Fatemeh Fakhraie examines the reaction garnered by the story of a female Saudi gang rape victim who was recently sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison as punishment for speaking to Saudi media outlets about the crime perpetrated against her. Fakhraie laments the subsequent no win situation Muslim women often find themselves in when situations like the Saudi incident arise, forced to choose whether to defend themselves “against Islamophobia, against racism, or against misogyny”:
This “triple threat” is one we often face as Muslim women (especially if we are also women of color). We always seem to be battling against one (or more) of these three issues: racism (for Muslim women who are also non-white), Islamophobia, or misogyny (not just from our own Muslim communities, but also from non-Muslim communities who think they know what’s best for us).
Being on the defensive all the time creates reactionary behavior. We always feel like we have to keep our guards up to defend our faith and our choices, and it gets tiring. Most Muslims don’t necessarily mind explaining stuff (that is, if you’re genuinely interested in understanding instead of starting an argument), but we can’t all be Encyclopedia Islamicas all the time.
Some of this “damage control” keeps us from having dialogues within our communities. Muslim women face a lot of problems within our communities as well as outside, but we’re afraid to talk about it because it can potentially be used against us. People in our own communities this power: for example, feminists in Iran are accused of being too “Westernized” by compatriots who have no interest in changing the status quo for women. Many women who seek their fair share are given this load of crap in order to guilt them into shutting up, because Westernization is equated with undesirable qualities in the Muslim world. Or, if we try to speak out to a non-Muslim audience, we are accused of “betraying” Islam or our communities by airing out our “dirty laundry.”
And this is a legitimate fear. We don’t want to reinforce negative ideas about Islam, Muslim men and women, or Muslims of any race. But if our own communities won’t listen to us or engage in a dialogue to raise awareness and potentially enact change (phew, a lot of buzzwords in there!), what else are we supposed to do?
Related: Laila Lalami reviews The Politics of the Veil by historian Joan Wallach Scott, which “examines the particular French obsession with the foulard [headscarf], which culminated in March 2004 with the adoption of a law that made it illegal for students to display any “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation.” As Lalami notes, “both Islamic Sharia and strict French laïcité produced gender systems that essentially deprived women of the right to dispose of their bodies as they wished”:
[I[n Islamic tradition, women are urged to be modest and to steer clear of tabarruj. This Arabic noun has its roots in the verb baraja, which means “to display” or “to show off,” and the noun can be translated as something like “affectation.” In A Season in Mecca, his narrative book about the pilgrimage, Moroccan anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi uses the term “ostentation” to translate tabarruj, “the invariable term for a bearing that is deemed immodest or conspicuous, a hieratic stance.” Similarly, the French law born out of strict definitions of laïcité warned schoolgirls about displaying “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation. In short, the battle between the two modes of thinking was played out in women’s bodies.
The sexual argument against the foulard was common in France in 2003, although by that point the word “foulard” had all but disappeared from public discourse and was replaced by voile, or veil, which covers the entire face except for the eyes. This was erroneous but not entirely innocent, of course, because it made it possible for commentators to talk in terms of more general stereotypes of Muslim women in places like Yemen, where the veil is prevalent, rather than the reality of suburban Paris, where it is not. More recently, in an interview with a London-based newspaper, Bernard-Henri Lévy went as far as to say that “the veil is an invitation to rape.” It is perverse to suggest that a woman is inviting rape by the way she dresses, but such is the extreme that Lévy will go to in order to preserve the idea of a homogeneous female European identity. In this view, a European woman is uncovered, and that signifies both her availability to the male gaze as well as her liberation.
It is interesting, too, that Lévy demands for himself that which he is not willing to give others. In 2004 he hired the designer Andrée Putman to renovate his vacation home in Tangier. The home lies next to the famous Café Hafa, whose regulars once included Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet, and which has unparalleled views of the Mediterranean. Patrons of the cafe can no longer enjoy an unobstructed view, however, because during the renovations Lévy constructed a wall around his terrace, where his wife, the actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, likes to sunbathe. Lévy reportedly wanted to protect her from the eyes of the men at the Café Hafa. Unveiling only goes one way, it seems.