Dr Kiran Grewal is a Reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Throughout her work, she has covered subjects including feminist and postcolonial theory, human rights, and post-conflict justice. In the first All Souls lecture of Trinity Term 2021, Dr Grewal reflected upon and extended some of the insights from her 2017 book, Racialised Gang Rape and the Reinforcement of Dominant Order: Discourses of Gender, Race and Nation.

Dr Grewal’s book is based on Australian case studies of high-profile incidents of sexual violence, that, although occurring in the early 2000s, have demonstrated their enduring significance in Australian national consciousness through the renewed attention these cases have received as some of the perpetrators become eligible for parole or release. In the media, these cases were framed as a new phenomenon of immigrant Muslim gang rapists who deliberately targeted white ‘Australian’ women as victims, leading to fierce public debates and eventual legal reform. However, questions raised about the ability of the criminal legal system to deal with sexual violence and a ‘culture of tolerance’ soon gave way to racialised debates about multiculturalism and immigration. Thus, a moment that might have held potential for feminists’ demands and critiques to be recognised instead fed into racist discourses that conceived of foreignness and immigration as the ‘real’ problem. Dr Grewal noted that women of colour, particularly Muslim women of colour, are often reluctant to speak up about sexual violence for fear of their experiences and concerns being co-opted by right-wing and Islamophobic agendas. This problem encapsulates two key questions raised throughout Dr Grewal’s lecture: why has it proven so difficult to formulate a simultaneously anti-racist and feminist response to sexual violence? And what might be some ways forward?

Immigrant women at a feminist protest in France in the 1990s

Wikimedia Commons

Around the time of those Australian cases, a similar issue came to light following French Muslim women’s accounts of their experiences of gang rape in the banlieues of Paris. Dr Grewal found mainstream responses to both the Australian and the French cases to be deeply problematic. On the one hand, she was sceptical of a newfound, ‘feminist’ interest in these cases: why were these cases, where the perpetrators were members of poor, ethnic minority communities, getting particular attention? And why now? On the other hand, narratives that dismissed these concerns as a moral panic that further enabled the demonisation and stigmatisation of ethnic minority men were just as troubling. This perspective overlooked not only the genuine problems that women from within the banlieues were facing, as well as the fact that in the Australian cases, the perpetrators of this sexual violence actually did make explicit reference to race themselves; framing their acts of sexual violence against white women as a kind of revenge on a white-dominated society in which they found themselves marginalised on the basis of their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

While there were different positions taken on these rape cases, what seemed to be shared by the perpetrators, their supporters from the community, and even some critical anti-racist commentators, was an understanding of the attacks as a problem between men, with women’s bodies a means through which these male cultural tensions were being fought. Dr Grewal noted that there was no debate about the symbolic significance of women’s bodies in this context, nor about the ramifications of particular norms of heterosexuality, masculinity, or femininity. 

Éric Fassin has described the ways in which there has been a shift in the articulation of French republican values away from the idea of ‘fraternity’ to the idea of ‘gender equality’. Similarly, Dr Grewal contended that the Australian gang rape cases allowed Australia to reconstitute itself as a ‘feminist’ nation through the displacement of all issues relating to misogyny and sexual violence onto the Muslim immigrant population. This displacement opens up the opportunity for governments to claim that they can solve issues of sexual violence against women through incarceration or deportation, situating sexual violence as something that can be easily ‘made external’; obscuring the sexual violence perpetrated by those in positions of political power and in wider society. This idea of feminism as the hallmark of the nation is not specific to France or Australia, and can be identified among other western nations, where the idea that it is liberal democracy that will ensure gender equality and liberation for women from ethnic minority backgrounds, is often taken for granted.

Dr Grewal also noted that when the notion of ‘culture’ was invoked during the Australian trials, a particular version of culture was endorsed. What was accepted by all sides as the culture of the perpetrators’ Muslim immigrant communities was not only based on the premise that a patriarchal, conservative version of culture constituted its ‘true’ nature, but was also heavily informed by colonial stereotypes. Invoking Bourdieu’s notion of the ‘habitus’, Dr Grewal argued that these stereotypes were performed and reproduced by the non-white subjects themselves during the trial, which were then subsequently reinforced by mainstream society in order to justify the exclusion of these ethnic minority populations. Further, this failure to critically interrogate the idea of ‘culture’ also erases feminist resistance to any misogynist ‘norms’ within ethnic minority groups.

Against anti- or post-feminist critical accounts (e.g., Bouteldja, 2016) that posit that Indigenous or ethnic minority women must, in essence, put ‘feminist issues’ aside for the broader goal of advancing anti-racist causes, Dr Grewal contended that a simultaneously feminist and anti-racist framework constitutes a more effective way forward. However, this response needs to be able to address two particular concerns. Firstly, according to Dr Grewal, intersectionality has been more effectively deployed to respond to feminism’s whiteness than as a critical race intervention to disrupt masculinist frames. Secondly, Dr Grewal was also troubled by some decolonial feminist interventions which seem to do little to foreground women’s liberation or alternative visions of feminism in their work. Accounts like Bouteldja’s cast feminism as a purely western discourse, erasing the efforts of women around the world whose feminist politics emerge from non-western foundations. Why, when there has been so much nuanced work that attempts to deal with questions of diversity and colonialism in relation to women, has masculinity not been the subject of similar attentiveness? Dr Grewal concluded that we ought to enhance intersectionality by finding ways to move beyond identity politics; instead incorporating an assemblage-based approach, creating alternative imaginaries, and being strategic about our engagement with the criminal justice system as the only solution to sexual violence.