Europe and North America’s obsession with Muslim women, especially veiled women, throughout the developing culture war, that has been styled the War on Terror since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, must be of some considerable concern to us. Over the past fifteen years, as Islamophobic hate crimes have risen in the West, women have been the predominant targets of abuse and violent assault (Chris Allen, Maybe We Are Hated, 2013), and the principal focus of the media’s criticism of Islam. Triumphing in the initial successes of the US in Afghanistan the then First Lady, Laura Bush, gushed “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
At every stage of this global crisis Muslim women, in one way or another, have been central to the framing of a wholly artificial clash of civilisations. Now in the United Kingdom, through the November festival of war, Muslim women are being targeted again; this time to both apologise for their faith and culture, and to demonstrate their allegiance to Britain by wearing the poppy hijab. It is interesting that Catholic nuns are not encouraged to wear poppy habits and veils.
It will not be argued here that women do not experience varying degrees of repression and oppression in Muslim countries and in Muslim families – that is a discussion for another time. What is being asked is whether the pornified West, where white women are routinely trafficked as sex slaves to New York, Paris, and London, and where human rights organisations like Amnesty International can suggest that women can legitimately prostitute themselves out of poverty, has the moral authority to lecture the Islamic World on the liberation of women.
In times of war – men’s war – women have always been singled out as sexualised objectives of conflict. Be this Nanking, Berlin, or Kosovo, women – objectified as the mothers of the nation – have been specifically targeted in a distorted hyper-masculine effort to emasculate the male ethnic other. Such logic assumes the ownership of women by men, and by focussing a sexualised aggressive campaign against Muslim women the West is simply subscribing to this law of ownership of the female body. Britain and France’s war, for example, against the hijab and the niqab – as symbols of modesty and privacy – and not against the nun’s veil, is little more than an attempt in the West to own Muslim women and ‘liberate’ them to Western values – the brothel perhaps?
In 1984, during the Soviet Union’s incursion into Afghanistan, the West had quite a different attitude towards these same vailed women. Steve McCurry’s now iconic image of the Afghan Girl did not scream out against the subjugation of brown women to brown men. In fact this strikingly beautiful young woman was a powerful symbol of resistance against the USSR. Modes of Islamic dress have remained unchanged in certain places for centuries, and only now has the West developed a distaste for it.