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Taming the Muslim woman


Nadia Fadil: The Muslim woman figures as one of the central anchor points of the “Muslim question.” Integrated into a discourse of emancipation, her body has become the battleground for a new discourse of supremacy. Several have attended to the “rescue” narrative built around Muslim women. Lila Abu-Lughod’s book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? finds its point of departure there as it analyzes the imbrication of this discourse with new forms of neoimperial humanitarianism. The specificity of Scott and Farris’s books lies, however, in their empirical and historical embedding in Europe.

For Farris, the discourse of the oppressed Muslim woman primarily serves to regulate female labor power, whereby “care work” becomes increasingly outsourced onto racialized female bodies. The rescue narrative is, in other words, symptomatic of a new racial division in the female labor force that is defended by a femonationalist convergence. Scott, on the other hand, takes this discourse as a starting point to examine a new configuration of secularism. The idea that secularism enabled the emancipation of women is not only an ahistorical claim, Scott contends, convincingly showing how modern secular states consistently draw on a privatization of the female body, but it is equally instrumental for a new Western Christian supremacist discourse that takes the idea of “sexualized individualism” as its new flagship. In both accounts, the Muslim woman appears as a passive figure who serves as ideological backdrop for a series of broader governmental transformations.

But what are we to make of another representation of the Muslim woman, one that does not simply corroborate the idea that she is oppressed and lacks agency, but which depicts her as a potential threat? Such a representation is observed by Scott but not explored very far. We find it, for instance, in the arguments around the prohibition of the niqab (face veil) in countries like France or Belgium. The niqab was not only understood as the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression (it was described by many as a “mobile prison”), but also as a provocation and, in some instances, a sign of support of terrorism. We also find it in the recent burkini debate, where the burkini is largely framed as a political ideology rather than an innocent bathing suit (an argument routinely made regarding the hijab, also). We find it, finally, in the representations of female terrorist fighters or supporters of jihad as “Black Widows,” such as female Chechnyan fighters or widows of Al-Qaeda fighters like the Belgian-Moroccan Malika El Aroud. This moniker refers to their status as widows who are wrapped in their black niqab, but also to the infamous spider feared for its venom and for eating its male partner after mating. More here.

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