Muslim Women and White Femininity

Reenactment and Resistance

by Haneen Shafeeq Ghabra (Author)
©2018 Textbook X, 194 Pages


Winner of the 2019 Outstanding Book of the Year Award for the International and Intercultural Communication Division (IICD) of the National Communication Association (NCA).
Muslim Women and White Femininity: Reenactment and Resistance is a much-needed book in a time when Muslim women are speaking out but also embodying White femininity. This book focuses on how Whiteness travels through Muslim women’s bodies, who in turn reenact or resist White womanhood, by examining three relevant archetypes: the Oppressed, the Advocate, and the Humanitarian Leader. The author aims to demonstrate the necessity of archetypal criticism as a method that can teach the reader or student how to deconstruct dominant discourses in the media. This book aims to address intercultural, gender, intersectional and critical communication courses but is also suited for those in the general public who wish to understand the deceptive nature of the media. Thus, at a time where Muslim women are being used as media objects by Western media, this book is crucial in analyzing how readers can begin to uncover dominant ideologies that are carried through and by Muslim women.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • An Understanding of Ethics
  • Archetypes: Mapping out a Historical Context
  • White Western Feminism
  • Book Structure and Summary
  • Notes
  • Works cited
  • Chapter 2: Understanding the Postcolonial through Whiteness Performance and Intersectionality
  • A Postcolonial Overview: The Arab World
  • Intersectionality and Archetypal Criticism through Whiteness
  • Intersectional Feminism
  • Postcolonial-Archetypal Criticism through the Rhetoric of Whiteness
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 3: Weaving Intersectionality through Narrative Criticism: Western Feminism and the Marginalization of Third World Women
  • Revisiting the Narrative Paradigm: Archetypal Criticism
  • Narratives of Key Officials through Femininity
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Elizabeth Cheney
  • Laura Bush
  • Narratives of Key Officials through Masculinity and Neoliberalism
  • George Bush
  • Barack Obama
  • Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues
  • Narrative Criticism and Its Limitations
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 4: Malala Yousafazai: The Oppressed Muslim Woman and the Search for Agency
  • Whiteness, Colonialism and Saving Muslim Women
  • Malala Yousafazai and the Performance of White Femininity
  • Performing White Femininity through “Terrorism” and Education
  • The Universality of Gender Oppression and the Rhetoric of Sameness
  • Romanticizing Power Structures
  • Disidentification
  • Malala: An Interview with Emma Watson
  • Conclusion: The Struggle for Agency
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 5: Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The Advocate and the Rejection of Islam
  • Hirsi Ali’s Rhetoric of Sameness
  • Oppression of Women is Islam specific
  • Muslim Women are Subject to Domestic Abuse
  • The Hijab Is Oppressive and Monstrous
  • Arranged Marriages are a Form of Control
  • Genital Circumcision Is Islam Specific
  • Hirsi Ali and Foreign Policy: 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • Hirsi Ali’s Denial of Racism
  • Conclusion: Beyond Ideological Homelands
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 6: Queen Rania: The Humanitarian Leader and the Search for a Counter-Narrative
  • Colonial Modernity and Royalty
  • Transnational Motherhood
  • Heteronormativity: The Nuclear Family
  • Whiteness and the Logics of Education
  • Disidentification: Creating a Counter Narrative
  • Conclusion: Cultural Trespassing
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion: The Search for an Intersectional Feminist Ethic
  • Complicating the Matrix of Domination
  • The Implication of Agency for Muslim Women
  • An Intersectional Feminist Ethic
  • What Does an Intersectional Feminist Ethic Look Like?
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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This work would not have been possible without the support of Bernadette Marie Calafell, who provided me with the tools to shape and grow my academic self. Her endless mentorship has paved both my writing and my increased academic success throughout my career and for that I am grateful.

I was fortunate to acquire another mentor in the field of communication studies, Marouf Hasian, who has provided me with unending guidance to the publishing world as an Arab-Kuwaiti scholar. Having an Arab mentor in the field has allowed me to further push my academic capabilities and academic self.

I am also appreciative of Christina Foust, Armond Towns, Margaret Thompson and Josh Hanan who supported my research throughout my academic journey. I also have made an academic family in the U.S. and beyond, without them I would have not been able to survive: Gust Yep who has guided me both spiritually and academically, Fatima Zahrae Chrifi Alaoui, Amanda Meise, Shadee Abdi, Raquel Moreira, Jessica Johnson, Robert Gutierrez-Perez, Brendan Hughes, Miranda Olzman, Asim Qureshi, Paula Martin-Noble, Shinsuke Eguchi, and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian for her mentorship.

I thank the Department of Mass Communications at Kuwait University, as I have completed much of this work while on a scholarship from the University. I am also very fortunate to be working with such talented colleagues and ← ix | x → students at the department who continue to support me. I am forever grateful for this support system.

Finally, I would like to thank my parents Taghreed Alqudsi-ghabra and Shafeeq Ghabra for being my academic role models. They exposed me to academia at a young age through pursuing their own PhD’s, and this has shaped both my writing and career. Finally, I want to thank my brother, Yazan and my sister Zaina for listening to my endless lectures on hegemonic masculinity.

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· 1 ·


Erasing Our Identities

We call out   Distress Agony
    Vulnerable hands reaching out towards you  
    Helpless Victims  
You grab our hands     Ethical Discoveries
Epiphanies Moralities Wrapped in epistemology and ontology inquiries  
Identities   Complexities  
Disabilities Femaleness Brownness Fatness
Queerness Transness    
    Fear of the Other  
We call out   Distress Agony
    Vulnerable hands reaching out towards you  
    Helpless Villains  
You don’t grab our hands Alterity Alienation Suffocation
  Anti-Identity Scholarship ← 1 | 2 →    

Trying to fight back tears as I read an email from a College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, Palestine, inviting me to attend a resistance conference, I realized that my academic investments come from sites of pain. These sites of pain are spaces of contestation and grievance over the wounds of occupation in my country of origin, Palestine. I had never been to Occupied Palestine and so this email was an invitation to allow me to face the loss of an anguished community. As I dwelled over the invitation for hours, feelings of resistance and worry came to the fore. I wasn’t ready to face the pain my community was going through. I wasn’t ready to confront the Israeli Defense Forces. In addition, the conference was in May and I was supposed to be TA-ing and teaching my own few weeks of Arab feminisms in my advisor’s classroom. This would mean I would miss a week and a half of class. I started to worry as this class was one of the core classes that I had been waiting to TA. I wanted young college students to understand the complexity and chaoticness surrounding the way the West portrays Muslim women. I needed them to be able to deconstruct archetypes of Muslim women that are being used by the West to further political and economic agendas.

My heart started to race as I picked up the phone and called my father telling him I was being invited to the conference and that they would pay for my accommodation as well as produce a publication out of the paper. As he encouraged me to attend, I realized that my heart was racing in fear of hegemonic structures and in fear of facing the pain of setting foot on a homeland that once belonged to my ancestors. In my mind I started to practice performances of Whiteness, as I knowingly would have to pass through Israeli customs in order to enter occupied Palestine. I would walk up to the officer and tell him that the goal of my academic work is to save Muslim women from their oppression. Being that the officer is probably a product of a hegemonic structure he would most likely enjoy listening to negative stereotypes about our culture. I would then tell him that I was there to present on terrorism and how we can solve this and follow the West and Israel as an example of success. My heart raced faster, I remembered the story of my father’s friend and how they confiscated his laptop with all the information in it. What if they read this introduction? Would they send me back? Would they detain me there? Will my Kuwaiti passport protect me? Clouds of emotions overcame me as I came to the reconciliation that I had the ability to perform Whiteness because I study it for a living. When I refer to Whiteness I am speaking of a ← 2 | 3 → system of power that privileges performances of Western civility through a White/Anglo-Saxon learning. This includes racial superiority, such as favoring philosophies and performances of both the White people and those who re-perform and re-secure it adequately. It is also a system that secures and further produces the scripted standard norm for “acceptable” performances.1 These “standard” performances could include the embodiment of the following privileges: educated, White, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, thin-bodied, Christian, upper-middle class, stereotypically attractive, and so forth.

Through my intersectional training in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver I delved deeper into ideologies of Whiteness and performances of femininity and masculinity. I soon became heavily invested in intersectionality, which asks us to consider how all of our identities come together simultaneously to shape our lived experiences within structures of power. Intersectionality also asks us to recognize how we may occupy both spaces of privilege and marginalization. I more fully address intersectionality in Chapter Two. I grew angrier as I watched the media and popular culture create archetypes of Muslim women in an attempt to speak “for” instead of “with” these women.2 When we speak “for” another positionality our social identities have a massive impact on our claims and can either authorize or disauthorize one’s speech.3 Even further, speaking “for” the Other becomes a way the speaker re-inscribes hierarchical structures.4 Identity becomes key when we privilege a Western understanding of the self when also speaking “for” the Other. This is due to the fact that the Western concept of the self in relation to the Other is a subjectivity based on Whiteness in the service of White people. Therefore, it reduces Other identities to the status of object.5 Therefore, identity and location become crucial when speaking for or/and about Others. Location becomes epistemologically vital and privileged locations become dangerous. In other words, we cannot only look at the location of the speaker, but must also look at where the speech will go, and what affects it will have. Alcoff raises the question, “Can a White woman speak for all women simply by virtue of being a woman? If not, how narrowly should we draw the categories”.6 This is crucial in understanding our positionalities as researchers and how reflexivity becomes central to a research project. This is also central in understanding the ethical predicaments that occur through representation in the media and popular culture. As the field of ethics centers around a Western concept of the self, ethics becomes defined by Whiteness. ← 3 | 4 →

As I dug further throughout my studies, I kept track of different archetypes that the Western media was creating “for” my community. I watched Hillary Clinton, Liz Cheney, George Bush Sr., and Barbara Bush speak “for” Third World women and Muslim women. However, it was much more complex than that. Even though I was engaging in decolonizing thought processes, there were times that I needed to critique my own patriarchal communities, but would refrain in fear that I would open a door for Whiteness to seep in and re-inscribe itself. However, I couldn’t just give the men in my own communities a free pass due to the fact that we suffered the same racial oppression as people of color. I would need to find a way to do it without reinforcing White constructs and archetypes of Muslim women that were in need of saving. This is perhaps one of the hardest struggles that Intersectional and Post/Decolonial feminists will have to grapple with: the need to critique the oppression of women and Other marginalized identities within our own communities due to patriarchy and the need to protect our communities from the pervasive nature of White patriarchy.

I write this because these narratives are a site of contestation for myself and for Other women around the world who struggle between the West and East. As Middle Eastern feminists we struggle through what I have termed, Intersectional Dualism where we face double the work of critiquing our own patriarchal struggles and Whiteness simultaneously.7 This is no unique phenomenon as Other scholars have voiced this struggle.8 It is not an easy task as it creates a demarcation between us (women of color) and both White and male communities. What becomes even more vivid is that the lines dividing “us” and “them” aren’t always so clear all the time. At times people of color embody Whiteness through the abjection of the self. This in turn, reinforces performances of White femininity and/or White feminism through Other bodies that are not necessarily White.

For this reason, this book is geared towards examining the invisibility/visibility and problematic rhetorical constructs for re-securing and replicating White femininity, which in turn reasserts White masculinity as the dominant ideological structure in service of Whiteness. To be exact, the aim is to specifically focus on how Whiteness travels globally through Muslim bodies and subjects who speak the language of the imperialist and not the vernacular. This imperialistic language is the language of heteronormativity, class, and educational privilege. These intersections are not stand-alone categories but instead seep into one another in the service of Whiteness. This book problematizes women who speak for their own communities that operate in ← 4 | 5 → Western binaries because they negate their own communities. It is important to note that while I refer to these women as Muslim I am identifying these women as Muslim, but also recognizing that they are at times rejecting Islam. I am also speaking of “Muslim” as a cultural phenomenon and not necessarily a religious one. Many women identify as Muslim culturally and not necessarily as religious. By looking at Muslim communities, I allow a more accurate and elaborate analysis as a Muslim identified woman.

Through the performance and rhetorical elements of discourse, this book aims to explore and resolve a number of pressing research questions around rhetorical constructs. How are Muslim women internalizing and reproducing Whiteness in moments of speaking “for” their own communities and how does this contribute to dominant/hegemonic media discourses? In what ways has their embodied discourse demonstrated an internalized desire for Whiteness by moving towards White femininity and feminism and away from their own identities? How are White femininity and White masculinity re-secured and replicated but also resisted through Muslim femininity? Even further, how are we colonized and how can we move beyond this towards a feminist ethic?

These questions directly relate to my positionality as a researcher because of my salient location, of being a Middle Eastern Muslim woman who has been Western educated. For years, my body was the Muslim carrier of White femininity. I adopted, enacted and performed White femininity and White feminism on a daily basis. My personal narrative fuels the book with a unique perspective in delving deeper into how hegemonic structures and performances of Whiteness are carried through our bodies. Like Anzaldúa, I remain “sandwiched between two cultures”,9 attempting to critique my own performances, but being setback by the pervasiveness of Whiteness. Therefore, my positionality allows me to undertake a project that is of great need in the field of Communication Studies. Furthermore, this project adds value to the field because there remains a massive lack of scholarship on how “Other” femininities sustain and embody White femininities. Therefore, this book is also an attempt to move beyond just studying White femininity and masculinity to how Muslim women or women of color at large reveal deeper complexities in today’s foreign policy and in today’s hegemonic structures. Therefore, it is integral to understand that even though I am looking at “Muslim” communities I am more interested in how women of color at large are embodying White femininity. I use the term Muslim women for identification purposes; however, this book could be applied to women of color at a general level and how they internalize and reproduce White femininity, feminism and ← 5 | 6 → masculinity. I conduct this through the research of archetypes of prominent Muslim women that circulate in the media and that are carriers of White femininity and White feminism. Therefore, in order to understand the underpinnings of this book, it is vital to map out the ethical and historical contexts and genealogy of archetypes.

An Understanding of Ethics

The field of ethics was created around a Western concept of the self, as ethics becomes defined by Whiteness. As marginalized identities begin to embody privileged identities, they do so through concept of the self in relation to the Other. This relational binary, developed for the global society, was developed by White men and therefore applies to only White men.

In the field of ethics, there is debate as to whether ethics is subjective or objective.10 Those in favor of objectivity for instance, state that reason guides our ethical conduct. This school of thought is empirically and epistemologically grounded and rejects the connection between feelings and ethics. Plato for instance, states that ethics is with the advantage of the stronger party, for instance this could be the government. Morality is what is considered advantageous to the government. Therefore, one’s ethos prevails by following what the government has laid out as moral conduct.11 Similarly, Kant concludes that we are subject to our own moral laws.12 On the other hand, Marx notes that ethics is built into the economic arrangements that humans are part of.13

However, another direction that ethics has taken is the ethos of subjectivity. Unlike ethics as objectivity, ethics is based on the emotive.14 Intuition becomes the leading guide of morality and truth can be reached by intuition.15 Hume for instance has suggested that morality is in the feeling.16 Mencius echoes Hume’s claim that men will be guided by their feelings as what to do in times of danger.17 However, Hobbes claims that ethics is suspended during wartime.18 While Gilligan follows by stating that women are ethically different than men.19

My point in providing this brief overview of ethics is that each and every theory mentioned above fails to consider the intersections of race, sexism, classism, and so forth. The subjectivity of an ethos allows us to be guided by our feelings without even considering identity and how identity can affect subjectivity. Similarly, a more objective ethics dwells around epistemological claims but pretends identity does not exist. I argue here that due to a lack of ← 6 | 7 → reflexive intersectionality and the positionalities of these Western White male theorists, a massive gap was left open which today has been translated into areas of marginalization. Whether morality is left in the hands of the government (ironically power structures) or the individual (who could be a product of power structures), there certainly is no morality in the field of ethics. For instance, Mencius claims our feelings will guide us no matter what. So if a soldier kills a Palestinian child at a checkpoint, are they still acting from a standpoint of morality because their feelings guided them? Gilligan on the other hand, essentializes all women regardless of race, class or sexual orientation, into one category.

This is problematic because it leaves absolutely no room for intersectionality, for identity, and for marginalized groups such as women of color to build a feminist ethic (and the LGBTQ community, who were also left out of this literature). Even further, it reveals that because of the pervasive nature of Whiteness and Westernization, archetypes that circulate in Western media will only be portrayed through a Western concept of the self, creating an ethical dilemma of representation for these images.

Archetypes: Mapping out a Historical Context

Images that circulate throughout the media are defined by Anglo-Saxon norms of democracy.20 While White Western concepts define these archetypes, the media sets the foundation for these standards to emerge and circulate. Thus, archetypes become the vehicles that spread White Western norms throughout the globe. When I refer to archetypes I am speaking of a recurring character in cultural narratives in the media and popular culture. These narratives that have an identification appeal allow us to see ourselves as characters of a larger story. These archetypes are a deep faceted standard that sustains hegemonic dominance. It differs from a stereotype and image in that it can reach both an unconscious level and is hidden in plain sight. However, it is the same in that it is a stereotype and a controlled image simultaneously.

Patricia Hill Collins examined archetypes as controlling images that were designed to sustain racism, sexism and poverty while appearing under the guise of “normal”.21 The archetypes of Black women began in the slave era and continue today. They continue to morph with time. While White women were known to uphold piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity, Black women were defined through more negative connotations.22 ← 7 | 8 →

Black women are stereotypically portrayed as either mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients and hoochies. As the “Others” of society who can never belong they belong by being Otherized.23 One way in achieving this is by creating binaries similarly to what I discussed earlier where the Other is always in relation to the self, a binary created for White individuals. For example, Collins asks us to think of the binary White/Black, male/female, straight/queer. In these binaries, the Other is always in a position of no power: Black, female, queer. Difference becomes defined in oppositional terms and this objectification becomes central to oppositional thinking because one side becomes Otherized and therefore objectified.24 Collins asserts this is how one side of the binary is made to control the Other. This book extends Collins controlling images of Black women into Muslim women and archetypes.

The archetypes operate through apparatuses such as schools, media, governments and popular culture.25 These edifices sustain, control and reproduce these images. Where of course there are instances of resistance such as in universities where women can challenge these images, these same institutions also teach women to learn their subordinate positions. Within the binary thinking are beauty standards such as White vs. Black. Color hierarchies are embedded into the system where Latinas, Asian American, Native American, and I would add Middle Easterners, remain in the middle of this spectrum because of their brown skin.26 For example think of the story of “Snow White” or Whitening creams that are popular in Third World countries. Standards of beauty become impossible to deconstruct and escape and remain wedged into the global system.

These very same standards of beauty and Whiteness are also embedded into our understanding of pedagogy, history and engender the Anglo-Saxon point of view. It is important to understand that the Anglo-Saxon view is not a point of view that is wrong, but becomes wrong when it constructs archetypes of Other communities. This same point of view seeps into both our theoretical and activist frameworks around feminism. As I have mentioned earlier, for years I embodied White western feminism. This is due to the fact that this is the only feminism that we hear of throughout the media, popular culture, and through education.

White Western Feminism


X, 194
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 194 pp. 3 b/w ills.

Biographical notes

Haneen Shafeeq Ghabra (Author)

Haneen Shafeeq Ghabra obtained her PhD in communication studies from the University of Denver and is currently Assistant Professor at Kuwait University’s Department of Mass Communication. She has won top paper awards numerous times, and publishes frequently on the topic of intersectional feminism.


Title: Muslim Women and White Femininity
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