We’re being told to take clothes off on beaches by the police, put clothes on in the streets by men – sometimes it feels like our oppression comes from all sides
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Muslim women. Authorities across several towns in France have banned the “burkini” (pretty much just a wetsuit designed for Muslim women to be able to swim with their bodies covered). Two young Muslim women wearing hijabs were escorted off a plane at Stansted airport after fellow passengers reported them as being members of Isis. Recently, the BBC released an interview I gave them about Islamophobia online, when a random white man interrupted the interview by trying to talk about Sharia law.
The dehumanisation and criminalisation of Muslim women has been taking place quietly yet in plain sight for a long time now, brought home by seeing images of armed policemen standing over an elderly Muslim woman on a beach in Nice and forcing her to remove her clothes with onlookers cheering them on. The “burkini ban” has sparked international outrage within the Muslim community and beyond; our civil liberties are being taken away, while also receiving widespread support in a climate of fear and ignorance. All in the name of freedom and security, although I can’t remember the last time a lady in a burkini committed a violent act of terror.
For how long must the caricature of the oppressed, submissive Muslim woman be thrust into our faces across all media? Forced to wear veils, forced to stay at home, the Muslim woman is seen as somebody that needs to be “saved” by any means – even if it is against her will. The Muslim woman is seen as somebody who lacks the autonomy and freedom to even think for herself due to her backwards culture and internalised misogyny.
White, Western feminism (along with politicians and newspapers) never seems to miss an opportunity to point out the misogyny that unfortunately does exist in our communities – something I call out constantly and actively oppose. Something that I also see my sisters speak out against. Something that I see many brothers and Islamic scholars speaking out against too. The same day that guy interrupted my interview and I became tangled in a somewhat fruitless debate with him about sharia law and his concern of Muslims taking over the world, I later also had a random Muslim man shout at me on the street to “cover my legs” because an inch of my ankle was showing when I walked.
I was pretty much in disbelief that in the space of about 20 minutes I had experienced the two extremes; from both right-wing bigotry to unashamed misogyny from a supposedly religious person. I came home feeling utterly exhausted and even a little emotional about the fact that we are often attacked from both sides.
However, Western feminism often lacks the cultural understanding and nuance to actually help Muslim women overcome these social issues in any kind of meaningful way. It is not doing us any favours at all when it fails to take an intersectional approach and demonises all Muslim men who themselves suffer under the many socioeconomic inequalities and postcolonial political instability that gives rise to social injustice. It also tends to totally ignore misogyny in any other community and particularly their own communities – while also denying Muslim women our own agency when it comes to our love and practice of our faith. I feel that my faith gives me beautiful status and authority as a woman, empowering me to demand my rights – and while I don’t implore you to agree with me I at least expect you to respect my right to hold my own beliefs.
“The same day that guy interrupted my interview and I became tangled in a somewhat fruitless debate with him about sharia law and his concern of Muslims taking over the world, I later also had a random Muslim man shout at me on the street to ‘cover my legs’”
And yet what Western feminism could challenge quite successfully yet remains deafeningly silent about, is the vilification of Muslim women in secular society that is supposedly committed to upholding principles of liberty and freedom. It is absurd to think that any self-identifying feminist can remain indifferent towards or even support Muslim women being forcibly stopped from wearing the clothes she wants to wear, on the grounds that such clothing demonstrates a lack of freedom of choice. When Muslim women protest such claims stating that we actually enjoy wearing hijab, and enjoy getting to choose who gets to see our hair & bodies – the response is often that it cannot be a choice if we are “brainwashed” or obligated to wear such clothes within our religion.
The fundamental problem with this idea is that it assumes that Muslim women cannot truly be “free” if we are influenced by religious principles that make us think our choices are our own, when they are not. Yet, it assumes that Western women in secular society exist in a sort of vacuum, whereby their choices and values are totally uninfluenced by cultural norms or patriarchy or any other external influence that Muslim women’s choices are dismissed for.
High heels, bikinis, push-up bras – these are all totally acceptable choices for women to wear because for some reason they are not perceived to be derived from patriarchal values or some kind of internalised misogyny in the same way Muslim women are – although it would be interesting to examine the origins of such items of clothing. Western women are seen as free and liberated regardless of whether they conform to the expectations of the male gaze or not. These inconsistencies demonstrate that it is not really about challenging patriarchy or misogyny – but propagating a sense of cultural superiority that seeks to shame women until they become adequately Westernised. Cultural imperialism, if you will.
The fact is, we cannot go around policing women’s clothing based on highly subjective principles. Passing judgement is bad enough, but enforcing this through the law is even more terrifying. Basic feminism 101 right? If you care about upholding women’s rights, then care about upholding all women's rights and show some solidarity with the Muslim women facing targeted, socially acceptable and institutionalised Islamophobia simply for being visibly Muslim.