Book Review: Muslim women used to further foreign agenda

27th Sep 2019
Book Review: Muslim women used to further foreign agenda

From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11. By Shakira Hussein. Pp 253. Yale University Press. 2019. $30

This book is a scholarly piece of work, well written and rich in the conversations that the author has had with Muslim women, primarily from Australia and Pakistan. Shakira Hussein has compared her findings to the experience of Muslim women in the Western hemisphere.

Hussein discusses how Muslim women cannot be placed in any given narrative, and are often used as a PR opportunity to further a foreign agenda. Their susceptibility to being used – with or without their consent – leads to scepticism both abroad and at home.

Gender norms have always been a sticky subject in Muslim communities across the globe. They revere the traditional roles that are played by women as carers and the patriarchal system is sceptical of the feminist woman, who is right to question the misogyny that she finds on the home front and is also unexpectedly supported for she becomes the purpose of an external liberation even if she might not desire it.

What is interesting is that nobody asks the woman for her opinion, and this book is an attempt to give women across the divide a platform to explain their viewpoint which is often unfathomable to her counterparts in the Western hemisphere.

The case of Malala Yousufzai illustrates this well. Malala championed secular education and so-called enlightened moderation and was targeted horrifically as a result. In the furore that followed, the masses in Pakistan did not resent her for championing education for girls, they questioned her motives for removing the role of religion in educating girls.

Malala was taken abroad and symbolised as an image for secularisation, which has led to scepticism for her cause at home. Hussein highlights this inciting a conversation with Raheel Qazi, the head of the women’s wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party in Pakistan, who states that secularization cannot exist in a society that is 97 per cent Muslim.

That viewpoint is completely disregarded in the discussions about gender norms in the countries that the West seeks to liberate. Hussein doesn’t go on to provide solutions but scrutinises who and what shapes the narrative about Muslim women. She also talks about the ‘lighter’ aspects of life such as fashion which is also an indicator of the sentiments against Muslims. On the subject of burqini bans and the resentment to its appearance on French and

Australian beaches, Hussein states, ‘If the burqini was permitted to become an unremarkable feature on our beaches then Islamic dress indeed come to be regarded as representative of “our” cultural identity. The case of the burqini illustrates differing attitudes to secularism and multicultural governance, but also the capacity for both fashion and racist moral panics to travel across borders.’ (p91)

This is a marked shift from the hijab as a symbol of oppression to a symbol of terrorism. The Muslim woman’s connection with terrorism came after stories of them leaving their homes to become a part of the “Islamic State”, and they are regarded as the traitors within: ‘The Muslim woman who refuses “rescue” is considered to be an agent of Islamisation by default’ (p95). She is then pitied and reviled in one go.

Hussein’s richness in the book lies in her ability to detangle the different narratives that exist about female gender norms within and outside of our community and it also considers the different impacts depending on our differing geographies. She cites that Muslim women who — out of their own free will — choose to be visible, are abiding by their principles, thereby rejecting mainstream thought which is then resented.

I haven’t read anything like this before, but if a (complex) conversation on women’s rights and gender norms is what you are seeking, then this book is for you. It is not a study based on empirical evidence but anecdotal, and this creates a warmth in the writing which I thoroughly recommend.

Aasiya I Versi

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

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