Photo by Maria Runarsdottir
Journalist, blogger and activist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah on why feminism isn’t just for cis, heterosexual white women anymore.
Queer, proudly heavyset, and boasting an ‘immigration background’, 24-year-old Hengameh Yaghoobifarah cumulates credentials on the intersectional feminist scene. Born “a hairy fat tomboy” to Iranian parents in a small village near Hamburg, this blogger-journalist-activist, who doesn't identify as a woman and insists on being referred to as ‘they’, has successfully managed to reclaim the body, gender and culture of their liking. Creator of the popular (anti-)fashion/lifestyle blog Queer Vanity and an editor with feminist magazine Missy, Yaghoobifarah is representative of a new brand of Berlin feminism...
Feminism is a loaded word. What does it mean for you?
My feminism isn't about women or being a woman. It rather stands for social, political and economical equality between all genders, beyond gender binarity. It is also inter- sectional – it’s about race, ability, class and body normativity, not just the privileged rights of a heterosexual woman.
Do you identify as a woman at all?
No, I don't identify as a woman because there are more than two genders and the construction of the gender binary is a colonial myth. In my mother tongue, there are no gendered pronouns and Western languages are trying to force womanhood upon me even though this is not what I identify as.
A post- or trans-gender feminist?
Well, I would mostly say I’m a queer feminist – queer feminism is very close to trans-feminism. But I wouldn’t use post-gender because the world we live in is gendered. I'm all for post-gender and post-patriarchy, but we're not there yet. But the point is that our conception of gender has to change in order to put radical feminist politics in practice and fight hetero-cis-patriarchy.
So where do you start in this battle?
There are a lot of struggles in Berlin. Of course, the struggle of the new citizens that are coming from Syria and war – this is part of feminism. The women that come here suffer more because they don’t get the safety they need, so they get abused by the people they travel or stay with, by border guards or by Germans on the street. In Berlin there is still cat-calling, a pretty bad gender pay gap and the rape culture...
The Aufschrei Twitter campaign against sexual harassment in 2013 – were you part of that?
I Tweeted a bit about it – it was empowering to talk about it, but I got a lot of harassment from anti-feminists for doing so. I ended up dealing with hate more than the good and empowering aspects of it.
When you say “anti-feminists”, whom are you referring to?
Masculinists, men’s rights activists – people who believe women should stay where they are.
Do you think these men are feeling threatened by a changing society?
Men should be feeling threatened! They’re about to lose their power. Feminism has become very en vogue; you can buy a feminist t-shirt at H&M or Acne Studios depending on your budget. It’s nice to make feminism more popular but it has to stay a threat. It’s not a fashion accessory. It’s about making men feel uncomfortable.
What would be an ideal feminist society?
A society where people don't experience violence or sanctions, harassment or comments because of the gender they identify as. They would not be policed and would be free to go wherever and however they want. Having the bodies they want, speaking about the things they want. Abolishing patriarchy, heteronormativity and gender norms.
Gender norms like what?
A progressive step would be ungendered toilets. This is great for non-binary trans people as they have so many problems going to the toilet! When they do go to the opposing toilets they can get thrown out, harassed or even raped. Making a toilet gendered is as random as having a toilet for people with blonde hair or with black shoes. Some coffee shops have made it easy – the toilets are ungendered; you can sit in half and stand or sit in the others. Simple.
What about gender privacy?
You could make “a toilet for everyone... but cis males”. Of course, a woman won’t necessarily be harassed by men, but men are more likely to harass. Harassment and rape are still not sanctioned enough in society. Rape culture is still there. And it’s very hard to prove and establish rape as a crime in Germany. It’s awful.
How do you feel about the Cologne events in January?
When I first read about it, I was angry – and hoped the harassers were not brown men. When I realised they were, I was really frightened. I realised the backlash would hit every Muslim or brown man, especially the male refugees. Although sexual harassment is nothing new in Germany – and clearly not the monopoly of men of colour. Whether in the U-Bahn, during music festivals or at Oktoberfest, there are always white drunk guys trying to harass you, but the fears are never heard in the media! The mainstream response to harassment is, “Don't wear hot pants; don't drink too much.” It is never taken seriously... until it's Muslims, and then they notice! The Cologne attacks left me angry. I’m glad people can talk about it now, but women of colour and queer people were still extra silenced: if they spoke about it they knew their experience would be instrumentalised for a racial purpose. It’s a problem.
If the attacker is a foreigner, what is the right thing to do for an intersectional feminist like you?
Does it really matter if they were Turkish or not? If you get beaten or harassed, you have to wonder what’s the point in naming the ethnicity. A lot of white people are violent too but people don't name their whiteness.
Your parents come from Iran. Do you identify as a Muslim either culturally or religiously?
Mostly culturally, but partly religiously. Islam for me is about social justice; my activism and religion overlap.
Religions have been used as an instrument of male oppression in pretty much every culture – looking at the Muslim world, do you really think Islam is any different?
I’m trying to Reclaim religion from Patriarchy. Pre-colonial Islam was queer.
A lot of religions are claimed by patriarchy to oppress people – which is not what they were made for. I’m trying to reclaim this. Pre-colonial Islam was queer. Poets like Rumi. Remember the old Orientalist stigma about Middle Eastern people, that were promiscuous – those Muslim people, they fucked everyone. The colonialists tried to impose their heteronormativity on them. The queerness of Islam refused to be defined and put into categories. There wasn’t a distinct queer group – it was fluid. This is seen in South Asian and South American cultures too, until the West imported their heteronormative values... and now we are being blamed for not being inclusive of homosexuality. It’s a contradiction.
But right now, women are being oppressed in the name of Islam.
This behaviour is abuse – it has nothing to do with Islam. If I were to castrate a man on the street and say this is feminism or Islam – it’s not. It’s wrong. It’s the same. These people are fanatics.
Do you think women are better off in Germany than, say, Saudi Arabia?
I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia! I’ve only seen Western images. I mean it’s fucked up they can’t drive cars but I think gender relationships in Germany are fucked up too. I as a fat, hairy person can’t dress the way I want either. I get harassed or thrown things at me on the street if people don’t like the way I look. Online, addressing racism, sexism and homophobia, I get rape and death threats on a weekly basis from random people I don’t even know. A few years ago I wrote a piece on the problematic side of nationalism in soccer championships. For ages people stalked me on Facebook and threatened to find my address!
Have you encountered such adverse reactions in real life as well?
There’s sexism on the streets. The difference here is that women are sexualised, like they’re served on a silver platter. Whereas in Afghanistan women are covered up on the streets and in adverts. I think there’s both sides to oppression and it depends on what it means to you. Because I grew up as a Muslim kid, people say, “Oh, you weren’t allowed to drink or date boys,” but it was never my desire to date boys – everyone was so ugly in my small town anyway! And posting drunken selfies is embarrassing at any age. Everyone has his or her own Islam – it’s up to how you interpret it. Sex isn’t just for marriage... you don’t need tax benefits and a contract in Islam to have sex. Even a one-night-stand can be okay from a Muslim point of view but then there’s the patriarchy saying... NO.
Were your parents open-minded? How are they taking that their daughter has become such an outspoken queer feminist?
They’re conservative-minded but still quite liberal. Reading about Islam and homophobia so much made me fear coming out – I thought, what if they throw me out? But nothing like that happened. My mother was confused, but just as any parent would be. In the end, they think I’m a weirdo, but they’re proud of me. My mother didn’t offer to go to Christopher Street Day with me... but then, I didn’t go anyway!
Why don’t you wear a headscarf if you’re Muslim?
Addressing racism, sexism and homophobia online… I get rape and death threats on a weekly basis from random people I don’t even know.
Sometimes I do, for visibility reasons... to stand out. To support Muslim women. For solidarity. The hijab is not about being de- voted to men, it’s about being visible and being recognised as a Muslim by other Muslims. But choice is key here. I have Iranian friends who prefer to wear white modest dresses because they don’t want people to look at their bodies. We as feminists should be able to have pregnancies, have abortions, shave or not –and dress how we like. We shouldn’t be forced to wear the hijab, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be forced to take it off.
Does your mum wear the hijab?
When she came here my mum took her hijab o . It wasn’t to integrate better; she just didn’t feel like wearing it anymore. She changed her perception of what it means to be a good Muslim.
Women’s liberation movements in the 1960s-1970s had girls take off their hijabs and wear mini skirts– and now their daughters put them back on with long dresses! Is this a paradox? A generational clash?
I mean, the generational question of what is feminist or not is not just about the hijab. It’s about lesbian versus hetero culture too. I wouldn’t go to a straight girl and say ‘Hey, stop fucking your boyfriend.’ Feminism is about choosing something. It’s about the symbol, and whether that’s not wearing makeup or heels may differ between the ages. What is liberation for me (like dressing in a masculine way) isn’t liberation for others, and generations affect this.
You’re really into fashion – on your blog you call yourself a fa(t)shionista.
Fashion is a way to communicate. Even if I don’t like fashion, I still communicate through it, through my style – it’s anti-fashion. If I want to communicate feminism, for example, I have a patch on my denim-jacket. Or this shirt I’m wearing now with the corset, I like it because it’s ambiguous. Fashion is a tool to be resistant against the system. It can be subversive if you want it to. It can be about reclaiming, politicising and re-appropriating.
Speaking of re-appropriation – sex work has been reclaimed by third-wave feminists. What’s your view on prostitution?
I think sex work is not just a feminist but a socialist question. It’s about the working class, about work, about labour. What even is sex work? Is it sex work to be a model for American Apparel? Is it selling yourself to work at a restaurant and be nice and devoted to your clients? Selling your body to men – I think it can be feminist. Again it depends on context. Being forced to do it is obviously not feminist.
You mentioned you hated men. What do you mean by that?
I mean certain categories of men, and the power that they have. I don’t have a lot of cis male friends, because of the way most men behave. It takes a lot of energy to hang out with a lot of guys – when I did, they were often apolitical, for instance. If you’re part of the patriarchy you often act up to that without realising it, and I don’t have time for that.
Growing up, how was it with the boys at school?
The problems at school weren’t just with boys; they were also with the rich white kids. When I was about 12, very early, I didn’t want to be gendered. I had shorter hair and wore boyish clothes and people would label me as not a girl, not a he or she... but an ‘it’. I was also shamed for being Iranian, having bushy eyebrows and being fat. They called me a ‘bush’. And then, with my name... At school you get racialised because of your name, your parents, your body, your religion. If I apply to jobs with just my name, without people seeing me, I usually get rejected...
Is having a female German chancellor a progressive step?
Well, what did Obama do for black people? They still get shot in the streets. What has Merkel done for women? She’s in a very sexist, homophobic party. She’s against making sexual violence laws more progressive and is stubborn on her views of same sex marriage. She’s very conservative. Being a woman doesn’t automatically make you a feminist.
Originally published in issue #149, May 2016.