Why are we obsessed with Muslim women?

EDIT: disclaimer that this is from my perspective in Britain and primarily about rhetoric here and in other Western European/North American contexts.

The hijab, burqa, burkini, FGM, ‘honour killings’ and ‘forced marriages’ are familiar tropes when it comes to thinking about migration and Islam in ‘the West’. Their prevalence represents the slippage between ‘women’s rights’ and questions of national borders and religion, reflecting the way Muslim presence in Europe/USA is not necessarily framed as a question of race, religion, or nation – but that of culture and gender. Indeed, ‘Islam’ is positioned as different primarily because of the ‘culture’ it represents and its treatment of ‘gender’; through this, historical, political and social processes are made invisible.

We need to recognize that ‘women’s rights’ is therefore just a phrase which works to depoliticize issues around migration and border control by circularly blaming migrants, refugees and Muslim bodies for their own exclusions. This justifies anti-immigration and islamophobic practices on the grounds of protecting people – especially women – a front for protecting a fragile and fragmented ‘white’, ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ West.

Image result for islamophobia
(Art from muslimgirl.com, by Steph Barahona [drawing of woman in hijab and hands pointing at her]).
Superficially, women’s rights are central to debates on migration and Islam because Muslim women, typically through their dress, present a visible identity at odds with Western ‘norms’. In this way they embody the question of ‘assimilation’ in the West, which is conflated with a reductive ‘female emancipation’. This conflation is due to constructions of Muslim men as terrorists and patriarchs, and has led to a state-sanctioned desire to ‘secularise’ Muslim women’s identities. In my opinion this assimilationist desire under the guise of bestowing ‘rights’ specifically targets Muslim women because women’s mothering roles give them a central place in reproducing and creating ‘culture’ – potentially challenging nationalist, state-sanctioned cultural identities. The irony of this perception of Muslim women as especially requiring assimilation also lies in the fact that the very question of integration is a product of their increasing participation and visibility in Western public and middle-class cultures.

Since this is the case, we have to ask why women’s rights are seen as being central to the debate on migration and Islam. This leads us to the imperialist roots of a discourse wherein women’s rights were central to justifying colonialism and defining ‘the self’. For example, in South Asia and the Middle East, French and British forces justified intervention on grounds of emancipating women – rhetoric we are also familiar with since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.  Indeed, in both the past and present the rights of women are made to represent an essential difference between the Western colonizer and ‘Eastern’ colonized. But now that the Muslim Other is no longer just external but native to the West – born in the West – the neat binary of a secular, liberal, West versus an East that is its inverse is destabilized. The only way for control to be retained over what it means to be Western is to locate what makes Muslim migrants different not in their place of origin then, but their culture and ‘unchanging’ belief-system which stands as a foil to Europe’s forward-moving ‘self’. For example, constructions of Muslims as misogynistic and homophobic has enabled many European capitals to define themselves as ‘queer friendly’ and feminist, without having to dismantle or deconstruct their own homophobia, misogyny and transphobia.

This leads us to the central reason why women’s rights are key in debates on migration and Islam: because they hide actual processes of power. Indeed, ‘women’s rights’ are never deemed a priority when it comes to the patriarchal violence of imperialism, rights of women prisoners, Western women’s access to welfare and housing, or Islamophobic violence. It is the same when it comes to helping Muslim women who have fought misogyny in Muslim-majority countries and the West for decades. Therefore, ‘women’s rights’ is just a phrase which depoliticises and decontextualises other issues, deferring responsibility for them. By attaching ‘misogyny’ to Islam it is made into a ‘cultural’ problem and detached from politics and social relations, hiding the role of patriarchal masculinities. This absolves the state of any responsibility in tackling misogyny and protects harmful ideas about masculinity. It also justifies disciplining Muslim men – through border controls, surveillance and detention – since it ascribes misogyny only to them. The state’s social, economic and political failures are also ignored and even justified when ‘women’s rights’ are made the central aspect of the debate. The recent ‘Casey Review’, on integration in the UK, perfectly exemplified this. It argued for focus on ‘women’s emancipation in communities where they are being held back by regressive cultural practices’, clearly conflating ‘women’s rights’, religion and culture, at the expense of considering racial, gender-based and classist barriers to women. This demonstrates the way a focus on ‘women’s rights’ works to both hide and absolve power. In turn, the people blamed for not integrating remain the same ones perpetually excluded from a Europe imagined as homogenously ‘white’, ‘secular’ and ‘democratic’.

‘Women’s rights’ are clearly only superficially central to the discourse on migration and Islam then. Focus on them does not reflect an actual preoccupation with emancipation from gendered oppression but provides a tool to depoliticise issues of misogyny, border violence, economic deprivation and social and political disenfranchisement. This is because ‘women’s issues’ are always understood as ‘cultural’ and therefore unchanging and unchangeable – absolving patriarchy, nation-state structures, and politics, for excluding and enacting violence against women, refugees, migrants and Muslims.

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8 thoughts on “Why are we obsessed with Muslim women?

  1. If women in certain orthodox families in the UK are being forced to wear the hijab etc, isn’t that a ‘regressive cultural practice’ though? I think that in some cases, Muslim women may truly be held back by patriarchal family members (happens quite often in Christian and Hindu families as well – an unfortunate consequence of adhering to misogynistic portions of religious texts). If so, isn’t it the government’s duty to call this out? A state is obliged to uphold values like gender equality, right?

    I think the Casey Report should have focused on other religious communities as well. If it had called out ALL religious misogyny to an equal extent, I would have considered it a good step forward to protect women of all creeds and colours.

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    1. So basically I think the phrase ‘regressive cultural practice’ hides SO much and is so politically laden. Of course some women are forced to wear the hijab and of course that shouldn’t be the case – but when you call it the product of a ‘regressive cultural practice’ you ignore that that means nothing really? Regressive is just a value-laden term meaning un-modern and thus needing to “progress” – which is a standard way that Muslims are seen in general. Then ‘cultural practice’ makes it sound like something that is inherent to the way Muslims are. That culture determines how they treat women and that they must force girls to wear hijab. Basically such an analysis ignores that actually this is about unequal gender relations, fragile masculinity, familial coercion and pressure resulting from a mixture of the pressures to conform to ‘Islam’ in a specifically gendered way, and resisting the pressures to ‘assimilate’.

      As you yourself say patriarchal family members can hold back Christian or Hindu women too — this suggests that patriarchy is not ‘culturally’ specific then, but that it adapts to different values and justifies the domination of men over women in multiple contexts. Of course religion has long been a bastion of patriarchy and that needs dealing with but is a separate issue to what I’m outlining above which is that the language of ‘culture’ hides the fact that actually there’s a REASON we are more concerned with the ‘equality’ of Muslim women than we are with the rights of poor working-class women, single mothers, underpayed women in the workplace, prisoners, women who can’t access the right healthcare, women in detention centres etc etc — we don’t CARE about women per se, but the focus on Muslim women is about policing and controlling and Othering Muslims more generally.

      I also have to say I actually don’t see the government as a useful player in combatting patriarchy. In an ideal world it would be, maybe – but when the government itself is the tool enabling patriarchal violence in so many of the ways I’ve just outlined, if you then ask it to look at Muslim women in particular, in order to avoid holding its own self responsible and complicit in patriarchal violence it will blame “culture” instead, which is exactly what we’ve seen.

      The Casey report was far too ideological. It wasn’t supposed to be ABOUT religious misogyny but about integration, and so actually I have to disagree with you; by focusing on religion and culture the report managed to entirely ignore how the state’s economic, political and social policies and racist rhetoric have actively prevented ‘integration’; and it failed to ask what integration was actually a means for.

      I’m sorry I just don’t think that the same state that is complicit in so much violence against Muslim women – the rhetoric that enables islamophobic attacks for example – is ABLE to hold up values like gender equality. I also don’t think the government should define what gender equality looks like.

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  2. I am so glad I found this blog. I’ve already gone through most of your posts and I have to say that I never thought of the points you make like that before. Being a white European young woman who has never lived outside of Europe and whose country doesn’t have big Muslim communities — the immigrant communities here are mostly Christian African from Portugal’s colonies — I have to say that since the Syrian Civil War broke out Islam never crossed my mind. Your blog has served as a part of my education in other ways of thinking and for this I’m grateful for your uncensored and blatantly honest writing. Much love!

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment. It really means a lot. And thank you for reading with such openness to listen. That is endlessly appreciated. 🙂

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  3. I’ve seen many twitter conversations in Hindi where women are shamed for not wearing hijab (eg; Boxer Amir Khan’s wife was shamed for being modern and not wearing hijab, on twitter and facebook).
    My educated Muslim friends in India are rejecting the hijab worn by their parents. Over here young Muslims are taking up hijab which was mostly shunned by their mothers in the 70s. The desire to wear hijab seems to me to be more a political statement rather than a need for modesty, as most hijab wearers I see in UK wear lots of makeup which is supercool but doesn’t align with the ‘avoiding sexual allure’ claim. As it is a political statement, I support the rights of western Muslims to wear what they want. But they should also bear in mind that a lot of the women elsewhere don’t have that choice; they are expected and forced to wear it.

    I also hope that the western muslim women who seek to wear hijab for modesty don’t force their daughters in the future to wear them.

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    1. As you’re highlighting, contexts and histories matter. I believe its too sweeping a statement to say Muslims are wearing hijab as a political statement. Some do, some don’t. Religion plays a part in ambivalent or serious ways. Faith plays a part, spirituality, perhaps routine, tradition, example, expectation. Coercion comes in different forms, force is not always physical. I truly don’t believe any sweeping statements should be made about women who wear hijabs. More than anything else a persons context and circumstances shape their choices, agency and experience.

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