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From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11

HerCanberra Team

Writer and commentator Shakira Hussein writes engagingly about how Muslim women are perceived in Australia and other parts of the world.

From discussions around the veil, to feminist ‘intervention’ in Afghanistan, and the increased surveillance of Australian muslim families, she enlightens ethical discussions, offering some very different sides to the stories we think we know – or have opinions on.

Shakira is in Canberra this weekend in conversation with Canberra’s own Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir (and Australian’s current Oceania Boxing Bantamweight Champion), and journalist and researcher and Julie Posetti (Fairfax Media, University of Wollongong) on representations of Muslim women at Muse Canberra on Sunday 5 June from 3-4pm.

Shakira has also contributed to the exhibition catalogue for Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia at the National Archives of Australia, running until 4 September.

HerCanberra: Why do you think westerners are obsessed with the question of the headscarf?

Shakira: This obsession with veiling in its various forms dates back centuries. On one level, it’s just an extension of the scrutiny of women’s dress in general, but of course it’s far more intense and aggressive than the usual fashion commentary. Headscarves, like mosques, are a visible sign of the Muslim presence in Australia, and are resented as such.

How do you go about avoiding cliches in your coverage/writing of Muslim women?

The cliches are so pervasive that avoiding them is almost impossible. As I say in my book [From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11], the genre of stories about various Muslim women “smashing stereotypes” through their life-choices has become a stereotype in itself. I’ve tried to document the ways in which women navigate a path through those stereotypes, refusing to be shaped by them and occasionally turning them to their own advantage.

Is Australia an aggressive place for Muslim women?

Australia can certainly be a very aggressive place for Muslim women, in particular of course those whose religious identity is visible via their dress codes. And there is a lot of pressure within Muslim families and communities for women to adhere to the agreed script.


Do you see that the rise in visibility of Muslim women is changing things?

One major change that we’ve seen since 9/11 is that there is now a cohort of articulate Muslim women with a strong public profile. We no longer have the situation where questions about the situation of Muslim women would be answered by male Muslim community leaders.

This has certainly helped to subvert the claim that Muslim women are silent and submissive victims of their menfolk. However, it’s also heightened the level of suspicion towards them as women are seen as complicit in their menfolk’s transgressions, rather than just as victims.

How is the war on terror affecting ordinary Muslim families in Australia?

Muslim families and Muslim mothers in particular have come under extremely intense pressure during the last couple of years with the rise of the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh). The fact that some of those recruited by IS have been so troubling young has led politicians and commentators to urge Muslim parents to watch their offspring at all times, including (and even especially) when they’re alone in their bedrooms with their laptops and mobile phones.

Until recently, Muslim parents were urged to let their daughters enjoy the various freedoms of life in Australia. Supervision and surveillance were regarded as oppressive and patriarchal. Now all of a sudden, they’re being told to put their daughters back on the leash for fear that they’ll abscond to Syria to marry the suicide bomber of their dreams. This hypermonitoring of young Muslims is a very troubling development.

Do you have any reading suggestions for HerCanberra readers wanting to find out more about Muslim women?

The late Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi’s memoir The Harem Within is provides beautiful account of her childhood and the lives of the women in her family. African-American Muslim writer Amina Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad has been a very influential book for Muslim feminists around the world.

Randa Abdel Fattah is best known for her YA novels, but she’s also published No Sex in the City (which as the title suggests is a book about a Muslim woman’s relationship quest), as well as a large quantity of opinion articles. And I’m looking forward to reading Susan Carland’s book about Islamic feminism, which is due to be published by Penguin early next year.


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