By Monsura Sirajee
A desire to impose the ‘best interests’ of Muslim women unites anti-Islam activists and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Earlier this month, as President Obama signed the reauthorisation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), prominent American Islamophobe Pamela Geller used the opportunity to promote her crusade against Islam and the Obama Administration. On her blog. Atlas Shrugs, Geller spoke out against VAWA because she believes Islam is the ‘real’ source of violence against women. “Where is the vocal support for anti-sharia bills? Sharia is the most brutal and misogynist system of governance. Where are the bills against honor violence, honor killing, FGM?”
Meanwhile, last week in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood objected to a UN declaration calling for an end to violence against women, stating the resolution would ‘undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family.’ Despite their conflicting views on Islam, both Geller and the Muslim Brotherhood have used the Muslim female body to promote their own agenda.
As a Muslim woman, I have become accustomed to the fact that many groups believe I need saving. In a post-9/11 world, the Muslim female’s body has become a battleground for competing ideologies. Fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood seek to regulate women’s activities as an expression of opposition to the West. One example of this is preventing women access to education not on the grounds that education is harmful in it of itself, but because the prevailing education system is ‘pro-West’ and therefore ‘un-Islamic’. A similar line of thinking has been adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood in their opposition to the UN declaration. In a recent statement their spokesman stated: ‘This declaration, if ratified, would…be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.’
Ironically, fundamentalist groups’ use of the Muslim female body to expel westernisation has actually invited the West time and again to highlight the necessity of Western intervention. In November 2001 the then first lady, Laura Bush, delivered a radio address in which she spoke of the benefits of military action against Afghanistan for Afghani women: “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.” Seizing upon this rhetoric, war hawks repeatedly justified military presence in the Middle East throughout the 2000s by pointing to the helplessness of Muslim women. “The fight against terrorism,” Laura Bush stated, “is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Invoking the oppression of women as justification for war is nothing new in the history of Western militarism and in fact, was used many times by British and French imperialists. Postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak famously coined the term ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ to describe the supposed goal of saving women to justify military aggression. Although Spivak used the term in the context of British bans on sati, or widow burning, we can see reflections of this in the way the US has justified military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently the drone war in Pakistan.
So what has all this ‘saving’ brought for Muslim women in Muslim countries? A 2009 UN report found the war on terror hurts women: “By using terms like ‘war on terror,’ counter terror forces make abuses such as rape and the enforcement of dress codes on women more likely.” Unfortunately, women are often under-appreciated victims of war. Not only are they killed in devastating numbers, but the deaths of their male relatives hit women particularly hard as their communities are often left disintegrated and destroyed.
Of course, this war on terror does not just hurt Muslim women in Muslim majority countries. Tell Mama, a UK based helpline, released a report last week which found the majority of UK Muslims physically harassed or intimidated because of their faith are women. Incidents of assault range from a 5 year old girl who was run over to a woman who had dog faeces placed on her head. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the perpetrators are male and affiliated with far right groups like the British National Party and the English Defence League, who simultaneously and paradoxically charge that Islam mistreats women.
Unfortunately, in these efforts to save Muslim women by extremist groups on both sides of the spectrum, many victimised women find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. The effect of this, as British activist Sara Khan recently pointed out in an op-ed published in the Guardian, is that some Muslim women ‘refuse to speak out against gender-based discrimination’ within their own communities, ‘fearing this would only fuel anti-Muslim hatred – of which they’d be the likely victims.’ By not recognising female agency, both sides have detrimentally harmed the very people they supposedly seek to protect. @newreligionEU