By Hamda Deria
The last couple months at Carleton have seen a campus-wide debate. The defendant is the woman’s-only gym hour campaign, designed to actively combat the rape culture that is imbued within a space that is highly sexualized—the unwanted stares, the catcalling, the reccurring hyper-sexualizing of our bodies. The plaintiff is a large population of the mostly-male student body, who find this program violates their right to attend the gym during the hours it is open, and who particularly take issue with Muslim women.
Muslim women, who have initiated and supported this program, are perceived by this group as dressing modestly, thus not truly experiencing overt sexualization. It is believed we shouldn’t force our religious obligations within “secular spaces”—ultimately, we are expected to assimilate or go elsewhere.
Here lie two problems. The first is that as a Black Muslim woman, there is a common misconception that Muslim women who wear hijab and dress modestly—whether in a casual or formal public setting, or even at the gym—can never experience the unwanted and overt sexualizing of our bodies, because we have given neither invitation nor willful opportunity for men to belittle us to their sexual desires and sexual gaze.
What we must earnestly work to deconstruct is this perception that sexual violence only occurs when in proximity to women who act or dress “promiscuously,” or in my experience how this very narrative has been used to police my choices of being sexually modest and not integrated into the mainstream perception of sexual freedoms that woman outside of Islam possess. We must instead recognize that sexual violence and our culture of the male gaze and entitlement over female bodies has nothing to do with if women are proud and confident of their sexuality, but more so that the foundational structure of our sexuality and of female “sexual freedoms” is to pleasure men.
Secondly, many men voiced their concerns that this program was a leftist, radical feminist wish-list that will only serve to criminalize men as barbaric and savage dogs who just want to get in our pants. The problem for me wasn’t a concern for their feelings that they may be outed as savage dogs, but the farming of this “radical” program as something from an everyday feminist playbook, rather than originating from an understanding of intersectionality. This program has been spearheaded by women of colour from a diverse background of sexualities, ethnic, religious, able-bodied and non-able-bodied communities.
To call this program a desire to accomplish a “feminist agenda” is to ignore how this project actively pursued pivotal conversations surrounding intersectionality, and the active recognition of our multiple and distinct identities, as they factor into how we are perceived and treated in the world.
I myself have always had a problem with feminist discourse. The rhetoric of feminism presents itself as a system that seeks to equalize the social, political and economic standing of all men and women, but in fact exists and has historically thrived within a system of race-based gendered hierarchies—meaning there are institutions and programs for the recognition of gendered inequality, but they exist as a trickle-down in which white, straight women receive the bulk of the reparations, whilst the voices and realities of disabled women, trans, femme or gender non-conforming women of colour receive the bare minimum or nothing at all of these reparations.
We conveniently push out from the folds of our imagination the intergenerational legacy of being a woman of colour within a western society that constructed gendered norms and hierarchies ingrained in the history of racism and colonization. This not only gave way for a system that would control the lives of racialized peoples, but solidified a behavioural narrative that gives shape to a new dimension in the structural inequalities women face, and results in male entitlement and ownership over women’s bodies, when sexuality and the body become exoticized through points of racialization.
Whether people want to agree with me or not isn’t my concern. My concern is that we have to engage in conversation that doesn’t dismiss the historic proximity of feminist theories, especially when many feminist theories overlook the issues facing women of colour. To call this campaign a feminist project is to overlook the intersectional lens this campaign provides. I truly believe the aim is to include the unique reality women of colour face, and one I hope to see the campaign accomplish.