Women’s rights discourses in polish islamophobia

islam, woman, islamophobia (Michał Huniewicz / Flickr)

Islamophobic attitudes are sometimes nurtured by a feminist agenda. This paper argues that sentiments expressed against Islam are astonishingly often justified with the plea for Muslim women’s rights. With this the paper suggests that there has been an unprecedented shift in the way Islam is regarded, and consequently opposed, in Poland. Central to this new development are problematic alliances between feminism and Islamophobia. These hegemonic
constellations reflect a peripheral position of Poland in a wider European context where Western knowledge production about Muslims and Islam become dominant at the expense of Polish experiences and history with Islam.

This paper stems from a feminist and anti-racist position in seeking to map Islamophobia in Poland and the key tenants driving it. In interrogating how Islamophobia is expressed in Poland it focuses on the ways it is entangled with feminism and the discourses around the oppression of Muslim women. So far this engagement has predominantly been observed by scholarship focusing on the West (Bracke 2012, Butler 2009). The aim of this paper is to broaden the persistent focus on Western Europe and encourage discussion around how feminist discourses
are deployed and in collusion with Islamophobia, and how this is being manifested in Poland – with focus on Warsaw. The findings presented in this paper draw on interviews, focus groups and participant observation with different faith and non-faith individuals and groups. The empirical data was gathered in Warsaw in 2011-2012 as part of my doctoral project at the University of Sheffield, UK.

The woman question

Justifying why they disliked or felt critical towards Islam and Muslim, participants often referred to treatment of women. As a local councillor in the Ochota neighbourhood of Warsaw pointed out when reflecting on the mosque opposition in his neighbourhood, the ‘women question’ was important to many local residents:

The question of women was an issue… that was also brought up by the locals… the treatment of women by Muslims. That it is not acceptable, right? The local residents do not like it and they definitely do not support it. They are against what their [Muslims] religion tells them. (Local councillor, Ochota neighbourhood)

Similarly, when asked what they found most problematic with Islam, other participants in my study echoed the councillors’ words:

Treatment of women? That a man is a man and therefore a human being and the woman is something worse, her task is to do dishes, clean, certainly not to work, maybe pick up kids, serve, clean up. Dinner has to be cooked for the husband when he comes home… We got gender equality here, right? (Patrycja, focus group)

Not respecting the opposite sex, precisely speaking women… Because the women don’t get anything. I think they are treated worse than animals. (Krystyna, paired interview)

I critique the stripping of women’s rights, often against their will, and this is central. (Andrzej, individual interview)

The vast majority of participants in my study focussed considerable attention on amorphous concerns about the treatment of women in Islam, revealing an near ‘obsession with the plight of Muslim women’ (Abu-Lughod 2002: 784). Uniting these narratives was a certainty that Muslim women were treated badly and that the cause of this treatment was rooted in Islam. In this paper, feminist discourses appointed by participants in their critique, disapproval or expression of anti-Muslim sentiments are understood to make part of a wider conflict where
women’s rights are placed in a binary relation to religious rights, in this case Islam. The use of women’s rights language is here read through a civilisational framework where the portrayal of Muslims and Islam through the prism of sexual politics functions as a key marker of Islam’s difference and Otherness (Phillips 2012). In this understanding, Islam is frequently positioned on the other side of a dichotomous relationship with liberal European values such as feminism (Fekete 2006). I attempt to unpick the entanglements between feminism, civilisational politics and Islamophobia as the discourses are mobilised in Poland. I start with setting the context for the awkward alliance between feminism and racism/Islamophobia and then proceed to situate the theoretical underpinnings of this in the Polish context with the help of my data.


Islamophobia as a prejudice against Muslims and Islam, is often reserved for right-wing and far-right groups and understood as a slippage when it occurs within the liberal left agenda. Yet this paper suggests that there is a need for robust engagement with Islamophobic attitudes expressed outside of the familiar far-right and nationalist groups, and crucially to shift away from the persistent focus on the West as the site of knowledge production (Tlostanova, 2012).

When Islamophobia is an outcome of alliance-building between feminist, racist, civilisational and nationalist agendas, it might seem ‘strange’ and be deemed as ‘unlikely bedfellows’ (Bracke 2012: 241, Phillips 2008:22). Consequently, civilising missions to ‘save Muslim women’ most prominently justifying Western geopolitical interventions such as the invasion in Afghanistan or the banning of the niqab in France are often alibied as ‘cooptions’ of the feminist agenda. However, such claims suggest a poverty of understanding of the feminist
movement’s historic complicity in racist and Islamophobic agenda. Saba Mahmood (2008) disarms alliances between feminism and racism/Islamophobia as unlikely, strange or untrue, rejecting the idea that feminism has been hijacked to serve an imperial project. As she argues: ’such an argument would assume that democracy and feminism are strangers to the project of empire building’ (Mahmood 2008:82). In a similar vein, Jasbir Puar (2007) critiques the use of the term ‘co-option’ when discussing hegemonic alliances between LGBT- and feminist groups with racist and Islamophobic politics.

Feminism and Colonialism

Feminism’s entanglement with colonialism has been studied extensively by feminist (and) postcolonial scholars (Ahmed 1992, Spivak 1988, Scott 2007, Mahmood 2005, Alloula 1986). The scrutiny of liberal white feminist complicity with racism and Islamophobia is largely owed to scholarship by third wave, postcolonial, black, Muslim and other feminists (Amos and Parmar 2005; hooks 1981; Lorde 1984; Mohanty 1988; Walker 1974; Hill Collins 1986; Davis 1982; Zine 2002; Mahmood 2005; Ahmed 2011; Abu-Lughod 2013) emphasising feminist exclusion of Women of Colour:

Feminist studies discursively present Third world women as a homogenous, undifferentiated group leading truncated lives, victimized by the combined weight of ‘their’ traditions, cultures and beliefs, and ‘our’ (Eurocentric) history.” (Mohanty 1993: 42).

Civilising missions have often relied on the rhetoric of women’s emancipation to serve as a rationale for colonial interventions (Bracke 2012, Scott 2007). The role that feminism has played in legitimising colonial interventions harks back to the narratives of liberation of ‘native women’ by Western countries (Mahmood 2008). As Bracke (2012) argues, the vindication of white civilised women has relied upon the Othering of women who become objects for the women’s movement, in need of civilisation and saving.

Post-9/11 climate

This Othering is also clearly evident in current clashes between the West and Islam, particularly in the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’:

‘the growing presence and visibility of Muslims in European liberal democracies and the post-9/11 “war on terror” context has given urgency to debates on the contradictions, struggles but also reconciliations between feminism and Muslim religious practices’ (Amir-Moazami, Jacobsen, and Malik 2011: 1)

The post-9/11 context has brought to the fore debates on the intersection between Western feminism and Muslim religious practices (Amir-Moazami, Jacobsen, Malik 2011). Old colonial tropes having been dusted off are again being used to deem Islam as traditional, patriarchal and illiberal. The ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm functions as a re-enactment of past colonial discourses on women with feminism mobilised to liberalise Muslims and reform Islam (Mahmood 2008). Within this context, Western feminism provides the intellectual justification for policies that target Muslim women in the name of fighting for their rights, speaking for them and ultimately, liberating them from Islam (Abu-Lughod 2002). Such ‘imperial feminism’ (see Amos and Parmar 2005) is preoccupied with ‚oppressed’ Muslim women requiring liberation from their tradition (Maira 2011:641). Simultanously, the ‘war on terror’ climate has given rise for second set of discourses around Muslim women beyond the saving narrative. It is one of threat.


The majority of the people I interviewed in Warsaw about Muslims and Islam mobilised gender equality narratives through two prisms; one echoing ‘rescue narratives’ (Bracke, 2012) and the other echoing narratives of threat (Puar & Rai, 2002).

While it was commonly perceived that Muslim women were victims of Muslim men and Islam, Muslim women were also (and often interchangeably) perceived to cause a threat. Central to both of these narratives was the hijab/headscarf/veil [1]. The Muslim hijab has been a prominent trope not only in Poland but globally and not only at the current time but also historically.

The hijab

The hijab, the headscarf, the veil, the niqab, the burqa, the ‘portable seclusion’ or the ‘mobile home’ (Abu-Lughod, 2002) are terms that have been used in different spatial and temporal contexts to signify Muslim women’s clothing. It will not be possible to do justice to the historical context of the hijab and its multiple meanings here [2] and as such the complexities of the meaning will certainly be simplified here for the sake of brevity. Yet, by drawing out some of the different meanings of the hijab I hope to nuance a common understanding that reduces the hijab, often referred to as ‘the veil’, to a piece of cloth imposed on women which as Fatema Mersissi (1991: 95) argues ‘is truly to impoverish this term, not to say to drain it of its meaning’.

The hijab [3] is a rare sight in Poland and the niqab or burqa [4] are rarer still due to the small number of Muslims in the Polish public sphere. This does not correspond, however, to the central presence of ‘the veil’ [5] in Islamophobic narratives in Poland. The veil functions as a key trope through which assumptions about the oppression of Muslim women are justified. Saba Mahmood described the mobilisations of ‘the veil’ as ‘a symbol and evidence of the violence Islam inflicted upon women’ (Mahmood, 2005, p. 195). The Islamic hijab was also often in the Polish narratives reduced to ‘the burqa’. In wider geopolitical conflicts ‘the burqa’ has become a tool used to justify hegemonic invasions (see Puar 2007). Perhaps the most famous example is when Laura Bush legitimised the US invasion in Afghanistan through a rhetoric of oppressed women (and children) in Afghanistan who needed to be saved by „civilized people throughout the world” (Abu-Lughod 2002:784).

The descent of the hijab

Within Islam, the ‘descent of the hijab’ is understood to have been revealed in the fifth year after Hijrah [6] (AD 627). There is no specific mention in the Quran of covering of the hair or face-veiling yet there are several verses that relate to the concept of the hijab (Nalborczyk 2009), commanding both women and men to dress modestly. The Quranic references that specifically speak to women encourage them to:

‘wrap their shawls around their breast lines [7] (Quran 24:31) and for the wives of the Prophet and women believers to ‘wrap their garments closely around them, for this makes it more likely that they will be recognised and not be harassed’ (Khalidi, n.d., p. 33:59).

Verse 53 of Sura 33 in the Quran is regarded ‘as the basis for the institution of the hijab’ (Mernissi, 1991, p. 95):

‘O believers! Do not enter the chambers of the Prophet for a meal unless given leave, and do not wait around for it to be well cooked. Rather, if invited enter, and when fed disperse, not lingering for conversation… And if you ask his wives for some favour, do so from behind a screen [8]; this is more chaste for both your hearts and theirs’ (Khalidi, n.d., p. 33:53)

This Quranic verse regarding the hijab is closely related to the splitting of spaces, between the private space (the household of the Prophet and his wives) and the public space (the mosque as a site of communal gathering and prayer) (Mernissi, 1991, p. 100). The spatial dimension of the hijab refers to a separation of spaces but not necessarily to a gendered separation [9]. The hijab became common for women across the Muslim world but declined and almost vanished until the Islamic resurgence in the 1970s caused Muslim women across the Arab world and Europe to start wearing the hijab again (Ahmed 2011), giving rise to an Islamic fashion industry (Lewis 2010).

The hijab in Poland

Meanwhile in Central Europe Polish Muslim women, most of who were part of the Tatar community, did not wear the hijab apart from during prayers [10] (Nalborczyk, 2009). The Arab migration to Poland during the Communist system (see Gasztold-Seń, 2012) influenced the practices of the hijab. Despite the long-established history of Islam’s presence in Poland through the Tatar Muslims, there is little recorded historical material about Muslim women’s
dress in Poland. Most of the Muslim women I spent time with in Warsaw wore the hijab on a daily basis. Whether or not they wore the headscarf at any particular time was dependent on the spatial context in which we met, with some only wearing a headscarf to the mosque, while others had days when they wore it and days when they did not. Among my participants, there were women who had only recently adopted the hijab despite being Muslim for some years, those who did the opposite, and those who selectively wore the hijab; for example they did not wear it to work but would do so when with other Muslims. Such practices evidenced fluidity in Muslim women’s dress in Poland reflecting both the symbolic and the material functions of the hijab (Lewis 2010). Yet despite the heterogeneity in hijab practices this did not translate into a rich and fluid understanding of the hijab among the non-Muslim participants in my study.

For most of the non-Muslim participants, the hijab was reduced to a singular marker for Muslim women, signifying their religious belonging and their subordination to patriarchy (Ahmed 2011); lack of assimilation (Scott 2007); resistance to Western secularism (Scott 2007); or tendency for radicalism (Moors, 2011). Additionally, many non-Muslims saw the hijab as having been forcibly imposed on Muslim women and were unable to conceive of them as having agency over their veiling. Oppression of Muslim women was understood by many participants to be directly linked to and caused by Islam. Muslim men were understood to violate women’s rights because of their religion and their culture (Mahmood, 2006). It therefore was up to men to ‘allow’ women to not wear the hijab.

They can let a woman uncover her face in a normal way. They can let women dress normally… (Krystyna, paired interview)

Throughout these and many other narratives, Muslim women were described as lacking agency and unable to make informed choices (Bilge 2010). When participants dismissed the agency of Muslim veiled women they did so through the following rationale:

‘Agency involves free-will; no woman freely chooses to wear the veil because it is oppressive to women; thus veiled women have no agency’ (Bilge 2010: 18).

This was perhaps most disturbingly evidenced in one of the focus groups with Muslim women in Warsaw.

Re-orientalising Muslim women’s bodies

During a Polish talk show, Muslim women were invited as guests to talk about their lives as Muslims. The show focussed upon their veiling practices, the issue of forced marriages and questioned the freedom that they had within Islam. Aisha, one of the participants in my study, was one of the guests. The other participants in the focus groups followed the show from their TVs at home. During our focus group, the participants talked at length about Aisha’s [11], experience when her clothes were changed by the production team prior to the show:

Aisha: Because I don’t look Arab… like an Arab Muslim woman, but I had to be dressed like [one].

Dagmara: Talk about how they dressed you!

Aisha: They [TV show people] wanted me to look more traditional so they made a black cloth.

Kasia: They made a cloth?

Aisha: Yes and they told me to wear it. And luckily I had Dorota there because I would not have said anything… so we fought for me to be able to wear a skirt at least…

Dagmara: Aisha doesn’t wear long skirts… and [she doesn’t wear] these small shoes…

Nadia: Aisha wears jeans and a hoodie, always…

Dagmara: And the blouse they gave her was kind of Arab, Indian… something like… it was made to look Eastern.

Nadia: Yes as a Muslim coming there with jeans… no, you need to look in a certain way because God forbid if they will think you are like a normal person! (laughs)

Aisha: And they said ‘you know we won’t film so that your clothes are showing’ but that is exactly what they did, when I walked in they filmed from top to bottom!

Dagmara: They wanted to show how a Muslim woman looks…

Lena: Yes how a Muslim woman looks.

(Muslim women, focus group)

What is evident from the above narrative is a certain production of a Third World Woman as representative of a monolithic culture, frozen in time, space and history (Mohanty, 2004). Despite her very different life history to the Muslim women that Aisha shared the TV studio with, they were ‘assumed to be a coherent group or category’ ( Mohanty, 2004, p. 30). When Aisha, by wearing jeans and trainers, did not meet the orientalised image expected of her, her dress was altered in order for her body to entertain the imaginary of a singular definition of a Muslim woman for the benefit of the Polish women in the studio. This facilitated the construction of the Muslim woman as a counterpart to the emancipated Polish woman. As a subaltern, Aisha could not speak (Spivak, 1988). The TV anchor and the concerned audience acted therefore as spokespeople for the subaltern woman, ‘giving’ her the voice that they
wanted her to have.

Giving voice to Muslim women, which problematically presumes that they do not possess a voice prior to being ‘given’ one, is a central foundation on which ‘rescue narratives’, ie the ‘liberation’ of Muslim women, takes place within a wider context of hegemonic feminism.


For many non-Muslims, Islam was understood to be a monolithic set of values that was inherently oppressive to women. Hence, their liberation was also expected to take place outside of Islam.

The dichotomous image of a liberated West versus the East where Muslim ‘women shuffle around silently in burqas’ (Abu-Lughod 2002:784) was reinforced in Poland, despite Poland’s long history with Islam and co-habitation with Muslim (Tatar) women. Familiar Western narratives of ‘saving’ or ‘liberating’ Muslim women from the hands of their religion, culture and violent Muslim men has led to many hegemonic initiatives where women in the West engage in the plight of the oppressed Muslim women somewhere else. In wider geopolitical conflicts ‘the burqa’ has become a tool used to justify hegemonic invasions (see Puar 2007). Perhaps the most famous example is when Laura Bush legitimised the US invasion in Afghanistan through a rhetoric of oppressed women (and children) in Afghanistan who needed to be saved by „civilized people throughout the world” (Abu-Lughod 2002:784).

The conflict mobilised between Islam and the West has become an alleged battle for the ‘liberation’ of Muslim women (Ahmed 2011). Some participants gained knowledge about Muslims women from books, particularly from popular literature about Muslim women that have become bestsellers in Poland in recent times. This popular literature by women who were Muslim or ‘passed’ as Muslim is discussed by Maira (2011), Mahmood (2008) and Ahmed (2011) in their work critical of hegemonic narratives on Muslim women.

Some participants felt a responsibility towards the women that they feared were oppressed. Because many participants’ encounters with women who wore the hijab were rare and with women who wore the niqab or the burqa rarer still, many could only construct imaginary encounters with visibly Muslim women. Below are two quotes demonstrating this, one continuing the narrative from Celina and the other from Andrzej:

I know that some women choose themselves to wear these burqas and then I think there is nothing wrong with that. But nevertheless if I would see such a woman I think a light would go on in my head that something bad must be going on and perhaps something should be done (Celina, focus group)

I cannot say that ok because she is a Muslim than here you go, please go ahead and I won’t interfere (Andrzej, individual interview)

Both Celina and Andrzej talked about the responsibility to ‘do something’ about the oppression that they attributed to Muslim women. Celina emphasised her own awareness of Muslim women’s agency and their choice to wear ‘these burqa’s’ yet nevertheless upon encountering a burqa-clad woman in a public space, mosque supporter Celina admitted that she would be alarmed. In contrast to many other interviewees, Celina worked closely with Muslim refugees in Warsaw and knew a number of people from Muslim countries through her previously having shared student corridors with international students. She was positive towards the new mosque construction in her neighbourhood in Ochota as well as Muslims and Islam, yet expressed ambivalence towards the position of women in Islam.

Celina’s established positive encounters with Muslims through her own experience were thrown into doubt after having read a book authored by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As a consequence, Celina’s narrative was delicately balanced between her positive personal encounters with Muslims and the testimonials of a ‘native expert’:

I think that Muslims that live here, and perhaps it is very naive and I realise that, but the people I meet are ok people and I am aware that somewhere in Somalia, I don’t know, in different countries, these things do happen. And often I imagine, when I meet these people, that maybe they are these girls that escaped like her [Ayaan Hirsi Ali]… I don’t, I mean I am sure this circulates in my head somewhere but I haven’t directly met such people and I am also trying to not look at these people in that way, like that this is certainly a man that beats his wife and does whatever she [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] went through. (Celina, focus group)

Celina battled with the idea that it was ‘naïve’ of her to make generalisations about Islam from the people she knew in Poland who were Muslims and whom she had known, worked with and had good relations with. Reading a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali had made her doubt whether she could in fact generalise her own positive experiences to all Muslims. Instead, she allowed the book to shape her understanding of what was happening ‘somewhere in Somalia’ or in some other countries where she imagined that Muslim women were oppressed.

Native informants

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other women of Muslim background who denounced Islam, quickly rose to fame becoming ‘liberated apostates’, insider experts, those that hold ‘authentic knowledge’ about Islam (Bracke 2012:242). These ‘moderate Muslim spokespersons’ (Maira, 2011, p. 120) provided ‘native testimonials’ (Mahmood 2008:83) of their ‘liberation’ in the West. These accounts were at the time of my fieldwork in Poland immensely popular, dominating among the bestselling titles on the shelves of the main bookshop Empik in Warsaw.

Positioned in a dichotomous relationship with ‘oppressed’ Muslim women, they further cemented the conviction that Muslim women are in need of saving (Abu-Lughod, 2002). When the saving is done by a ‘liberated apostate’ (Bracke, 2012, p. 242) Spivak’s (1988) original observation [12] gets a twist that works to add further legitimacy to the rescue narrative; brown women saving brown women from brown men (Bracke, 2012). In Poland it was through the liberal concern of white women like Celina that that such views gained traction. Despite the fact that the majority of the Muslim women in Poland were white they were racialised due to their wearing of the hijab.

Countering the narratives

Muslim participants themselves frequently referred to women’s rights within Islam. Responding to allegations posed to them, they did not however attempt to assert the compatibility of Islam with a liberal framework (Mahmood 2003).

As primary targets for Islamophobia their narratives instead focussed on the challenges they faced day to day as a consequence of their assumed oppression. Dagmara, for example, expressed frustration at the suggestion that her Islamic identity was forced upon her by men. She talked of her experiences of returning to her home town from Warsaw where she now lives:

They cannot imagine that a person chose their religion by themselves and not through their husband or family, but themselves, from their own choice… I had this experience in [name of town]… either it is a bloke that forces me [to become Muslim] or when I said a bloke didn’t force me then it must be that they pay me (Everyone laughs)(Dagmara, focus group, Muslim woman)

The idea of women’s agency is an especially exhausted narrative aimed at Muslim women in the context of resisting the imposition of (religious) tradition (Bracke, 2008). Drawing on Talal Asad (1996) Bracke suggests that confining agency to ‘a mode of integration into modernity’ is an impoverishment of the idea (Bracke, 2008, p. 62). In her study of Muslim women’s piety, Saba Mahmood (2011) argues for a broadening of the understanding of agency taking it beyond solely acts of resistance to traditions and norms to also incorporate the acts of embracement and lived experience of these traditions and norms.

To summarise, this section evidenced how a focus on ‘saving’ Muslim women from Islamic culture and religion was an important ingredient in fuelling anti-mosque attitudes and was legitimised by the writings of ‘native informants’ (see Spivak 1988). When mobilised in Poland, these narratives echoed Western representations of Muslims, drawing on the dichotomies between Western liberties and Islamic culture/religion posed as restrictive.

To summarise, previous section evidenced how a focus on ‘saving’ Muslim women from Islamic culture and religion was an important ingredient in fuelling anti-mosque attitudes and was legitimised by the writings of ‘native informants’ (see Spivak 1988). When mobilised in Poland, these narratives echoed Western representations of Muslims, drawing on the dichotomies between Western liberties and Islamic culture/religion posed as restrictive.


Running alongside rescue narratives were narratives of the threat posed by the veiled woman (see Puar 2007). From being victims of the Islamic religion and culture, Muslim women were simultaneously perceived as its threatening embodiment.

In 2010 when a Polish group, Europe of the Future, organised an anti-mosque demonstration in Ochota, they announced their protest by dressing Warsaw city centre with posters of a woman in niqab placed next to images of minarets that resembled missiles. The posters were inspired by the almost identical Swiss anti-minaret posters, evidencing an importation of Islamophobic discourses from other European countries by the Polish group. The use of an altered version of the Swiss poster rather than an original Polish image sent a message to Warsaw residents about the organisers’ desire to see the ‘mosque problem’ through Western eyes (Allen, 2010). The Polish version of the poster read ‘Stop the radical mosque in Warsaw’. Here, the ‘burqa’ed woman’ as a terrorist body functions primarily as an image of threat and aggression. This was exemplified by Pola, who was supportive of a mosque being built in her neighbourhood and yet ambivalent about the issues of women’s rights within Islam. Again, drawing on discourses from outside of Poland, she brought up memories of seeing veiled women when abroad:

A few years ago I spent six weeks in London, as a holiday, and there you can really notice it… there were women that covered from top to bottom in black and they even had some metal thing attached to their faces, which was really weird… I felt really strange when walking through Hyde Park. There were sun chairs on the grass arranged in a circle and the women, there were only women there, they sat… it honestly looked terrifying, I was… it was a circle, all the women in black, you didn’t know what was going on, what they were really doing. (Pola, focus group, own emphasis)

Pola perceived covered Muslim women as a threat and described feeling scared. The niqab in her narrative was linked to a threat arising from uncertainly about what the women covered in black were ‘really doing’. As stated by Moors, face-veiling had a double-meaning. It created discomfort as a symbol of gender subordination and at the same time provoked resistance to established normativities (Moors 2011). Pola’s observation of veiled covered Muslim women with ‘some metal thing attached to their face’ is reminiscent of Puar’s and Rai’s (2002) discussion on the ‘pathologised terroristmonster’. According to Foucault, the idea of monstrosity can be traced back to a broader history of sexuality, where ‘the monster’ is understood as abnormal and a sexual deviant, thereby regulating proper desires (Foucault 1997 quoted in Puar and Rai 2002).

David Sibley (1995) describes complex and entangled emotions such as fear and repulsion but also desire and attraction floating to the surface when people encounter those marked as different. Appearance, particularly dress, becomes important to the ways that people decide who is in and who is out of place (Simonsen, 2008; Valentine, 2010). As Valentine (2010) emphasises, the body becomes a primary marker for setting boundaries between us and them. My participants struggled with conflicting emotions upon seeing ‘veiled women’ provoked by the idea that these women did not belong to the particular space in which they were encountered; on the beach or in a park for example (Sibley, 1995). The inability to ‘make sense’ of veiled women of the Orient and the need for them to be unveiled to be intelligible (see Butler 2011) also emerged in the narrative of another participant. Olek, who lived close to the future Ochota mosque, spoke about his travels to Turkey where he encountered Muslim women in Islamic clothing:

When we were in Turkey the women at the seaside were bathing in these things… they did not even take them off when entering the sea. They were lying by the shore completely covered up, Turkish women… I was really frightened, and so were you, right? (turning to his female flatmate who nods) (Olek, focus group)

Olek describes being scared and feeling threatened, similar emotions to those Pola identified in the previous quote. Yet this time the fear was not explicitly linked to a potential terrorist threat of a group of veiled women gathering. Rather, the fear was located in the Muslim women’s presence on the beach with clothes on. It was as such devoid of the visibility of the female body that would satisfy a male gaze (see Alloula 1986). By pointing out the hijab’s out
of place-ness, participants signalled what they considered to be ‘improper’ ways for women to dress and act.

Unveiling threatening bodies

The uneasiness caused by not being able to see the veiled women is reminiscent of European colonial encounters with Islamic societies where the colonisers gained knowledge of the Orient through their gaze (Alloula 1986). Veiled women, in contrast, denied access and penetration of this male gaze (Zine 2002). The veiled woman was also often eroticised as is evident in the many colonial accounts of the harem (Scott 2007). The ‘veiled’ women’s nakedness was part of a process of unveiling that stimulated the colonisers’ sexual imaginations (Scott 2007). Similarly, Alloula’s (1986) work on colonial postcards of naked Algerian women illustrates a fixation upon the colonised women’s body. In Alloula’s example the coloniser’s gaze is initially rejected by the covered Algerian women who through their veiling withdrew the possibility for colonial expropriation and resisted the voyeuristic gaze of the male white photographer (Alloula 1986). When unveiled and eroticised, through paid models impersonating the veiled inaccessible women, the images served a colonial perception of the native (Alloula, 1986). Implicated in this are gendered norms of the male gaze and the female object of the gaze. This exoticisation of Muslim women so prevalent during colonial periods has recently re-emerged (Mahmood, 2006) and, as evidenced in my interviews, were gaining
prominence in the Polish context.

Contemporary manifestation of these unveiling ‘missions’ are echoed in the veil bans imposed in Western European countries such as France’s niqab ban recently upheld in the European Court of Human Rights (Williams, 2014). During one focus group, participants engaged in a discussion about why Western European countries ban the veil:

Sasha: And the [bans on the] scarves are coming from a…. it comes from terrorism and a fear of terrorist attacks…
Marcela: That underneath these clothes…
(Sasha and Marcela, focus group)

Marcela was interrupted before she had the chance to finish her sentence, but the implication of the short exchange was that the banning of the veil had to do with a threat of terrorism and that the veil and the Muslim women’s clothing could potentially be used for terrorist activities.

Following Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum (2012) talks of fear as a ‚perceived lack of control’. She quotes Aristotle saying: ‚when we fear other people, he adds, we do so only if we think that they have both sufficient power to harm us and bad intentions so that they are plausibly seen as likely to harm us’ (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 30). Yet this Aristotelian explanation does not reflect the experiences of either Pola or Olek, neither of whom expressed fear corresponding to a fear of an attack on them. Rather, it was a fear of the unknown, the unintelligible. The fear of the racialised Muslim women’s bodies can be interpreted in light of Judith Butler’s (1993; 2011) and Sara Ahmed’s (2002) conceptualisations of fearing black bodies. The image of veiled women come to be feared by Pola and Olek through sight; the participants’ gazes could not make sense of the ‘unknowable’ bodies (Puar 2007). The ‘burq’ed woman’ is conceptualised by Puar (2007) as a queer body that is ‘unknowable’. But, as Puar points out that difference is not only seen, but also felt. I draw on Puar, (who draws on Ahmed (2004) who in turn draws on Butler (1993) to argue that the veiled women in the park or on the beach were not feared because of any immediate threat that they posed. Instead they were feared because their bodies were unintelligible (Butler, 2011). They were bodies that ‘passed by’ (Ahmed 2004), the fear of them was located in the ‘unknown of when, where, how, or if’ (Puar 2007:185). Pola and
Olek did not know what to fear about the veiled women’s bodies and it is precisely this notknowing that made them fear the veiled bodies (Puar 2007). Puar’s analysis helps in understanding the fear the participants felt beyond deeming fear of Muslims as primitive emotions, as conceptualised by Nussbaum (2012).


By stressing the importance of women’s rights, the participants in my study united in an imagined community where gender equality was a norm and further differentiated themselves from the Muslim Other. By arguing firmly against the ‘unacceptable’ treatment of Muslim women, who were not considered as part of their own imagined community, they alluded to the idea that they themselves belonged to an imagined community that did not accept such
treatment of women. Such narratives are reminiscent of Jasbir Puar’s (2007) theory of ‘suspension narratives’ that serves as a useful way here to conceptualise the unprecedented reliance on feminist discourses in Poland.

In her writing on homonationalism in the United States Jasbir Puar talks of the ‘narratives of exception’ (Puar 2007:3-4) at work when the heteronormative imagined community is suspended temporarily and thereby recognises some homosexual subjects. Such tactics are performed in order to unite a national sentiment outlining who is the enemy that ‘we’ as the imagined community are waging war on. Puar (2007) further argues that such exception provides homosexual groups with a certain currency that they otherwise lack due to the limited rights afforded to them. Even though some elements of homonationalism are at play in the Polish context (see Kulpa 2012), participants in my study generally did not mobilise a gay rights agenda in their anti-Muslim discourses. They instead focussed primarily on gender equality employed as a marker for civilisational difference with Muslims. Women’s rights gained currency when rallied by all sides and supported by a wider global context of a ‘war on terror’ where war for the ‘liberation’ of women, for example in Afghanistan, was waged by global powers and supported by liberal feminist groups (Puar 2007). The Western feminist liberal discourses that many participants entertained requires
contextualisation. Poland’s peripheral position in Europe and particularly towards Western Europe exemplifies the complexity of understanding these debates within a Polish context.

The reality of gender equality in Poland is that, despite women’s elevated image in Polish society as the ‘reproducers of the nation’ (Yuval-Davis 1997), women are disadvantaged with regards to their political, social and economic situation and, as many feminists have argued, Poland is far from a gender equal country. Given its historical entanglement with Communism the appropriation of feminist discourse in Poland is different than in Western Europe. Polish values are often characterised as being ‘more traditional’ (Jasińska-Kania 2012) and the relationship with feminism contested due to the conservative influence of the Catholic Church in Poland (Gill Valentine, Piekut, and Harris 2014). In analysing how gender and civilisational politics are mobilised in Poland, the findings have to be understood as coming from a context where rights, feminism and civilisational politics are not necessarily discourses rooted in the Polish national identity, and, are understood differently due to a legacy of Communism where gender equality was enforced and, eventually, rejected by many Polish women.

Recently, there have been numerous heated debates regarding gender equality in Poland, a recent example being the conflict regarding the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Council of Europe 2011). Objections were raised against Poland signing the convention due to its ‘promotion’ of fluid gender roles including homosexuality and its rejection of traditional gender roles in what was termed a feminist Trojan horse (Przeciszewski 2014). Another recent example is the conflict between those on the Catholic right that view feminism as an ideology that is harmful to traditional values and those on the secular liberal left propagating women’s rights and other controversial issues such as abortion (Graff 2014). I raise it here in order to point out the exceptionalism of the gender equality claims made by my participants, particularly those identifying with a Western liberal tradition such as the Europe of the Future anti-mosque group. Placing themselves in a European imagined community the group reproduce narratives reminiscent of key tropes found within the Western European discourse:

In our identity we rarely refer to the Enlightenment. In Poland there isn’t any (pause) it is very difficult to communicate this because there isn’t an organisation, there isn’t this discourse present. (Andrzej, individual interview)

Andrzej, the anti-mosque activist representing Europe of the Future relied heavily on Western European liberal feminist discourse. But even those participants who were not equally supportive of feminism employed it when opposing Islam. As such, the mobilisation of feminist discourses in Poland speaks to Jasbir Puar’s (2007) discussion of exceptionalism.


This paper argued that the use of a feminist agenda evidenced a new way of opposing Islam in Poland, in a growing climate of Islamophobia in the country. It demonstrated that anti-Muslim narratives relied heavily on the appropriation of Western liberal feminist discourses, resurrecting the familiar orientalist tropes of oppressed Muslim women. Rooted in feminist (and) postcolonial literature (Abu-Lughod, 2013; Alloula, 1986; Bilge, 2010; Bracke, 2012; Butler, 2008; Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 1988; Scott, 2007; Spivak, 1988; Zine, 2002, 2004) the paper illustrated how the narratives mobilised in Poland employed familiar tropes of the liberation of Muslim women. This was particularly explored with Jasbir Puar’s (2007) writing on exceptionalism which significantly complicates a seamless translation of narratives.

In challenging this unprecedented rise in anti-Muslim attitudes, there is need for critical scrutiny of the subtle ways in which Islamophobia in expressed. At its core, this means challenging the attitudes that some of the non-Muslim participants held, particularly those that are underpinned by a racist and sexist colonial imaginary. As this paper has evidenced, the Muslim participants – particularly the Muslim women – recognised the effort expressed on behalf of their ‘liberation’ as simplistic and unnecessary.

Finally, this paper urges for a critical scrutiny of the ease with which Western liberal feminist discourses are applied to the Polish context. There is scope there to anchor counter-hegemonic narratives in Poland’s long history with Islam and the presence and prominence of Tatar women in the Polish society. This work could start with shifting the focus from unveiling Muslim women in ways that are oppressive and racist to unveiling the Islamophobia that is imbued in feminist claims about Muslim women’s freedom and often acted out through the control and surveillance of their bodies. For this to have traction, a knowledge production that draws more from the local histories and diverse experiences of Islam in the CEE region needs to be increasingly appreciated.

Katarzyna Narkowicz

[1] I use the term hijab as related to a piece of material worn by Muslim women in different ways and for different reasons. In academia the hijab is often referred to as: the veil, Islamic veil, headscarf, niqab, burqa and it is often used interchangeably and sometimes incorrectly. These different terms will be used when referring to specific types of hijab or to correspond the narratives expressed in the interviews.

[2] For a detailed exploration into the different meanings of the hijab see Mernissi (1991).

[3] In this text I will use the word hijab, veil and headscarf interchangeably to mark the different uses of the word and also to retain the quotes in their original form.

[4] The niqab, burqa and face veil will be used with ambition to try and do justify to the meaning of the term and to retain the quotes in their original form.

[5] The Polish words used to describe the Islamic hijab is: chusta [headscarf, scarf], burka [burqa], nikab [niqab]. For a closer study of the way the Islamic hijab is mobilised by Polish people, see Gawlewicz (2014).

[6] Hijrah refers to events that marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

[7] Here, there is a difference in the translation. While Tarif Khalidi translates the verse as quoted in the text, Laleh Bakhtiar translates it pointing more directly the the head covering: ‘And let them draw their head covering over their bosoms…’ (22: 31)

[8] In other translations, for example Laleh Bakhtiar’s the word symbolising the hijab is instead translated to ‘a partition’.

[9] A screen is how a hijab is described here. A more abstract understanding is made by the Muslim Sufis where the hijab has a negative meaning and refers to a separation between a person and God (Mernissi 1991).

[10] This was confirmed during my visit to one of the Tatar villages in Eastern Poland, Kruszyniany, where women put on a loosely fitted headscarf reminiscent more of Eastern European scarves worn by women than the Muslim hijab.

[11] Aisha has a Polish and Iraqi background.

[12] In her early critique of the rescue narratives Spivak’s sharp critique observed the phenomenon of ’white
men saving brown women from brown men’ (see Spivak 1988).

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