• A Muslim woman hold a placard reading 'Don't be afraid to speak to a Muslim today' during a recent protest against US President Donald Trump in Melbourne. (Anadolu/Getty)Source: Anadolu/Getty
Do we really believe that all racists care about women’s rights?
Amal Awad

24 Feb 2017 - 1:54 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 9:55 AM

The recent furore surrounding youth activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied was revealing. Her comments were not new, but neither was the public reaction against a Muslim woman explaining some personal and international truths about Islam. Abdel-Magied proffered the same sorts of thoughts and beliefs she always has: she is a practising Muslim and does not feel oppressed by her faith, despite the best efforts of people, including politicians, to tell her otherwise.

However, the level of backlash was alarming; the decibels of hate rose following the heated exchange between Abdel-Magied and politician Jacqui Lambie, who signalled support for Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from several Islamic countries and an unflinching disgust for sharia law.

And where did the conversation go? To women, of course. It always comes down to women. When the US invaded Iraq, they weren’t just bringing western democracy, but also ideals and freedom for its people (including women). Afghanistan? The same. The women, hidden behind burqas, became a symbol of all that was wrong with Islam and its treatment of women. It’s Islam that gets attacked, not people who implement according to their own strict interpretations of the religion.  

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It wasn’t long before the story on Q&A turned into a defence of Islam’s – rather than Muslims’ – track record on women. It’s not surprising that Abdel-Magied magnified her support of her religion – she’s a woman who covers her hair, and no matter her other achievements, any discussion in which she is involved will invite commentary on her freedom.

As Helen Razer suggested in Crikey last year: “Women are a territory over which wars and other contests are regularly fought. One can fight for “women’s rights” without really fighting for them at all.”

And consider Joumanah El Matrah’s pithy observation in The Guardian: “When it comes to Muslim women, everyone’s a feminist, even if that aspiration for Muslim women’s equality comes at the expense of, well … a Muslim woman.”

And where did the conversation go? To women, of course. It always comes down to women. 

What emerged from this situation, for me, is just how hypocritical racists are, and how quickly they utilise oppression as a justification for their hatred, particularly where women are concerned. This was evident in Jacqui Lambie’s response to Abdel-Magied’s question about what the politician knew of sharia law. “What about women’s rights?” Lambie responded.

This myopic approach was also clear in the attacks on Abdel-Magied’s goodwill tour of the Middle East, with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighing in with a quote to The Australian on Abdel-Magied’s defence of a religion that, in his eyes, supports the oppression of women. Who knew Abbott cared so deeply about Muslim women in the Arab world?

Then cartoonist Bill Leak mocked Abdel-Magied’s tour by drawing her as a caricature taking a selfie with a woman about to be stoned to death.

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And this is what comes down to: an amplification of the Arab world’s problems – Muslim women’s issues in particular – yet no regard for any of it unless it serves a wider, more destructive message of ‘us vs them’. There is a wilful disregard for the universality of oppression against women, and any evidence of hardship in the Muslim world supports this hatred.

As the furore unfolded, I was reminded of the Norma Khouri book hoax several years ago, which saw a con artist from the US, who was of Jordanian heritage, capitalise on the so-called honour killings in the Middle East, specifically Jordan. Khouri’s invented story about a Muslim best friend being murdered by family for loving a Christian man was not only a fiction, but one that wasn’t even fact-checked. Not only was it easily believed, it satisfied a confused mob who, post-911, wanted to confirm that Arabs are inherently violent. 

Khouri’s deception swept the Jordanian movement against these murder crimes back several years. A country already sensitive about so-called western influence found a reason to delay changes to laws that saw male relatives guilty of murder get off with a light sentence if a woman’s honour was alleged to be a key factor.

That this was possible is easy enough to understand: Arabs, often depicted as backward, and rarely seen as anything but Muslim, are not considered trustworthy with their own lives.

That this was possible is easy enough to understand: Arabs, often depicted as backward, and rarely seen as anything but Muslim, are not considered trustworthy with their own lives.

I speak from experience. During my student days of retail, besides learning how to up-sell a pant suit, I made the more significant discovery that the notion of sisterhood is elastic. I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, but my co-workers were aware that I was Muslim. One day, one of them indicated towards two women in hijab and said to me: “Look at that. Do you call that a life?”

Such determinations have been offered liberally to me throughout my life, in every workplace, from other women, and in media. And often enough it seemed like nothing more than a flimsy disguise for racism.

I’m really not sure how we can conquer this so long as stereotypes are consistently revived and retold. To be full three-dimensional, to feel and be nuanced in opinion requires interaction. For my part, I don’t feel the need for universal approval of Islam to feel secure. But this blanket hatred, mixed with ignorance, takes us backwards. Steeped in hate, no one wins or progresses.

My own recent travels to the Middle East revealed a huge gap in perceptions of the ‘other’. Here, we are obsessed with being right and righteous. In the Arab world, the women I interviewed – activists, lawyers, mothers, doctors – were consumed not by passing a test imposed on them by outsiders; they were motivated by a greater purpose to improve the lives of others.

Tell me, which is more constructive?

Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

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Amal Awad is currently working on a new book, Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women. Her project is supported by the Australian Government through the Council for Australian-Arab Relations. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Commonwealth of Australia or those of the Australian Government. 

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