"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.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.