"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.

Picture: British Museum
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Hokusai beneath the wave: meet the real artist behind the world's most plagiarised image

An exhibition at the British Museum takes us beyond the Japanese artist's iconic, and excessively reproduced, artwork.

The British Museum exhibition of the work of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai shows the playfulness and energy of his twilight years in the first half of the nineteenth century. It mainly covers the period after his “rebirth” at the age of 61, but in reality, he was reinventing himself throughout his life, changing his name as often as his style.

The museum's odd curation recognises the significance of Hokusai's late work, but not enough to grant each piece the space it deserves. The impressively large collection is packed into a small area, partitioned by angled walls, with viewers snaking round in an orderly queue.

Much like the Tate Modern's deployment of Alberto Giacometti's stick figures, this exhibition saves the work for which the artist has made a name for midway through the exhibition. In Hokusai's case, the degree to which the artist has come to be defined by a single part of a single work is astonishing.

“It's the most reproduced image in the world now, it's the most plagiarised image in the world, you'll see it on the cover of The Economist twice a year,” says Angus Lockyer, a lecturer at Soas who is currently working on the research project “Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society”.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa doesn't disappoint. Wooden fishing boats navigate a storm, their gradual, elongated curves sit vulnerably beneath the sharp curves of the waves. It's immensely powerful – Van Gogh was moved to say “these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it”. Through the hollow of the wave sits mount Fuji, eternal and immutable. It's a recurring theme – the “great wave” comes at the end of a series of woodblock printed “views of Mount Fuji”, where people's lives and violent weather run their course beneath the volcano's immortal shadow.

Lockyer says that the exhibition was called Beyond the Great Wave to highlight not only his other works, but also previously hidden elements in this most famous print. “There are three things going on in the picture. There's the wave, there's Fuji, and there's the people. And often when it's plagiarised they leave it out. You eradicate Fuji and you get rid of the boats... So for us, it's simply the wave,” he says. “And what we're saying is, look at the whole thing, and think about what he's trying to say here.

“There's this incredibly powerful, dynamic, threatening world – he likens the water to muscle sinews – and there's Fuji, the unchanging, eternal thing,” he adds. “And what it means to be human is to be between these two things... you fix your gaze on an unmoving thing, you anchor yourself. So there's a philosophical proposition here.”

But the most striking thing is how little it stands out among Hokusai's other works. He produced two huge wave paintings much later which really stun the viewer. Their giant, whirling, coral-like strokes, in deep blues and faded greens, produce a violence and magnitude unparallelled in previous waves. The exhibition guide suggests it is a representation of the Daoist notion of the “supreme ultimate” – from which everything originates – and you can see why.


Image: British Museum

Other landscapes give minute detail in the foreground which drifts imperceptibly into vague horizontal lines in the distance, where mountains arise out of a void, or soft pink clouds. His series of “ghost stories” is a hypnotising precursor of surrealism – yellow figures with melting faces, a bejewelled skeleton half shrouded by mosquito nets.

In Tiger in the Snow, produced in the year of his death, Hokusai joins Henri Rousseau and William Blake in capturing the simultaneous power and innocence of this beast. Its joyous grin belies an exaggerated muscular build and lethal claws.

The exhibition fulfils its promise in taking us beyond the great wave, and reveals an artist who grew ever more inspired and obsessive in his old age. Famously, he said:

“Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice… Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

He sought immortality, and on his deathbed, he begged: “If heaven could give me just five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

Hokusai's influence on the European art world was unfortunately outside the scope of this exhibition. After Japan opened up its markets in 1857-58, much of Hokusai's work ended up in Paris. “Van Gogh acknowledges it and basically says the whole of modern art comes from Japanese art,” says Lockyer. “The reason is that what happens when European artists see this is, they realise that you can break with representations. That you don't actually need to spend all this time depicting the world accurately, then you can actually abstract, to heightened effect... Hokusai is the linchpin of the whole story, and we need to rewrite the history of art.”

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.

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