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The state is trying to co-opt Black and Muslim women's struggle - don't be fooled

With Black Lives Matter uprisings around the globe, we must be even more vigilant of state attempts to manipulate our movements
The Stoosh Instagram page was last updated on 6 March 2018 (Screengrab)

Recent revelations that the British government has been covertly diffusing its counterterrorism propaganda through the empowerment of women of colour on social media is yet another reminder of where interests lie when it comes to the state. 

When it feigns interest in the liberation of the oppressed, it is always, in one way or another, a ploy to further that oppression in a new way. This is yet another cautionary tale, and a reminder that we can only free ourselves by defeating the structures that oppress us.

Stoosh, an online space with both a Facebook page and Instagram account, was created in March 2017 by the communications company Breakthrough Media. While it presented itself as a social justice-minded platform for women of colour, it was contracted by a unit within the Home Office known as the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT).

Subconscious civilising mission

Scrolling through and watching some of the short videos uploaded to Stoosh’s social media platforms, one is overwhelmed by the superficiality of its content. Each “discussion” that delves into the issues faced by women of colour, and particularly Muslim women, are incredibly shallow. They appear as an attempt at a sort of subconscious civilising mission - reinforcing good behaviour and punishing bad.

Depoliticised, interfaith-esque chat on inter-religious marriages, check! Vacant references to inspiring, “good Muslim” role models such as Malala Yousafzai, who confront barbaric Islamic terrorism, check! Examples of Western Muslim women taking on brown and Muslim patriarchy across their homelands, from Iran to Afghanistan, check! Calling out explicitly Muslim slut-shaming, check! The list goes on.

The entire set-up is a slick attempt at shaping the so-called ideal British Muslim identity

There is even an attempt to cover rising Islamophobia targeted at women after the Finsbury Park mosque attack, when the far-right inspired Darren Osborne drove a van into worshippers, taking the life of Makram Ali and injuring many more. Absent is any engagement with structural questions, such as the role of government policies in igniting the flames of hatred that embolden fascists and racists to take to the streets, where they physically and verbally attack Muslim women.

The entire set-up is a slick attempt at shaping the so-called ideal British Muslim identity. The diversity of those involved, the co-option of language - including use of the patois word “stoosh” (meaning superior) - and the use of famous figures from political and cultural platforms could fool anyone into thinking this was a space set up by and for young women of colour.

But that’s just it - you would be forgiven for making such an assumption if you avoided delving too deeply into the content, or putting it into context.

Superficial language of empowerment

The messaging mobilises a superficial language of empowerment. Given the centrality of this vacuous approach to so much media coverage and equality and diversity work that we find plaguing every place of employment, education and public service, it is easy to be taken in by it. 

Yet, it is impotent in opposing oppression, because it fails to engage the violent history out of which it emerges - and it silences the necessary rage needed to fight racism, gendered Islamophobia and misogyny. The depoliticised nature of Stoosh is symptomatic of all areas of work delivered by our government in the name of helping the most marginalised.

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More unnerving than the whitewashing of the state’s own role in the oppression of Muslim women and women of colour, and even the co-option of their struggles, is the Home Office using this group to control expressions of resistance.

It reinforces the old racist trope and colonial strategy of women of colour being merely vessels for the policing of their community, the imposition of state-sanctioned narratives, and the disorganisation of liberation struggles.

Not dissimilar to imperialist white saviour missions across the Middle East, these practices highlight the foundations of the counter-extremism agenda. The state functions with little to no transparency, let alone scrutiny, and defends its interventions as noble, seeking to free Muslim women. 

In reality, this is all predicated on the belief - which British imperialism and its institutions, such as the Home Office, accuse “backwards” Global South nations of having - that Muslim women and women of colour have no agency, and should they attempt to apply any, cannot be left to their own devices.

It flies in the face of the professed goal of the Stoosh Facebook page “to promote a safe online environment for young women to tell their stories, taking ownership of their own narrative”. 

'Grasping things at the root'

With Black Lives Matter uprisings around the globe, and as calls for justice and reparations against the wealthy and powerful continue to mount, we must be even more vigilant of state attempts to co-opt our movements. The challenges for radical anti-racism are also a battle over language, narrative and analysis. Our refusal to let the struggles of the most oppressed be packaged and sold by corporations, or institutionalised and depoliticised by the state, should be total.

As Nisha Kapoor, author of Deport, Deprive, Extradite: 21st Century State Extremism, warned: “In a world where politics is increasingly mediated via surveillance technologies, we should be very attentive to the ways in which government is using covert methods to discipline, manipulate and control the behaviour of young black women. Its ultimate intent is to promote ignorance, encourage docility and quash dissent.”

This is also yet another reason for social justice movements, groups and individuals to strengthen broad coalitions that allow for the sharing of information, as well as methods of resistance

This is also yet another reason for social justice movements, groups and individuals to strengthen broad coalitions that allow for the sharing of information, as well as methods of resistance - especially given that this is not a first for the Home Office, which also used a platform known as This Is Woke.  

The Home Office and its OSCT unit can try to rebrand the face and quotes of Angela Davis, but the very politics that saw her branded a terrorist by the US state, arrested, forced into hunger strike, and attacked throughout her life, teaches us to dismantle the counter-extremism apparatus - and the state that pushes it - in its entirety. 

She taught us, and continues to teach us, that our liberation is only delivered through the systematic, difficult and unpopular method of  “grasping things at the root”. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Malia Bouattia
Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former president of the National Union of Students, co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network and presenter/panelist on British Muslim TV's Women Like Us.