Headscarfs and homosexuals - feminist ideals in xenophobic politics

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When the protest against a lecture by the controversial Islamist Bilal Philips risked being hijacked by Danish populist forces, it was a vivid reminder of what happens in practice, despite declarations by right-wing populist leaders.

Anders Rasmussen
26 November 2012

One spring day in 2011, the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro was visited by a famous imam. Bilal Philips, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Canada, where he converted as a 25-year-old, was invited by the Danish Islamic Society’s youth wing to give a lecture on Islamophobia at a conference in the Korsgadehallen cultural centre.

One spring day in 2011, the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro was visited by a famous imam. Bilal Philips, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Canada, where he converted as a 25-year-old, was invited by the Danish Islamic Society’s youth wing to give a lecture on Islamophobia at a conference in the Korsgadehallen cultural centre.

In the week leading up to Philips’ visit, a heated debate took place, especially in left-wing media and blogs, in which politicians, activists, academics, feminists and representatives of LGBT organisations discussed how to respond to the event. Some felt it was important to show up and demonstrate against Philips’ visit, while others insisted it would be best to stay away.

All agreed to publicly distance themselves from Philips’ views. The controversial imam is known for his reactionary interpretation of Sharia law. He has repeatedly argued that men should be allowed to beat their wives, that extramarital sex should be punished by 200 lashes and, not least, that gay sex should be punished by death.

Against this background, the dissatisfaction with Bilal Philips was understandable. As Trine Pertou Mach of the Socialist People’s Party wrote in an opinion piece on the portal Modkraft the week before the conference, he represents ‘the complete opposite of what a left wing characterised by solidarity works for’. Nevertheless, Mach was in doubt about how best to respond to the event. She remembered all too clearly what had happened three months earlier, when left-wing activists and politicians assembled outside the Danish Royal Library to demonstrate against the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which held a public rally that was given considerable media attention.

At that rally, Mach and her allies suddenly found themselves side by side with representatives of the right wing. Denmark’s National Front, the Nazi party DNSB and the organisation Stop the Islamisation of Denmark had turned up along with uniformed soldiers. They carried the Danish flag, sang the national anthem and raised banners bearing slogans such as ‘Deport These Fifth-Column Traitors’ and ‘Go to Hell’. A group of masked people tried to provoke violent confrontations by shouting ‘Arab scum’ and ‘come over here’ to the participants of the rally.

Now Mach and others feared that something similar would happen outside Korsgadehallen. And their suspicions seemed to be justified. Several politicians known for their xenophobic and populist rhetoric made public statements prior to Philips’ visit. One of them was Minister of Integration Søren Pind, whose attitude to intercultural encounters is perhaps best summed up by the following quote: ‘I don’t want to hear any more talk about integration. Spare me. The right word is assimilation. There are lots of cultures elsewhere that people can go and promote if that’s what they want.’ Pind told the Christian paper Kristeligt Dagblad that Philips’ statements about homosexuals ‘violate Danish norms’, and that the Islamic Society should repudiate him.

The Danish People’s Party, which has conservative and nationalistic tendencies, also joined in. It wrote to the Minister of Justice to request a change in legislation so that Bilal Philips could be denied entry into the country, again on grounds that he advocated the death penalty for homosexuals.

The researcher Michael Nebeling Petersen argued that the left should refrain from playing into this populist right-wing division between ‘them’ and ‘us’. As he wrote in connection with Philips’ visit:

"This contrast between the modern, secular, liberated west and the backward, oppressed, religious other was one of the arguments for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, it is one of the arguments for Denmark’s racist immigration policies, and it is one of the arguments for the discriminatory policy on headscarves, language teaching, family reunification, public benefits, housing and so on."

This process might best be described as an instrumentalisation of feminist and queer political agendas. Denmark is known for being a country with a relatively relaxed sexual morality: it was the first country in the world to legalise pornography in 1969, and the first to allow registered partnerships between two persons of the same sex in 1989. Women’s bodily autonomy is another element in the story of the equal, emancipated society.

For example, in the autumn of 2010, the Danish People’s Party declared that women’s freedom to bare their breasts is a mark of a free society. The party was criticising the lack of topless women in the film A Life in Denmark, which is shown to foreign applicants for residence permits when they take the so-called immigration test. The film is one and a half hours long and covers a range of topics, including Harald Bluetooth, absolute monarchy, the WWII resistance movement, the youth rebellion in the 1960s, free hospitals and equal pay, to a soundtrack of piano muzak and images of cornfields and sand castles, Nordic walkers in Fælledparken, fathers on paternity leave, gays at Café Oscar and homeless people in front of Mariakirken Church.

But no naked breasts, to the annoyance of the Danish People’s Party. As the party’s Søren Espersen said in a radio debate:

"It’s important to send a signal to the young girls who come here [that] now they’re getting away from the puritanical society that they’ve lived in […] and which we had here too in the old days. Now they’re coming to a country where there’s freedom [...] Here you can be free, here you can be yourself."

Espersen’s statements are a good example of how sexual liberalism is used for chest-puffing in a political and symbolic power struggle designed to position the ‘others’ as unfree and old-fashioned. And the Danish People’s Party’s disappointment at the lack of breasts in the Denmark film is an excellent example of the double standards behind much of the politicisation of gender and sexuality issues. A couple of years earlier, another debate about bare breasts arose when Copenhagen Municipality had to decide whether women were entitled to be topless in the city’s public swimming pools. The municipality’s Culture Committee was almost unanimous in deciding to allow bare breasts. Only one party voted against the proposition: the Danish People’s Party.

It is hardly surprising that the Danish People’s Party would vote no to a proposal to allow women to be topless in public pools. Like its previous incarnation, the Progress Party, the People’s Party is not known for proposing or voting for feminist legislative bills. To put it mildly, issues of equality, gay rights and discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation are not at the top of its political agenda. Nevertheless, the People’s Party MP Peter Skaarup has argued for a ban on headscarves in public places on the grounds that ‘We’ve fought to achieve women’s liberation and equality. That’s what we want’. Therefore, Muslim women must refrain from wearing headscarves and instead ‘get accustomed to our way of life in Denmark’, as he said in a radio debate in 2006.

It is a well-known strategy to use the oppressed Muslim woman as a contrast in order to tell the story of our own emancipation. Over the past few years, gays and lesbians have seemingly been used in the same way.

As gender researcher Jasbir K. Puar wrote in an opinion piece in 2010:

"‘How do you treat your women?’ became a key question when it came to determining colonised or developing countries’ ability to govern themselves. The ‘women question’ hasn’t exactly disappeared, but it has been linked up with the ‘gay question’, or ‘How do you treat your homosexuals?’ as a paradigm used to evaluate the ability of nations, peoples and cultures to adapt to universalist notions of civilisation."

In Denmark this can perhaps be seen most clearly in the debate on hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Images of young and immigrant boys from the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro throwing stones at participants of the annual Pride parade have featured prominently in the media. Representatives from the gay community have contributed to the debate with anecdotes about aggressive second-generation immigrants, and right-wing politicians rarely miss an opportunity to deliver their message that ‘where Islam enters, tolerance leaves’ – as the People’s Party’s former leader Pia Kjærsgaard wrote in her weekly newsletter. In the same letter she also described how ‘homosexuals had to run the gauntlet’ during their procession through Nørrebro to avoid violent clashes with ‘the Muslim brotherhood’.

As we saw in the chapter on violent male immigrants, homophobic behaviour among non-whites is typically explained in cultural or religious terms. It becomes a question of immigrant communities’ inherent hatred of gays and lesbians. In this area one rarely sees socioeconomic explanatory models or references to single ‘depraved individuals’, as is the case when ethnic Danes commit their extensive hate crimes. To use another example, when a paedophile ring consisting of white middle-aged Danish men is exposed in the media, it is not usually presented as an event that affects the perception of white middle-aged Danish men in general.

In addition to contributing to the stigmatisation of an already marginalised minority, the condemnation of ‘Muslim’ homophobia helps camouflage the general discrimination experienced by people with different sexual preferences in Denmark. The Danish People’s Party’s concern for the welfare of homosexuals was evident during the riots in Nørrebro, but is otherwise difficult to spot in their own policies. The party’s official website clearly states that homosexuals should not have the right either to adopt children or have children through artificial insemination.

Similarly, Søren Pind – who as mentioned saw Bilal Philips’ views on homosexuals as contrary to Danish norms – has himself fought to deny single and lesbian women access to artificial insemination in public hospitals. And when interviewed about his views on men and women in 2008, he referred both to the Stone Age society’s division of labour and to the Bible in his explanation of why women purportedly talk more than men and why men have more power than women.

The right’s strategic use of feminism has been met with resistance.

‘I refuse to be held hostage by populist and inflammatory agendas’, wrote Güzel Turan from the information centre Kvinfo in a 2009 article on male politicians’ involvement in the debate on Muslim women’s veils.

‘I’m tired of my burqa and breasts being used in Espersen’s feud against the archrival: the Big Bad Muslim’, she wrote about Danish People’s Party MP Søren Espersen. Espersen had denounced multiculturalism and Muslim women’s style of dress on national television because, as he said, ‘I’d like to be allowed to see Muslim women’s beautiful breasts’.

Recently similar reactions have come from Danish organisations and political activists fighting for the rights of sexual minorities. In 2010, under the heading ‘There’s no pride in racism’, the Red-Green Alliance’s Queer Committee distanced itself from the annual Pride parade precisely because it was being used in the service of a xenophobic and nationalistic agenda.

‘We will not use Pride’s festivities to celebrate “Danish tolerance” of sexual minorities’, the committee wrote in an opinion piece, going on to reject the populist right-wing foray into the LGBT struggle.

‘We will not be used to whitewash xenophobic politicians and parties by helping them appear gay-friendly and hence inclusive.’

It was this same concern that led many to stay away from the demonstration outside Korsgadehallen when Bilal Philips came to visit on Sunday 17 April. On the surface their worries appeared to be unfounded. Politicians from the Socialist People’s Party and the Red-Green Alliance, as well as Muslim feminists, stood on a box and made speeches. There was no sea of Danish flags, no right-wing nationalists singing the national anthem. The left had apparently succeeded in protesting against a conservative imam and his views on women and homosexuals without being caught up in a broader xenophobic agenda.

The demonstration itself was ‘not hijacked by right-wing radicals or other nationalists’, wrote the researcher Michael Nebeling Petersen, but he wasn’t convinced this meant that all was peachy.

He noted that, in the week leading up to the event, all the political parties had sent spokespeople and ministers out to give media interviews distancing themselves from the Danish Islamic Society for inviting a man with such extreme views. Regardless of how the demonstration turned out, the overall impression was of a reinforced distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’:

"The way the whole debate was run in the media circus, it again ended up as a confrontation between white, gay-friendly Denmark and the homophobic parallel society in Nørrebro. Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d appeared on TV in a different light?"

This article is an extract from Johanne Mygind and Anders Rasmussen’s pamphlet on populism in Denmark, which explores the vivid contradictions at the heart of the Islamophobic populism of the Danish People’s Party. While their antagonistic position towards Islam is buffered by a supposed concern for women and gay rights, their record in power - locally - sends a different message.

It forms part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint launched in a guest week in November 2012. The partnership will continue over the coming months with articles timed to coincide with events to disseminate the ten pamphlets commissioned through Counterpoint's project 'Recapturing Europe's Reluctant Radicals" , funded by the Open Society Foundations.


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