Editor’s Note: Sahar Aziz is associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law where she teaches civil rights and Middle East law. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality. The views expressed are her own.
Sahar Aziz: Women are bearing much of the anti-Muslim backlash
Women's bodies should never be the targets of public anger, she says
Since the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, dozens of anti-Muslim attacks have been reported in France, including numerous attacks against individual Muslims, mosques, or Muslim-owned businesses. With each passing day, more Muslims are worrying about mistreatment, harassment, or assault. Those whose Muslim identities are most visible – Muslim women wearing headscarves – are particularly likely to bear the brunt of the backlash. Indeed, Muslim religious leaders report an uptick in complaints of anti-Muslim bias, predominantly by Muslim women. All this comes on the heels of a troubling rise in Islamophobic incidents against individuals and institutions in France that neared 700 in 2013, up from less than 50 in 2005.
Sadly, it is women that are bearing much of the anti-Muslim backlash.
After months of divisive national debates in France, the Muslim headscarf was banned in public schools back in 2004, and the full face veil was banned in public areas in 2011. At the time, French feminists loudly proclaimed their defense of Muslim women’s rights to be free from what they deemed a misogynist religious tradition. A woman’s right to choose how to practice her faith as a fundamental woman’s rights issue was, it seems, disregarded as trivial within the French fixation on laïcité – secularism.
Yet, as Muslim women face threats to their safety in the anti-Muslim backlash, one cannot help but notice the deafening silence of French feminists.
Those who claimed their opposition to the headscarf was based on a sincere interest in the rights and dignities of women should be the first to condemn the anti-Muslim hate being unleashed on Muslim women. Yet as Ilham Mossaid so poignantly lamented in her response to critiques against her candidacy for the French New Anti-Capitalist Party in 2010: “It is with great sadness that I watch … my life reduced to my headscarf.
When a woman’s behavior, dress, or acts are viewed as a reflection of an entire communities’ morals, then women are not free. When women’s bodies are attacked in revenge for the wrongs committed by others, women are not free.
Individual Muslim women in France are now experiencing an anti-Muslim backlash despite having no relationship to the terrorists that killed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Yet their headscarves mark their bodies as symbols of terrorism.
In the minds of those who take Muslim women’s rights seriously, as opposed to merely using it as a pretext to bash Islam, this is eerily similar to the suspicion collectively imposed on women in traditional areas in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan who refuse to wear the burka, want to drive, or challenge the Taliban’s extremist views. That headscarved Muslim women in France must fear for their safety, and possibly their lives, due to the acts of men against men speaks volumes of the similarities between France’s proclaimed laicite and ultra-orthodox views held in some Muslim areas.
By raising the liberty and dignitary stakes of wearing a headscarf, the Muslim woman in France is effectively being denied the right to choose how to live, what to wear, and what to believe. A woman who chooses to wear a headscarf, out of religious faith or cultural norms, must now choose between basic individual freedoms and physical safety. This is a false choice.
To those French feminists who so vocally expressed their support for Muslim women’s rights during the headscarf debates, now is the time to vocally condemn harassment of innocent Muslim women by your countrymen.
Women’s bodies should never be the targets of public anger, including in France.