Muslim women’s bodies are not spaces to fight people’s bigotry

Living in Johannesburg, I usually get to go to the beach once a year. When I swim in a public place I wear full-length leggings, a long-sleeved top, and either a hat or a scarf tied in a turban while I swim, to cover my hair (which is something I do all the time). I dress like this in accordance with the rules of hijab, a code of modesty and behaviour outlined for me by my religion. It is my choice to dress this way.

The woman identified on the French beach, known only as Siam, exercised her agency to do the same. And French police – the keepers of the justice system, the ones who preach “freedom, equality, brotherhood” – completely freaked out about it, and forced her to strip off her long-sleeved top and scarf on a public beach in front of strangers, humiliating her in front of her crying daughter.

Telling a certain group of women what they can or cannot wear on the beach is a form of imperialism. You wouldn’t tell a surfer not to wear a wetsuit, or ask a nun to remove her habit. So why the special attention on Muslim women?

Because gendered Islamophobia is a thing. You see, the French do not seem to have a problem with the clothing itself. They have a problem with the wearer, and the faith that she is so boldly practising by dressing in a certain way. This, of course, feeds into a long history of the French not quite being able to accept Muslim women by virtue of nothing other than the way that they’re dressed. Fanon wrote an entire chapter on the anxieties that covered-up Algerian women posed to French colonisers in their conquests of Algiers in the 19th century.

The French have a cognitive dissonance when it comes to Muslims. They are so preoccupied with promoting their idea of secularism that they cannot accept Islam and its somewhat conservative nature. They preach “freedom, equality, brotherhood,” but even though immigrants from North Africa make up a massive portion of their population, they are still too closed off to accept the reality of multiculturalism.

They refuse to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism which they continue to promulgate – the fact that they went into these countries, could not accept these people as they were there, displaced them so that they had no option but to come to France – and even there, continue to make it clear that they do not belong and cannot be accepted.

But France is not the only one guilty of treating Muslim women badly. Mainstream media is complicit in reinforcing a certain narrative of what a “Muslim woman” is – and find no issue with drawing their own reductionist conclusions. A 2010 research report by Michelle Byng found that “the media have represented Islam and Muslims as culturally incompatible with the values, norms, and interests of Western nations.” Also in 2010, Laura Navarro researched the links to sexism and Islamophobia and found, “The Western mass media tend to construct an image of Muslim women using a discourse dominated by the notions of passiveness and victimisation… in a minority of cases, also portray a seemingly positive image of “liberated Muslim women”, closely linked to their “Western-style clothes” and/or their economic success. This reductionist construction on the part of the mass media tends to erode the social, cultural and economic diversity of Muslim women…”.

When are we going to stop talking about Muslim women only through the archaic and Orientalist lens of the veil? Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod wrote in 2002 – post-9/11 – when the invasion of Afghanistan was justified as a mission to “save the women”: “We must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing.”

To publicly observe hijab in 2016, it seems, has become a revolutionary act. But this is nothing more than structural oppression continuing to manifest itself – and for that to be the case in 2016 is ridiculous.

And on that note – when are white feminists going to see this, call it out, and stand in solidarity against it instead of siding with with an imperialist government with a patriarchal agenda, obsessed with controlling the way that women dress under the guise of “saving” or “rescuing” these women from their own religion?

Muslim women’s bodies are not spaces to fight people’s bigotry. The sooner we realise that, the better.

Featured image via Instagram