Token brown faces are not what Muslim women want

Token brown faces are not what Muslim women want
Comment: There is a patronising, racist assumption that Muslim women should be grateful for token Muslims in high places, regardless of what they actually represent politically, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
08 Feb, 2018
Sara Khan, the new lead for the Commission for Countering Extremism [CC/Mramoeba]
The British state seems unable to decide on its relationship with Muslim women.

In the early days of the government's counter-terrorism Prevent strategy, it identified us as partners against terrorism, and in some way we were supposedly the key to de-radicalising our apparently barbaric, innately violent brown men.

We had money thrown at projects, and a targeted effort made to "empower" us to lead our community.

When we no longer served an agenda that soon came to reveal itself as an Islamophobic project intent on curtailing civil liberties and clamping down on dissent, we were defined as something far less passive. We became the threat. In the programme's most recent form, under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015), we are considered a radicalising force in the home.

With the Good-Muslim Bad-Muslim framework used to categorise us in relation to our commitment to so-called "British values", every once in a while we are presented with the "ideal Muslimah". This Muslimah of 2018 - as decided by the Tory government - is Sara Khan, the newly appointed lead for the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE).

Khan's history with the Home Office and its targeting of our community, namely her championing of the Prevent agenda, is worrying to say the least.

Her views and government-funded projects have led to considerable distrust among Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. MPs, teachers, Muslim organisationscivil liberties groups, trade unionists, as well as women's groups such as Muslim Women's collective have all shared their concerns publicly.

Perhaps most telling of the consequences of Khan's newfound power is those figures who have publicly celebrated her new role. They include the likes of Nikita Malik, of the Henry Jackson Society and Maajid Nawaz, former head of the Quilliam Foundation.

Both organisations have a long track record of supporting state surveillance, repression and discrimination against Muslim communities in the UK and beyond, and both view Muslim communities as to blame for the problems we encounter
When a Muslim woman such as Sara Khan is invited to the table, her presence serves to reinforce the ideologies used to oppress us
What makes the whole ordeal worse is that Muslim women are being told that this move should be celebrated, given "a sister" has made it to such a prominent post. Malik even stated that it showed the government is taking "women's voices in preventing terrorism seriously".

Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, said "It's quite incredible we have elected officials decrying an appointment which should be welcomed - which is of a young British woman, Muslim woman, when we say there aren't enough women in leadership."

There is a patronising, racist assumption here, that what Muslim women seek, at the height of Islamophobia in the UK, is tokenistic brown Muslim faces in high places, regardless of what they represent politically.

Khan is a woman who paints Muslim women such as myself - who campaigned against the policing and racial profiling of students, the thousands of teachers and lecturers who voted against complicity with Prevent, the nurses and doctors who stood against institutional racism, the parents of countless children who were the victims of this draconian policy - as an "Islamist hard-left alliance".

She accuses our opposition - the many thousands of us across the country - as being founded on lies, and implies by doing so, that we are, at least in part, responsible for the current situation and living proof of the need for greater surveillance and repression.

It is clear that in her new post, Khan will not offer a critical analysis of a policy that has targeted and traumatised a whole community, and been discredited by so many, including MPs, academics and even UN officials. She is far from someone I - and the majority of Muslim women in this country - would ever look up to as a role model for Muslim girls and women.

I do not see her appointment as "one of us" (whatever that means) being promoted to a position of responsibility. Rather, it is the establishment extending greater power and influence to one of their own.

In reality, orientalist tropes drive much of the way we are treated and patronised by the state. It is expected that Muslim women are easily led by ideology, whether that is Islamist fundamentalism, or right-wing neoliberalism that blames the poor and the racialised.

The developments in the treatment of Muslim girls by Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman is a clear example. Following her decision late last year to allow inspectors to interrogate hijab-wearing Muslim girls, she has publicly voiced her discontent with St Stephen's school governors' decision to reverse a hijab ban that headteacher Neena Lall imposed last month.

Read more: The hijab is a chip on Britain's shoulder

Her speech on faith schools to Anglican clerics and educators last week included a highly charged accusation: "Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people's horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology."

From a young age, Muslim women are considered more prone to peer pressure and extremism - in the very unclear definition used by the government.

The continued association between violence and religious observance also reinforces the idea that Muslim communities hate their women, and punish them by forcing them to wear the hijab from primary-school level.

We are yet again, informed that we are merely brown and black women who need saving from brown and black men.

In true racist tradition, we are rarely, if ever, consulted by the state. We are homogenised and further silenced.

When a Muslim woman such as Sara Khan is invited to the table, her presence serves to reinforce the ideologies used to oppress us through state policies and institutions, and her compliance is assured in advance.

I am reminded of the French campaign in Algeria that encouraged women to burn their hijabs in order to "liberate themselves", and join the Republic's values.

Today, just as then, it is not hijabs that need discarding, nor the state that will deliver our liberation. Instead, we must fight for our right to dress and express ourselves freely.

Perhaps this is why Khan described our growing alliance in the way she did; we threaten their power, and they are running scared. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Want a different point of view? Read David Powell's article: Why we should support Britain's new counter-extremism chief

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.