Taking a flawed stand against orientalism

In a response to openDemocracy's 'Citizenship after Orientalism' series, Rahila Gupta says there's no need to ditch values such as secularism and modernity - just point out that they’re not associated wholly with the West. This, she argues, would be the appropriate response to orientalism

Rahila Gupta
12 November 2012

The openDemocracy series on ‘Citizenship after Orientalism’ is a thought provoking investigation into how new forms of citizenship are being enacted across the world even though the orientalist discourse would seem to preclude the possibility of citizenship outside of Europe which is seen as, ‘the birthplace of “universal ideas” such as democracy, secularism, rights, and capitalism.’ Iker Barbero explores how orientalism runs deep in the veins of the European immigration system, denying entry to the ‘(often Muslim) migrant’ constructed as a ‘savage, uncivilized, terrorist “other”; an “anti-citizen”.’ Making a progressive use of the anti-orientalist discourse to highlight the racist nature of immigration controls, it argues for the abandonment of current border and citizenship regimes. So far, so unproblematic.

Where the anti-orientalist position runs into trouble is where it bends over backwards to accommodate the ‘other’ by refusing to challenge religious and cultural practices which oppress the other’s other such as women or lesbians and gay men.  Lisa Pilgram in her article on British Muslim Family Law and Citizenship welcomes the new hybridity whereby British Muslims can mix and match British and sharia law, thereby creating new forms of citizenship. According to Pilgram, any opposition to Sharia is a form of orientalism, ‘In the resulting “Sharia debate”, traces of orientalism became especially visible in the portrayal of Sharia as the ‘other’ and in an essentialist understanding of “Sharia” as being in opposition to “the West”.’ 

This is a dangerous assertion on many levels. First of all, it is an insult to the intelligence and experience of those who oppose sharia to suggest they do so because they have an essentialist understanding of it. As I have argued elsewhere, sharia councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals as they have developed in the UK are deeply patriarchal and their rulings in inheritance cases and family matters are often heavily biased against women. It is something implicitly conceded by Pilgram in the example offered by her where a husband divorced his wife by uttering talaq and wanted his solicitor to issue a certificate. The solicitor, who was British trained, decided to include a clause in the letter accompanying the certificate,  giving the woman ten days to dispute the talaq. As Pilgram notes, this is ‘not based on an Islamic legal provision but which is in fact the standard deadline of response in legal practice.’  This highhanded, unilateral form of divorce, usually initiated by a man, and, in practice, very hard for a woman to initiate even where there is evidence of domestic violence was somewhat ameliorated by a British legal practice. If accepting the fact that British law, although it too is patriarchal, respects women’s human rights more than sharia is orientalist, then I am an orientalist!

Secondly, such critiques of orientalism do not know how to situate dissenting traditions such as those represented by minority feminists and lesbian and gay activists. In challenging the binaries of orientalism which associates modernity and secularism with the West, and religious, non-democratic traditions with the East, the anti-orientalists become apologists for the cultures of the East in all their patriarchal glory and question the inherent value of secularism rather than challenge the discourse of orientalism by pointing out that secular, free thinking traditions, can exist in both and conversely heterosexist, patriarchal thinking still encumbers the West.

The danger of analysis in straightforward binaries, the dichotomised West versus East narrative, which is the ‘sin’ of orientalism is also the sin of anti-orientalism. In the attempt not to be racist, in denying that the 'other' has its secular traditions, they end up being racist. By abdicating the responsibility to oppose religious laws, the anti-orientalists create a dangerous theoretical vacuum in which religious power can grow unchecked.

It is a similar point of view that permeates Letitia Sabsay’s argument that the development of a new sexual-rights bearing citizen in Europe has become the prism through which other cultures are viewed and denigrated for not providing  similar rights to their citizens; that this is a new orientalism. I agree with her critique of the hypocrisy of American initiatives challenging the violence and discrimination faced by the LGBT community around the world, but not sufficiently challenging the neo-right in the US on the same issue. However, when she extends the challenge to the hijab in Europe as manifestation of the new orientalism, we are caught in the same suffocating binaries. Where is the room for a minority woman speaking against the hijab from within that community and feeling the pressure of the hijab looming over her own dress choices? Although I don’t agree with the French ban, there is anecdotal evidence from young women pleased that the ban absolves them from wearing it under pressure from male relatives according to Marieme Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian feminist.

There’s no need to ditch values such as secularism and modernity, just point out that they’re not associated wholly with the West – that would be the appropriate response to orientalism.


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