Inside Story

Victims and suspects: the catch-22 of being a Muslim woman in Australia

Muslim women are urged to break free of patriarchical domestic lives yet viewed with suspicion if they display signs of their religion in public, says Shakira Hussein

Shakira Hussein 10 March 2016 3266 words

Sydney designer Aheda Zanetti’s burqini. AAP Image

Whenever I’d visualised a race riot, I’d always pictured shadowy figures shrouded in heavy clothing venting their rage in a gloomy inner-city landscape. But this was Australia. When these patriots decided to hold a riot in December 2005, they held it on Cronulla beach in southern Sydney, on a bright sunny day, in a location that could easily have served as the set of an archetypal Aussie soap opera. This was the classic Australian landscape of leisure and relaxation, which the rioters claimed to be reconquering from alien invaders of “Middle Eastern appearance.” It looked more like a festival than a riot, really – at least at the outset.

The text messages that had summoned the crowd to the beach that day became notorious in the wake of the riot:

This Sunday every Aussie in the shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and Wog bashing day. Bring your mates. Let’s show them that this is our beach and they’re never welcome.

The demonstration was triggered by a confrontation between lifeguards and young Middle Eastern men, as well as by the alleged harassment of “white” women by young Lebanese men on the beach. Defending “our” women against “their” men – it’s the oldest casus belli in the world. And “their” women were not exempt from the retaliation that was meted out on the beach that day. Like the men, they were spat on and abused and told to go back to where they came from. Reports in the Sydney Morning Herald the next day described how a bare-chested boy in board shorts chased a hijab-wearing teenage girl down the sand dunes and triumphantly tore off her headscarf as a battlefield trophy.

In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the United States four years earlier, Muslim women were in the spotlight as the passive victims of patriarchal violence in Taliban-governed Afghanistan. They remained behind the lines, segregated from combat roles and shielded from direct encounter with the enemy. But events such as the 7 July 2005 attacks in London and the Cronulla riots in Sydney later that year shifted the focus from an external to a domestic security issue. Unsurprisingly, the domestication of the enemy has also feminised it, with women seen as key agents of Islamic infiltration – as accomplices rather than (or as well as) victims of Muslim men.

This revised view has only been strengthened by recent stories of women and girls abandoning their homes and families in the West to become part of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But even Muslims living demonstrably law-abiding suburban lives are resented for the changes their presence brings to those suburbs. The situation of Muslim women within the West shares many resonances with that of their co-religionists in Muslim-majority societies, but is further complicated by tension between competing concerns about immigration, racism, multiculturalism and gender norms.

A 2004 report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission documented a heightened sense of fear among Muslim women after experiences such as being spat on, threatened and assaulted. Women regarded the forcible removal of headscarves by strangers in public places as particularly degrading – “akin to rape,” in the opinion of one respondent. At the same time as the United States, Australia and Britain were claiming to have rescued Muslim women from Taliban oppression in Afghanistan, Muslim women within the rescuers’ nations were being subjected to less violent but nonetheless humiliating and frightening levels of racist abuse.

Muslim women wearing hijab remain the bellwether for attitudes towards their communities, with harassment against them peaking at times of Islam-related political tension. In 2012, after a protest in Sydney against an anti-Islamic film ended in violent clashes between some of the protesters and the police, a hijab-wearing friend of mine in Canberra was confronted by a random stranger who offered to “punch her for the police.” My smart, quick-witted friend had been taking martial arts classes, so I’m pretty sure that this bigot would have bitten off more than he could chew had he actually tried to land a punch on her. Luckily for him, Fatima told him that she’d prefer to be beaten up by the police rather than by him, and offered to call them on his behalf. He was left confused, but he can console himself that at least he didn’t feel the force of Fatima’s anaconda choke.

Stories like these generate a range of contradictory responses even within the same individual, never mind an entire community. My most immediate response was pure outrage. What the hell makes anyone think that he can treat my friend and other women like her in such a manner? By what right does anyone assume a licence to stand in judgement on a total stranger and deliver the verdict in such a repulsive manner? Who does he think he is? Are we really supposed to respond to such abuse by showing how friendly and likeable and ordinary we can be?

And so the next impulse is to try to nurture, to make people see Fatima as the likeable and funny and extraordinary-in-a-good-way person that she is, if you just take a closer look. I’m tempted to explain her to others, to make them see her as I see her. And then I’m back to outrage. She has no reason to explain herself, and I ought not to take it upon myself to explain her.

Like terrorism, random racist attacks spread fear far beyond their immediate victims. Yet despite such trepidation, the number of Muslim women wearing hijab increased steeply even as the associated stigma became ever more pronounced. The fact that many Muslim women living in the West articulately resisted their would-be “saviours” generated aggressive attempts to awaken them from their supposed false consciousness. As part of the perceived Islamic infiltration of the West, they were no longer seen simply as helpless victims in need of rescue – they were also seen as a threat to be contained.

Women and girls who fall victim to these types of assaults are generally portrayed as collateral damage in a conflict between men. The high rates of racist vilification and harassment of Muslim women are explained by their vulnerability and (in the case of those who wear hijab) their visibility. But the “visible soft target” explanation understates the extent to which Muslim women have come to be regarded as dangerous and threatening in themselves, not just as adjuncts to their men. Muslim women are increasingly perceived not just as bystanders or puppets but also as active collaborators in male wrongdoing, or even as autonomous transgressors.

Predictably, the shift in emphasis from rescue to discipline has been epitomised by the language used in the debate about veiling. As Leila Ahmed relates in A Quiet Revolution, the appearance of the “new hijab” in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East was generated by the ascent of Islamist movements during the 1970s and 1980s. Its rising popularity caused fear among those for whom it represented “an augury of possibly unwelcome and even menacing changes to come.” As the new style of covering became a fashion trend among women with a diverse range of political perspectives across the Muslim world, though, it ceased to be a signifier of Islamism or even of a high degree of religiosity. Nor did it signify a retreat from public life – rather, it often communicated a woman’s determination to advance her education and career in mixed-gender settings beyond the home.

In Australia, too, the new hijab was initially adopted by women associated with Islamist networks before being taken up by a broad cross-section of Muslim women. And rather than segregating its wearers from Australian society, its appeal lies in its capacity to allow them to blend into their educational and workplace surroundings while still signalling their religious identity. Unlike the shalwar kameez (a long tunic top over “pyjama” pants) and other regional outfits, the hijab can easily be teamed with contemporary fashion and with modified school, sports or service uniforms. Yet it continues to be represented as “un-Australian” – the insignia of an alien and unwelcome identity.

In France, Muslim women and girls have been subjected to state regulation of their dress in the name of preserving French laïcité, or secularism. Although the 2004 ban in that country on conspicuous religious signs also prohibits large crosses, Jewish skullcaps and Sikh turbans, it is primarily directed at Muslim girls wearing hijab. As historian Joan Wallach Scott argues in The Politics of the Veil, “the other groups were included to undercut the charge of discrimination against Muslims and to comply with a requirement that such laws apply universally.”

Similar prohibitions of hijab in public spaces such as courtrooms were introduced elsewhere in Europe and mooted by right-wing commentators and politicians in Britain, Australia and the United States. Although the notion failed to gain mainstream political support in Australia, the shadow of the “hijab debates” contributed to an atmosphere in which holding women accountable for their form of dress was rationalised as a legitimate feminist exercise – even when undertaken by male authority figures not known for their feminist sympathies.

In response, Muslim spokeswomen and community representatives developed an articulate counternarrative, describing the hijab as a woman’s personal choice. The first wave of hijabis had emphasised the concept of modesty as a source of empowerment; their headscarves signalled that they wished to be judged for their intellect and their personal values rather than for their physical attributes, which were for the private enjoyment of their husbands. Hijabis were said to be prioritising intellectual and spiritual development ahead of the expensive and time-consuming demands of elaborate hairstyles and revealing clothing.

But while modesty remains a key rationale, Muslim women have responded to post-9/11 hostility by emphasising the hijab’s compatibility with Australian lifestyles, not to mention the pleasures of global fashion. It signifies not separatism, but hybridity – a sentiment most overtly expressed by the women who have donned Australian flags as hijabs in a performance of nationalist sentiment for Australia Day events. With Australian Muslim women becoming enthusiastic consumers of the growing international market for Islamic sportswear, Lebanese-born Australian designer Aheda Zanetti designed and manufactured a modest, high-quality swimsuit under a catchy brand name – the burqini.

In the aftermath of the display of masculinist rage at Cronulla, a burqini-clad young woman emerged as a symbol of post-riot reconciliation. Mecca Laalaa wore a specially designed red-and-yellow burqini when she participated in the “On the Same Wave” program, which encouraged young Muslims to train as lifesavers. The image of a burqini-clad Laalaa appeared in media outlets around the world and was a centrepiece of the Australian’s “Heart of the Nation” advertising campaign.

Yet the hijab retained its status as the symbol of an alien and threatening ideology, regardless of whether it was chosen by or imposed on the woman concerned. In Australia, Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop rejected the suggestion that some Muslim women had “chosen” to wear the hijab by saying that she could not accept

someone who wants to be a little bit of a slave, or a little bit subservient. The fact of the matter is that in this country, freedom is defined by our law, and that’s the standard, not someone else’s definition of what they think freedom might be.

Whether as victims or as rebels, hijabis came to be regarded as the standard-bearers of Muslim communities in Australia, regardless of the fact that the majority of Muslim women wear headscarves only part-time, if at all.

Regardless of such alarmist attitudes, however, the heightened visibility of confident, articulate (not to mention stylish) hijabis gradually caused the headscarf to lose much of its political and media frisson. And in his 2009 “new beginning” speech in Cairo, US President Barack Obama sought to refocus the discourse on women’s rights, saying, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”

The next phase of the moral panic focused on the burqa, and its place (or otherwise) within Western societies. In a speech to both houses of parliament in June 2009 at the Palace of Versailles, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed:

The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom.

As legislation outlawing face-covering was introduced in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, burqas were denounced for disrupting the boundary between private and public space. In Australia, journalist Virginia Haussegger, recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, described her shock at seeing a “hideously shrouded figure” in a Canberra shopping mall and called for Australia to implement a European-style ban. And police reports of an armed hold-up by a cross-dressing “burqa bandit” in Sydney’s south prompted Liberal senator Cory Bernardi to claim that the burqa is “emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and ne’er-do-wells.”

Muslim women themselves hold far more ambivalent attitudes towards the niqab and/or the burqa than towards headscarves. Most of those who have grown up in Australia have had little or no contact with women who cover their faces, and some of those who cover their hair have supported moves to prohibit face-coverings. Aziza Abdel-Halim, president of the Australian Women’s National Network, who herself wears a hijab, told the Age, “If [the burqa] opens the way for criminal acts then, as Muslims, we have to think about it. I see nothing wrong with saying to women, ‘Don’t wear it in public.’ I see the senator’s point. A lot of Muslim women would see his point.” Others, however, felt obliged to defend the right of women to cover their faces if they so choose, even as they contest the claim that the practice is recommended in Islam.

This desire to show solidarity gained momentum as public discussion about face-veiling became louder and uglier. When Sydney glass sculptor Sergio Redegalli painted a mural on the exterior wall of his studio in 2010 showing a burqa-wearing woman with a strike sign across her face beneath the slogan “SAY NO TO BURQAS,” Abdel-Halim, who had seen Bernardi’s point a few months earlier, was reported as saying that the mural was disrespectful and insulting and that wearing the burqa was a matter of “personal choice.”

Once again, Muslim women were cast in the dual roles of victim and perpetrator. The consensus seemed to be that the decision by an infinitesimally small number of Muslim women in Western societies to conceal their identity in public could be described as bad manners at best and as a potential weapon for criminals and terrorists at worst.

Tensions were even more fraught in September 2014 when Australia’s national security alert was raised from medium to high and the government announced a new suite of anti-terrorism legislation to combat the threat from Islamic State. Cory Bernardi renewed his call for a burqa ban, this time with the support of then Palmer United senator Jacqui Lambie, who issued a statement proclaiming, “Now we’re at war with the sharia extremists and Australia has been placed on a heightened terrorism alert – we can’t have anyone hiding their identity in public. It now becomes an important national security issue.”

How are Muslim women to respond to these twinned representations of victim and aggressor? After all, it is not our collective responsibility to act as therapists in the treatment of other people’s paranoia and moral panic. Yet many of us feel compelled to respond, whether by soothing the fearful, standing up to the bullies or, all too often, both.

And so we find ourselves in a catch-22 situation. We’ve responded to representations of victimhood by highlighting success stories – Muslim women who are not subserviently remaining within the patriarchal boundaries of the home, but who are attaining educational, professional and social achievements. In the course of the past decade, Australian Muslim women have moved from a position of inaudibility (note I do not use the word “invisibility” because the media’s obsession with the hijab ensured their visibility), to a situation in which a diverse range of Muslim women are regular contributors to Australian public discussions.

Visibly Muslim women have made frequent appearances as the “voice of reason” during heated panel discussions and public debates. In Australia, Susan Carland, Samah Hadid and Randa Abdel-Fattah have participated in media forums such as the ABC’s Q&A and SBS’s Insight, contributed opinion pieces to major newspapers and received public recognition for their work. Susan Carland was included on the Fairfax media website’s list of the twenty most influential female voices of 2012.

Positive profiles of pathbreaking Muslim women in activities that are perceived as outside the norms of their religious community have also become a regular media feature: women such as Maha Sukkar, the first Australian police officer to be allowed to incorporate her hijab as part of her uniform; Miriam Silva, “an outspoken female senior manager who wears a hijab in her role heading commercial operations at one of the country’s oldest and most conservative rural companies”; and Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who aspired to be “the first female, Muslim, formula one racing driver.”

Indeed, the focus on female Muslim success stories has reached the point where up-and-coming Muslim women joke about not wanting to be dragged into performing the stereotype of the Muslim woman as stereotype-breaker.

According to the ever-more-shrill voices of anti-Muslim scaremongering, stories such as these simply confirm the successful infiltration of Islam into Australian society. So Muslim women who carry their religious identity into public space – most obviously in the form of their dress but also in other practices such as prayer, creating a market for halal food, or even abstinence from alcohol consumption at workplace social functions – have embedded alien social norms into “mainstream” Australian society. Muslim women in Australia are urged to breach the confines of their domestic space in order to repudiate the perceived patriarchal boundaries of their religious identity, but they are expected to leave the visible markers of their religion behind them when they venture into the public realm.

After all, the popular argument goes, public space in Australia is “our” domain – and in the words of Bronwyn Bishop, “freedom is defined by our law.” Muslim women are allowed into this space on the condition that they accept the capacity and entitlement of its dominant forces to reprove them for perceived breaches of etiquette. •