Saving the Muslim woman, yet again

There’s been much debate among politicians, university staff and the Muslim community about the gender-segregated seating at a lecture at the University of Melbourne organised by Islamic education group, Hikma Way. Responding to the Australian’s inquiry about the event, Melbourne uni gender studies academic Sheila Jeffreys described it as ‘gender apartheid’ and ‘ritual humiliation’. Opposition leader Tony Abbott responded with the all-too-familiar label, ‘un-Australian’.

What’s perturbing on how the debate is unfolding is that we don’t recall any of those commenting on the issue as having attended a single lecture by the University of Melbourne’s Islamic Society (many which were organised by one of the authors of this article when president of the society).

Even more disturbing, however, is that Muslim women have yet to be present in this conversation. We have not yet read anyone discuss, highlight or duly acknowledge the vibrancy of Muslim women’s involvement in organising and adding to campus activities. Judging by the tone of the debate so far, listening to Muslim women on issues that affect them – let alone giving them an opportunity to participate in the debate – appears to not be a prerequisite when speaking for them.

If worried commentators had attended the event in question, they may have realised: there are no bearded religious men who act as security guards. No one hushes, bullies, points at or ultimately forces a herd of women to shuffle silently to the back of the lecture theatre.

This controversy is better understood if we consider how another form of segregation is taking place by those voices fighting for Muslim women. They segregate Muslim women further to the realm of silent subjects to be spoken for. Muslim women become objects that are hollowed out of agency and voice. Like most libidinal dolls, they serve white, not just brown, male patriarchal fantasies.

In the urgency of post-September 11 discourses, the Muslim woman can only exist as an emergency, needing to be protected from a menacing culture that aims to engulf who she really is. And this is the logic underpinning the debate on segregation and veiling: Western liberal mores have assumed a position of knowing what constitutes the Free Woman. This is despite the fact that there has been an array of impressive scholarship contesting this very logic – which, by the way, Sheila Jeffreys rejects – that examines how agency and female subjectivity is one that is negotiated and subject to cultural readings. A universal subject, one who desires, enjoys and experiences in the same way, is the white liberal fantasy at work.

What disturbs liberal feminists, and their occasional opportunistic male supporters, is that it is largely Muslim women who ask for events to be segregated. These women pursue a religiosity that doesn’t quite abide by the beliefs and values of liberals and the broader left in their imagining of what constitutes a free woman. How do the ‘defenders’ of Muslim women cope with this reality without falling back on the argument of false consciousness? Or are we to decide that there is an authentic consciousness that is uniformly practiced by all? Wasn’t that precisely the claim made by the advocates of a civilising mission in bygone eras? We have already seen the violence that ensued from those forms of paternalism and racism.

Strutting up and down hallways of dissent claiming that Muslim segregation is oppressive takes little political courage. It is a typical claim, oft repeated and over-determined. It requires more courage however to know about the shoes we use to strut. They could, for instance, have been sewn together by Muslim women wearing the hijab in a sweatshop in Bangladesh. But there is seemingly little mention of the West’s segregation of Muslim women’s global concern, such as war, or the overall economic abjection of women; instead she remains silent as she is rendered passive in the narrative of her rescue.

The Muslim woman is both a victim to be concerned about and a cultural menace, but the ‘saviour’ mentality that dominates conversations about Muslim women never listens to the voices of those it’s trying to save. If you listened to Muslim women on campus, they would be more likely to tell you that they use their hijab to wipe away tears for Palestine or the trauma resulting from systemic racist abuse hurled at them by a public that persistently identifies them as outsiders, rather than that the hijab oppresses them.

This controversy could also be discussed from another angle. The Opposition leader is trying to win back his feminist credentials: he wants to gain support in an upcoming election against a prime minister who accused him of sexism. Those interested in overturning the stifling powers of patriarchy might see their energy better spent questioning men in power, rather than focusing on those perpetually identified as outsiders. But that’s entirely the point: this controversy is a classic case of displacement, wherein minorities are problematised and criminalised to obfuscate actual national issues such as education funding, foreign policy and the deplorable conditions Indigenous communities are facing.

Professor Abdullah Saeed’s article in The Conversation also displaces the issue. He suggests that ‘unfortunately’ such cultural norms as segregation are the result of ‘dubious interpretations’ and a ‘selective reading’ of Islam. These readings are ultimately responsible for the worrying practice of ‘forcing women to sit in the back of the theater’. In doing so, Saeed locates the problem in the Muslim who comes from beyond Australia’s borders. He further claims – without providing evidence – that ‘there are some Muslims who do not believe that men and women are equal’, and ‘occasionally Australian students who travel … sometimes come back with these ideas as well’. Saeed peppers his claims with ‘sometimes’, ‘occasionally’ and ‘some’, as if to hint that he is generalising. Nonetheless, Saeed fixes his focus on the travelling Muslim who remains a foreigner despite living in Australia. Professor Saeed is the director of an institution that teaches Islamic studies; but, in a sense, he too participates in the logic of Islamophobia by positing ‘bad’ Muslims as outsiders.

Deakin University academic Fiona Hill’s article on The Conversation is also riddled with sensationalist errors about the dreaded ‘foreign brown man’. It’s a difficult read of half-truths, accusations and an erroneous biography of Ibn Taymiyyah (who she incredibly blames for planting the idea that Muslims should return to the ‘Golden era of the Salaf’). Her errors are best highlighted by the accusation that Sheikh Qardawi is a ‘Salafi’ calling for violence. He is not. As a Sufi, Qardawi has continually stressed dialogue with non-Muslims, and preached that extremism and intolerance is against the Quran and the prophetic tradition. Hill then asks us to look closely at the lecture in question – which she didn’t attend. It is really about Muslims wanting to call for a militaristic jihad, she says. It belongs to part of the foreign and menacing Islam that calls for the massacre of non-Muslim minorities. Hill, like Saeed, focuses on the foreign, and displaces a conversation about less visible patriarchies.

Abbott’s comment that it was ‘absolutely extraordinary that a great liberal institution would take a huge leap back into the dark ages’ also implicates the University of Melbourne. He hints the university somehow allows, and is almost blind to, the social ills of an outdated foreign Islam. His comment is key to the underlying nature of patriarchy: The Muslim woman is a conversation between institutions – parliament, media and academics. It is not a conversation with her. Moreover, the idea that any university has an ability to force women to either segregate or mingle is absurd.

Living their Islam in the accusatory and suspicious atmosphere after September 11, a new generation of young Muslim students has come to recognise the meaninglessness of the persistent criticisms of Islam. They are developing an immune system. Today’s Muslim on campus knows that many commentators order all things beyond western coordinates as strange and threatening for their own political purposes. They have also come to recognise the prevailing paradigm upon which debates about Islam occur – and such conversations have little to do with care, concern or advocacy for Muslim rights. The assumption that these public debates will lead to a desired outcome of internal reform is misplaced. Rather, we run the risk isolating those on the fringes further. The debate about Islam and women suffers: it should not be fought out in short paragraphs derailing a dubious Islam or highlighting the haunting Salafi spectre, all on the eve of a Federal election. Muslim women deserve better.


Sahar Ghumkhor and Yassir Morsi

Sahar Ghumkhor is a PhD Candidate in Criminology at the University of Melbourne researching Western social and political discourses on Muslim women. Yassir Morsi is research fellow at the international centre of Muslim and non-Muslim understanding, at the University of South Australia and former President of the Melbourne University Islamic Society.

More by Sahar Ghumkhor and Yassir Morsi ›

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  1. Terrific article on an issue that has been predictably sensationalised by media sources and politicians eager to gain brownie points by attacking “Islam”.

    One thing that particularly stood out: Does anyone find it unusual that Sheila Jeffreys is criticising ‘gender segregation’, which she has long and loudly endorsed separatism/womyn-born-womyn-only spaces’?

    The increasing conservatism of certain feminisms is worrying (a particular, prominent pro-life feminist comes to mind here). This ‘conservatism in the name of feminism’ is bound to be amplified under an Abbott government.

  2. Deakin University academic Fiona Hill’s article on The Conversation is also riddled with sensationalist errors about the dreaded ‘foreign brown man’.

    “foreign brown man” in quotes – give me a break. I suggest anyone swallowing that weak attempt to suggest that Fiona Hill’s article is racist should read her article. Or her bio.
    “Fiona’s business, Almanar Consultancy, guides clients’ engagement with the region through briefing and workshops, cultural consultancy, and trade and cultural visits to Arab countries. She has led women-only visits to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, and Morocco.
    Fiona was a founding member and served on the Executive of the Australian Arabic Council (AAC) for a decade, and a founding member of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR) 2002 – 2008.”

    I am guessing that Fiona Hill is a supporter of the Assad regime and the authors are supporters of the opposition.

    “Her errors are best highlighted by the accusation that Sheikh Qardawi is a ‘Salafi’ calling for violence. He is not. As a Sufi, Qardawi has continually stressed dialogue with non-Muslims, and preached that extremism and intolerance is against the Quran and the prophetic tradition.”

    Well that is incomplete at least according to Assad supporters who claim that last year, on Al-Jazeera, Sheik Qaradawi declared to his followers, “it is ok to kill one third of Syrians if it leads to the toppling of the ‘heretical’ Syrian regime”.

    Some more on Qardawi here.

  3. So, should i allow students to segregate themselves on the basis of sexuality, ethnicity, skin colour etc? The segregation of women from men has its origins in the defeat of Aisha, it is, therefore, a cultural practice embedded in politics. Also, on what grounds do you defend asylum seekers? Some international law instrument based on human rights principles? If not, if you insist on a relativist identity politics position then Abbott has as much right to criticise the gender-apartheid as you do to perpetuate it. And i do not support Abbott.

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