We Brown Women


White men saving brown women from brown men—words that ring as loud as they are familiar, a gift from Gayatri Spivak that only sharpens with use as time and time again, Western imperialism uses women as an excuse for violence. Trump’s America is the latest iteration.

The Muslim ban, a moniker suggested by leaders on the right and adopted by the left in protest, wreaked havoc at US and international airports nearly a month ago before being suspended by the courts, a small victory for legal activism and the protestors who greeted those who finally got through the gates. But there is no knowing when the administration will fulfill its pledge for only a slightly edited order accomplishing the same objectives—that is, the insidious mix of an ideological war against Islam that has roots in the Crusades and a ruthless capitalist imperialism intent on increasing the profits of a few at the cost of many, many lives.

For this is not just a Muslim ban, it is a ban against those Muslim nations that do not or cannot sufficiently collude with US business interests, or, more specifically, the business interests of President Trump. Occulting this naked truth is the claim that Islam represents a civilizational threat against which the West must be protected. Highlighting this history is the so-called Muslim’s ban’s official title: the executive order “PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES,” typed in all caps, as is apparently how headings on executive documents go, but also conveys a sense of urgency and fear.

Who, after all, doesn’t want to be protected?

I don’t. My sisters don’t. Not this way, not by this administration, not by the white man.

For we Muslim women, as has only been pointed out once in all the media attention following the ban, are pointedly alluded to in the ban’s twice reference of “honor killings.” White men saving brown women from brown men. A history; the present. A timeworn Orientalism; an explicit state policy.

Let’s start at the beginning. The executive order opens its “Purpose” section as follows: “In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.” The “Americans” here are in fact white Americans, just as the very “NATION” mentioned in the title is a WHITE NATION, the nostalgically yearned for 85% white days of yore, before the deracialization of immigration in 1965 with the Hart-Cellar Act. Appallingly, the liberal outcry against the ban has followed the same logic, offering positive stories of assimilation and a narrative of American multiculturalism. But immigrants offer much more than exotic foods and pretty faces. Immigration is about labor, and in the case of refugees, a capitalist globalization that has rendered much of the world unlivable, to say nothing of US military occupations of, and attacks on, foreign lands.

As this presidency and the campaign that preceded it have reminded us, language matters. Language normalizes all sorts of racism and sexism, emboldening still more that might have remained unarticulated. In the last year especially, we have felt how language hurts.

But language is even more powerful than that. Language makes “real”—material—violence possible. Which is to say, referring to Mexican men as “rapists” and criminals is the first building block for a wall. As the administration has since made clear, ordering the public availability of data on “the number of foreign nationals in the United States who have been charged with terrorism-related offenses” and “the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings” (see Section 10, Transparency and Data Collection), “Mexican” here stands for the immigrant in general. The alleged need to protect white women’s bodies, a war historically waged against black men in America with public lynching as its spectacular tool, is the twin brother to the fantasy of white men saving brown women from brown men. Except that the first is a genuine goal and the second only a posture.

We keep reading: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.” Considering the illegality of the law as widely reported and ruled by a federal court, this sentence reads like a cruel joke. More significant is what comes next: “In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

Thus, we brown women are the first ones presented in a list of whom to protect, second in priority only to white Americans. We are marked to be rescued, along with, in another thinly veiled reference, Christian minorities, whose interests and lives are not thought of when it comes to oil and war but who will be shamelessly used as an excuse for more war abroad and racism at home. To claim to protect Muslim women and Christians while proposing reinvading Iraq for oil is doublespeak. Research has long shown that war disproportionately affects women, and it is difficult to imagine how killing people and destroying a country’s infrastructure benefits minorities. Just as shameless is brandishing other people of color, white women, and queers—alluded to here as “Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation”—in this vilification of Muslims, attempting to make “them” afraid of “us.” But these walls disintegrate before they are constructed: for one, we are colored, we are women, and we are queer.

And we are not blind, none of us. We see that each of us has in turn been attacked by the rhetoric and policies of the new administration. We see a renewed policing of sexuality, and we see a war on all women, white or not, waged on our bodies in rolled back healthcare and cut funding for contraception. We see the resurrection of pipelines that had been put to rest. We see tax plans that punish single parents who are not wealthy, meaning single mothers, meaning black single mothers, feeding off the American white man’s fantasy of the African-American welfare queen and punishing her for that delusion. We see a surge in what should be called, by the state’s logic, domestic terrorism, but is instead individualized and pathologized as “hate crimes,” in order to obscure the way white supremacy is an extremist ideology. Last month alone, we saw not one, but two, mosques in Texas burned to the ground, and we saw the pushing, kicking, and threatening of a worker in hijab at JFK.

We see who is the true oppressor.

To us—we who have worked harder for less pay, who have survived pat downs at the airport that cross the line into abuse and punches delivered alternately as insults or blows; we who have watched the landscapes we came from pillaged for resources and our relatives suffer in economies being strangled by sanctions; we who have dutifully paid our taxes, trying to forget each day how that money buys bombs that land on our families and old homes and drones that occupy our skies—to us, it’s painfully clear that the only things being protected are the WHITE NATION and the rule of the white man. We know that as obsessed as they are with our veils, whether or not we choose to wear them, they are themselves masters of veiling, hiding hate in “straight talk” and racism in “security.”

And we have seen the way they treated, and continue to treat, our sisters whose skin is seen as darker or lighter—it hardly seems to matter, for they define what the colors mean—than ours is thought to be. We have seen how stolen land was tilled by stolen people, is tilled by stolen labor. People who were brought here because they can be made to work for an unlivable wage in unlivable conditions are being hunted down, held in detention centers, and kicked out. We, too, admit that we occupy these lands, though we recognize that we do so on the terms and in the service of the first colonizers, the white ones, who feed us crumbs that trick some of us into feeling full.

For we, too, are workers. We produce real things like medicine and money. We perform services like driving and teaching. We produce whiteness. Maybe that’s why they want us here, for they do, even though, like the petty boys on the playgrounds of my childhood in small-town America, they refuse to admit it.

We say: Our bodies will not be your banners. We are not yours to use and abuse, we are not yours to dupe. We see through your words, and we see your violence.

White men saving brown women from brown men.

We are the strength that will save ourselves.


Image credit: Gage Skidmore and Fibonacci Blue, licensed under Creative Commons.

Mariam Rahmani is a writer and researcher whose work centers on transnational women of color feminisms, and in particular, tracing a genealogy of Iranian feminism in order to make space for that history in contemporary conversations. More from this author →