Do Muslim women need saving by the West? How have attitudes in the West changed towards Muslim women since those planes flew into the Twin Towers?
Shakira Hussein’s book opens with a description of a celebrity fundraiser in New York for Afghan women. It is February 2001, seven months before 9/11. The Taliban is in power in Afghanistan. Girls’ schools are being closed; women’s movements are being severely restricted and they must wear the all-concealing burqa whenever they leave the home. At the fundraiser an Afghan women’s rights activist comes onto the stage wearing a burqa. Oprah Winfrey then removes the burqa from the woman to the applause of the audience.
It’s an effective metaphor for the attitude of many in the West towards Muslim women – that they are passive victims in need of help from the West to free themselves from oppression. In the case of Afghanistan, Western feminists stood ready to assist, and Afghan women’s organisations like RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) did not shy away from the opportunities they provided to promote their cause.
Then that cause was co-opted by the US as one of its reasons for sending troops into Afghanistan. First Lady Laura Bush was vocal in her support for her Afghan sisters. Yet, Hussein points out, prior to the Taliban taking over:
The American-backed mujahideen had issued similar ordinances [limiting women’s rights] during the years of counter-insurgency against the Soviet Union … Unlike previous misogyny against Afghan women, Taliban abuses succeeded in generating a transnational feminist response.
Local activists were not confident that US troops would be helpful:
… RAWA believed that rather than liberating Afghan women and girls, the US-led military intervention would only leave them at the mercy of a different set of oppressors.
Shakira Hussein’s book engages with the complexities of gender, race, and cultural identity and how they impact on the West’s relationship with Muslim women. It also clearly shows the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences – whether in Australia, Afghanistan or Pakistan – and the broader political dimensions.
One example of these broader dimensions is the response within Pakistan to Malala – the young girl who became an activist for girls’ education, was shot in the head by the Taliban, recovered, and went on to become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. To the West, Malala is a hero, an articulate and courageous champion of girls’ rights to education. In her native Pakistan, however, the response has been less straightforward. For years the US has been using drones to bomb Pakistan as part of its fight against al-Qaeda, and the drones often hit civilian villages. In receiving support from the West – Malala originally came to prominence writing a blog for the BBC, and was later photographed with US government officials – Malala is seen by some as aligning herself with the bombers, the enemies of Pakistan.
In this climate, support for Western concepts of civil rights or gender equality can become support for the enemy who is bombing your country.
This slim volume covers a huge amount of territory, and ranges over everything from the madness of the anti-halal movement and anti-Islam groups like Reclaim Australia, to what Western teenage girls might really be seeking when they convert to Islam and offer themselves as ‘jihadi brides’, to the false statistics behind the panic over Muslim population increases in Western countries (‘They’re afraid of my uterus!’ Hussein realises at one point), to Australia’s attitudes to Muslim refugees, to the debates within Western feminism over whether calling out misogyny in another culture is racist.
More recently Muslim women are being seen as having cultural and moral authority within their communities, and as such are both urged to turn their families away from extremism and regarded as incubators of terrorism. Then there is the more insidious threat they pose to Western feminism:
… alongside [the] fear of Islamic terrorism is a growing fear of Islam as a cultural hazard that is gradually undermining Western societies from within – and Muslim women, the transmitters of Muslim cultural practices, are held to play a key role in this infiltration. As well, their ‘chosen’ subservience supposedly threatens to reverse the gains made by generations of feminists in the West, re-opening questions that had been considered closed.
Among the responses to the perceived threats Muslim women present has been Senator Jacqui Lambie’s demand that the burqa be banned, and former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s attempt to have burqa-wearing visitors to Federal Parliament seated in a separate sealed-off section of the public gallery.
Too often Western engagement with Muslim women becomes reduced to a discussion of head coverings. Hussein quotes Joumanah El Matrah from the Islamic Women’s Welfare Association of Victoria, who says that the focus on the hijab has meant that, for Muslim women, ‘… in restricting ourselves to this topic, an opportunity has been created for Muslim men to monopolise and define Islam.’
Shakira Hussein has written for outlets such as New Matilda and Crikey and has been a commentator on gender, Islam and multicultural issues. Her writing is lucid, urgent and passionate.
Whether or not Muslim women wish to be ‘saved’, there is no doubt they could be better understood by the West. Shakira Hussein’s book is a useful and eloquent contribution to that understanding.
Shakira Hussein From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11 NewSouth 2016 PB 192pp $24.99
This review was first published on 3 March 2016 in the Newtown Review of Books.