"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.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism