Silencing Arab and Muslim women

Silencing Arab and Muslim women
Comment: When you are an Arab woman in the public eye, almost anything you say can and likely will be used against you, writes Ruby Hamad.
7 min read
20 Aug, 2018
Orchestrated campaigns have punished Arab women for old social media output [Moment Mobile ED]
When an alt-right campaign dug up decade-old incriminating tweets from Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, including crude jokes about paedophilia and rape, leading to his firing from the Disney-owned film franchise he'd launched, it seemed the dawn of a new era where even powerful, rich white men could be undone by the power of social media outrage.

Cut to a mere month later and Gunn is said to be in high demand in Hollywood, with even image-conscious Disney in talks to reinstall him. What initially looked to be a career-ending megalith is proving little more than a minor pebble on his path to enduring Hollywood success.

No sooner had the Gunn furore subsided, then the alt-right found a new target, this time in Asian American journalist Sarah Jeong, newly appointed to the editorial team at The New York Times. Trawling through Jeong's social media history in search of ammunition to bring her down, the alt-right found and demanded her figurative head, for a litany of tweets in which she employs sarcasm, humour, and mimicry to fend off what she claims was a barrage of racist abuse.

I won't deny, I did gasp at some of Jeong's words. Stripped of the time, place, and emotion of their origin, they were all too easy to misconstrue as genuine sentiments of animosity.

However, I also knew that that's all they were: Just words that she used in order to speak back to white people in the very same manner that so many of them have been speaking at us, and about us for so long.

And when I say "just words," I mean they do not form part of, or perpetuate a systemic structure aimed at marginalising white people; white people may feel slighted by her tweets but they aren't reading them in the context of suffering discrimination or harm for being white.

Fortunately for Jeong, The New York Times refused to fire her.

Our inclusion in this society is conditional. Be grateful. Never complain. Never challenge the status quo.

For Arab women similarly targeted by orchestrated campaigns to punish them for old social media output, the outcome has not been as happy.

In February of this year, 22-year-old Mennel Ibtissem quit the French version of 'The Voice' after an uproar over old Facebook comments (since deleted), in which she criticised Israel's 2014 assault on Gaza and the French government's narrative on the Paris and Nice attacks.

Her repeated apologies fell on deaf years and she bowed out of the programme to escape the angry onslaught.

This occurred just weeks after British Muslim beauty blogger Amena Khan stood down from her role as L'Oreal's "first hijab-wearing model", following the resurfacing of tweets also concerning Israel's actions in Gaza.

Like Ibtissem, the young woman apologised profusely and deleted the tweets but to no avail - the angry mob would not be placated with mere contrition. Rather than defend her, L'Oreal stated they "agreed" with her decision to quit.

Read more: In France, free speech is fine, just don't mention Palestine

As aspiring pop singers and beauty models, these two young women were doing exactly what the dominant white culture demands – integrating and adopting western habits and values.

But of course, what many white people mean when they demand integration is complete assimilation. It's not enough to adopt western values alongside existing Arab ones; the western values must usurp all others. Fashion models and pop singers in hijabs was something that Europeans just couldn't countenance. That they were just teenagers at the time, or had fired off comments in the heat of the moment, or even that they had expressed opinions that countless others have without so much as a slap on the wrist, seemed not to matter at all; people wanted blood.

And they got it. Khan stepped down just weeks after L'Oreal fired Monroe Bergdorf, a black trans model for daring to discuss racism on television (Bergdorf was quickly snapped up by rival brand Illamasqua), but it is Ibtissem's case in particular that wrenches. Her performance on The Voice was a seamless fusion of East and West, a glorious display of the beauty humans are capable of when we celebrate and work with our differences rather than degrade and demonise them.

Her rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah begins in English and ends in Arabic, replacing the Hallelujah refrain with Yailahi - 'my God'. 

Her exit from the spotlight is not a promising sign for other Arab women with dreams of their own. Yet even here, there are layers of privilege. Like both of those women, I am from an Arab Muslim background, but as a secular individual from a minority sect, am not visibly Muslim and so given more leeway to express myself.

But such privilege is a double edged sword. Throughout my career, I have frequently been instructed to go back to where I came from - preferably Saudi Arabia as if Middle Eastern countries are interchangeable - and have had all kinds of racist profanities hurled at me.

But when I recently wrote a widely shared article about the toll whiteness and toxic femininity takes on women of colour, suddenly my own racial background was questioned. Images of me were plastered across the internet, inviting ridicule and accusations that I am actually white and in need of "a spray tan to support (my) Pocahontas story."

This is the reality of racism: When not reducing us to our ethnicity it erases us from it all together, whatever it takes to scare us into silence. Our inclusion in this society is conditional. Be grateful. Never complain. Never challenge the status quo. And lose any attachment you may have to your own cultural heritage.

This is blatant dehumanisation; to be told you have no right to participate in public life and in the shaping of your own society because your family came from somewhere else.

The rules are different for us, and, in classic abusive relationship style, we won't know which rule we have broken until we break it

Long before the Gunn and Jeong brouhahas, I wracked my brain wondering if there is any long-forgotten tweet that could easily be used to condemn me and seal my fate.

Sometimes I consider trawling through my own timeline, deleting anything vaguely controversial that could be twisted. I stress over every opinion I have, wondering if I should express it, or if it is safer not to risk any seen or unseen punishment that awaits me for doing so. Often, I delete tweets in a panic, almost as soon as I have posted them.

But even as I do this, I know that my actual words and opinions don't really matter. When you are an Arab woman in the public eye, almost anything you say can and likely will be used against you. The rules are different for us, and, in classic abusive relationship style, we won't know which rule we have broken until we break it.

Still, the emotional cost of self-censoring can prove more damaging to the psyche than any material consequence of speaking out.

Read more: Women like us: British Muslimahs resist

If racists want to spend their precious time trawling through my - or anyone else's - timeline in the hope of finding something incriminating, that unwise use of their time is their own burden to bear.  

Arab women, like all women of colour, are finding their voice and no longer will we be intimidated into silence so easily. For all the Amena Khans and Mennel Ibtissems who've suffered undue punishment without public defence when it mattered most, we must soldier on; for her we will.

Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.