adopting a decolonial approach and when attempting to decolonize feminism. This question is essential, not because of the answer but rather because it makes us, we who live in the West, take the necessary precautions when we are confronted with ‘Other’ societies. Let’s take, for example, so-called, Western societies that witnessed the emergence of feminist movements and have been influenced by them. The women who fought against patriarchy in favor of an equal dignity between men and women gained rights and improved women’s circumstances, which I, myself, benefit from. Let’s compare their situation, that is to say our situation, with that of so-called “primitive” societies in Amazonia for instance. There are still societies here and there that have been spared by Western influence. I should add here that I don’t consider any society to be primitive. I think there are differing spaces/times on our planet, different temporalities, that no civilization is in advance or behind on any other, that I don’t locate myself on a scale of progress and that I don’t consider progress an end in itself nor a political goal. In other words, I don’t necessarily consider progress to be progressive but sometimes, even often, it is regressive. And, I think that the decolonial question can also be applied to our perception of time. Getting back to the subject at hand, if we take as our criteria the simple notion of well-being, who in this room can state that the women from those societies (who know nothing of the concept of feminism as we conceive of it) are less well-off than European women who not only took part in the struggles but also made available, to their societies, these invaluable social gains? I, myself, find it quite impossible to answer this question and would consider quite fortunate whoever could. But yet again, the answer is of no importance. The question itself is, for it humbles us, and curbs our imperialist tendencies as well as our interfering reflexes. It prevents us from considering our own norms as universal and trying to make other’s realities fit into our own. In short, it makes us locate ourselves with regards to our own particularities.

Having laid out that question clearly, I now feel more at ease to tackle the second question dealing with the relationship between Western feminisms and Third World feminisms. Obviously it’s very complicated but one of its dimensions is the domination of the global south by the global north. A decolonial approach should question this relationship and attempt to subvert it. An example:

In 2007, women from the Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic took part in the annual 8th of March demonstration in support of women’s struggles. At that time, the American campaign against Iran had begun. We decided to march behind a banner that’s message was “No feminism without anti-imperialism”. We were all wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs and handing out flyers in support of three resistant Iraqi women taken prisoner by the Americans. When we arrived, the organizers of the official procession started chanting slogans in support of Iranian women. We found these slogans extremely shocking given the ideological offensive against Iran at that time. Why the Iranians, the Algerians and not the Palestinians and the Iraqis? Why such selective choices? To thwart these slogans, we decided to express our solidarity not with Third World women but rather with Western women. And so we chanted:

Solidarity with Swedish women!

Solidarity with Italian women!

Solidarity with German women!

Solidarity with English women!

Solidarity with French women!

Solidarity with American women!

Which meant: why should you, white women, have the privilege of solidarity? You are also battered, raped, you are also subject to men’s violence, you are also underpaid, despised, your bodies are also instrumentalized…

I can tell you that they looked at us as if we were from outer space. What we were saying seemed surreal, inconceivable. It was like the 4th dimension. It wasn’t so much the fact that we reminded them of their situation as Western women that shocked them. It was more the fact that African and Arabo-Muslim women had dared symbolically subvert a relationship of domination and had established themselves as patrons. In other words, with this skillful rhetorical turn, we showed them that they de facto had a superior status to our own. We found their looks of disbelief quite entertaining.

Another example: After a solidarity trip to Palestine, a friend was telling me how the French women had asked the Palestinian women if they used birth control. According to my friend, the Palestinian women couldn’t understand such a question given how important the demographic issue is in Palestine. They were coming from a completely different perspective. For many Palestinian women, having children is an act of resistance against the ethnic cleansing policies of the Israeli state.

There you have two examples that illustrate our situation as racialized women, that help understand what is at stake and envisage a way to fight colonialist and Eurocentric feminism.

Following on from that question, is Islam compatible with feminism? This question is purely provocative on my behalf. I can’t stand it. I am asking this question as a French journalist who believes they are asking a really pertinent question. As for me, I refuse to answer out of principle. On the one hand, because it comes from a position of arrogance. The representative of civilization X is demanding that the representative of civilization Y prove something. Y is, therefore, put in dock and must provide proof of her/his “modern-ness”, justify her/him-self to please X. On the other hand, because the answer is not simple when one knows that the Islamic world is not monolithic. The debate could go on forever and that is exactly what happens when you make the mistake of trying to answer. Myself, I cut to the chase by asking X the following question: Is the French Republic compatible with feminism? I can guarantee you one thing: ideological victory is in the answer to this question. In France, 1 woman dies every 3 days as a result of domestic violence. The number rapes per year is estimated around 48 000. Women are underpaid. Women’s pensions are considerably less substantial than those of men. Political, economic and symbolic power remains mostly in the hands of men. True, since the 60’s and 70’s, men share more in household duties: statistically, 3 min more than 30 years ago!! So I ask my question again: are the French Republic and feminism compatible? We would be tempted to say no! Actually, the answer is neither yes nor no. French women liberated French women and it’s thanks to them that the Republic is less macho than it was. The same goes for Arabo-Muslim, African and Asian countries. No more, no less. With, however, one extra challenge: consolidating within women’s struggles the decolonial dimension, that is to say the critique of modernity and eurocentrism.

How to legitimize Islamic feminism? For me, it legitimizes itself. It doesn’t have to pass a feminist exam. The simple fact that Muslim women have taken it up to demand their rights and their dignity is enough for it to be fully recognized. I know, as result of my intimate knowledge of women from the Maghreb and in the diaspora, that “the-submissive-woman” does not exist. She was invented. I know women that are dominated. Submissive ones are rarer!

I would like to conclude with what, in my opinion, should be priorities for decolonial feminism. You have all heard about Amina Wadud and her involvement in the development of Islamic feminism. She became well known the day she lead the prayer, a role usually reserved for men. Out of context, I would say that it could be thought of as a revolutionary act. However, in an international context that saw the Iranian Revolution and 9/11 (as well as growing Islamophobia, demands that Islam update and modernize itself), a much more ambiguous message was brought to light. Was it answering strong demands, an urgency, the fundamental expectations of women from the Umma? Or were these expectations of the white world? Allow me to dwell on the latter hypothesis. Not that there aren’t any women who find it an injustice that only men be allowed to lead the prayer but because women’s priorities and urgent needs are elsewhere. What do Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian women want? Peace, the end of the war and the occupation, the rebuilding of their national infrastructures, legal frameworks that guarantee their rights and protect them, access to sufficient food and water, the ability to feed and educate their children under good conditions. What do Muslim women in Europe and more generally those who are immigrants and who, for the most part, live in lower income neighborhoods want? A job, housing, rights that protect them not only from state violence but also men’s violence. They demand respect for their religion, their culture. Why are all of these demands silenced and why does the issue of leading the prayer make its way across the globe when Judaism and Christianity have never really made apparent their own intransigent defense of the equality of sexes? To finish up with this example, I believe that Amina Wadud’s act was, in fact, quite the opposite of what it claimed to be. In reality and independently of the theologian’s own wishes, this act, in my opinion, was counter-productive. It will only be able to adopt a feminist dimension once Islam is equally treated with respect and once the demands to lead the prayer come from Muslim women themselves. It is time to see Muslim men and women how they really are and not how we would like them to be.

I conclude here and hope to have shown the ways in which a true decolonial feminism could benefit women, all women when they, themselves, deem it to be their path to emancipation.

Houria Bouteldja, Madrid, 22 October 2010.</p>

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