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The promise of citizenship: autonomy and abject choices

Can we imagine the conditions under which the promise of citizenship could be fulfilled? This is only imagineable ‘after orientalism’, but can we imagine such a state? Let us start from where we are now, and work out what would have to happen to the central notion of ‘autonomy’.

One particular mechanism of the orientalist logic of citizenship is to deny political agency to those women who make wrong choices. One special way in which this occurs is by defining these wrong choices as choices that do not express the autonomy of the person who chooses. They are simply dismissed as non-choices. In the two examples that follow, we can see how autonomy is a central precondition for being considered a potential citizen, or a political subject entitled to claim rights. And how debilitating and exclusionary this is.

Consider the following two scenes: (i) campaigns against sex trafficking where governmental actors and some feminist groups alike criminalise sex work while portraying migrant sex workers as victims of this crime, and (ii) attacks against wearing a veil in public in different European sites, such as in Denmark, Germany, France, The Netherlands, and Spain.

What do these scenes have in common ? When women make ‘wrong’ choices they face the force of the law.

On the one hand, women are urged to make personal choices as an expression of their freedom and to consider themselves as subjects of rights. On the other hand, when women make ‘wrong’ choices, they are denied the autonomy and the rights that they are promised: one simply cannot decide to be a sex worker, or to wear a veil in public.

What must these women do to qualify for freedom? The answer, it seems, is that until they make the ‘right’ choices, they cannot be free.

Within this Orientalist logic, sex workers portrayed as victims of international sex trafficking networks, and women using a veil in public, not only embody the wrongness of their choice. Also, and more crucially, by those very same choices, these women are said to express their lack of autonomy, hence their incapacity to choose.

Sex trafficking paradigms

Let’s have a closer look at the case of sex work. The prosecution of sex workers has heightened over the last decade, particularly in Europe, but also globally, and more intensely over the last two years. Europe is currently planning (and has now already approved!) a legal reform on sex work that follows the Swedish model in criminalising their clients.

This backlash against sex workers has included ample media coverage of security forces successfully prosecuting the sex industry, and subsuming it into the prosecution of international trafficking networks.  This is the background of the systematic raids in London, culminating last December, with the Soho raids. Two days after the Soho Raids, The Evening Standard informed us that:

Hundreds of police officers launched a massive Soho swoop on premises allegedly linked to rape and sex trafficking… After the raids last night a dozen women, mostly from eastern Europe, working in squalid rooms, were taken to safe locations where they will be questioned. Police believe that some were trafficked into the country and forced into prostitution… Inquiries have shown that Soho’s vice industry has been taken over by eastern European gangs in recent years.

In the meantime, the Sex Workers Open University was responding to the raids, in its own press release:

They kicked down doors, closed working flats, took money and personal items, and manhandled women in the street... The media presence included Sky news, BBC and the Evening Standard. It would seem that ‘victims’ of sex work need to be publicly humiliated and shamed in the media in order to be properly saved from their work. The raids were supposedly undertaken in order to ‘tackle’ human trafficking. A number of migrant sex workers, many of whom have lived in the UK for years, have – devastatingly – been conveyed to the UKBA detention centre at Heathrow; this, despite having reassured police that they had not been trafficked into the country, and were working voluntarily. 

Indeed, current debates over sex work have become subsumed under the trafficking paradigm. In this context, to justify the rescue industry as well as the prosecution of sex workers, when sex workers argue that it has been their choice to work as such, and claim not to have been coerced to enter the sex industry, they are accused of false-consciousness, being subjected to brain-washing, or the victims of some version of the Stockholm syndrome.

These arguments, the point at which in the name of sexual freedom, sexual freedom is denied, are epitomised by the figure of ‘the victim of sex trafficking’. It is undeniable, it seems, that the victim of sex trafficking has not made a choice. The question here is not about the reality of these networks, but is rather concerned with what purpose such anti-trafficking discourse actually serves, and how it operates.

As many sex workers’ organisations have repeatedly indicated, the anti-trafficking umbrella does not have so much impact on disarticulating effective trafficking networks, nor does it serve the aim of ‘saving’ the victims of trafficking. Instead, it works as an anti-migration policy, targeting migrant sex workers and fuelling racial profiling.

The Soho raids took place as part of Operation Demontere, which, after eighteen months of intelligence work, resulted in not one case of trafficking being identified. And yet, the discourse of sex trafficking does its work. And it does so, in my view, not only because it provides a productive alibi for moral crusades and heightened border patrols, but also because it imaginarily locates the question of the sex industry somehow outside the advanced west and in a post-cold war new oriental other.

Noticeable in this regard is the particular targeting of eastern Europe, at a moment when migration from that region into the UK has been raising great concerns. This targeting happens both in the media and by the police, as denounced by sex workers themselves. In supposedly countering the ‘bad eastern European networks of trafficker others’, the state deprives migrant sex workers of agency altogether, either victimising them or criminalising their choices and justifying criminalisation by arguing that they were never choices in the first place.

What this scene illustrates, amongst other things, is that while women are denied their ‘autonomy’ for making a choice to become sex workers, their constitution as ‘victims’ displaces the burden onto migrants as guilty subjects.

Veiling choices

So, what are the conditions that a subject has to comply with in order to count as an autonomous political agent? The debates over the use of the veil in public in Europe provide us with another vantagepoint for exploring this question.

I do not aim to pursue the complexities of the ‘veil debate’, which has been amply studied by feminists. I just want to explore how the question of choice, as the expression of women’s autonomy, is played out here.

Anyone who has paid any attention to this debate would have seen in myriad TV and radio public debates, endless interviews, and internet blogs, in which Muslim women have been asked to explain over and over again to western audiences their reasons for such a choice and to defend themselves from the accusation that they were not really choosing, or, if they were, this was not a valid choice, insofar as it allegedly negates their autonomy and therefore the capacity to choose.

Different Muslim women have been giving a wide range of disparate reasons for using a Hijab, thereby positioning themselves as agents - political subjects assuming different positionalities.  They either identify themselves as feminists or not; they hold diverse political and religious views, carrying different cultural backgrounds and diasporic histories. This heterogeneity already exposes the error of supposing that there is only one meaning that could be attached to the Hijab, not least, the obvious mistake in taking it as a synonym for oppression or some sort of necessary alliance to fundamentalism. And yet, the responses of these women seemed quite inaudible to the western hegemonic ear.

FEMEN activists celebrate their new headquarters in Paris FEMEN activists celebrate their new headquarters in Paris. Demotix/Davide Del Giudice. All rights reserved.

This inaudibility became apparent in recent campaigns against the ‘Islamization’ of the world organised by FEMEN, the worldwide sextremist feminist network. As part of this agenda, on March 2, 2013 some of FEMEN’S activists organised a demonstration in Stockholm against the Hijab. On this occasion the lead performer proclaimed:

‘Hijab is not my choice... No to Hijab… No to the Islamic Republic of Iran… No to Sharia Law’.

Shortly afterwards, FEMEN declared an, “International Topless Jihad Day” (on April 4, 2013), stating on its website:

FEMEN insists on toppling regimes that arose after the Arab spring, which brought Islamist clouds over the Arab region. FEMEN … insists on the need for a new Arab women's revolution to liberate women from the medieval traditions that are controlling their lives. Freedom for women! 

In the eyes of FEMEN as of many liberal feminists, conservatives, and progressives who also subscribe to Islamophobic views, there are only two positions available for Muslim women.  Either they are enlightened by western values and brought back to the present, which can only be western, deciding to make “the journey from the darkness of ‘medieval traditions’ to the light of the true inheritors of the Enlightenment’”: or, they remain as victims, and are devoid as political subjects of any agency as they are conceived as incapable of making the right choices.

Once again, the figure of the victim becomes crucial here, epitomising the false character of the choice, redefined as a ‘non-choice’. This movement displaces responsibility for  ‘the wrong choice’ to the ‘patriarchal culture’ that occupies the space of the orientalised other and that renders them victims.

In response to such FEMEN activities, a network of Muslim Women Against FEMEN was organised. In their Facebook page, the network states that they are,

‘Muslim women who want to expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are. We are making our voices heard and reclaiming our agency!’ Their cover photo includes a banner affirming: ‘Nudity DOES NOT liberate me, and I DO NOT need saving’.

They organised a counter-campaign, Mulsimah Pride Day.

What is interesting about this response is its straightforward challenge to the ‘rescue paradigm’ and the way it reclaims agency on its own terms. Questioning the liberating connotations of nudity, this response raises questions about which relationships to our bodies might count as signs of liberation, and freedom, and which ones do not.

It also opens up the question of what is at stake when trying to determine what relation to our bodies and ourselves might count as an expression of our autonomy, an expression which it is noted, is a precondition for being considered a subject having rights.  

This question cannot have an answer in advance, but rather, seems to move us  indispensably toward the practices of genuine cultural translation, leading to redefinitions of all these terms.

Inclusion as misrecognition

What do I mean by genuine or critical cultural translation? Simply put, a process by which, for instance, the presumptions as to what ‘autonomy’ is and how it might be expressed, are not predefined in advance.

After all, if freedom depends on a notion of autonomy that proves to be exclusionary, while also pivotal to state violence and the logic of othering, it should be worth our rethinking the terms in which both freedom and autonomy are defined.

As we have seen in the two cases outlined, key to this othering logic is the rejection of certain choices as an expression of autonomy, when such autonomy is too proximate to ‘a bad other’ which antagonises western ideas of freedom.

Arguably, the ‘orientalised men from whom migrant and postcolonial women should be saved’ figure as a constitutive ‘bad other’. That is, as the ineluctable condition from under which any ‘good other’ must emerge. The ‘good others’ who are either lost in their victimhood, or willing to assimilate to western values or at least to offer ‘acceptable’ diverse versions of them, depend on this ‘bad other’ to become recognisable.

This logic might also be extended to whole peoples. As FEMEN declarations make clear, ‘no to Hijab’, is at the same time, by metonymic extension, ‘no to the Islamic Republic of Iran’. This is not an exceptional case. On the contrary, maybe due to its racist naiveté, FEMEN expresses overtly what remains implicit in certain universalist discourses on freedom and rights. 

This directs us to an expansion of the debate beyond the question of the inclusion of ‘good others’ (first within, and later without), and the politics of recognition associated with it. 

A process of critical translation would have to go further than just expanding or diversifying a particular already predefined field, whether this might be women’s political freedom, sexual human rights, or liberal democracy. Rather, it would have to re-articulate all the categories that structure whatever field is at stake.

Similarly, it would have to give an account of the fact that the logic of othering is always already present in the categories that shape the political subject, as it clearly is in the case of autonomy. If we do not take critical translations seriously, what is conceived as political will remain already delineated by an orientalist logic, and the promise of citizenship after orientalism will never be fulfilled. 

An editorial partnership with Open University

About the author

Leticia Sabsay is a research associate in the faculty of Social Sciences of The Open University, working on the Oecumene Project. Her research falls into three broad areas: critical social theory, queer and feminist theory and cultural studies.

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See more articles and videos from the Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism partnership with the Open University.


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