Hoodies, Hijabs, and Excommunication
(updated with a postscript on May 3)
While open debate is far more useful to a movement than excommunication, the urge to cast people out—to construct an ideal community and then read deviants out of it—has always run strong among the pure—think the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Anne Hutchinson. These thoughts are occasioned by my feeling that we stand at the beginning of a new political period and must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
On the weekend of April 13-14, I was at Duke University celebrating the acquisition of my papers by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Studies at a conference called “Acting Across Borders: The Future of the Feminist 1970’s.” We had asked speakers—a diverse and international lot—to connect the stories of their lives with their politics, and the results felt as if a door were opening into a garden where we might find a new vision of women’s liberation for a new time.
One of the most moving speakers was Amber Hollibaugh, now co-chair of Queers for Economic Justice, who said, “The feminist movement saved my life and broke my heart,” describing a censorship campaign waged against her thirty years ago. She was attacked both because of her radical sexual politics and her identity as a femme lesbian—her detractors said butch-femme relationships replicated patriarchal power relations and had to be stopped. The conflict came to a head at the Barnard Conference on Sexuality in April, 1982, a pioneer attempt to explore the complexities of women’s sexual lives. Because the speakers included not only butch-femme lesbians but also women who spoke about s/m and other erotic desires that some feminists considered kinky and dangerous, Women Against Pornography threw up a picket line around the event, holding signs that attacked Amber, Dorothy Allison, Joan Nestle, and Gayle Rubin by name as unacceptable deviants from women’s movement orthodoxy. As a result of the publicity, Amber lost her job and left the feminist movement to help build an activist response to the exploding AIDS epidemic.
I came back from Duke to find a similar excommunication debate raging on the web. This time the target is a UK-based journalist who offended not by her sexuality but by daring to write about the veil. Here is the story:
The Feminist Wire is an online women's studies journal “founded by African American feminist scholars that is run collaboratively and with mutual respect and love by a diverse Collective that spans races, ethnicities, sexualities, class statuses, geographies, religions, and feminist perspectives.” On April 13, they published an article by Adele Wilde-Blavatsky, a member of their collective, entitled “To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals.” The article argued against an equation being made between the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin, a black youth shot by a Florida vigilante, and the hijab worn by Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant woman murdered in California; according to Arun Gupta, one theory she was murdered because she was an observant Muslim. Said Wilde-Blavatsky:
"What I take issue with here is the equating of the hoodie and the hijab as sources of ethnic identity and pride. The hijab, which is discriminatory and rooted in men's desire to control women's appearance and sexuality, is not a choice for the majority of women who wear it. The hoodie, on the other hand, is a choice for everyone who wears it."
Two days after posting Wilde-Blavatsky’s piece, The Feminist Wire published a blistering response signed by a group of 77 "feminist writers, activists and academics” under the title, “What it Means to be an Anti-Racist Feminist in the 21st Century.” The letter accused Wilde-Blavatsky of white racism:
“Adele Wilde-Blavatsky attempts to address the important question of what it means to be an anti-racist feminist in the 21st century. Her article, however, serves to assert white feminist privilege and power by producing a reductive understanding of racial and gendered violence and by denying Muslim women their agency.... In writing this letter, we emphasize that our concern is not solely with Adele Wilde-Blavatsky's article but with the broader systemic issues revealed in the publication of a work that prevents us from challenging hierarchies of privilege and building solidarity.”
I found this letter astonishing. How could one little article by a comparatively obscure young writer “prevent” a group of 77 feminists, some of them extremely established academics, along with a phalanx of graduate students, from “challenging hierarchies of privilege?” Are they that easy to stop? Why did they think it necessary to come down so hard on Wilde-Blavatsky? Were they trying to make sure she never wrote anything again for the rest of her life? Or to make The Feminist Wire understand that it must not publish anything that controvenes the orthodoxy of identity politics?
After posting the group letter, The Feminist Wire threw open its pages to unmoderated comments, and a number were posted, some supportive of the original article, others extremely abusive. I wrote one myself, which said:
“To me, this heavy handed response smacks of a censorship campaign....Clearly this [the group letter] is meant to end the discussion. Why discuss anything with someone who is racism incarnate—as is shown by her ‘questioning of women's choice to wear the niqab.’ Are all women who question this choice racist by definition? What about women in Iran who risk jail for being ‘mal-hijab?’ What about Muslim women in Nigeria who want to wear their traditional head-wraps rather than the burquas being pushed by Saudi-financed mullahs? Do these women have agency? Or do women have agency only when they wear the veil?”
I believe mine was the last comment posted.
It takes courage for an editorial collective made up largely of feminist academics to publish a provocative article. It takes even more courage for such a collective to stand firm when attacked by senior people in their own field. On April 19, six days after its publication, the editors of The Feminist Wire removed the entire controversy from their pages. They also removed Wilde-Blavatsky from their editorial collective, and made a humble apology for their sins.
“Our intention is not to fan flames, or to point fingers, or to defend ourselves. We are human beings deeply engaged in feminist, anti-racist work, and sometimes we may call it wrong. We offer a sincere apology to readers who were hurt, angered, and offended by the author of the said article and her initial responses, and we have amongst ourselves spent countless hours in discussions about the issues raised.”
Clearly the story was supposed to end there. I asked the editorial collective for an interview and got a form letter response:
“Fortunately, we've progressed from the matter that you are writing about and are thus disinterested in speaking about it further. We do urge you, however, to check back with us for our forthcoming forum on Muslim feminism(s).”
Because these documents have been removed from The Feminist Wire website, the Centre for Secular Space has reposted them under News. Go there for fuller documentation.
POSTSCRIPT, May 3:
I said above that I thought the editors of The Feminist Wire had taken down the documents in the controversy because they felt under political pressure. Since writing that, I have exchanged emails and had a phone conversation with Tamura Lomax, founding editor of The Feminist Wire, who swears this was not the case. She says, rather, that they took down the documents because of threats of a lawsuit by Adele Wilde-Blavatsky, who was so upset by some of the comments made on the website that she sent a legal "cease and desist" order telling The Feminist Wire they had ten days to take down the offending comments. Rather than take down part of the debate, they took it all down.
Lomax said that she too had sent an email asking Wilde-Blavatsky to "cease and desist" from what she felt were defamatory comments about The Feminist Wire and its processes, but that hers was just an email, not a legal document.
My own opinion is that 1) to anyone not a lawyer, there may not be too much difference between a "cease and desist" email and a "cease and desist" legal form downloaded from the web; 2) though I am no lawyer, I do not think either party defamed the other in a way that called for legal action and that, though some of the comments were abusive, the latitude for abusive comments on the web is very wide; 3) most of the time, issues of freedom of speech are better handled by more speech than by lawyers.
So is this a censorship case? And, if so, who is censoring whom?
To my mind, the main censors here were the group of 77, who were exercising a method long known in leftwing circles as "censorship by public opinion," in which orthodoxy is enforced by making an example of some heretic, in order to convince others—including whoever published the heretic—to be more careful.
There are other issues of internal processes, hurt feelings, and the undue speed with which disputes get blown up by email and the web, that I won't get into but will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a collective or written an email..
I have focused this blog on issues of censorship, rather than substantive issues about "the veil," or about what kind of person is allowed to write on such things. I am not an academic feminist or postmodern theorist but an activist and writer, and confess that I get impatient with arguments based on "standpoint theory," which can easily become ad hominen attacks on a speaker. My position is, you say what you have to say as clearly as you can, on race or religion or any other subject, and if you get it wrong, you take your lumps.
One last suggestion: The Feminist Wire could clear the slate and draw a line under this episode by reposting Wilde-Blavatsky's original essay, the group letter, and their own editorial response. May not happen, but here's hoping.