|By Salma Yaqoob|
|In this post 9/11 world the liberation of Muslim women and the fight against terrorism have become intertwined. ‘The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’, claimed Laura Bush in the run up to the invasion of Afghanistan.‘Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror – not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.’The idea that one of the weakest countries in the world was going to impose its religious strictures on the most powerful was nearly as ludicrous as the suggestion that George W Bush was about to embark on a feminist mission in Afghanistan.Behind the rhetoric the real reason for war was more straightforward. The attacks on the Twin Towers provided the ‘Pearl Harbour’ moment which the neo-cons embedded in the White House were only too willing to exploit in order to remap the Middle East in the interests of US power.For some, concerns about the brutality of war and occupation gave way to what were seen as the benefits: the civilizing role of Western imperialism in undermining ‘Islamic fascism’.And, for them, nothing more symbolized Islamic tyranny that the plight of Muslim women.
BattlegroundThere was nothing new in this for Muslim women. As Maleiha Malik points out, our bodies have always been used as ‘a battleground for European and US imperialism’:
“Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt in the late 19th century, famously justified British colonial rule by arguing that it could liberate Egyptian women from their oppressive veils. Commenting on French colonialism in Algeria in the 50s the writer Frantz Fanon noted: ‘There is also in the European the crystallization of an aggressiveness, the strain of a kind of violence before the Algerian woman. Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret, breaking her resistance (to colonial rule). There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession.’”
It is not surprising that in this context of the struggle for Algerian independence, wearing the veil became a symbol of resistance.
Muslim women have found their lives subject to unprecedented scrutiny. Too often we are caught between a rock and a hard place: between the politicians who in the name of liberation are prepared to demonise our communities at home and bomb our sisters abroad, and the Muslim men, who in the name of protecting us, want to restrict our rights.
But contrary to what politicians and media might say, the biggest obstacle we face to fuller integration in society is not how we dress, but the discrimination we suffer.
A report by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that girls of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin – 90% of whom are Muslim – “…were making remarkable progress at school.
They had overtaken white boys in performance at GCSE, with a higher proportion achieving five good passes at grade C or above. Despite lower family incomes they are also rapidly catching up with white girls”.
This progress in educational achievement is an important signal of successful integration. It is not a piece of cloth which holds us back, but the “brick wall of discrimination”, which faces all Muslim women, and not just the tiny minority who wear the niqab.
These findings were confirmed for me by my own practical experience as a councillor in a deprived inner city ward with a large Muslim population. A significant proportion of constituents visiting my surgeries are Muslim women but the majority of the issues I have to deal with do not concern family or cultural conflicts.
The problems that I am confronted with are a chronic shortage of affordable housing, the lack of job opportunities, racism in the employment market, and the provision of worse council services to deprived areas compared to wealthier ones.
Muslim women do have specific and well-documented problems of patriarchal oppression to overcome, more often disguised with a pseudo religious gloss.
These challenges however have been made immeasurably more difficult by the war on terror. Muslim communities now feel demonized, under constant attack and ridiculed to an unprecedented degree.
In this climate the instinctive reaction is to adopt a defensive stance and emphasize only positive aspects of Muslim faith and culture. Space for self-criticism is restricted for fear that washing one’s dirty laundry in public will give succour to those already fuelling Islamophobic hostility.
It creates a climate of self-censorship at the very time when Muslim voices, and the voices of Muslim women, in particular, need to be heard in all our diversity. This reaction, while understandable, is deeply damaging.
It reinforces those who say Muslims are in denial or indifferent to addressing oppressive practices within their own communities. In so doing it undermines our ability to forge effective progressive alliances with non-Muslims.
It also strengthens the hand of those who argue for greater state intrusion, restriction and regulation of our lives. The experience of the anti-war movement has both helped women like myself find our voice and created space to express it.
I have chosen to root my feminism and political activism in my Islamic understanding. Other women will choose different paths.
In our different ways Muslim women are acting to challenge the racism generated by this ‘war on terror’ and the barriers to our equality from both within and without our communities We need solidarity from non-Muslim women in those challenges.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day it is a fitting reminder that the common ground is there if we choose to occupy it.
Muslim women stand up