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.
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.