The Global “War on Terror” and Muslim Women

In an earlier
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

On July 1st
in a German courtroom Marwa
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
(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

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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  • natrani

    It’s a pity that earlier Muslim families used to decide and now (few) State is trying to take over…Ha!what a life! Men decide and men fight. Unfortunately, we don’t debate about women’s rights as aggressively as we do about their role in ‘war on terror’.

    Set us free! let us live our own way!

  • sahmed1202

    Amazing new piece. Shows the complexity of an argument that is usually an over-simplified statement of how these governments are “helping women overcome oppression.” Thanks for always keeping your readers questioning our own assumptions and showing nuanced ways to look at issues.

  • tzivya

    That bans on types of clothing like this are less about ‘we want to make things better for Muslim women’ and more about ‘We don’t want to have to think about Muslim women’. It’s much easier to ignore what is being done to others if you don’t have to see it, and if they really cared, they would find ways to help and to target root problems, not just symptoms like this.

  • kikin68

    I totally agree that the violence against women is fundamentally wrong in every sphere, for whatever reason. Muslim women are already oppressed by having to wear head coverings or burqas. Their internalized oppression believing that wearing this type of clothing is beneficial to them and allowing patriarchy rule their lives – even the way the dress, is awful to begin with. Knowing that, violence against women who have completely internalized patriarchy is almost an irony. Patriarchy put them there and patriarchy commits violent acts against them for submitting to it – regardless of the country. Patriarchy is patriarchy.

  • cnmellen
    Dear Aziza,
    Thanks for this beautifully written piece on an issue that finds many who consider themselves feminists confused and manipulated into supporting anti-Muslim prejudice.
    (And by the way, when have women ever been liberated by men demanding we take off our clothes?)