An essay by Shakira Hussein

The conventional understanding of Muslim women in Western discourse is that of helpless victims awaiting rescue from an oppressive religious patriarchy. This was certainly the dominant representation in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, when the transnational feminist campaign to rescue Afghan women from the Taliban was appropriated by the Bush administration to boost its case for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

However, in the years since 2001 the focus has shifted from Muslims as an external to an internal security hazard. While racialised representations of gender violence within Muslim communities ‘here’ (i.e., the West) perpetuate the rescue narrative, the discourse has taken a turn towards representing Muslim women as dangerous fifth columnists in the Islamisation of the Europe, North America and Australia – stealthy agents of jihad either literally hidden beneath the veil or more dangerous still, hidden in plain view.

Orientalist discourses on gender and Islam have long fluctuated between portrayals of Muslim women as hapless victims in need of rescue and as dangerous agents of an alien ideology in need of discipline. This fluctuation is inherently unstable, with the narratives of rescue and discipline deeply entwined as Muslim women who resist their Enlightenment saviours are subjected to disciplinary attempts to rescue them from their own false consciousness. Predictably, this has become apparent in public ‘debates’ around the regulation of Muslim women’s dress.

Burqas and other forms of face-covering are regarded as the most extreme of the abject choices that Muslim women may undertake in the name of their religious identity. Those who advocate the regulation of burqas in public space cite its use both as a means of patriarchal control and as an instrument of female subversion. At least some of the women who cover their faces in public have described in articulate detail their reasons for choosing to do so, but according to the ban-the-burqa brigade, this hardly matters. It is the wrong choice, whether it is their own or someone else’s.

Historically, face-veiling has been perceived as an aide to sexual transgression, allowing Muslim women to go out into the streets to meet their lovers without fear of recognition. In the post 9/11 era, suspicion of the burqa focuses on its potential use as a tool for suicide bombers and gangsters, rather than adulterers. Incidents such as an armed hold-up in Sydney by a reported ‘burqa bandit’ in 2010 and the use of a burqa by a terrorism suspect in London to escape police surveillance in 2013 are cited as evidence of the burqa as an unacceptable risk to law and order. Speaking after the Sydney incident, Australian Senator Cory Bernardi claimed that “the burqa is no longer simply the symbol of female repression in Islamic culture, it is now emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and ne’er do wells.” Face-veiling, then, is a weapon that can be used both by and against women (or men posing as women) as an act of surrender or aggression, empowerment or disempowerment.

And besides the weapons that Muslim women are said to conceal under their garments, they are accused of harbouring a yet more sinister weapon within their bodies – their wombs. Muslim communities in the west, particularly in Europe, have been represented as a demographic threat the the ‘native population’, with projected demographics or pseudo-demographics forecasting a ‘Muslim takeover’ through sheer force of numbers rather than arms. Despite having been widely debunked, alarmist forecasts continue to circulate through both mainstream and social media of non-Muslim Europeans reduced to a struggling minority as the countries of their citizenship and ancestral heritage are overwhelmed by a booming Muslim population. And of course, it is the capacity and apparent willingness of Muslim women to prioritise childbearing ahead of other life choices that enables this demographic conquest. Muslim women are not only transmitters of a dangerous ideology, but also repulsive breeders of the enemy horde.

According to the ever-more shrill voices of anti-Muslim scare-mongering, even apparently assimilated Muslim women with unveiled faces should be regarded as a threat, since such success represents the successful infiltration of the West. 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 abject social norms into ‘mainstream’ society.

Muslim women, then, are regarded not only as helpless victims but also as a threatening, covert presence lurking within the heartlands of Western civilisation. In rescuing them – if necessary by force – the West is also safeguarding its own heritage and redeeming itself from the crimes of cultural relativism and soft multiculturalism.