By Miriam Cosic
March 5, 2016
From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women
By Shakira Hussein
Several years ago I attended the Sydney Eye
Hospital. The two women on the front desk were both wearing headscarves. For a
moment I thought, “Hmmm, jobs for the girls ...” before dismissing it as
unfair. I might have thought the same if both had Chinese features, or it had
come out in conversation that both had attended the same high school. I also
didn’t think twice when the ABC news would cross to the Malaysian stock
exchange and its regular talking head — a finance journalist — wore a
headscarf. Of course she would, it’s Malaysia.
Afghan university students in Kabul in the mid-1970s, before the advent
of the Mujahideen and Taliban
Later I wrote a well-received philosophy
paper defending French policy on veiling in public spaces, arguing against one
of my heroes, Seyla Benhabib. I hoped to translate it into a newspaper article,
as serious food for thought in public debate.
Oh, those blissfully naive days, before the
rise of Islamic State and before the ubiquity of images of forced sequestration
inside black or blue Burqas. The days when women in sophisticated cities across
the Middle East could choose whether to cover their heads, in an act of
devotion or political symbolism, or not.
I wouldn’t dream of publishing my paper now
and giving comfort to Islamophobes. And one can no longer look at a woman with
her head covered without feeling one’s merest glance loaded with political
significance. But I keep a picture in my file of three happily smiling
university students, bareheaded in the sun, in Kabul in the mid-1970s.
While I couldn’t care less if an Australian
woman wore a headscarf, I do feel very uncomfortable at the sight of a fellow
citizen, who shares my legal rights and freedoms, enshrouded from head to toe.
What actually enrages me is the sight of her husband strutting about in shorts
and thongs, gut hanging out. At least in Saudi Arabia, men dress as modestly as
women. They cover their heads too.
As tensions in Western countries rise, a
non-Muslim woman even discussing these issues is open to criticism — for
appropriation, for condescension, for ignorance. And yet, one does have a right
to hold an opinion on anything, especially when that anything arrives on one’s
doorstep. The discussion then becomes more proximate, less theoretical.
Shakira Hussein’s From Victims to Suspects:
Muslim Women since 9/11 is a welcome addition to the debate. An Australian
academic, Hussein has the knack of bringing ethical discussion alive. A
frequent commentator and fluent writer, she mixes names such as Jacqui Lambie
and Meena Keshwar Kamal, Imran Khan and Bronwyn Bishop, with ease.
This is not virgin territory. Last year,
three books on veiling came out: Mona Eltahawy’s brilliantly fiery and
terrifying polemic Headscarves and Hymens; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s calmer
canvassing of the same issues in Refusing the Veil; and Sydney University
academic Sahar Amer’s What is Veiling, a nonpartisan historical and theological
Hussein’s project is to trace the mutation
of prevailing Western memes about Muslim women who cover their heads, from the
need to protect them to open aggression against them. The secondary
justification of the war in Afghanistan, after fighting terrorism, was to
protect Afghan women systematically repressed by the Taliban. It was used
widely, even in support of shifting the war to then secular Iraq less than 18
Today, Muslim women face attack — not the
horrors of fundamentalist regimes, obviously, but verbal abuse, spitting, minor
assaults such as pulling headscarves off — on the streets of the liberal
democracies in which they grew up or where they took refuge. Often with small
children in tow, they are harassed as symbols of the very world view that is
presumed to subjugate them.
And such behaviour is not restricted to
extremist organisations such as Reclaim Australia, Hussein writes: “Muslims are
told by all concerned that they must determine where their loyalty lies, and
The unanswerable question, of course, is:
how? By giving up their religion, dressing like Lady Gaga and going on
alcohol-fuelled nightclub binges? It can’t be as simple as removing the
headscarf, because that leaves the pervasive, often unthinking, insults that
Muslim women who don’t cover their heads will suffer daily. Not to mention that
while people with a Muslim heritage are free to not practise their faith in
this country, in eight others apostasy is still punishable by death.
The book ranges wide in time and place, too
wide to précis here. One of the most involving discussions, however, is about
“feminist” support for Muslim women. Hussein herself identifies as a feminist,
but she digs deep into the psychology and motives of Western women who want to
“rescue” their sisters.
She compares, for example, the symbolism of
the “unflinching gaze” of the green-eyed girl who famously dignified the cover
of National Geographic when the Soviets were waging war in Afghanistan to that
of the blue mesh that hides the eyes of all women under the Taliban. In
interviews with Afghan women who sought refuge in Pakistan, she found the issue
of the Burqa less pressing than non-gender-specific problems such as the loss
of income and the death of family members.
“When they did talk about the Burqa, they
used quite different language to that deployed by their self-appointed Western
saviours,” she writes. “Low-income women complained about the economic burden
of purchasing an extra garment, or the fact that if a household could not
afford a Burqa for each of the women, they could not all go out at the same
time.” But who wouldn’t place bereavement and watching one’s children cry with
hunger ahead of a dress code? And why would a poor, presumably uneducated,
woman talk feminist theory?
That doesn’t stop me squirming with
claustrophobia-tinged empathy to see those anonymous women unable to show their
identity in public, in thrall to fathers, husbands or brothers, especially when
we hear about the rates of domestic violence in Afghanistan (the UN estimates
87 per cent of Afghan women have experienced violence) and how groups such as
Islamic State have segued a fundamentalist reading of Islam into the
commodification of women as rapeable, saleable objects. And should a non-Muslim
woman stay silent when she sees abuse of women anywhere? Imagine if Westerners
hadn’t restarted the debate about foot-binding in China after the
anti-foot-binding Taiping rebels failed.
From Victims to Suspects changes tack
frequently, keeping the reader off balance. It raises more questions than it
answers and one can’t help thinking, “But hang on, Shakira ...” at regular
intervals. Some might call that inconsistency. But it’s also the mark of a
cliche-avoiding and thought-provoking book grappling with confoundingly
difficult cross-cultural problems.
Miriam Cosic is a writer and critic.