"Why not just wear a burqa": Experiences of ethnic minority women writing online

Five ethnic minority writers share their experiences with Asiya Islam.

 

The figure that only five per cent of national newspaper editors are women, from the recently released report ‘Sex and Power’, has been doing the rounds. What we haven’t heard so much is that of those five per cent, all are white women and indeed, of the 95 per cent men, all are white men. There are no ethnic minority national newspaper editors, at all - it’s a shocking, but probably not a surprising, figure that reflects the picture in the rest of the media. It’s a figure that also indicates how small the chances are of an ethnic minority woman expressing her opinion in mainstream media. The term “minority within a minority” comes to mind. But what happens when she does?

When I started writing online, any exhilaration I felt at seeing my name on the screen died with the many put downs I received in comments. Though I was aware of the extent of online misogyny, I still wasn’t prepared to be personally (and often quite randomly) attacked. Most women writing online will easily be able to recount rape and murder threats, sexist comments on their appearance and, to use that horrible term, “sexual capital”, and disdain for their “womanly” (probably hysterical, illogical etc) opinion. I was told to “calm down”, asked what I was wearing, and informed that men would enjoy it if I dressed like a slut, but there was also a racist undertone (sometimes not so much of an undertone as blatant racism) to most comments I received.

First, there was the general sense that I shouldn’t be talking about the UK since I don’t really belong here and that my opinion stems from my “back home” experience, mentality and relatives and that’s where I should keep it. And then there was the very loaded suggestion, with so many possible meanings that I wouldn’t be able to go into here, that I should wear a burqa – a suggestion, I understand, entirely based on the assumption derived from my name that I’m Muslim, since I’ve never specifically mentioned my religion (or the lack of it) or written on religious issues. It’s also worth stating that these examples have been picked up from comments on a moderated forum.

This got me thinking about the specific ways ethnic minority women are shut up in mainstream media. So, I put out a call for ethnic minority women writing online to learn of their experiences and the responses told the story I suspected all along. Interestingly, many of them felt, and I agree, that being ignored was the commonest and probably the strongest form of online racism. This contrasts with the often very graphic misogynistic threats women receive, but indicates the way experiences of ethnic minority women writing online are specific and “exclusive”.

From being likened to a boy in Patak’s curry advert, told that they’ll “hang high”, and questioned over their faith/religion to being completely ignored, ethnic minority women are silenced in mainstream media in many ways. Five ethnic minority women writers/bloggers share their experiences.

Bidisha

Bidisha is a writer, author and broadcaster

While the vast and overwhelming amount of hate mail I receive is openly and viciously misogynistic (rape threats, gendered and objectified personal abuse, abuse of feminism generally and what I call medieval misogyny: accusations of madness, badness, hysteria, shrillness, lying, troublemaking and so on whenever I whistleblow) there is always an undertow, although in the minority, of racism. Oddly enough I am often called a race traitor (no idea why) and the open-access sites, like the now-defunct Don't Start Me Off, were openly racist: idiotic comments about whether I looked like the boy from the Patak's curry advert and so forth.

The strongest racism, which I experience both in mainstream culture and in the trolling non-culture of the internet, is simply to ignore non-white people and their voices, ideas, opinions, work and experiences, except when these voices corroborate existing stereotypes. This is perpetrated not only by anonymous insulters but the broader culture - which is why, even in this diverse and globalised world, you will watch your way through this year's Oscar nominated films and struggle to see a non-white character who is not a maid, a slave, a comic stereotype or a criminal stereotype.

But if you've made woman-haters angry then you're doing something right. They are angry because they have been challenged, their privilege questioned and their cover blown. It makes me laugh because I write about how much women are hated in society and all the trolls very accommodatingly, and with absolute transparency and no self-awareness, prove it. Trolls certainly have not, cannot and will not silence me.

Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly is a feminist media critic and activist

I write frequently about this topic (most recently The Digital Safety Divide). However, your recent post [the call I out for ethnic minority women to share their experiences] intrigued me  because commenters will often make assumptions about me based, as is always the case, on how I look and what my name is. So, in addition to the egregious threats and truly hateful messages, I occasionally get the "go back to Africa" or "go back to Arabia or wherever you are from." The first threat I ever got was one that said I would "hang high" which I wasn't sure whether to take as an actual suggestion of lynching.

I think that being told to "go back" to wherever I came from, "Africa or Arabia" might fit the description of sexist racism. The implication, of course, being that a) women of colour do not belong here (the US) or b) feminists (regardless of hue) cannot be "real Americans".

However, it hasn’t impeded me. It just makes me angry because it’s bullying, pure and simple.

Huma Qureshi

Huma Qureshi is a freelance journalist. She writes frequently for the Guardian

The only time I get the abuse, so to speak, is when I write Islam-related pieces, because then it puts me in the spotlight as Muslim, whereas I don't think people pick up on that on any of the other more newsy features I might do. The worst of what I've received has been when I've been emailed abuse, so it arrives in my inbox, rather than them saying it below the line in front of people to see. I've mentioned that in this discussion on online Islamophobia.

I've become a lot more careful about what I choose to write about. It's not because I'm afraid, it's just because sometimes you have to weigh up whether it's worth it. I have to consider how much I reveal about myself, I guess. But, it's not all bad. The last piece I wrote that drew attention to my Asian background (as well as Muslim background) was about my experience of Christmas and how much I love it.

I was expecting to get slaughtered in the comments, but they were mostly really nice, although there were as usual those who think I'm way too liberal...

Huma Yusuf

Huma Yusuf is a commentator on Pakistani politics and society for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and the International Herald Tribune

Like other women writers I’ve had people respond to my articles with misogynistic comments – rape threats, flirtatious comments, comments about my photographs online (either good or bad), marriage proposals, or questions about my marital status and sex life as a way to intimidate me. This happens about 5-10% of the time (the comments on my articles for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and the Latitude blog on the New York Times are moderated, so I don’t know what’s being censored out there, this percentage reflects the emails I receive directly). But this is more generic to being a woman online, rather than an Asian woman.

Because I write about Pakistan and its politics and society, I face online feedback about my Islamic credentials. On Twitter, in blog comments, and in email, I’m frequently asked whether I’m  Muslim, what sect of Islam I’m from, whether I’m God-fearing, whether I’m a true believer who has lost her way, whether I realise that my godlessness reflects poorly on my parents etc. I’m also told that the woman’s place is in the home and that I shouldn’t be writing. This is usually in response to articles about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or articles about the mistreatment of religious minorities within Pakistan.

Sam Ambreen

Sam Ambreen is a former advocate working with survivors of domestic abuse, now an activist seeking to empower and protect the rights of women

My experience of writing/tweeting online is possibly more positive than most BME (black and minority ethnic) women in that I have a network who support me if I do ever run into trolls and the like. I have had people accuse me of using the race card before I've even opened my mouth which immediately reveals them for the bigots they are. Men seem to think it ok, or they used to before I told them to back off, to praise me or remark on my intelligence or politics as if they've never experienced anything like it before; it's patronising and again, an early warning bell for a pre-emptive block.

I wrote a piece called ‘White Feminists: Now will you listen?’ and it received a lot of attention. I was stunned to be confronted by a white woman who was offended by the title and said she often fought for the rights of 'other' women but felt she ought not bother if that is what we thought of them. She actually wanted gratitude. And some of the feminists I knew actually defended her. Apparently she was a nice person and it was all a big misunderstanding. Also many people make the assumption I'm younger than I am or at least, it feels like they're talking down to me. She repeatedly used the word girl to refer to me; I'm a 30 year old woman for the record. They think of us as those poor women suffering those savages from that strange place over there. They fail to understand that oppression is the same everywhere, only the methods differ.

In a Twitter conversation about rape, a man randomly jumped into it and, defending another man, said “Before you accuse him of racism, he’s right.” The implication here obviously was that, being an ethnic minority person, I was bound to bring up the ‘race card’ to defend myself. I was not expecting it all and was completely unprovoked.

I am lucky to be part of an intersectional crowd on Twitter. If anything offends, I deal with it by linking to it and discussing among people I trust. They also provide back up if I do get into an argument. My advice to BME women or in fact anyone other than white middle class is to seek out intersectional feminists and build networks.

 

Women in Pakistan taking computer classes. Photograph: Getty Images

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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