When COVID-19 Harm Reduction is Met with White Feminist Islamaphobia

By Smitha Mahesh, with Rajani Gudlavalleti

Content Warning: Islamophobia, sexism, racism

As usual, I am scrolling through Twitter, to get the latest tea on celebrities and politicians and refresh my soul with a feed filled with daily pictures of big fluffy bunnies, corgis, and pandas. 

But of course, my joyous vibe came to a halt when I came across this: 

My first reaction was one of confusion. Then it transformed into disgust and ultimately into anger. To clarify and emphasize, I am a South Asian Hindu who does not wear face coverings for religious purposes — and I am deeply hurt and offended by this image, primarily in solidarity with I my fellow Muslim friends (especially women and femmes) who wear niqabs, hijabs, burquas, or any form of covering of their face. Everyone has the right to religious freedom and deserves the  choice to wear any other forms of religious or cultural covering on their face. 

I later find out that this tweet has been made by a bot and has since been removed. Unfortunately, the screenshot of the tweet made its way through other platforms of social media. But, alas I sat alone with my feelings, truly frustrated at viewing this tweet and not having any idea of who to talk about this — until Rajani spoke up. 

Rajani, a fellow Indian American woman, was angrily startled when she suddenly came across this image scrolling down her feed; but her lack of surprise was possibly more difficult for her to bear. Rajani is very familiar with the racial profiling, targeting, and community violence that has occured in the name of the same sentiments expressed in this image. In September 2001, she was a high school sophomore in California when the planes hit the twin towers in New York City. 

My entire life shifted from the moment those planes hit those buildings. I was 16 years old. A child from an immigrant family that was struggling to find stability amidst financial, health and emotional strains. A child confused at the racially charged conflation of Hinduism (my family’s religion), Sikhism, and Islam. Confused at my survival-mode desire to distance myself from these conflations. My deeply angry desire to take down all racist Islamaphobes. Mostly, I was confused at the feminist white femme friends who wanted to help “liberate” me. Honestly, it took me a good decade or so before I truly saw the horror of that manifestation of white feminism.

When Rajani brought up the offensive tweet and how it impacted her, I realized this is beyond two  women/femmes from Hindu families feeling frustrated by  ongoing Islamophobia. This is an example of White Feminism. 

White Feminism excludes Black, Brown and Trans women and femmes from conversations around our collective liberation. But how exactly does this work? White feminism on the surface does support forms of liberation and choice, but it abstains from supporting any form of agency. Whether that be the agency of sex workers to charge sexual performs/work that looks like sex, or the agency to cover your body as you wish. But why, you ask? Because White Feminism is, well, White: it excludes Black voices, Brown voices, Trans voices, or any voice from a racial/ethnic group that is not White. For instance, White feminism wholeheartedly supports freeing the nipple, but abstains from supporting women having the choice to wear hijabs, burqa, or any form of face covering, even if that choice is rooted in honoring cultural heritage. 

This mentality is demonstrated even on a larger level: policy. European governments, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands,  have systematically banned face coverings and yet they are allowing face masks during COVID19. Policy makers in these governments manipulate “women’s equality” to uphold their Islamophobia; framing full-face veils as a symbol of oppression of women as well as a threat to national security. In Hong Kong, authorities imposed a blanket ban on wearing face masks in protest. The collective mindset that criminalizes face masks  has led to a disproportionate restriction of rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. As we continue bracing through the COVID-19 pandemic, governments should recognize the racism and Islamophobia behind these types of policies. 

As a movement rooted in public health and social justice, Harm Reduction must explore and actively work to dismantle the -isms that create barriers to health, safety, justice and dignity for all people. Publicly providing and encouraging people to adorn Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), especially face coverings, may be met with similar racist and Islamaphobic sentiments. What will you do in that moment, harm reduction fam? How will you respond? How will you act in solidarity with Muslim women and femmes?

This conversation has not started here, nor does it end here. Below are some resources to read, digest, and discuss to continue this dialogue with your communities: 

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