Women like us: British Muslimahs resist

Women like us: British Muslimahs resist
Comment: As Muslim women we are held up as examples as long as our resistance is considered acceptable, and not a threat, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
27 Jul, 2018
'We must organise collectively, and point the finger at the structures which oppress us' [Twitter]
It often feels like everyone's opinions of Muslim women receive airtime, apart from those views that are actually held by, you know, Muslim women.

A recent report by the Open Society Justice Initiative highlighted that at present, around one in three EU member states have applied a legal restrictions on Muslim women's dress, with almost half having applied bans - including on headscarves - within workplaces and public institutions.

This growing, racist, political trend is actively shutting Muslim women out of jobs, education and public life, despite their supposedly 'feminist' and liberatory character.

Is hardly surprising then, that our daily reality on the streets across the continent and beyond, is a backdrop of racist, sexist street harassment and violent attacks. Emboldened by official state policy and government sanction, Islamophobes across the West are growing in number and confidence.

Last week, during the gathering of racists and fascists for the 'Free Tommy Robinson' demonstrations in London, a powerful image circulated on social media of a Muslim woman bus driver smiling in defiance with her eyes closed, as she was blocked by the demonstrators holding up 'Britain Loves Trump' placards and St George flags, banging on the window of her vehicle, while shouting 'We want Tommy out'.

For many Muslim women who circulated the image, rightly praising the sister for her strength, it also depicted exactly how they feel living in the UK.

Like the sister in the picture, we are surrounded. We feel threatened and under siege. Violent incidents are multiplying, as attackers become more confident. The screen protecting us is weakening, and could crack at any moment. Yes, Islamophobia is on the rise in the UK, and as Muslim women, we experience the bulk of it.

Read more: You can't take Islamophobia out of the Tory party

One of the headlines which followed, read 'Bus driver in headscarf shows far-right Tommy Robinson demonstrators everything that's great about Britain,'. A person quoted in the Metro commented that "Like a true Brit and a woman she is keeping calm and carrying on."

I can only imagine what the woman must have felt in the eye of such an Islamophobic storm, with very few exit options.

While some claim her strength is a testament to Britain (ignoring that those targeting her did so while claiming to represent Britain and defend its women), I wish that instead we could celebrate our society's ability to build effective, grassroots anti-fascist and anti-racist movements, whose work would make it impossible for her - or any other Muslim woman - to find herself in such a situation.

Islamophobes across the West are growing in number and confidence

This is often the problem. As Muslim women we are held up as examples as long as our resistance is considered acceptable, and not a threat.

If we endure silently and on our own, or - even better - if we celebrate the state as our protector, we are quintessentially British, integrated and celebrated.

If we organise collectively, fight back, and point the finger back at the structures which oppress us, we are vilified, rejected, and branded as dangerous.

For this, and so many other reasons which relate to discrimination against Muslim women in the West, more and more of us take action in a plethora of ways, and in different spaces across society.

A recent speech made by teacher Latifa Abouchakra at the National Education Union's national conference was but one of those examples.

Abouchakra called out the decision by Ofsted to interrogate young girls on their choice to wear the hijab, and talked of the direct link between such policies and the emboldening of far-right groups, many of whom were seen marching in defense of 'Tommy Robinson'.

She added, that "we reject this imperialistic saviour thinking" when it comes to the idea that the British state is there to liberate us from the misogynistic grip of Muslim men.

The teacher asked the conference to stand in solidarity with her choice to wear the hijab, in line with all women's emancipation after delegates had voted in favour of reproductive rights. The union, she said, had been central to defending her rights and this should be the basis on which we organise and fight back.

It should be that simple, that if you oppose the oppression of women, you oppose it in all the many forms it takes, including at the intersection of race, class and gender.

In recent weeks, I have also had the pleasure of participating in a series of initiatives  by Muslim women deciding to take matters into their own hands and fight back.

The arrival of Donald Trump, and his meeting with fellow Islamophobic politician Theresa May served as an opportunity for a group of young
Muslim women - Radical Muslimahs Resist - to come together and consider the links between US and UK policy regarding Muslims and communities of colour.

We marched, took direct action, and addressed the demonstration. In all our actions we stressed that when it comes to targeting Muslims, extraditing them, torturing them in Guantanamo, and stripping them of basic civil rights, May and Trump have more in common than sets them apart.

I've also been involved in a project led by Ayman Khwaja at British Muslim TV, with an incredible team of Muslim Women including Sabah Choudhry, Sumayyah Al-rashid, Aina Khan and Amina Elbayoumi.

If you oppose the oppression of women, you oppose it in all the many forms it takes, including at the intersection of race, class and gender

The unique panel show they developed, 'Women Like Us' aims to highlight the strength, power and knowledge of Muslim women in the face of rising structural violence.

It is a weekly panel discussion on the questions that impact us across British society today, and serves as a one-of-a-kind platform in which Muslim women can talk for and about themselves, debate, analyse and strategise over the ways in which we navigate, resist and take on the discriminatory society in which we live.

Recently, and for the first time in history, the women's rights committee of the European parliament addressed the conditions for Muslim women in Europe.

Over 100 Muslim women from different nations signed an open letter stressing the need to tackle the growing hostility and racist conditions which permeate public spaces and workplaces.

The statement asked, "Why has it been so hard so far to choose inclusion over exclusion in support of women's emancipation?".

The answer is simple. Muslims have been at the centre of western imperialism abroad and repressive policies at home, and served as the sharp edge of the wedge in terms of rolling back basic civil liberties across our societies.

The open letters, the protests, the speeches, the standing our ground and resistance are the only weapons we have to force the powerful to back off, and and to rein in the racists on the streets.

The hijab-wearing woman bus driver, the radical Muslimahs, Abouchakra in the NEU, and the Women Like Us panelists demonstrate in practice that Muslim women are prepared to lead the way, but alone we won't succeed.

As Abouchakra pointed out at the conference, allowing Islamophobia to fester undermines everyone's freedom. It is therefore necessary for all of us - trade unionists, students, activists, concerned citizens - to unite, in order to quell the growing bigotry and hatred across society and fight the racists back.

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

Women Like Us airs weekly on Thursdays at 9pm on Sky 762, Freeview 264 or on BMTV livestream.

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.