‘Muslim women wearing hijab remain the bellweather for attitudes towards their communities, with harassment against them peaking at times of Islam-related political tension‘, writes Shakira Hussein in From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11. It was therefore almost comically ironic when during a book event with Dr Hussein, she was harassed by an innocent looking elderly gentleman wearing a bow-tie. His question to her was largely unintelligible, but started with ‘You profess…’ and finished with ‘…sons of Satan’. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant.
His question was shut down, not so diplomatically, by Helen Razer the co-host, leading to quite a heated exchange as the crowd started to dissipate. As he was shuffled off, a women in a hijab next to me rolled her eyes, ‘it wouldn’t be an event about Islam without a scene’.
I asked her what she meant, ‘oh I get asked to do talks about Islam a lot, and there are always protests or security scares. It’s a bit better at the moment though…’.
So without a footnote in site, Dr Hussein has proved her point.
Dr Hussein’s book takes moments that we know well – Malala receiving her Nobel Prize, the Lindt cafe attack in Sydney, protests calling for the banning of the burqa, the debut of the ‘jihadi bride’ – and fills in the lesser-known blanks so that we better understand the political and cultural shifts that continue to shape our interpretation of Muslim women.
Her central proposition is that just after September 11 and during the ‘war on terror’, our perception of women as long-suffering victims of the Taliban regime was used to bolster the rationale for the war in Afghanistan. These oppressed, uneducated burqa-covered women had to be saved from the misogyny of the Taliban, we were told. Her view is that US militarism appropriated Afghan and non-Afghan feminist opposition to the Taliban, and used it for their own propaganda purposes. Right-wing hawkishness therefore made a perfect but unusual match with left-wing, transnational feminism.
Since then though, the hijab has shifted from a symbol of oppression to a symbol of terrorism. As the war on terror, in relation to the Taliban, has shifted to a war on terrorism with ISIS, women in burqas are no longer to be pitied, they are to be feared. Muslim women are not passive victims, they are threats – whether as suicide bombers, ‘breeders’ trying to overrun us by stealth, or bad mothers who have failed to deter their offspring from joining the violent extremist movement.
This book has been invaluable in helping me more critically examine my own attitudes to Muslim women. It convinced me that left-wing feminists can be just as un-nuanced in their commentary around this issue as right-wing tabloids. It didn’t answer all my questions – like for instance, just why are young women leaving Britain and Australia to join the struggle in Syria? But to be fair, questions like these are tough ones to answer, and with this, as in all other instances, Dr Hussein does offer particular insights that you’re unlikely to get from the mainstream media.
Towards the end of the book event Dr Hussein was asked what she thought we, mostly white bystanders, could do about this western interpretation of Muslim women. Her response was unhesitating. ‘Listening is underrated’, she said then went on: Muslim women are very tired, tired because they are always being asked questions and are expected to have all the answers. ‘Sometimes, when you’re getting the bus to work, you don’t want to talk about what it’s like to be a Muslim woman’. The best thing we can do is listen, but not demand information.
‘Educate yourself’, Dr Hussein urged, as the event concluded.