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Volunteer Contribution: Pandemic Restrictions Highlight Hypocrisy of Islamophobia Faced by Muslim Women

Volunteer Contribution: Pandemic Restrictions Highlight Hypocrisy of Islamophobia Faced by Muslim Women

Categories: Latest News

Thursday June 17 2021

As we begin to enter a post-Covid society, a volunteer has written the following article reflecting on the policies that have been introduced over the pandemic which have served to highlight the abject hypocrisy that Muslim women continue to face.

Whilst the pandemic has introduced various unfamiliar issues in society, some minority communities have found themselves facing new manifestations of problems that have been embedded in policy for decades. From the ban on particular forms of attire to mainstream discourse problematising their identity, Muslim women continue to find themselves targets of structural Islamophobia. Evident in both the UK and France, mainstream discourse and governmental policy continue to otherise Muslim women, fostering an environment in which their identity is open for ridicule and attack; both figuratively and, unfortunately, literally. What the pandemic has provided, however, is a context in which the absurdity of this discrimination is increasingly clear. As we move towards a post-covid society, we must reflect on the unethical nature of structural Islamophobia and ensure that such structures are quickly challenged and dismantled.

Muslim women have been at the receiving end of structural Islamophobia for years, having to defend their autonomy, and having to fight for equal recognition of their rights. In France, under the concept of laïcité, the State has introduced various pieces of legislation which have sought to police the attire of Muslim women. In 2004, France prohibited all “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools, and extended this to all public domains in 2010. Although worded in such a way to not directly target any particular religious group, the law indirectly discriminated against Muslim women in particular, with the law being widely referred to as the French headscarf ban. This is because Christian communities rarely wear such large crosses that would have breached the legislation (and such items are not considered to be religiously mandatory unlike the hijab), and the Jewish community, having been established in France much longer, are able to send their children to private religious schools to overcome the discriminatory barriers. The law, and legislation introduced since, is widely considered to be the State’s attempt to force Muslim communities to assimilate under unwelcoming circumstances, with Muslims being demanded to shed religio-cultural identity tags deemed incompatible to “liberal”French values. This practice leads to the problematisation of Islamic identity, driving anti-Muslim sentiment through the formation of an “Other”. As a result, many Europeans view Islam as posing a greater threat to their values than other faith traditions. Such biases are indeed not inconsequential, nor do they occur in a vacuum. Instead, they occur out of Islamophobic framings propagated by mainstream discourse.

Boris Johnson’s ridicule of the burqa is one illuminating example of how Islamophobic discourse against Muslim women can result in tangible negative consequences. Johnson, the now prime minister, in 2018, likened women wearing the niqab to bank robbers and letterboxes in the Telegraph newspaper. Such a comparison attempts to equate Muslim women with criminality and inanimate objects, effectively dehumanising them as the “other”. He further belittled the agency and experiences of these women by describing the burka as “oppressive”, “weird”, and a form of “bullying.” He concluded that there are only a few women in Britain who wear the burka, adding his hope for the future that “one day, I am sure, they will go”, seemingly attempting to alienate Muslim women further and suggesting that the cultural practices and identities of such women should be considered “backward” and in need of erasure. Key public figures deriding religious dress under the guise of hindering interpersonal communication sends the message that targeting the Muslim community is fair game. What this risks, however, is emboldening more public and sinister displays of racism, the realities of which the Muslim community know too well. Indeed, data from MEND’s Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) reveals that the majority of victims of Islamophobia that approach the IRU are Muslim women, particularly visibly Muslim women. It is disheartening then that even in the midst of a global pandemic, Islamophobic narratives continue to operate even when being paradoxical to other policies.

Image is by Turkish Artist Ersem Erçil as part of the Legal Burka project

Restrictions on the veil in France is one pertinent example that unambiguously demonstrates the hypocrisy present in policies that seek to discriminate against the Muslim communities. The policy that bans face coverings in France, was first introduced in 2011, wherein the government claimed that coverings are a “symbol of male oppression”. However, coverings are now mandatory to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. Despite face masks now being required in all indoor public spaces, bans on niqab remain, curbing Muslim women’s rights to religious expression. The paradox lies in the fact that whilst individuals are fined for not wearing a face mask, women wearing the niqab would be fined for wearing a face covering. This goes to reveal the hypocritical and deeply Islamophobic basis of the ban, which has little to do with hindering communication or undermining French values and more to do with suppressing religious identity. Unfortunately, the French government fails to appreciate that in attempting to remove a “symbol of male oppression” by forcing Muslim women to shed the veil, the government itself is undermining the agency of Muslim women.

Similarly, visibly Muslim women across France bear the brunt of Islamophobic hate crime, as seen in the stabbing of two Muslim women near the Eiffel Tower. Islamophobic biases within mainstream media reporting, fuelled widespread uproar across social media, accusing French media of remaining silent regarding an attack that was evidently anti-Muslim. Sensationalism used to create the impression of Muslims as consistent perpetrators and a lack of media coverage when Muslims are indeed the victims, skews public perception of Muslims and creates the very foundations that allow hate crime to fester. A disproportionate and distorted view, results in little attention to Muslim victims, and more sinisterly a reluctance to accept Muslims as other than wrongdoers.

Beyond the hijab or niqab, Islamic identities continue to be problematized through policies that suppress religious rights. In 2015, the French Minister of Education denounced the offering of pork-free lunch options. Secularism, appropriated by the right as well as the far-right Front National, targeted to exclude Islam from the public sphere, even if that resulted in several children being unable to clear their plates in French schools. Such discrimination highlights the extent of institutional Islamophobia that breaches the basic rights of vulnerable children. Following mass outrage at this result, a Muslim organisation was able to win the legal case against the law, and ensure alternatives were provided for children.

As we stand on the precipice of a post-covid society, we have an invaluable opportunity to reflect on the absurdity of policies that have been introduced over the years borne out of structural Islamophobia. We must commit to not just challenging every and all such policy, but also resolve to challenge the discourse that fosters an environment in which such policy arises from. What is required is efforts to be undertaken which seek to actually empower Muslim women rather than undermining their agency in pursuit of Islamophobic motives.

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