Op-Ed: Nous Ne Sommes Pas Charlie: A Feminist Rejection of “Je Suis Charlie” – The Feminist Wire

Op-Ed: Nous Ne Sommes Pas Charlie: A Feminist Rejection of “Je Suis Charlie”

By Elizabeth Harwood

The January 7th attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is an atrocity.  Yet, it is not only the actions of “terrorists” but also the Western response to the attack that deserves critical attention.  Rather than being met with silent sympathy, massacres are often followed by political opportunism – just look at the gun-control debates that swept the United States after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.  So I was not surprised at the introduction of the “Je suis Charlie” trend on social media as a comment on the right to freedom of expression, but I am concerned with the incredible popularity it has gained.

“Je suis Charlie” has been used to characterize the massacre as a terrorist attack on Western free speech.  Let us first consider the distinction between the actual and cultural meanings of free speech.  In the 1960s, the United Nations General Assembly passed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which France acceded to in 1980.  Article 19 of this document states:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.


Per this policy, Charlie Hebdo was accorded freedom of speech.  And while the idea of what constitutes a “respect of the rights or reputations of others” is subject to interpretation, I would hope one could agree that the cartoon depictions of Muhammad, as well as other religious and political icons, published by Charlie Hebdo are of poor taste and express disrespect for Islam.  The Quran does not explicitly prohibit depictions of Muhammad, but certain hadith do; thus, many Muslims find any depiction of Muhammad, but particularly negative ones, to be offensive.  Even if you choose to reject the idea that Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations could disrespect the rights or reputations of other cultures, the ICCPR is very clear that freedom of expression comes with particular responsibilities.

What is overlooked in ongoing analyses of recent events is that the ICCPR’s conception of free speech differs from the everyday notion of free speech which is often premised on one’s right to offend others without consequence.  Additionally, common discourse around free speech is often infused with a “without exception” caveat.  This looks like the outrage that followed Sony’s initial decision to cancel screening The Interview, a comedy about killing Kim Jong-un.  Some defend both Sony and Charlie Hebdo in the name of humor.  Satire can be intellectual, humorous, and engaging when done tastefully; however, when one goes beyond their culture to take cheap shots at other populations, it is no longer satire in good taste.

The “Je suis Charlie” framing is simple, promotes solidarity, and is explicitly personal in its pronoun and political in its message.  However, it also creates an unfavorable us/them dichotomy.  If some people claim they “are” Charlie, who is on the other side?  Just the Kouachi brothers?  All extremists?  All Muslims?  Anyone who disagrees with the magazine?  The dichotomy implies anyone who does not claim, “Je suis Charlie” is aligning themselves with terrorist activity.

Further, the slogan simplifies the issue.  The discussion regarding the attack emphasizes freedom of speech when we could reframe the entire situation to be about an attack against secular bigotry.  Again, I do not endorse the attack by any means, and feminist ethics would not condone blaming the victims of Charlie Hebdo for their fate.  The staff members certainly have freedom of speech, but just because something is legal does not make it morally just.  “Je suis Charlie” allows satirical magazines to hold no accountability to any particular moral or societal code.  Morality ought to be about determining one’s personal sense of ethics based on their philosophical understanding of right and wrong, not about exercising how much one can legally get away with.  No one should be attacked: not physically as the victims of the massacre were, but also not culturally, as many people of various religious communities have been.

Despite years of protests by Muslims for the magazine to stop its depictions of Muhammad, the magazine ignored these complaints.  But once they were attacked, we are all expected to identify with the culturally offensive magazine in the name of free speech: if we disagree with the politics of the magazine, we are unsympathetic or unpatriotic.  The staff can do no wrong because they are now victims.  Before the attack we could criticize Charlie Hebdo for being disrespectful, but now its staff are portrayed as brave champions of freedom.

If our quintessential example of free speech is a “satirical” magazine whose goal is to offend as many people as possible, we would be taking a real hit to ideals of respect, tolerance, peace, and inclusion.  Let us celebrate free speech in a more respectful manner, condemning bigotry and disrespectful ridicule of religion, while simultaneously sympathizing with the victims and their families.


7 (1)Elizabeth Harwood is a recent college graduate living in New England with a degree in sociology and women, gender, and sexuality studies.  She is most interested in the nature of gender difference, both in its origins as well as how its manifestation impacts economics, family, politics, education, and other institutions.  Her senior thesis focused on working mothers enrolled in higher education and she intends to focus future research more specifically on the relationship between gender and the economy.  She is committed to socialist feminism and aims to better reconcile her academic research with her political activism.


  1. Barbara Markert

    February 15, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire

    I’m not Charles Hebdo. The issue should be murdering journalists by the IS-criminals or by Turkey’s secret service in Iraque, Syria, Libanon and Turkey. Another issue could be the assasinations of Jews in Europe today. In France facebook-sides are censored in the name of freedom of expression.

    “the ICCPR is very clear that freedom of expression comes with particular responsibilities.”

    “It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions” – ICCPR
    “may” means it can be restricted, it doesn’t have to be restricted. That is not very clear.

    Human rights have no condition or obligation – Human right do not come with particular responsibilities. Otherwise human rights would not be universal. Human rights are only limited by the human rights of others.

    The ICCPR is not the Holy Scripture. It’s wrong: The reputation of others is not a right. The intention was to forbid prejudices, racism and sexism in word and pictures. It’s not possible to forbid opinions or thoughts. The only mean is reasoning. To explain people that their attitude is at the end directed against themselves. The rulers, the rich and mighty are not the people. Colonalism, racism, sexism, classism, is in the interest of the rulers.

    The phrase “is very clear” demonstrate that there is no reason. It seem to be a reason, but it isn’t.

    Tasteful – de gustibus non disputandum est – taste is subjective. You can not debate taste or colors or emotions as right or wrong. Everything can be defined as distasteful or tasteful. Rulers perceive any kind of criticism as distasteful. Then it would be justified to persecute writers, journalists, artists and others.

    Taste is to be discussed wrote Adorno in Aesthetic Theory. But only in aesthetic theory, not to be used in practice or in law.

    “Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the others who think differently.” Rosa Luxemburg

    “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit der Andersdenkenden” Rosa Luxemburg –
    der Andersdenkenden can mean: a woman who thinks different or people who think different.
    die Andere is the other (female).
    Freedom of expression is always freedom of thoughts – there is the possiblity to write passionately against the “tastelessness”. Banning is oppression of freedom of speech. “When they burn books, they will at the end burn human.” Heinrich Heine in Almansor – When they ban thoughts, they will at the end ban people. Banning people means extermination.

    You only state that it is disrespectful ridiculing religion. Voltaire disrespectful ridicules religion, theologians, governments, armies, philosophies, and philosophers through allegory in Candide.
    Colonialism, racism, antisemitism, misogyny classism kill, but not blasphemy

    “Turkey has been labeled by Reporters Without Borders as the largest prison for journalists…so I am frightened about what they might use against me,” Serena Shim (near Kobane) 19.Oct.2014

    Serena Shim was killed in a car accident, after strucked by an truck on 20.Oct. 2014 in Turkey near Kobane – Rojava, Syria

    Japanese Journalist Kazumi Takaya was killed in a car accident,after strucked by an truck near in Turkey near Kobane on 29.01.2015

    She had been sent to the border to cover the possible release of fellow Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, who is currently being held by ISIL


    Start Je suis Serena Shim. Je suis Kazumi Takaya.

    Write articles on the women who defend us against IS-criminals. This is in first line the women defense units of Rojava – YPJ and the women and men of Rojava YPG and HPG People Protection Army of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK Group of Communities in Kurdistan) and all the journalists (male and female) who write on IS-criminals, especillay those who write on IS Turkey connections.
    “Ms Dollet added that while the number of professional journalists killed in Syria in the past three years is 39, there are 122 Syrian citizen journalists to have died in the same period of time.”

    Remember the killed newspaper distributor:

  2. Dave Beach

    February 17, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    You write “we could reframe the entire situation to be about an attack against secular bigotry.” Yes we could. And it would be a far cry better than what occurs when religious bigotry influences state laws. My LGBT brothers and sisters have been attacked by more than pictures and words- they have been oppressed, marginalized, beaten, imprisoned and sometimes killed- especially in countries where Islam is the strongest. I have zero respect for ANY religion which oppresses it’s minorities. And let’s continue to keep it real here- the most egregious of all world religions when it comes to persecuting LGBT folks is Islam.

    Second, to frame this as a “quintessential example of free speech … whose goal is to offend as many people as possible, we would be taking a real hit to ideals of respect, tolerance, peace, and inclusion …,” is to conflate two unrelated concepts. The first is freedom of speech. The second are the ideals of respect, tolerance, peace and inclusion.

    In the United States, free speech gives churches the right to mouth hatred against, let’s say, women’s reproductive rights. I don’t like it and I don’t respect it- it’s just another patriarchal, monotheistic religion trying to shove it’s arcane system of morality down everyone’s throat, but it has the right to voice it’s bigoted opinions.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t require “respect, tolerance, peace and incusion” and religions take full advantage of that fact.

    The principle of free speech is what allows any group to profess its beliefs- even religions- no matter how vile their message happens to be.

  3. Bonnie

    February 24, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    I find your article in bad taste and extremely offensive. That doesn’t mean you have any moral obligation not to offend me, knock yourself out.

    Frankly, there is no “moral argument” to be made about the Charlie Hebdo murders. Armed men killed 12 people for their drawings. That’s it, that’s all. For you to add a “but” to that and suggest they were the ones at fault is specious and frankly, vicious.

    Let me show you why you are misguided. You don’t understand the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They are not your language or your culture and you don’t don’t get the tradition or history of them. That is one of the reasons free speech is so important. So that people like you who jump to conclusions out of ignorance are not in charge of what is or is not “tasteful.”

    Try to imagine what it was like for early feminists – who paved the way for you to write such distasteful articles – who tried to write about female emancipation. Try to imagine what it was like for people of colour to write about their civil and human rights. There is ample evidence that there were many “mainstream” opinions that found them distasteful.

    The truth is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are writers were brave and intelligent. The role of good satire is to offend and make you think. It is also to preserve a society where religious groups MUST put up with being offended. A necessary part of living in a free society. Whether you know it or not, they have been defending your rights all along.

    So before you write again about how distasteful they are, remember how distasteful YOU are to some people. There are many who don’t think you should have the right to write what you want or dress the way you want or do the work you want to do. They would censor you and call you obscene because they find you offensive. As do I, but I would never try to stop you from writing.