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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Muslim women in the West face a double-edged sword when it comes to belonging

Even those who claim to defend their rights often get it wrong

Muslim women in the West were the subject of increased vilification and abuse this year
Muslim women in the West were the subject of increased vilification and abuse this year

If you’re a Muslim woman living in the West, it often feels as if what you do is never quite good enough. While lip service is given to freedom of expression and engagement with Muslim women, the reality on the ground is verbal and physical attacks. In short, it has been a year in which the familiar hallmarks of stereotyping, dehumanisation and victim-blaming have been rife.

In February, Mennel Ibtissem became a sensation on France’s The Voice when she sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, half in English, half in Arabic, as a testament to her mixed heritage. She was born in France to a Syrian-Turkish father and Moroccan-Algerian mother. All four of the show’s judges turned around and praised her voice and her ability to bring together cultures. It was an uplifting moment but one which was soon shattered when vitriol erupted over tweets in which she had questioned the terrorist nature of the 2016 Nice attack, which killed 86 people. She had also tweeted: "The real terrorist is our government" after an elderly priest had his throat slit in a church in Normandy. While she apologised and said she "obviously condemned terrorism", the damage was done. She quit the show and a moment was lost.

Then former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson made headlines commenting on Muslim women. In a newspaper column, he criticised Denmark for banning the burqa and niqab but added it was "absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes". It’s a well-worn tactic, to be claiming to defend the rights of Muslim women while in fact using rhetoric that dehumanises us and makes us a target. This was proven when his comments were followed by a spike in abuse and hate crime against Muslim women.

Yet last week, Mr Johnson was exonerated by a Conservative Party investigation into his comments. It is yet more proof that Muslim women are the scapegoats when it comes to political gain. If anything good emerged from this debacle, it was that Mr Johnson’s attempts to use Muslim women as a political football to further his own ambitions was apparent for all to see.

Statistics from the UK’s Home Office showed that religious hate crime rose by 40 per cent last year, with more than half directed at Muslims, even though they made up less than 5 per cent of the population. In a separate study by monitoring group TellMama, it emerged Muslim women bear the disproportionate brunt of anti-Muslim hate crime. The study found while there is a growing trend of online hate directed against women generally, the kind of abuse Muslim women face is very real, with more than two-thirds being face to face.

It wasn't just politics and crime statistics that reflected bigotry. The BBC’s hit drama Bodyguard opened with a Muslim woman being saved by a white man – only she then turned out to be a terrorist. The show was ridden with stereotypes. The worst part was that the director thought he was liberating us by casting a Muslim woman as a protagonist.

The US midterm elections saw the very first Muslim women being elected to Congress, a moment of sheer delight. But the hate they have been subjected to subsequently once again demonstrates that no matter how integrated Muslim women become, even to the point of investing their own lives into their country’s democracy, their motives are always questioned and barriers put in their way.

Back in Europe, Denmark introduced a law last week which means anyone wanting to be a citizen has to shake hands during the ceremony – a move clearly aimed at Muslims. It follows a woman being denied French citizenship earlier in the year when she refused to shake hands, which apparently demonstrated that she was refusing to be "assimilated". This is absurd for several reasons: lots of people prefer not to shake hands, while applying for citizenship is surely already a sign of engagement.

Nothing says "welcome" to Muslim women than a law designed to prevent them from becoming citizens. However, when Farah Alhajeh, a young Muslim woman from Sweden, complained that she was shown the door when she put her hand over her heart instead of shaking hands during a job interview, she was awarded compensation.

It is a glimmer of hope that Muslim women can engage on their own terms rather than be forced to submit to unattainable shape-shifting requirements. That is what I would like to see more of in 2019.

Society can no longer demand integration, then penalise Muslim women’s attempts to be part of it and hound them out. I hope that 2019 is the year when we stop gaslighting Muslim women.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: December 27, 2018 04:59 PM

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