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RH Reality Check

The Global 'War on Terror' and Muslim Women

Aziza Ahmed

In an earlier blog I argued that Sarkozy’s call for a ban on the Niqab must be viewed in light of a “save the Muslim woman” discourse that has justified war and an ongoing discrimination against Muslim communities.  Those supporting Sarkozy, and arguing against my position, suggest that, by placing a legal ban on some of the most conservatively dressed, women would somehow be liberated—that it is possible to momentarily ignore the pandering of political leaders to right wing factions and focus on their attempts to support women’s rights.

This argument is naïve. We cannot ignore the reality of hatred that is brewing in societies being acted out on Muslim women. Note that my argument is not one that involves whether or not the burqa, purdah, niqab, or hijab is truly a Muslim practice or whether choice is exercised in wearing religious clothing; the fact is that women wear religious clothing and because of this fact they are discriminated against in the context of a growing anti-Muslim sentiment – and this cannot be simply ignored. 

Sarkozy’s comments have only further fueled this discrimination: Since his speech there has been a hailstorm of hate-based (and even murderous) acts faced by Muslim women wearing some sort of head covering.  These acts alone (both those that took place before and after his speech) demonstrate that Sarkozy’s comments are rooted in and pandering to xenophobic and racist presence that not only exists in France but throughout Europe and the world.

There are numerous examples. 

On July 1st in a German courtroom Marwa El-Sherbini was testifying against a man who discriminated against her for wearing a headscarf – he had called her a “terrorist” and “Islamicist whore.”  During the trial her defendant stabbed her 18 times shouting taunts and eventually killing her. When her husband ran to her aide he was shot by the security guards and stabbed by the defendant.  Their three-year-old son was witness to all of this.

During the month of August, both in France and Italy, women have been banned from wearing the burqini, a bathing suit that essentially consists of longer pants, a top, and head covering, at swimming pools.  In France, the pool claimed that the suit violated their no-swimming-while-clothed policy.  In Italy, no pretense was even attempted: One female member of the center-right party of Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi said, “We don’t have to be tolerant all the time.”  In India, a country with a large Muslim minority (13%), where I am as I write this post, Tehelka reports that Muslim women in Karnataka, a Southern Indian State, have been asked to remove their headscarves at schools or risk suspension. One college principal admitted that the ban on scarves was due to pressure from right wing Hindutva political entities and the related student groups operating on campus.  The claims made by the Hindu right wing – despite being driven by their own religious agendas – are those of moving India towards a more secular state where Muslim women would not face discrimination. These arguments, unsurprisingly, mirror the right wing, anti-immigrant groups of Europe and the United States. As a result of these various forms of discrimination Muslim women have been prevented from using public facilities, suspended of kicked out from schools, felt threatened in courtrooms, are unable to board flights, and been harassed by police.  How are women’s rights winning in this environment?

I am not arguing that all Muslim women are always able to make decisions that impact them free of coercion -- including the decision whether to wear hijab or niqab. However, oppression does not simply vanish when dictates are issued by governments releasing alienated minority women from perceived or real religious bondage, especially when the same government actively discriminates against and perpetuates fears and stereotypes about the Muslim community.  The claims of some feminists and activists notwithstanding, the discourse of Islam and women’s rights cannot be without a broader understanding of the political agenda of the “war on terror.”  A “war” that was launched partly in the name of women that has effectively vilified, alienated and isolated women alongside the entire Muslim community, and made women victims of discrimination and violence (let alone save them).

Ignoring the layered context of Muslim women’s lives by promoting right wing discourse on women’s rights will have a counter effect on women subjecting them to violence, alienation, and further marginalization -- undermining attempts to empower and transform society.

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Aziza Ahmed is the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellow at the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS. She received her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley Law School and her Masters of Science in Population and International Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

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