Turkish Women, West German Feminists, and the Gendered Discourse on Muslim Cultural Difference

Chin-200x200 Rita Chin in Eurozine:

Since the 1950s, a massive influx of labour migrants has dramatically transformed the demographic makeup of Europe. Whether they came as guest workers or former colonial subjects, migrants from North Africa, South Asia and Turkey produced the first significant Muslim communities within Europe. During the half century that these groups have resided in Europe, the national debates about their presence have changed radically. Broadly speaking, public discussions initially focused on the economic manpower and the impact of employing migrants on the native working class. As Europeans began to acknowledge that temporary labourers had become permanent residents, political discourse shifted to migrants' cultural differences based on their nationality. Since the 1990s, the emphasis has been on religion (especially Islam) as the primary characteristic that separates these migrants from the societies in which they reside. “Islamophobia”, in short, has emerged as “the defining condition of the new Europe”.[1]

A striking aspect of contemporary European debates about immigrants is the focus on the Muslim woman as a key figure through which objections to Islamic difference have been articulated. This gendered framing of difference is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the distinctive gender norms of postwar migrants became a major theme once significant numbers of family reunions had taken place in the early 1970s. But recent pronouncements by figures such as the Somali-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Turkish-German sociologist Necla Kelek about the place of women in Islam have inflamed the debate.[2] Their highly sensational testimonials of female oppression under Islam have fuelled the tendency to characterize tensions between Muslim immigrants and Europeans as irresolvable. Muslim gender relations now serve as the most telling symptom of the supposedly intractable clash between European civilization and Islam.

Precisely because sexual politics plays such a critical role in defining the terms of the current pessimism about Muslims in Europe, it is important to trace when and how this process began, especially in relation to the shifting national public discourses on labour migrants over the past fifty years.