On the public voices of Muslim women

It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact that you are saying it.

Mary Beard, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, London Review of Books, 2014.

For Fatima Almanea (20), Norwegian librarian, Norwegian citizen.

The past weeks in Norway have seen yet another round of harassment and death threats against young Norwegian females of Muslim background from people who seem likely to be far right sympathizers and Islamophobes. In one case, twenty-year old Fatima Almanea, a librarian in the town of Verdal in the province of Nord-Trøndelag was harassed after she responded publicly to a well-known former Norwegian leftist folk singer turned biological racist, Hans Rotmo, who has in the recent past referred to asylum claimants in Norway as “flees and lice”  and in a recent interview characterized Muslims as “environmental pollution.”

In the other case, the Norwegian MP and former Minister of Culture from the Labour Party, thirty-two year old Hadia Tajik, ended up with death threats after another bout of serial and utterly predictable public harassment of her from the government-supported and funded far-right ‘think thank’ Human Rights Service (HRS), which has since the early 2000s had an allocation on the state budget guaranteed by the populist right wing Progress Party, and is also funded by the Oslo City Council, courtesy of their Progress Party supporters on the council.

Almanea and Tajik are both young females of Muslim background who have engaged in ‘counter-speech’ in the face of hate speech designed to exclude them from exercising their natural rights to freedom of expression and to active participation in democratic deliberation in an increasingly multicultural Norway. But most importantly, they have responded to forms of speech which attempts to denigrate their very claims to shared humanity, dignity and citizenship on the arbitrary grounds that they both happen to be of Muslim background, and happen to be women. When they are singled out by the haters it is not only due to the fact that they are public figures, Muslims and women, but also because many haters use hate speech as a means of sending a threatening signal to a wider Muslim population in Norway about the potential personal costs of exercising their rights to engage in ‘counter speech.’ In an essay for the Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC)’s blog ‘The Immanent Frame’ 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 on July 22 2011 committed the worst terrorist attacks in modern Norwegian history, killing seventy-seven people in Oslo and at Utøya.

My concern in that essay related to 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 that hate speech against Muslims was hardly ever prosecuted.

Some years prior to this, I had set out to interview a number of Norwegians of Muslim background who had made their mark in the Norwegian mediated public spheres. Realizing that there was a new generation of often well-educated, socially mobile young Norwegians born and raised in Norway who were trying to make themselves heard in Norwegian mainstream media, I set out to interview 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 my working with these informants between the years of 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 quite strong popular concerns over immigration and the increased public presence of Islam and of Muslims in historically relatively homogeneous Norway, 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 to have experienced various forms of harassment, including death threats and even violent assaults, as a result of their public participation than their male counterparts. 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 and targeted by non-Muslims and Muslims alike on the basis of their gendered characteristics. 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 deem ‘inappropriate’ for Muslim women. Others received hate messages and threats from a small group of Norwegian salafi-jihadist sympathizers in Norway for having publicly spoken out about violence and terror perpetrated in the name of Islam. And from Norwegians of discernably right-wing sympathies. Scholarly discourse on hate speech has as Harvard Professor Cass R. Sunstein recently pointed out in a lecture at the Fritt Ord Foundation in Norway on May 12 2015, long been dominated by abstract and complacent thinking which makes precious little reference to empirical data. It has long been dominated by scholars in law, political science and philosophy, and so in academic texts on hate speech we rarely get a feel of what hate speech actually look and feel like. Here are some of the messages:

“You fucking Muslim whore, get out of the country which has accepted you with open arms. You are not welcome in this country. Get off the TV screen and now where your place is.” “I will find you when you least expect it. You will taste your own blood, and I shall wipe the blood off my hands with pleasure, for I will know that I have done my job.” The wording here is strikingly similar to the wording in the SMSes received by another female of Muslim background who in 2014 decided to go public with an account of the verbal harassment she had faced as a result of her public engagement: “You fucking whore! I will have the blood pour from your filthy body and quash the air from your lungs next time I hear from you. You either shut up, or I will have you shut up forever. The choice is yours.”

“The public sphere is constituted time and again through certain kinds of exclusions: images that cannot be seen, words that cannot be heard, writes Judith Butler.  Historically, there is of course nothing new in attempts at silencing 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.” And even more pointedly, Beard 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 catalogued the appalling forms it may take in contemporary USA, and the myriad ways in which the relatively new and largely self- or unedited online media platforms may act as enabling circumstances for harassment and abuse which may 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.”  Hate speech may have the effect of not only demeaning the rights to dignity and formally equal citizenship of individuals of minority background, but also, as Ishwani Maitra and Mary K. McGowan have observed, of obstructing the ability and willingness of minority individuals to exercise their freedom of expression.

In actual practice, and as seen in the case of several of my informants who have withdrawn temporarily or permanently from the mediated public spheres on account of the exposure to hate speech, their participation has provided empirical examples of the “hate speech acts of hate speakers [as] acts which are capable of inhibiting the ability of their targets to speak back.”

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’.

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 which has long prided itself on its achievements in the realm of gender equality. Norway has in recent years regularly been rated as one of the most gender equal societies on the globe.

In Norwegian self-understandings, relative gender equality plays an important role, with national representative surveys indicating that among ‘values’ characteristic of Norwegian society, gender equality ranks highly.

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 on the part of Norwegian feminists in Norway in the 1960s and 70s in particular and was facilitated by the expansion of the Norwegian welfare state on the back of the Norwegian petroleum boom in the same period. The feminist struggle in Norway was in part cross-political, but arguably dominated by secular feminists on the political left. Norwegian feminism has been characterized as a form of ‘state feminism’  – a term which implies that women’s rights and relative gender equality in Norway was achieved through a series of strategic alliances and networks between Norwegian secular feminists and the organs of Norwegian state at various levels.

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 antireligious –has like state feminisms in the Middle East - been criticized for displaying 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 by the 1990s have become pronounced in Norway, and that quite a few Norwegian secular state feminists in fact took the lead in promoting and legitimizing such discourses.

It was Norwegian state feminists who first sounded the alarm about patriarchal practices and attitudes related to female circumcision, forced marriages and so forth among Norwegian Muslims.

It was not as if this trope was particularly new in the ‘framing of Muslims’ 

in anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic discourses in Western countries: Leila Ahmed and Meyda Yeğenoğlu have amply documented that it played a central role in colonialist and Orientalist discourses about the Muslim ‘other’, and Western secular feminists in academia had been much pre-occupied with the topic even before 9/11 2001. But after 9/11, the trope of Muslims as embodied threats against women’s rights and gender equality went viral and global with the so-called ‘war on terror.’ 

It had a particular purchase in liberal and secular Western European countries like Norway in which women’s rights and gender equality had reached comparatively advanced levels. In the new political and social climate, calls for ‘white men (and women) to save brown women from brown men’ in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apt phrase would steadily increase in secularist 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, and the Muslim woman a potential or actually liberated figure embodying a purported universalistic passion for freedom. In this set-up, young Muslim women who adorned the Islamic headscarf [the hijab] – and who claimed to be doing so out of their own volition, rather than based on parental demands, would emerge as the most problematic figures of all for secular feminist hegemonic conceptions. ‘The politics of the veil’ which has swept over Western Europe in the past two decades – has turned culturalist symbolic politics into the center of European debates on immigration and integration. It was in this situation that Norwegian right-wing populist politicians aligned with the Progress Party (PP) and their supporters among civil society activists in Norway declared themselves to be the strongest defenders of women’s rights and gender equality in Norway. It was not the case that these political forces had ever played any significant role in the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality in Norway or elsewhere, but it provided one more blunt instrument with which to advance its political aims of restricting the Muslim presence in Norway in particular and obtaining more mainstream political traction at the same time. But even though the Progress Party has had a female leader since 2006 in the person of Norway’s Finance Minister since October 2013, Siv Jensen, the party appeals less to female voters than any other party in Norway. Like many other populist right-wing formations in contemporary Western Europe, the Progress Party predominantly attracts relatively lowly educated white males, often with a working-class turned service-class background. In a society which thinks of itself as gender equal, the anger and resentment of the male ‘orphans of late neo-liberal modernity’ is often directed at an imagined twinned pair of state feminism and immigration – with the educationally successful and socially mobile Norwegian Muslim woman as a seemingly perfect embodiment thereof.

Young Norwegian Muslim women have in this context arguably often found themselves to be between a rock and a hard place. Often appreciative of the life choices and opportunities for education, employment and the pursuit of a career that the Norwegian society has to offer, many of them have also been exasperated by a public and mediated discourse which more often than not in recent years have 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. In an article in Foreign Affairs in 2009, the distinguished British Middle East historian Charles Tripp 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 I, like other researchers, found that they by virtue of choice and preference generally expressed themselves in a language describable as ‘secular’, with few, if any references to Islamic foundational texts. This, however, is also a question of context, as many of my Muslim informants and interlocutors readily pointed to the fact that within specifically Islamic contexts, a ‘religious’ language was the preferable option if one wanted one’s speech to be rhetorically efficient vis-a-vis other and fellow Muslims.

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 which 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, and were on account of their background privileged in comparison with women from other minorities in Norway, and on account of their gender privileged 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 the mediated public spheres, I found numerous instances of the subtle imposition of a clear hierarchy which privileged voices of Muslim background willing to engage in auto-criticism of Muslims and Islam and to express views on everything from freedom of expression, women’s and LGBT rights to anti-Semitism aligned with the editors’ own ‘comprehensive’ rather than ‘political’ liberal views. Some female media editors 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, if anything a subtle means of ‘un-speak’ or trying to render her public voice irrelevant or marginal.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’ idea of freedom of expression as constituting a “free marketplace of ideas” may be a comfortable illusion to many, and especially to self-declared ‘freedom of expression fundamentalists’ in Norway  but the notion that freedom of expression is equally free and accessible to all is of course but an illusion in any given society. The “words that cannot be heard” all too often belong to women, even in liberal-secular societies which count as advanced in terms of women’s rights and gender-equality, such as late modern neo-liberal Norway.

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