I read about the term “imperialist feminism” in the past, but I had no idea how much this theory would permeate and complicate my thoughts as an American woman living in Morocco. Imperialist feminism seems like an extreme term that wouldn’t actually apply to my experiences. Some quick googling tells me that it is an
The international exchange program that I’m on right now might have even emerged from these same assumptions that propagate imperialist feminism. But since I’ve been privileged to never experience war or systemic oppression, imperialist feminism for me means the eagerness of people at home to hear about the plight of women here. In reality, how patriarchal norms operate on women anywhere depends on a whole host of factors in addition to gender. Without acknowledging that our society is patriarchal too, discussions around women’s rights in these countries become a way to Orientalize other cultures and reaffirm the superiority of the U.S.
Today, I’d like to just vent about how, despite the fact that I’ve had every freedom in terms of choice and economic mobility, I’m still negatively impacted by a form of patriarchy that, from what I have experienced so far, doesn’t exist to the same degree here in Morocco. I’m sure there’s another academic word for it, but for now I’ll call this form of internalized patriarchy “defining-womanhood-and-beauty-not-from-within-ourselves-but-rather-in-competition-for-the-male-gaze.” It’s succinct, I know.
Why Are We So Obsessed With Body Image?
So rewind a little bit. This week, I was sitting in my living room in my host family’s house (this is where a lot of my stories start). My host mom was just starting at me, and suddenly made a move towards my face. She touched it lovingly, and goes…
That means, “Julie is fat.” My host mom had just told me I’m fat. My face turns into a frown. I hoped that she was just kidding. So I asked her…“what? I am?” She replied with a laugh—“just a little, in your face, from my Moroccan bread!” My host family seemed to think that my appalled face was some sort of a joke, so they put air into their cheeks and point to me, laughing some more.
Since as you might know I am not the stoic type, I thought I’d explain to my host mom and family that I was not okay with being called fat. To express my anger and hurt, I refused to eat the bread my host mom gave me for about 10 minutes, before giving in to my lack of self-discipline that wins out over my long-term desire to lose weight.
What ensued was an enlightening conversation on how in the U.S., nobody really calls each other fat because we’re all so sensitive about our body image and we don’t want to offend our loved ones. To make me feel better and demonstrate that being fat is no big deal here, my host mom started calling my two host sisters fat (they were there too). Our supposed fatness was all just a comedic reality.
Let me just clarify something, by the way. There is no possible way I haven’t gained a considerable amount of weight here. I eat like, a loaf of bread every day, and right now, it’s so cold that I don’t even want to move. So yea, my face is definitely a bit rounder and my clothes a bit (okay, a lot) tighter. But why am I so hurt by being called fat? My weight gain is just a stupid fact.
There’s lots of scholarly evidence that the American definition of beauty for females usually includes someone who fits a particular (skinny) prototype, and how the normalization of this body type has varied, detrimental effects on women. If you happen to feel like your body doesn’t fit this ideal, there’s a whole host of mediums, from magazines to weight-loss tv shows to societal perceptions, that are telling you that you won’t be wanted, attractive, or enough until you lose weight. For an amazing and thought-provoking depiction of this phenomenon, please listen to the This American Life podcast episode “Tell Me I’m Fat.” Also, think about how many words there are to avoid calling someone “fat,” since it’s become this static insult in English. In Arabic, it’s just an adjective.
Where are the Hamams in DC?
This whole “fear of fat” disguises itself as society’s paternalistic care for our health as women, but the way we talk about weight and weight loss has nothing to do with health and everything to do with judgment. Trust me, I come from Potomac, where achievement and judgment are like currency. These weight norms didn’t come from American women, but instead from this “defining-womanhood-and-beauty-not-from-within-ourselves-but-rather-in-competition-for-the-male-gaze.” At the same time, many women in the U.S., including me, have certainly internalized these norms.
That is why, if I could guess, a hamam (kind of like a giant group sauna that often replaces a shower here) in my communities at home would not be popular for women, even though it’s a gender-segregated space. Even if we’re not in front of the “male gaze” literally, most American women I know would have a hard time being naked in front of each other because, simply put, we would judge each other. We sexualize the female body, and (problematically) once we sexualize it, we’re putting it back in front of the male gaze and conditioning it with weight norms.
Sometimes I joke that everything’s a competition with Americans, but in my experience, it’s kind of true. In Morocco, no one really cares about being naked in front of each other. Your body doesn’t define your sexuality, beauty, or womanhood, and especially when we’re in a gender-segregated space, none of that stuff is a competition anyway. On the other hand, in the U.S., there are many workout classes, youtube videos, and magazines that make money on promising American women their “bikini body,” so they can win an unannounced competition of looking the best at the beach (or on facebook).
You Must Be This Hot to Dance
For me, not just my body, but also the way I move it, has been made part of this competition under male gaze. Now please rewind again, this time to ten years ago. I was 15 years old at a sleepaway camp social, where my fellow campers wanted me to dance with a boy, since it was just time, I guess. I was introduced to this guy who actually liked another girl camper more than me, but this girl liked a different boy more. Those dramatic sleepaway camp love triangles, am I right? Anyways, after realizing that his super-fun dancing times were not going to happen with this other girl, he settled for me. We talked for about 5 seconds on the dance floor, and then got to the serious business of mixed-gender dancing, which we so accurately defined as “grinding.” I have linked here to the Wikipedia article on it if you’re curious what that entails.
Since this nausea-inducing grinding session at sleepaway camp, I have avoided any sort of dance that might express my femininity--even if I’m only with other women. Flash forward ten years—I am at a Moroccan wedding, waiting for the ceremony part to start. We’re in a gender-segregated space and have all just eaten a four-course meal of chicken, then lamb, then couscous, then cookies. So… I’m feeling very full to say the least. Suddenly, someone brings in the stereo set and almost every girl and woman—from 4-year-olds to grandmothers, of all sizes, heights, and levels of makeup—starts shaking their hips and behinds in the most confident and skillful way.
I want to say that I can’t dance like them because it’s just not in my genes. I don’t come from a family (or culture) of people that dance this way, so it’s not my fault that I can’t do it, right? But in reality, for me, whenever I try to dance like that, I feel like I’m entering into some sort of competition for sexiness, and it’s a competition that I definitely don’t feel beautiful or confident enough to win. If my first encounter with dancing were in a space that had nothing to do with capturing the attention of men, I think I’d feel more comfortable with it today. Just like our bodies don’t have to be naked for someone else, dancing doesn’t have to be sexy for someone else.
Man, I (Kind of) Feel Like A Woman?
For anyone who identifies as a woman, they might be able to relate to this desire: I want to be able to feel like a woman, and feel beautiful, without comparing myself to someone else or entering into a competition that’s on someone else’s terms. While this seems easier to do in Morocco, I have internalized this “defining-womanhood-and-beauty-not-from-within-ourselves-but-rather-in-competition-for-the-male-gaze.”
I’m still trying to be okay with weight gain, and comfortable dancing without reliving my days of sleepaway camp socials. My ultimate goal is being a “strong, independent woman;” I feel like I have the “strong, independent” part down pretty well, but I’m still working on removing the “woman” part from the unrealistic, sexualized, and competitive expectations that conditioned it back in the U.S.
I’ll get back to you when I’ve succeeded, but for now, I’ll drown myself in spoofs and commentary from body-positive female comedians like Amy Schumer, Rachel Bloom, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham. They remind me to laugh in the face of this elusive “male gaze” that makes us feel anything less than worthy. I have to laugh at these problems because in reality, us women have more important and serious things to do than be held down by them.
“Prayer for World Jewry: Lighting the candles is a privilege we engage in that displays the freedom we, as B’nai B’rith Girls, and as Jews are able to exhibit. However, there are Jews in our world who are not allowed to observe Judaism freely. Oppressed Jewry is a major concern in our society. The light that is burning soooo brightly is the light of hope. We hope that one day all oppressed Jews will be able to practice Judaism as freely as we are doing here today.”
I said these words every Monday night of high school at the beginning of my Jewish youth group meetings, and honestly, every Monday night they rang equally empty, like the lyrics to some top 40 song I had memorized because it was on the radio so much. Personally, I have never experienced anti-Semitism growing up in a suburb of DC, and since I also don’t wear a yarmulke or long skirts, I have never had to think about expressing my religion and facing potential discrimination for the way I look or what I wear.
But I kept thinking about my Jewish identity as a student of Arabic in college, and then as a student in Turkey. This was probably because of internalized perceptions from my own community that anti-Zionist opinions in Arabic-speaking or Muslim communities translate to latent or overt anti-Semitism, and danger for me.
These perceptions are simplistic on many levels and monolithize groups of people. My desire to unpack and engage with them led me to focus on Turkish Jewish identity for my Master’s project in Istanbul. On a broader level, I was focused on proving—to my community at home and myself—that not all Turkish people are Muslim, and not all Muslim people are anti-Semitic.
Then, after living in a predominantly Muslim country and returning to the U.S., I started paying attention to what it’s like to be a Muslim in the U.S. And now that I’m back in a predominantly Muslim community in Morocco, I found myself telling my host family that no, not all American people are Christian, and not all Christian people are against Muslims.
Loneliness in Watching From Afar
But as latent bigotry in our country dominates the news once again, reported hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. increases, and our President-Elect’s national security picks increase a perception that our government is against the religion of Islam, I find myself wanting to do more than just debunk monolithic images of America here. I want to remind my host family in Morocco and myself that, as it becomes harder to be a Muslim in the U.S., religious diversity is possible and important in all countries, including the U.S., and including Morocco.
That’s why I decided to tell my host family that I’m Jewish. I was reading my laptop in the main room, and they were sitting around me. I had one tab open to an email with the subject “Diag Protest Tonight” from the University of Michigan Arabic Activities listserv that I’m (maybe embarrassingly) still a part of. The email informed me about a student forced to remove her hijab under threat of being set on fire. I had another tab open to swastikas and other neo-Nazi graffiti found in the U.S. on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. I felt upset for Jews and Muslims at the same time, and I wanted my host family to understand and empathize along with me. They did.
There are plenty of challenges in Morocco, but I don’t think that expressing your Muslim identity is one of them. In the U.S., however, observing your religion and feeling safe as a Muslim person was and continues to be difficult. It made me think about Muslim Atlas Corps Fellows (and other international visitors), most of who come from predominantly Muslim countries and are often driven to think about their Muslim identities—and religious minorities in their own countries—differently when they come to the U.S.
Like these Muslim Fellows, I came to Turkey in with fears or questions from people in my Jewish community about perceptions surrounding Jews. While again, I never felt vulnerable in Turkey or here in Morocco, especially because nothing marks me as Jewish or different, this same fear drives Atlas Corps Fellows and Muslim Americans alike to consider removing their hijabs or avoiding public prayer or celebration in the U.S.
Amidst anti-Muslim rhetoric earlier in Trump’s campaign, specifically following the horrific ISIS attacks in Paris, the Atlas Corps community as a whole became very concerned about the safety and security of our Muslim Fellows. We offered a safe space to Muslim Fellows to talk about their experiences. People wanted to create a potential action plan for helping non-Muslims become allies and empowering Muslim Fellows to feel strong in the face of Islamophobia.
There was dialogue, but tangible outcomes proved more difficult, especially since Islamophobia affects Muslims in all different ways based on the intersectionalities of belief, country, religious garb, race, gender, location of service, and more. There are also non-Muslims who are perceived as Muslim and are therefore affected by Islamophobia as a form of racism. With so many different and valuable voices, there is no one prescribed solution for how to combat Islamophobia, and how to be a non-Muslim ally. At the same time, the safe space that comes out of dialogue is still helpful for people that might not understand where Islamophobia comes from and how real it is.
Regular Citizens and “Good” Citizens
That’s because dialogue focuses on individual perspective and experience in a time when heightened security concerns, atrocities, and hideous human rights violations make environments hostile or accusatory for vulnerable groups anywhere. I wrote the following in my Master’s project (I swear, it was backed up by lots of citations and stuff):
Jews, by celebrating difference and pursuing identity politics, are able to prove their loyalty and act as ambassadors of Turkish multiculturalism… (yet) reaffirming Turkish Jewish loyalty and allegiance to the Turkish state, in the context of Israel, calls Turkish Jewish loyalty into question to begin with, possibly inciting more conflation and suspicion of Turkish Jews.
In the wake of attempts to stigmatize Muslims further after the ISIL attacks in Brussels, President Obama said,
As we move forward in this fight, we have to wield another weapon alongside our airstrikes, our military, our counterterrorism work, and our diplomacy. And that's the power of our example… In that effort, our most important partners are American Muslims. That's why we have to reject any attempt to stigmatize Muslim-Americans, and their enormous contributions to our country and our way of life.
The trope of Turkish Jews acting as “good” citizens by speaking out and distancing themselves from Israel comes from the tendency to conflate someone’s personal religion (Jewish) and their affiliation with a larger international entity (the Israeli government). That is why the Turkish Chief Rabbinate issued a statement in 2014 during Israel’s military operation “Protective Edge” condemning the loss of life in Gaza and regretting the subsequent targeting of Jewish citizens in Turkey.
On a much larger scale, this tendency to tie Muslim Americans to our national strategy against terrorist groups calls their Americanness into question by asking them to be the U.S. government’s “most important partners” that help protect us and show off our multiculturalism, instead of ordinary citizens that in fact have nothing to do with international terrorist movements in the first place. This conflation is only magnified now, as Trump’s pick for CIA director believes that Muslim leaders could be “complicit” in terrorism unless they “condemn it sufficiently.”
Allyship through Empathy
When I told my host family I was Jewish, they hugged me and reminded me they love me no matter what. They had never met anyone who is Jewish, and I still had to explain to them that there is a difference between being Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish. The same kind of monolithizing people of different backgrounds or faiths compounds ignorance and hatred in the U.S. Promisingly, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) have brought together over thirty Jewish and Muslim groups to combat bigotry and protect rights of religious minorities.
But as Rabia Chaudry writes in Tablet Magazine, “some Muslims worried about being branded traitors for being associated with a Zionist organization, and some Jews worried about being associated with an Islamist group. And indeed, these fears came to pass.” Division around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict runs so deep in both Jewish and Muslim communities that on “both sides came the charge that these organizations were being used to ‘normalize’ the behavior and political beliefs of the other.”
I don’t know how to bridge the gap that the conflict—and the years of multi-layered pain and injustice—have wedged between Jewish and Muslim groups in the U.S. I also don’t think there’s one solution to cure persecution and bigotry. But on some level, as a Jew, I do know what it’s like to have real fears rooted in collective history, and to be defined by a national movement and conflict that I have no personal control over. I’m lucky that religious oppression is not a personal reality for me today, and that “lighting the candles is a privilege we engage in that displays the freedom” I was always “able to exhibit.”
Now, I hope to learn to use my background to be a more empathetic ally to people who are living in fear right now. At the same time, I want to take back my own Jewish identity from white supremacy in the U.S. and anti-Semitism around the world by welcoming other people into the U.S. and being welcomed in by others overseas. And maybe one day the world will be as hospitable as my Moroccan host family has been to me.
While the U.S. was electing Donald Trump, I was participating in an Amazigh Culture Night during Peace Corps training. For part of the night, we listened to Professor Sadik Raddad from Sidi Muhammad Bin Abdullah University give a brief overview of Amazigh history. He spoke about Amazigh identity in the context of Greek, Roman, and Arab conquests, and argued against the assumption that the Amazigh people originated from the modern-day Middle East. History, we were reminded, is written by the victors.
In the wake of industrialization and nationalism, Professor Raddad hoped for more development and empowerment in rural Amazigh communities, so that Amazigh women become aware of the “value of their culture” during a time when we are losing about one language every two weeks. Amazigh activists have linked up with Kurdish and Native American activists in the movement for indigenous recognition and rights.
But why were Amazigh, Kurdish, or Native American peoples marginalized in the first place? In the context of nationalism and colonialism, the victors determine the system, historical narrative, and players. There are diverse tribes and languages among indigenous identities. This diversity is beautiful. But large and peaceful groups like the Amazigh, Kurds, or Native Americans are not monoliths ready to mobilize into a political party, in a newly-imposed system where the currency is power and force.
Recognition and Rights in Whose System?
My most meaningful education on Native American history and identity came from a course I took in college. I’m not sure that the course's professor, a man of color who was an activist from another country with a policy of blatant racial hierarchy, would be especially surprised by Trump’s victory within the U.S. political system.
The course was called on apology and justice in public policy. I heard repeatedly that the course was among the most thought provoking and relevant that students could take. So, I enrolled with high expectations, ready to earn an A.
But I spent the semester in frustration. I didn’t want to be affected by the course material, because it asked me to confront the subjugation and inequality that our own society is based on. I didn’t want to face the fact that my own privilege, as a white, college-educated, American woman, came at the expense of other people, or that the exceptional America I loved, emerged from a patriotic narrative of white, landowning men oppressing other people.
Americans are Not Exceptional
Yet here I am, four years later, still putting my anecdotal observations in the U.S., Morocco, and Turkey into that one professor’s sobering context. Trump’s victory reminds us that Americans are not exceptional. As most young and idealistic Americans learn when they go overseas, people are not the manifestations of the leaders and systems that represent them. People everywhere are all different, complex, and kind beings. I have hope that Moroccans who have heard Trump will keep that in mind when they meet me.
Like all people, Americans internalize political rhetoric and systemic norms. My international friends have been posting comments like “welcome to the club, U.S., now you see that populist rhetoric really does work” or “now you, too, can experience the corrupt leaders you help install in other places” or “U.S., don’t lecture my country on our human rights anymore.”
These comments are hard for me to read. But actually, they put Trump’s victory into a humbling context that lacks the shock and grief of me and my American friends’ reactions. We’re in shock, because now we cannot keep living in our liberal and cosmopolitan areas, immune to the systemic injustice in American society. Now, like many other countries in the world, we have a xenophobic, racist, sexist, classist President-Elect.
People Never Stop Hoping
When I heard that Trump won, it was about 4 am in the U.S. But I knew that my America-loving Turkish friend in DC would be awake and would answer my call. Despite not being American, this friend knows more than me about the U.S. political system, and is the most ardent reader of U.S. news and analysis I know. As I cried to her on the phone, she comforted me by saying, “You have checks and balances. You have an independent judiciary. You have strong civil society. Everything’s going to be okay.”
The summer after I graduated college, I moved to Turkey during the Gezi Park protests of 2013. The protest was historically inclusive, with people from Turkey’s right- and left- wing coming together to speak up for freedom and democracy. Like they were in Turkey, maybe the millions of people who have been alienated by Trump’s rhetoric will be mobilized now, like never before, to speak up for inclusive freedom and democracy.
Don’t Ask “Why Hillary Lost,” But Rather, “Why Trump Won”
Trump supporters, Clinton supporters, independents, and apathetic citizens alike see that the systemic inequality and power structures highlighted by social justice movements like Black Lives Matter are not fabrications. Indeed, the inequality that people in the U.S. and around the world experience is staring me right in the face. Trump won because of the same injustice I’ve had the privilege of avoiding my whole life.
I am painfully aware now, that my Facebook newsfeed of Hillary Clinton campaign logos and brilliantly sassy #ImWithHer statuses, and my liberal bubble in Northwest DC, does not reflect the reality of our society. As someone that voted and made an #ImWithHer post and did nothing else to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I also realize I’m guilty of slacktivism. I wrote my post to express myself to my other equally pro-Clinton friends. Slacktivism made social justice more about my own image than about learning from, empathizing with, or empowering others.
Real social justice needs this humility. I think that people like me, in our privileged bubbles, will be more motivated than before to discuss what got us to this point of Trump’s win, and what in our system has led to the internalized prejudice and disenfranchisement of so many people in our country. Maybe social justice movements will become mainstream.
Americans are not exceptional, but the exceptionalism of America was up for debate. Ambassador Bush told our group of Peace Corps Volunteers during orientation that we’re doing a service to Moroccans by importing our culture, because America is exceptional. During this campaign, Hillary Clinton said, “When we say America is exceptional, it means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.” On the other hand, Donald Trump has said, “I don’t think it’s a very nice term, we’re exceptional, you’re not … I never liked the term.”
Ironically, Trump was right—our country was not above his fearmongering rhetoric or sexist, shallow critiques. In every country, since the beginning of governments, some people have been confronting the exclusive systems that block inclusive governance. Critical thinking and political activism is not uniquely American. But holding our political system up on a pedestal, or on a “city upon the hill,” detracts from the social injustice and barriers that make opportunities in society, and our policymaking process, exclusive.
I have hope that Trump’s win will mobilize many Americans to recognize that we’re not exceptional, and to confront the historical and present-day realities that I didn’t want to confront in college. As an over-analytical second-guesser, I have always been scared to call myself an activist. But life is now asking all of us to step up to systemic injustice, and to keep learning from and advocating for one another, in our own ways. And even though we’re not exceptional, we are in the experienced company of activists around the world. To quote Clinton once again, “fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!