Ayesha Kazmi

The function of the Muslim woman victim in western feminism and the war on terror

In The Political on 18/05/2012 at 17:32

This piece was originally published at e-feminist. You can find it here.

The declaration of the War on Terror has done much to shed light on the plight of women in the Muslim world. Since, western feminists have actively chided the unfathomable illiteracy rates in nations like Afghanistan, the long dark robes covering women’s bodies in theocratic Muslim regions, the choking of freedom on account of not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the most harrowing of all, the mutilation of young girls private parts thus preventing them from enjoying their sexualities as adults in parts of the African continent. The war on Muslim patriarchy has given the broader feminist movement a sense of common purpose. It has also provided them with a strong sense of what and who they are not.

This war has run concurrently with the greater war against a robust type of Muslim patriarchy – a patriarchy that views the western way of life as a threat to their strict religious sensibilities. As such, the west represents a place of social and moral degradation, where western women dress in objectionably scant clothing and men and women’s intimate relationships are broadcast openly. Keeping out the “immoral” values of the west, where people have too much freedom, has resulted in an ensuing battle that has wound up on a battlefield between the theocratic forces seeking to pre-emptively prevent liberal values from reaching sacred land, and the western forces seeking to prevent the theocratic forces from striking at the western way of life. Since the presence of western forces in these regions, young girls who were previously denied education have now been given access to schools and Afghani women have begun to question the forced nature of veiling.

What has ensued in the past decade is a dual fronted war on Muslim patriarchy. The first war subsists in a physical battlefield where opposing bodies meet and, depending on the technologies, act out warfare to defend what is right and just. Simultaneously fought is a second intellectual battlefield where a meeting of the minds asserts right and wrong in an open more inclusive, as opposed to a geographically excluded, forum. Most importantly, in the grander War on Terror, the two facets of this war have served to implement and uphold universal value systems into some of the most remote regions of the world – where lack of access to facilities and education have brought unnecessary suffering and conflict.

Tragically, in many instances, it has been the women who bear the brunt of deficiency and shortage.

Most recently, the internet roared with back and forth debate over Muslim women’s freedom in relation to the recent uprisings in the Arab world, primarily in response to Mona Eltahawy’s article in Foreign Policy magazine titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” followed by an inventory of crimes committed by Arab men against Arab women. Eltahawy states:

An entire political and economic system – one that treats half of humanity like animals – must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.

Immediately following publication however, a backlash split readers who either loved or loathed the piece. The clash spurred a storm on twitter and in the blogosphere.

In her defence of Eltahawy, Adele Tomlin took on the faction of voices objecting to the Foreign Policy article charging it as racist. Tomlin, in turn, charged the anti-racist response to Eltahawy as “dangerously” trumping the anti-racist struggle over the feminist struggle. Citing the recent murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi and the intentional drive of activists to parallel “hoodies and hijabs” as a coalesced anti-racist rallying point, Tomlin deduces on account of misogynistic Islamic culture, that the hoodie and hijab are incomparable and, thus, cannot serve as a unifier between political allies. By symbolically taking on the hijab as an assembly point, according to Tomlin, anti-racist activists are potentially jeopardising Muslim women’s liberation. Similarly while anti-racists responding to Eltahawy may not have opposed the facts Eltahawy presented in her piece, many felt the framework of her article had racist overtones. While the fuel Eltahawy’s piece may have provided to Islamophobic discourse was regrettable, according to Tomlin, the direct nature of the piece was nevertheless prudent in light of the depth of crimes committed against women in the Muslim world, culminating in the charge that the anti-racist movement is anti-women. Tomlin concludes, “The ‘excuse-making of cultural relativism’ and the politically correct face of anti-racism is ugly and dangerous.”

Once excusing herself from her politically correct decorum, however, Tomlin proceeded to defensively assert that her whiteness should not act as a deterrent on her ability to critique Islamic culture, to insist that the majority of women who wear the hijab are forced to wear it, and then claim that concerned feminists must not shy away from speaking candidly about Muslim and Arab culture for fear they may provide fuel to racists, Islamophobes and xenophobes.

Instantaneously, readers should be struck by the inaccuracy of Tomlin’s assertions. Yet her assertions are consistent with this rationale in one of her older pieces titled “To Be Anti-Racist Is to Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals.” In it, Tomlin again asserts:

The hijab … is discriminatory and rooted in men’s desire to control women’s appearance and sexuality, [and] is not a choice for the majority of women who wear it. The hoodie, on the other hand, is a choice for everyone who wears it. The history and origin of these two items of clothing and what they represent could not be more different…

It is not the purpose of this article to defend or oppose the hijab. From a personal perspective, however, it should be noted that I defend a woman’s right to choose according to her agency, but nevertheless view women’s choices as ultimately rooted in context. As such, she is never fully free. However, I vehemently reject the idea that a Muslim woman who chooses to wear hijab or burqa does so based on a false sense of self resulting from patriarchal religious structures that confine her experience and intellect –only inasmuch as I reject the same notion about western women.

What could have been a genuine endeavour to connect women’s movements across a wide expanse, from the United States to the Muslim world, and everywhere in between, has failed; Adele Tomlin providing a prime example of why this is so. While it should be noted that her older piece was appropriately removedfrom The Feminist Wire, where it was originally published, analogous motives nevertheless persist within certain factions of western feminism. What is most troubling is how liberal feminist discourse about Muslim women’s oppression has come to frame the lexicon of the broader War on Terror and similarly, how the War on Terror has framed feminist discourse.

Writers and pundits observing the palpable patriarchal systems Muslim women live under too often frame their commentary as an attempt to put aside political correctness and discuss “bare-naked facts” about Islamic cultures. The act of tossing aside ones otherwise politically correct stature is often followed by a gross litany of accusations and generalisations – and often bigoted in nature. It is as if the politically correct mask serves as a temporary facade of polite, yet simultaneously disingenuous, tolerance. What is actually hidden behind it is an inherent dissatisfaction and censure of Muslim life.

In recent years, western political figureheads have dichotomised western and Islamic values all too often citing the treatment of Muslim women as evidence to demonstrate the two cultures as inherently incompatible. Most notably was Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February of 2011, where nations came together to discuss security policy and major security and defence corporations were present exhibiting how their technologies can assist requisite national security needs, and where Cameron subsequently listed off the “bare naked facts” about Muslim women resulting from forced marriage and honour killing – a most inappropriate, yet all too telling venue to discuss the private lives of Muslim women. What this spells out to the wider public is that the domestic lives of Muslims is a threat to national security.

Resulting from the politicisation of Muslim women’s issues has in fact been the further alienation of Muslim women seeking recourse from crimes committed against them at the hands of family and community members. Muslim women (of whom I am personally aware) have expressed time and again that they no longer feel safe to openly speak of the issues they face within their communities and at home for fear of fuelling Islamophobic discourse – a precedent that makes her all the more vulnerable. What is most baffling is the retort to Muslim women who now choose silence (of whom I am also personally aware) as to not incite racist indignation. The response to the women who choose silence is all too often: “don’t keep silent because you worry about a racist backlash against the Muslim men who are ultimately responsible for your oppression!”  Western feminists like Tomlin avowed that neither “religious maniacs” nor racists should own Muslim women’s discourse.

What this discourse ultimately neglects is that Islamophobic racism also deeply affects Muslim women. The commentary further begs the question: what good would it ultimately do for a Muslim woman to join feminist ranks and speak out against the misogyny at the hands of Muslim men by inadvertently enabling racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic discourse of which she will also fall victim? Furthermore, this discourse not only dictates to a Muslim woman that she must choose between struggles, but it also places her feminist struggle over her struggle against racism and Islamopbobia as opposed to allowing her own agency to prioritise.  Racist and Islamophobic attacks hurled at Muslim women – too often sexist and misogynistic in nature – are as damaging as the broader misogyny they face as workers, citizens, wives, sisters and daughters. To liberate Muslim women means to not only to remove from her the shackles of sexism and misogyny she experiences in her community and by the broader world, but to also remove the shackles from her as a racial and religious “other”, and her shackles as an oppressed labourer. Lest we remember the vital words of black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde who stressed “there is no hierarchy of oppression.”

Nevertheless, the war against Muslim patriarchy on the physical battlefield has informed western feminism about the nature of Islamic patriarchy: the deviant Muslim man, or terrorist, represented by the likes of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, is the shadowy evil that the west must with in a perpetual all-out war with in order to preserve and perpetuate the western way of life. In moral terms, this has created a cultural dichotomy of an upstanding honourable western culture as defined by principled egalitarian minded citizens living orderly lives, contrasted with the defiled eastern Islamic patriarchal cultures that can be evidenced by failed cultural, economic, and governmental systems – excluding the context of tyranny, war, and occupation – at the hands of pathological patriarchal Muslim men.

Conversely, western feminism informs the western fighters on the physical battlefield about the details and very nature of Islamic patriarchy of which the Muslim woman has become the collateral damage. The “religious maniacs” are far too dogmatic and chauvinistic to see beyond their holy scriptures to do what is best for the society and the women around them. The western feminists’ resultant construction of the Muslim woman victim is wholly reliant on the War on Terror’s construction of the zealous authoritarian Muslim man, simultaneously fought off by western heroes, whose hands she suffers at. In effect, the two constructions feed off of one another and, in turn, justify one another.

In their paper “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots”, Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai note: “The continuities between Bush’s agenda and queer Left, feminist… positions are rather stunning, especially in the use of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural norms’…” In Foucauldian terms, the Muslim man has now become the wests new “abnormal” figure to be corrected or quarantined in western political discourse – in which factions of the left and the right actually inform one another.

Furthermore, the construct of the Muslim woman victim has developed into a fetishised caricature in western political and feminist discourse, whose biggest obstacle and hurdle that she must overcome is the patriarchal Muslim man. Warmongering western political discourse relies heavily on the violation of the Muslim woman by the Muslim man to justify itself. For that reason, the construct of the Muslim woman victim has come to be perceived by western political and feminist discourse as standing alone in her uniqueness and distinction. However, what has actually resulted from this is her disconnect from other struggles – for the only thing that truly harms the Muslim woman is Muslim patriarchy at the hands of Muslim men, where all else ceases to be equally as damaging. This nourishes the idea that the obliteration of Muslim patriarchy will see the ultimate liberation of the Muslim woman. Intrinsically, the abuse of a Muslim woman is therefore understood to be tied to the perceived failure of the regional culture, of Islam and, ultimately, of the Muslim man.

The abuse of Muslim women by Muslim men is thus treated by feminist and political discourse as a special kind of abuse deserving of exceptional attention as a unique oppression unparalleled to other women’s oppression. Such was the message of Eltahawhy’s Foreign Policy article which was befittingly subtitled “The Real War on Women Is in the Middle East.” Likewise, when western feminism rears its ugly head in the direction of western Muslim women, their subsequent harassment and intimidation with paradoxical slurs and chants such as: “I bet your husband beats you!”,  or hijab wearing women who have been spat at or had rocks thrown at them, or the French police who absurdly arrest Muslim women who defiantly wear the burqa after the government banned its use, are consequently met with a stunning silence by the very same feminists who howl at Muslim women’s abuse at the hands of Muslim men.

Similarly, liberal western feminist discourse has offered little by ways of the anti-war movement since the beginnings of the War on Terror that has seen the hostile invasions of machismo militaries and mercenaries, the destruction of entire regions, and the crippling of economies and lives throughout the Muslim world. The indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children and the indefinite imprisonment without trial, of Muslim husbands, fathers, and sons via the Foucauldian quarantining treatment, has brought further misery and distress into the lives of the people of the region – including the women.

It is crucial at this point to compare the treatment of crimes against Muslim women inflicted by Muslim men as a unique form of women’s oppression and the treatment of political violence and terrorism. Western law, as is the case in the United Kingdom, has a supplementary set of laws to deal specifically with terrorism despite the fact that there are bodies of criminal law in place that are able to adequately deal with the variation of crimes terrorists commit. Professor of law at the University of Leeds, Clive Walker explains:

There is the observation that terrorism is a specialised form of criminality which presents peculiar difficulties in terms of policing… there has been a recognition by successive governments, and to a large degree an acceptance by the electorate, that organised political crime is a special threat to liberty and democracy.

It is to be understood that on account of the fact that the Muslim men “abnormals” are today’s perpetrators threatening liberty and democracy through a special unique type of political violence, can then be consequently understood as to be inclined to commit other crimes that are also special and unique in nature. In this case, it is the crimes they commit against Muslim women. The crimes of perverse “abnormal” Muslim men must, thus, be understood and monitored within this exceptional framework: these are “abnormal” men who commit exceptional crimes that destroy liberty and democracy and have exceptional female victims whose lives are devoid of liberty and democracy as a result. To take Foucault’s analysis of the “abnormal” one step further, it thereby leaves the west with the “duty” to correct the delinquencies of the Muslim world by bringing liberty and democracy into the lives of the Muslim victims of patriarchal Muslim men, and to protect and sustain liberty and democracy in the west via military operation and vast expansive security apparatuses. One doesn’t have to hark much further back than Cameron’s 2011 speech at the Munich Security Conference to see how issues of western liberty, democracy and national security are linked to the exceptional threatening nature of patriarchal Muslim men and their consequent abuse of Muslim women.

Western feminism’s objectionable premise that the Muslim woman’s primary adversary is the “abnormal” Muslim man is irresponsible and dangerous. It has in fact enabled and shaped a one-dimensional discourse about the lives of Muslims and of the politics of the broader Muslim world. At worst, it has enabled hostile military intervention in already fragile nations. Furthermore, the unilateral feminist and political discourse about Muslim life entirely decontexualises and disregards the very real and life threatening realities of life under lawless wars and illegal occupation – of what it is like to live in a region where one is unable to access recourse from the bodies of international human rights law and habeas corpus.

The fetishism of the Muslim woman victim has created an aggressively antagonistic discourse that in turn renders Muslim women who reject the paternalistic resolve of liberal western feminism about Muslim women’s abuse as self-loathing enablers of their own oppression. As such, it is time for Muslim women to let this faction of the feminist movement know that they too do not own the debate on Muslim women’s liberation. There is nothing more offensive to the women of the Muslim world who see through the shallow hypocrisy of liberal western feminists claiming to defend freedom and liberty on one hand, while justifying and facilitating warmongering ideology which sees the destructive power structures of war and occupation invading their lives on the other. So long as the ideological war against Muslim patriarchy by liberal western feminists continues to tout the doctrine of the War on Terror, their hands will be covered in as much blood as their counterparts fighting in the battlefield.

  1. Good piece. False dichotomies are one of the banes of human discourse. Women’s struggles always take place in the context of belonging to a group, be it based on race, class, etc.that may itself be under attack in some way. It is not a simple thing to go against traditions that give coherence to your life. Solutions must come from inside the groups in question.

  2. An usual, apparently more rebellious, totally pathetic, ill-informed, muslim-o-phoebic post to come across. Moreover the choice of vocabulary like “Abnormal muslim” Muslim Patriarchy” just shows how ridiculously biased this write-up is and to equate these cultural evils which existed in the said regions even before the advent of Islam with the ongoing invasions in the name of war on terror initiated by the west, also shows how ignorant the writer is about world politics, Islam,Muslims,and overall the East which she emphatically discusses here. genital mutilation, Honor killings,child marriage have long been the practices of Arabs,Africans and sub-continent irrespective of their religion and have nothing to do with Muslims or Islam. i request the writer to please stop spreading ignorance around crying foul in the name of Muslim men.Get over your phoebia

    • I don’t typically respond to comments on my blog, but, Bilal, I cannot get over your silliness.

      Did you actually read the article? Or are you merely getting stuck on the words “Abnormal Muslim” and “Patriarchy”? – because if you actually read the article, you would see that I am actually QUOTING SOMEONE ELSE in the effort to debunk the very lies you accuse me of speaking.

      If you to come to this blog, its fine with me if you choose to read selectively, skim, or dont even bother reading anything I have written or published here at all. But let me give you a word of advice, if you’re going to take the time out to comment and debate, then do yourself a favour: please read the article properly, THEN comment. Because you sound and look like a buffoon – how painfully embarrassing for you.

  3. […] This piece was originally published at e-feminist. You can find it here. The declaration of the War on Terror has done much to shed light on the plight of women in the Muslim world. Since, western …  […]

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