Queering Women, Peace and Security project focuses on Improving Engagement with queer women in peacebuilding

The Queering Women, Peace and Security (WPS) project is a British Academy funded Innovation Fellowship led by Dr. Jamie Hagen from Queen’s University Belfast and co-director of the Centre for Gender in Politics, and Anupama Ranawana from Christian Aid UK, which focuses on improving engagement with lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LBTQ) women in WPS Programming.

 The full research team also includes María Susana Peralta Ramón of Colombia Diversa who will serve as research coordinator on the project, and Nathalie Mercier of Christian Aid Colombia who will serve as research assistant.

The year-long fellowship focuses on the role of including LBTQ women in the development and implementation of Women, Peace and Security National Action Plans and contributes to a larger effort of taking a critical security studies approach to understanding peacebuilding.

 The project comes at an important time with the ongoing development of the UK’s third National Action Plan for implementing Women, Peace and Security and plans for the first Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan in Colombia.

One of the key publications from the project will be a toolkit which will provide training opportunities for Women, Peace and Security practitioners and enable knowledge exchange from LGBTQ organizations in the future to be published in Spring 2023. Workshops in Bogotá with key stakeholders from the LGBTQ community are central to the research project.

The Queering Women, Peace and Security project engages with and supports ongoing work to queer gender, peace and security efforts through collaboration with the leading Colombian LGBTIQ+ organization Colombia Diversa.   The research team will also explore what queer theory and LGBTQ advocacy might offer for improving Women, Peace and Security implementation practices internationally when ensuring a gender perspective in all peace and security efforts.

Upcoming events for Queer@Queens

Queer@Queen’s 2021

This year Queer@Queen’s has organized two events to coincide with the Outburts Queer Arts festival, a New Scholarship in Queer & Gender Studies panel on 17 November and a film screening of United in Anger: A History of Act Up followed by a discussion with Professor Sarah Schulman on 19 November. Find more details about both events below.


New Scholarship in Queer & Gender Studies
17th November 2021
20 University Square/0G/009

A showcase of new and emergent postgraduate research in queer, gender, and feminist studies at QUB, in connection with Outburst Queer Arts Festival (https://outburstarts.com/festival/).

Please note that this is an in-person event that will be held simultaneously on Teams.

To attend this event please book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/199788902987

For a link to the online Teams meeting, please contact Trish McTighe, t.mctighe@qub.ac.uk.

Please ensure that you wear a mask and observe social distancing when attending. More information on QUB Covid safety measures can be found here: https://www.qub.ac.uk/home/coronavirus-faqs/information-for-students/


Christopher Cavanagh, ‘LGBT In Antiquity: The Galli of the Great Mother’

This talk will discuss the emergence of the cult of Cybele in antiquity and her priests who were infamous at the time for being considered effeminate; they would reportedly self-castrate and wear women’s clothing and makeup. In introducing the cult and priesthood (as well as some literary attestations) I will talk about my research thus far, and how the literary sources shame them continuously, yet oddly, archaeologically speaking we can see some tell-tale signs indicating that they “wore it proudly”, openly displaying their deviance from Greco-Roman sexual norms on their tombstones. Some may even have engaged in domestic partnerships with other men (as indicated by a tombstone of a Gallus named Soterides in Turkey, and another of a Chief Gallus in Rome called Bassus), contrary to laws at the time.

Chris Cavanagh is a third year PhD student at Queens and who works as a teaching assistant and an archaeologist.

Sharon Dempsey, ‘The Body as Text: The Female Outsider in a Crime Fiction Narrative’ 

This talk will be drawn from my PhD research about crime fiction, gender, and class. I will give an overview of female representation and the body in crime fiction and then move on to discuss the creative aspects of my work.

Sharon Dempsey is a Belfast based crime writer. The first in her new crime series, Who Took Eden Mulligan? was published in 2021 by Avon Harper Collins. Her PhD research combines creative writing practice and critical analysis to examine how Northern Irish crime fiction can be used to understand the intersection between gender and class. Her creative work, a crime fiction novel in the domestic noir genre, will provide an exploration of class, privilege and toxic masculinity while also addressing the role of social media in rape cases, and how the victim can be demonized and blamed, forced into the public arena with profound repercussions.  

Elspeth Vischer, ‘Let Us Be Seen: Documenting Grassroots Feminism and Queer Identity in Belfast Today’

How do feminist and queer identities operate in contemporary Belfast? Let Us Be Seen is a documentary film that presents the work and ideas of individuals on the ground in Belfast, who have campaigned tirelessly for change and continue to do so. On 21st October 2019, abortion was decriminalised and same-sex marriage legalised in Northern Ireland. This important law change however has shed light on more nuanced barriers facing people locally. As many collaborators on this project have asserted ‘the fight is far from over’. This paper presents findings, in the form of film clips and discussion, from a creative-practice PhD project that aims to document and analyse grassroots feminism in Belfast through showcasing those working as activists, educators and artists on screen. 

Elspeth Vischer is a filmmaker from Belfast and director of Vish Films Ltd. Elspeth has been working over the past few years directing short films, music videos and writing. Elspeth has volunteered as a member of the LGBT History NI group for 18 months, where she has undertaken research into Women’s News publications and has helped archive and create video content. Elspeth is currently making a feature-length documentary about grassroots feminism as part of a Creative-Practice PhD at Queen’s University, where she also works as a teaching assistant.

Thomas Ward, ‘Queen’s in Love’

In 1990 Queen’s university student union held its first benefit for the Belfast AIDS Helpline. The event was a roaring success, but was a long-time coming. Less than ten years earlier the Lesbian and Gay conference of the National Union of Students in Ireland and the UK, to be held at Queen’s, was called off after a backlash from the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign and political pressure from the NUS national executive. With this backdrop, this talk explores Queen’s in Love, what happened on the night, the motivations of those who organised it, and the reaction to the event. Its aim is to add to the growing body of work seeking to counter long-held narratives that AIDS ‘didn’t happen’ in Belfast or to people from, or who had moved to, the city

Thomas Ward is a PhD student in history at Queen’s; his work focuses on the state and the counterhegemonic queer forms of co-optation and resistance to the heteronormative, nuclear-familial politics of the state in housing and healthcare provision in the late twentieth-century. He is also an activist in the tenant union CATU.

Mohaddeseh Ziyachi, ‘Motherhood in Iran’

This talk, drawn from my thesis, will examine the conception of motherhood in Iran. Its primary purpose is to show the problematic status of motherhood in current Iranian society—in particular, among middle-class Iranian women. My research demonstrates that middle-class Iranian women find childbearing and childrearing a controversial subject for thought, which is also reflected in academic studies, public discourses, and individual conversations about motherhood. Mohaddeseh Ziyachi is a PhD student in Cognition and Culture at the school of HAPP. In their PhD thesis, they study motherhood with a focus on Iranian society (their home country). Their research also includes cross-cultural comparison


November 19th, 2021

Prof Sarah Schulman in conversation with Dr Jamie Hagen (QUB)

& a screening of United in Anger: A History of ACT UP

Screening of United in Anger: 11am (venue TBC)

In-conversation: 1pm, McMordie Room, Music Building

Q@Q in association with Outburst Queer Arts and AEL Athena-SWAN is delighted to welcome one of the most influential queer writers, thinkers, and activists of her generation back to Belfast.

Sarah Schulman is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the College of Staten Island and a Fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities. She is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction writer and AIDS historian. From cult classic 1980’s novels Girls, Visions and Everything and After Delores to hugely impactful recent non-fiction titles such as The Gentrification of The Mind and Conflict is Not Abuse, her writing has been synonymous with speaking truth to power and giving voice to queer experience for four decades. A co-founder of Lesbian Avengers and MIX Film Festival, she has been prolific not only in her writing but also in wider LGBT activism and culture. Her 20th book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, New York 1987-1993 was published by FSG in Spring 2021. It has been described as “a tactician’s bible” and the ultimate activist handbook for making change happen together.

The session will be preceded by a screening of the 2012 documentary United in Anger directed by Jim Hubbard and produced by Sarah Schulman.

Book for the screening: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/199964929487

Book for the lecture: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/queerqueens-lecture-sarah-schulman-tickets-199975671617

Please ensure that you wear a mask and observe social distancing when attending. More information on QUB Covid safety measures can be found here: https://www.qub.ac.uk/home/coronavirus-faqs/information-for-students/

New CGP policy brief highlights how and when to research LGBTQ people in conflict

In June of this year Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, developed a report on the Gender Theory. The UN Gender Theory report was delivered to the Human Rights Council at its 47th session.

Included in the report is input offered from over 500 individuals and groups including a letter from the Centre for Gender in Politics. The central recommendations offered to inform this Gender Theory report are now available to read as a Centre for Gender in Politics policy brief including key recommendations.

The recommendations draw on Jamie J. Hagen’s research on Queering the Women, Peace and Security agenda focusing on LGBTQ organizing and responding to queer experiences in conflict-related environments. The key themes addressed in the policy brief including the challenges for confronting the patriarchal, homo-,lesbo and transphobic violence of ‘gender ideology’. A central component of the recommendations including the need to learn with and from LTGBT people living in conflict-related environments.

As more researchers recognize the need to include attention to sexual orientation and gender identity in research in conflict-related environments, the following recommendations can do so in a way that centers LGBTQ people in the process. Read the recommendations as an excerpt below and the full ‘Minimizing protection gaps for LGBTQ people living in conflict’ policy brief here.

Where and how to collect data on SOGI in conflict-related environments

Some ways researchers, policy makers and actors can address the lack of data about SOGI when doing gender work in conflict-related environments include:

Photo by Mohammad Danish on Pexels.com
  1. Work with local LGBTQ organizations and actors in developing and implementing gender research while doing ethical research in fragile and violent conflicts. This will require being creative and responsive to the needs of the communities you are working with about funding, research methodology, timelines and publication. Challenges may include finding responsive ways to include people who may not be able to physically attend interviews or workshops as well finding ways to work with those who are doing this work without the official label of ‘LGBTQ organization’ given political, social and funding constraints.
  2. Ask questions to participants/survivors/organizers about sexual orientation and gender identity in data collection. A 2020 report from the Williams Institute offers best-practices advice.
  3. Be intentional and inclusive of LGBTQ individuals so these communities are more comfortable raising sexuality as an important dimension of research about gender in conflict-related environments.
  4. Be explicit about defining gender in a way that also includes attention to sexual orientation and gender identity. Alongside this, be intentional (in writing, in reporting data, in media about the research, in speaking with participants) about being inclusive of those who do not fit into LGBT categories including non-binary and genderqueer individuals.
  5. Translate and support in-country research related to sexual orientation and gender identity led by local civil-society organizations. Even though much of this research is still excluded from many academic and policy spaces, there is extensive in-country and transnational feminist research to consider gender and sexuality in an intersection way beyond limited binary approaches to research.

Feminist Activism and the Politics of Crisis: Why gender sensitive analysis and policymaking must be a priority

Read findings emerging from the latest research conducted by the Centre’s co-directors, Dr Maria-Adriana Deiana and Dr Jamie Hagen, with Danielle Roberts, doctoral candidate at Ulster University and policy officer at Here NI.

Our research project sought to investigate the impact of the crisis engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic on feminist activism and gender equality more broadly. 

Drawing on the experiences and knowledge of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in Northern Ireland through focus groups, we detail the exacerbation of inequalities and ongoing challenges to the realisation of meaningful rights, inclusion and gender justice. 

We also trace the strategies developed by organisers to sustain collective activism in the complex political and economic environment in Northern Ireland. 

We join feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in Northern Ireland and globally in demanding that gender-sensitive analysis and policymaking must be a priority as we plan for recovery, rebuilding, and transformation post-Covid and beyond.

Read our policy brief below:

Are you interested in getting involved in feminist activism in Northern Ireland?

Earlier this year, we partnered with Reclaim the Agenda for a workshop on how to make feminist activism part of our everyday. 

Watch below the recording of our conversation with some phenomenal women organising on various issues in Northern Ireland and beyond. Hear more about how to get involved – even if that’s from your sofa for the time being! 

Reach out to the following organisations and individuals  to be part of some phenomenal feminist activism!

Alliance for Choice 
Reclaim the Night
End Deportations Belfast 
The Homeless Period Belfast

If you want to keep up to date with feminist news, policy consultations and events:

Sign up to NIWEP mailing list here

Sign up for Women’s Link – mailing list open to all here

Follow the Women’s Sector Lobbyist on Twitter

Conversation with Gemma Bird launches new CGP theme ‘Feminist Dialogues on the Politics of Borders’

This year our research theme is ‘Feminist Dialogues on the Politics of Borders’. With this theme we will explore the following key areas:

  • Border politics in the everyday: race, gender, sexuality
  • How can feminist and queer theory resist and move beyond borders of the nation-state?
  • What work are activists doing to confront the violence of the UK border regime, the hostile environment, to protect migrants?

To kick off our conversations on this theme, we had a conversation with Dr. Gemma Bird during the Political Studies Association 2021 which was hosted at Queen’s University Belfast in March. CGP’s co-director Dr. Maria-Adriana Deiana served as discussant for the event with Bird.

Dr Gemma Bird is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at University of Liverpool. Her research sits at the intersection between political theory and International Relations. Since 2017 Dr Bird has been working on a collaborative research project IR Aesthetics with colleagues from Aston University. As a part of this project, she has looked at questions of border governance, citizenship, visual politics and provisions for refugees on the Balkan Route(s). Besides her book ‘Foundations of Just Cross-Cultural Dialogue in Kant and African Political Thought’, she has published in leading journals in the field including Cooperation and Conflict and Citizenship Studies.

You can watch the full conversation here:

Please watch the blog and CGP social media to be informed of future events and emerging research from our 2021 theme.

Feminist activism and the politics of crisis in Northern Ireland

How is the current crisis impacting on feminist activism and gender politics more broadly? How can feminist and LGBTQ+ activists sustain collective organizing in moments of crisis? 

These are questions at the core of a new research project led by co-directors Dr Maria-Adriana Deiana and Dr Jamie Hagen, and Danielle Roberts from Ulster University.

Evidence suggests that during political, economic and health crises gender equality concerns and the experiences of women and LGBT+ folks tend to be marginalized in favour of other political issues deemed of more urgency. At the same time, the logic of crisis works to obscure or accelerate ongoing processes that undermine the social, sexual, cultural and economic situations of diversely positioned women and LGBT+ individuals.

This research project investigates the challenges for gender equality, social justice and inclusion engendered by the politics of crisis with a focus on the experiences and knowledge of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in Northern Ireland.

You can watch a presentation of the project below:

 The research teams has organised a series of focus groups with activists to reflect on what challenges for the realization of feminist demands for social transformation remain in place, emerged anew or have been exacerbated by the current health crisis.

Research findings will be published in an article for the upcoming special issue on Gender politics in the Island of Ireland for Irish political studies (co-edited by Maria-Adriana Deiana, QUB, Lisa Keenan, Trinity and Claire McGinn , IADT, chairs of the Gender and Politics standing group of PSAI). a report collated by the Centre for Gender in Politics will be shared with participants and their networks to facilitate communication  and review of findings.

Queer@Queen’s: Queen’s, Outburst and Queer Arts in Belfast

Belfast was a somewhat different place in 2008 when the first Queer at Queen’s took place. The region’s LGBTQI+ community had been dealt a blow by, firstly, a number of serious homophobic attacks that had occurred in the preceding years and, secondly, by the public and political response to those attacks, including the now infamous Iris Robinson comments made that year. That NI was hostile place for queers was not in doubt; that it could be better was an idea that spurred on the actions of a number of dedicated artists, activists and scholars. Ruth McCarthy set up Outburst Queer Arts Festival in 2007. Dr Alyson Campbell, then a lecturer in Drama at QUB, created Queer at Queen’s as an academic space for the festival, and a queer space within the university. From its creation, Q@Q has been responsive to the needs of a festival operating on a shoestring budget and those of a community whose political leaders’ tolerance for, if not public expressions of, homophobia forms a continued violent backdrop to their lives. It was one of the first conferences on the island dedicated to queer performance and these events were, as Campbell remarks, catalytic for the creation of both Outburst itself and Queer at Queen’s.

The demand for a different Northern Ireland that these events represent was revisited last year with Conor Mitchell’s Abomination (reviewed in The Guardian here). This opera, which premiered in Belfast in late 2019 as part of the Festival, takes the homophobic utterances of NI politicians and weaves them into a thing of angry beauty; the piece was a reminder of those years of homophobic violence of word and deed, litanies of ignorant and cruel statements – to repeat here would only replicate that violence – and it was a reminder of that time period when to say such things was publicly tolerated. It perhaps still is, times and attitudes do not change so quickly, but such a groundswell of collective rage and relief underpinned the 2019 production of Abomination that inklings of a different Northern Ireland might be glimpsed. That is a Northern Ireland that Outburst attempts to fashion and envision ever year and for that reason remains a bright queer jewel in the murk of November here, even in the midst of the pandemic as well. Alongside the festival therefore, Q@Q has operated to create a space within the university for queer ideas to be expressed, for modes of resistant performances and pedagogies to be practiced, and for queer and atypical lives to be welcomed.

Holly Hughes

Myself and Kurt Taroff took over the running of Q@Q in 2015 and have usually partnered with an individual or organisation to create a tailored event in response to a particular need or question. For instance, we partnered with UCD lecturer Cormac O’Brien in 2015-6 to run events, workshops and talks on HIV-AIDS. That year we, along with Outburst were lucky enough to welcome Sarah Schulman to speak on the legacy of the AIDS crisis and her ongoing activism. Subsequent years have given us a chance to bring in people who amount to lesbian theatre royalty: in 2017, performance artist Holly Hughes joined us and performed her recent work, Dog and Pony Show; in 2018, we welcomed Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw of Split Britches fame with their performance-conversation Situation Room.

Although not exclusively, Q@Q events have tended toward the theatrical or performance-focused. It was founded by and continues to be run by theatre people so the connection is an obvious one. But there is also the fact that we see queer culture (and theory) as being fundamentally related to performance, to performative acts and to live events. The liveness and presencing of non-normative bodies and identities in a place like Belfast is all the more urgent for us, given the context outlined above. In the main, we took over this event as a practice of allyship, as people well-placed within the institution to facilitate meeting, networks, and safe spaces for conversation. Last year we established a steering (& queering!) committee to help build and maintain connections across geographic and academic lines. The committee includes founder Alyson Campbell, now at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Steve Farrier (Central School of Speech and Drama), Sarah Mullan (University of Northampton), Jamie J. Hagen (QUB Centre for Gender in Politics, Prism network), Michael Gorry (QUB Prism network), Hilary McCollum (QUB Postgraduate) and Sara Greavu (Outburst Arts).   

Q@Q is not research-led and the lack of academic agenda on our part means that this is not a queer studies conference but rather, as Steve Farrier has suggested, the generation of civic spaces within a university. This year presented unique challenges for live events, yet we were able to welcome artists virtually to discuss their work and showcase some of the new gender research being done in NI. Our new research panel included QUB doctoral candidates Ciara McAllister and Hilary McCollum and Belfast-based doctoral researcher Sophie Anders (University of Salford). We also facilitated a conversation and show of work with playwright Mojisola Adebayo, artistic researcher Manola Gayatri and practice-research scholar Nando Messias, along with writer and PhD candidate at QUB, Hilary McCollum.

Part of the work of running this event, as we see it, is to maintain openness and responsiveness to pressures, tensions, dialogues and events happening around us, to the ways in which the university might be instrumentalised to serve communities and include the voices of those who have been historically marginalised from or by our various cultural institutions.

If you would like to get involved or to propose work for Q@Q, please email Trish McTighe, t.mctighe@qub.ac.uk. We welcome proposals for events to be held in November during Outburst, or at any time of the year.

Q@Q is grateful for the support of the Athena / Swan initiative at the School of Arts, English and Languages.

Trish McTighe is Lecturer in Drama at Queen’s University Belfast. Previously, she lectured at the University of Birmingham and was an AHRC post-doctoral researcher on the Staging Beckett Project at the University of Reading (2012-2015). Her book, The Haptic Aesthetic in Samuel Beckett’s Drama, was published with Palgrave in 2013, and she co-edited (with David Tucker) the double volume Staging Beckett in Ireland and Northern Ireland and Staging Beckett in Great Britain (Bloomsbury-Methuen, 2016). She has published in the journals Modern Drama, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, and the Irish University Review. She is theatre reviews editor for the Journal of Beckett Studies.

Pride in Solidarity Audre Lorde event recording

On 13 September the Centre for Gender in Politics co-hosted an event with HEReNI. The event was virtual and open to the public. We began the event with a screening of the film ‘The Berlin Years’ which, ‘documents Audre Lorde’s influence on the German political and cultural scene during a decade of profound social change, a decade that brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of East and West Germany. This chronicles an untold chapter of Lorde’s life: her empowerment of Afro-German women, as she challenged white women to acknowledge the significance of their white privilege and to deal with difference in constructive ways.

Following the film Northern Ireland based poet Anesu Khanya Mtowa read her poetry. Anesu Mtowa is a 17 year old poet currently studying A-levels. For 3 years, she has been writing poetry heavily focused on her identity as a second-generation immigrant, with her first piece ‘Where am I from?’ being published in October of 2017 for the Northern Ireland Youth Forum’s Black history month campaign.She has read at and been on a panel for the QUB Student Union Black history month event ‘BlackHerstory’ and for the past two years, she has been one of the poets for the ‘Sky You Are Too Big’ event.” Watch her in The Muff Monologues here.

Following Anesu’s poetry reading, black feminist scholar Naimah Z Petigny shared reflections on the film and Audre Lorde’s legacy.

Naimah Petigny is a Black Feminist scholar, educator, and dancer. As the granddaughter of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants, Naimah grew up in Western Massachusetts as a youth organizer, racial justice facilitator, and student of Afro-Caribbean dance. Naimah received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s Studies and Sociology from Vassar College in 2014. Currently, she lives in Minneapolis and is a Ph.D. candidate in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. Naimah’s work is interdisciplinary and exists at the intersections of Black Feminist Theory, Black Studies, and Performance Studies. She is dedicated to the study of Black life and liberation, and to building spaces of connection within her classrooms. Her dissertation research centers experiments in contemporary dance-theater performance, Blackness, and erotics. 

For those who were unable to join us last month, you can enjoy the poetry reading and film reflections here:

Femonationalism and the Preoccupation with Muslim Women’s Bodies.

In 2016, images from the beaches of Nice were published, showing a group of male police officers stripping a Muslim woman wearing a Burkini, an overall swimsuit that includes a Hijab. The French law prohibits wearing an “integral veil” for reasons of public safety on the one hand and “explicit religious sign” in public schools on the other, which means it is technically legal to wear hijab everywhere except public schools, including burkini on the beach. However, the 2015-16 attacks in various areas of France have radicalized the public attitude towards veils, with seven towns, among them Nice and Cannes, banning the burkini. 

The prohibition doesn’t refer directly to Islam, but Newspapers and politicians didn’t fail to mention the Nice terror attack in their reports on the matter, and the ban itself is written in terms of “state of emergency”, requiring citizens to respect “moral standards”, “common decency”, “hygiene”, “safety” and “secularism” in their fashion choices. These measures have since been cancelled by the state, but studies report that 66% of French citizens are currently in favour of forbidding the burkini on beaches and less than 50% of employers are open to employees wearing a hijab at work.

The sentiment surrounding the burkini ban manifests a long-standing tradition of Western man’s concern with the Eastern woman’s body. The terms “West” and “East” are in themselves social constructs, as postcolonial studies assume that existing ethnic hierarchies have no objective meanings, but rather derive from colonial and nationalist views of the Western world seeing itself as modern and rational, and the “other” (e.g., the “East”) as irrational and passive. This ideology, defining Western culture as a universal benchmark for moral judgment, was referred to by Edward Said as “Orientalism”, assuming that ethnic identity is based on the creation and definition of the “other”, regardless of ethnicity and geography. This enabled the construction of “otherness” by the French under the East/West discourse, despite the geographic fact that most French colonies were in North Africa (i.e., not the east). 

With growing involvement of post-colonial subjects in the lives of French citizens through immigration, orientalism spawned sophisticated variants that appeal to liberalism as a justification for continued “Western” supremacy. Such is the notion of Femonationalism, introduced by Sara Farris (2017). The term aims to frame the political-economic logic underpinning “the surprising intersection among nationalists, feminists, and neoliberals” in denouncing Muslim communities as exceptionally sexist, unlike western countries, perceived as sites of “superior” gender relations. Farris demonstrates how invoking women’s rights to stigmatize Muslim men advances those different actors’ own political objective.

Such narratives are not new in colonial perceptions. Spivak’s (1988) essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” discusses the Western intellectual’s view of himself as transcending the socio-cultural context in which he was educated to examine the colonial subjects in a “context-less” manner, that in fact echoes his own voice. The white man perceives himself as the saviour of the non-white woman, protecting her from the oppressive patriarchal regime in which she lives while ignoring the oppression undergone by those women under his rule, as well as the oppression that white women undergo.  This thought paradigm is useful for understanding the context of the forces exerted on non-Western women in the burkini affair and in general. I do not mean to imply that non-Western cultures should not be criticised, but to highlight that the active force here is an inherent sense of supremacy of the West rather than a necessity arising from the voice of the victims (real or imagined).

A quote by France’s former minister of Families, Children and Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, is a good example, stating that “women’s control over their bodies is at risk. When a brand invests in a Muslim clothing market, it is essentially renouncing responsibility and promoting women’s incarceration”. Her claims do not take into consideration the will and needs of women who buy and wear the burkini. Ra/ther, she is the one putting their control over their bodies at risk.

While Burkini is a relatively new phenomenon, the concern regarding covering Muslim women is a long-standing practice. Elor (2017) discusses how the word “veil”, narrowing and inaccurate to begin with, became a “problem” or an “issue” in Western countries. The word immediately relates “the problem” with Muslims people, government, economy and culture, but Elor demonstrates that time after time the concerns end up being placed specifically on the heads of girls and women. In current discourse, the West presents an ethos of gender equality that seeks to see itself as a universal order. The woman in the veil undermines this representation when she does not adopt the “principle of equality” but openly selects difference. These women are acting on the gender axis, and yet they’re being disciplined first and foremost on the national axis. Accordingly, the politicians’ criticism of the Burkini allegedly refers to gender, but mainly reveals the national source of Western discomfort. French 2016 PM Manuel Valls, called the Burkini “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic” and Nice’s deputy mayor wrote that “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not in keeping with our ideal of social relations”. In the terms of Bhabha’s (1998) “The White Stuff”, with these statements “Whiteness” (i.e., the West) continues its “nationalist career” under the guise of “civil culture”, “tolerance” and other terms created to draw humans into a community, but, also to exclude some as “others.

Further understanding of what Farris (2017) describes as an “unholy alliance” between feminists and nationalists requires a closer look into the positions of western women towards the Burkini.  Nadia Guessous’s (2011) ethnographic study of leftist feminist politics in Morocco of the new millennium connects the hostility of some Moroccan feminists towards younger women who wear the hijab with their struggle to deal with loss, a moment before recognizing and accepting that the aesthetics of modernity have changed. Guessous found that feminists of the older generation, similarly to Susan Okin’s approach (1989;1999), discursively construct “tradition” as a problem and perceive themselves as “guardians of modernity” despite struggling with its constitutive contradictions themselves. They are unable to deal with the gap between their assumptions about freedom, religion, and the body and those of the younger generation of women, who have different strategies and ideas on how feminist action looks like. Rossignol’s critique – both as a woman and as the minister responsible for women’s rights – shares the national dimension that characterizes male politicians, with this additional shade of gender dimension.

The West male gaze of the East has infiltrated so deeply into the population through the practice of nationalism, that feminist women, who feel committed to women’s struggles, remain blind to its impact on their feminist approach. The absence of this impact is very noticeable in the writings of Lady Mary Montague, the first secular account by a woman of the Muslim Orient, written in the 18th century before the idea of nationalism became central in European thought (Melman, 1992). Montague wrote in the early days of the imperial era, a period characterized by extensive travel literature, much of it by “armchair travellers”, who never left Europe and base their writing on third-hand sources and/or their fertile imagination (Montesquieufor example). As opposed to those mainly male writers, Montague wrote from the Orient itself, while living in Istanbul between 1716 and 1718. Already then, veils were seen in the West as a symbol of the enslavement of women in the Muslim world. However, when Montague addresses the subject in her letters, she presents a different stance:

“Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank so ever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head […] You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery” (p. 242).

In addition to the pre-national context, the lack of gender equality ethos in her society allowed Montague to examine women and men relationships in other societies with a less judgmental, more curious eye. “The manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe”, she writes (p. 243). Spivak warns us from nostalgia for lost origins, and indeed, our look into Montague’s world cannot be separated from the history of colonialism. Nonetheless, learning from women from varied eras, locations and contexts is helpful if we wish to recognize our blind spots.

The burkini affair reflects a core debate in feminist political thought and policymaking, highlighting the urgent necessity to include voices of women from different backgrounds in decision-making processes. In Abu Lughod’s words, we must develop “serious appreciation of differences among women in the world” and consider “our own responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves” (2002, p.783).

Author bio

Shir Berebi is a Masters student of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She works in the field of critical pedagogy and facilitates Israeli-Palestinian dialogue encounters. She is active in various feminist anti-militarist movements as well as co-mobilizer of the anti-pinkwash block – Queers against Pinkwashing in Israel. Contact her at shirberebi@gmail.com. Pronouns: she/her.