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Excerpted From: Sahar F. Aziz, From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim-American Women in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality, 9 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 191 (Summer 2012) (303 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SaharAzizIn the post-9/11 era, Muslim women donning a headscarf in America find themselves caught at the intersection of bias against Islam, the racialized Muslim, and women. In contrast to their male counterparts, Muslim women face unique forms of discrimination not adequately addressed by Muslim civil rights advocacy organizations, women's rights organizations, or civil liberties advocates.

This paper examines how the September 11th attacks adversely impacted the lives of headscarved Muslim women in ways different than Muslim men. Ten years after 9/11, there is a plethora of literature about what has become known as “post-9/11 discrimination.” Most of the discussion focuses on the experiences of Muslim men or analyzes law and policy through a male gendered paradigm. Amidst pervasive suspicion of Islam, continuing sexism, and bias against her particular race group, the Muslim women are both visible targets and silent victims.

From the outset, it is worth emphasizing that there is no singular, unitary “Muslim woman” that can represent the experiences and grievances of the diversity of women who identify as Muslim. Muslim women come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, hold diverse political viewpoints, and adopt beliefs ranging from staunch secularism to religious orthodoxy. That said, the diversity of Muslim women often experience similar adverse experiences because they are falsely stereotyped as meek, powerless, oppressed, or sympathetic to terrorism.

Muslim women of all races and levels of religiosity face unique forms of discrimination at the intersection of religion, race, and gender because the September 11th terrorist attacks transformed the meaning of the Muslim headscarf. The debate no longer centers on whether the “veil” serves to oppress women by controlling their sexuality and, by extension, their personal freedoms and life choices or if it symbolizes choice, freedom, and empowerment for Muslim women. Rather, the Muslim headscarf now “marks” women as representatives of the suspicious, inherently violent, and forever foreign “Terrorist other” in our midst.

It is, therefore, long overdue to examine the experiences of Muslim women in order to expose the unique challenges they face as Muslims, as women, and as people of color. By examining the experiences of Muslim women donning a headscarf, a religious gender marker, this article brings gender to the forefront of the discussions on post-9/11 discrimination.

Whether guilty by association through her marriage to a presumed terrorist husband, or an active accomplice in secret plots to terrorize Americans, some headscarved Muslim women are perceived as individuals incapable of developing their own beliefs and protestations. Instead, they are viewed as mere extensions of familial relationships with actual or presumed male terrorists. As national security prerogatives filter perceptions of Muslims through the prism of terrorism, the Muslim “veil” has become a symbol of terror. This critical shift in perception results in palpable adverse consequences to a Muslim woman's freedom of religion, freedom of individual expression, and physical safety.

The shift in meaning of the Muslim headscarf is due in large part to a recasting of Islam as a political ideology as opposed to a religion. Once this definitional shift occurs, acts that would otherwise qualify as actionable religious discrimination are accepted as legitimate, facially neutral national security law enforcement measures or protected political activity by private actors. Recasting thus serves as the basis for calls to deny Muslims rights otherwise protected under the law. Moreover, mundane religious accommodation cases become evidence of stealth, imperialistic designs of the hostile ideology. Contrary to America's traditional deference to religious precepts in personal affairs, opponents of mosque construction and Muslim religious accommodation dismiss religious freedom for Muslims as inapplicable by focusing on extremist Muslims to shift the debate to Islam's alleged pathological violence.

The shift in symbolism of the headscarf results in two notable outcomes. First, and foremost, Muslim women continue to be objectified within a larger conflict of ideas among predominantly male decision makers. Heated national security debates about the emergence of “homegrown terrorism,” now code for domestic Muslim terrorists, focus primarily on persecuting or defending male suspects. Stereotypes of the dark-skinned, bearded, Muslim male as representative of the primary threat to national security consume the (predominantly male) government's anxious attempts to prevent the next terrorist attack. Sparse attention is paid to the impact of the post-9/11 national security era on Muslim women, and specifically those who wear the headscarf. Irrespective of their place of origin or the color of their skin, the headscarf “marks” these women as sympathetic to the enemy, presumptively disloyal, and forever foreign.

Further objectifying Muslim women are the predominantly male Muslim spokespersons responding to the polemic, as well as physical, attacks on Muslims in America. Notwithstanding that the headscarved woman equally bears the brunt of the government's harsh counterterrorism tactics and the public's distrust of Muslims, her voice and perspectives are notably absent from the discourse. Yet again, she finds herself an object within a grander political conflict between two patriarchies different in form, but similar in substance.

Second, any meaningful discourse surrounding a woman's right to wear a headscarf in America must include the racial subtext of the “Terrorist other” associated with her headscarf. Debates about a woman's legal right to wear a headscarf inadequately analyze the issues through the narrow lens of religious freedom, while, post-9/11, the Muslim headscarf symbolizes more than a mere cloth worn by a religious minority seeking religious accommodation. It is a visible “marker” of her membership in a suspect group. Thus, the label “Muslim” is both a religious and racial identifier. The shift in symbolism of the “veil” from subjugation to terror(ism) causes palpable discrimination against Muslim women. Indeed, much of the discrimination faced by Muslim women occurs in conjunction with accusations of terrorism and disloyalty.

Gone are the days when the worst a Muslim woman could expect were patronizing and condescending allegations about her oppressive religion or wife-beating husband. She now must worry about her and her family's physical safety, her ability to obtain employment, and the government's harsh prosecutorial tactics. Many Muslim women also suffer tangible economic harm because they choose to wear the headscarf. In a country that promotes the economic independence of women as a means of preserving their legal and political rights, some Muslim women are forced to forfeit their right to practice their faith in their preferred manner in order to preserve their economic independence and all the corresponding benefits. As the costs of wearing the headscarf become prohibitively high, the legal right to wear it rings hollow.

Accordingly, this paper examines the implications of the shift in symbolism of the Muslim headscarf in America from gender subjugation to terror(ism). Specifically, this paper argues that the Muslim woman is a casualty of the post-9/11 “war on terror” in ways different from Muslim men. Not only are her religious freedoms under attack in ways different from men because the headscarf is unique to women, but she is objectified in ideological and corporal domestic conflicts that profoundly affect her life. Perhaps worse than the gender rights debates of the 1990s when Muslim women were talked about rather than talked to, their experiences post-9/11 are neglected by mainstream American feminist organizations or used by male leaders of Muslim organizations to implement a civil rights agenda tailored to the Muslim male experience. Consequently, Muslim women are trapped in the crosshairs of national security conflicts that profoundly affect their lives, receiving little support from advocacy groups focused on defending Muslims, women's rights, or civil liberties post-9/11.

Section I of this paper prefaces the paper's thesis by highlighting Islam's transition from obscurity to notoriety in the American public's psyche as a result of the September 11th attacks. Section II highlights how the recasting of Islam from a bona fide religion to a political ideology is a necessary precursor for accepting otherwise discriminatory acts as legitimate national security practices. The reclassification is most glaring in the nationwide campaigns opposing mosque constructions because of the public's fixation on mosques as hotbeds of extremism. Likewise, as Islam becomes defined as an expression of politics instead of religion, demands for religious accommodation by Muslims are deemed stealth Islamic imperialism not protected by law. Against this backdrop, Section III examines how the meaning of the Muslim headscarf has transformed from a symbol of female subjugation to a symbol of terror(ism). Through an analysis of employment discrimination, racial violence, political marginalization, and exclusion from the courthouse, this article demonstrates how the transition of the headscarf's meaning has resulted in palpable and widespread discrimination against Muslim women donning it. Yet, discourse on civil liberties in the national security context are woefully lacking due to the conspicuous absence of the Muslim woman's voice.

The internal debates within the Muslim communities about gender rights in Islam are beyond the scope of this article. Nor is the paper about whether the headscarf is effectively a patriarchal tool that subjugates women--the paradigm of the 1990s multiculturalism discourse pertaining to Muslim women. While these issues have not yet been fully resolved, this paper argues that the September 11th attacks eclipsed internal community grievances of sexism, to the detriment of women's rights within the community, with more existential concerns such as the Muslim woman's ability to obtain employment, right to freedom from physical attack in public spaces, and ability to shape civil rights strategies aimed at countering post-9/11 discrimination. Thus, the focus here is on extra-community factors that disparately and uniquely impact Muslim women's individual expressive freedoms, religious freedoms, and gender rights vis-à-vis the American public and government.

By developing a more accurate and in-depth analysis of her circumstances post-9/11, this article aims to include “headscarved Muslim women” in the contemporary intersectionality dialogue to pave the way towards adequately redressing the multiple levels of subordination against this oft-overlooked group of intersectionals.

[. . .]

This paper aims to provoke a reexamination of the post-9/11 era through the perspective of American Muslim women donning a headscarf--a population that thus far has been largely ignored in the relevant policy and legal debates. Her visibility as a marked Muslim inevitably subjects her to the entrenched bias against Muslims in America. Meanwhile, the disparities she experienced in the past because of her gender did not suddenly wane once her racialized Muslim identity took center stage. Quite the contrary, she now must overcome obstacles arising out of gender bias as well as religious and racial bias. She is caught in the crosshairs of intersectionality of these three characteristics.

Although there is no singular, unitary “Muslim woman” that can represent the diversity of women who identify as Muslim, many Muslim women experience similar adverse consequences because they are collectively stereotyped as meek, powerless, oppressed, or in the post-9/11 era sympathetic to terrorism.

Overt acts of violence and insidious forms of economic discrimination against headscarved women restrict a woman's freedom of choice in practicing her religion. The threat this poses to a woman's life and livelihood should not be taken lightly. The right to work directly impacts a woman's self-esteem, individual autonomy, and placement in the power hierarchy of her family and community. Similarly, her inability to feel safe because of the headscarf strips her of a fundamental right to safety and religious expression.

The challenge now rests with Muslim rights, women's rights, and civil liberties advocacy groups to uphold the civil rights of all women and all Muslims, rather than subordinate these women's interests for the benefit of the dominant group's agenda. The urgency of this project does not stem from merely abstract notions of justice but rather real civil rights violations-- headscarved women have increasingly become targets of entrenched anti-Muslim attitudes, and consequently suffered palpable harm. Addressing this challenge is essential, not only to restore these women's dignity, but also to strengthen American values of religious freedom and gender equality.

Associate Professor, Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, former Senior Policy Advisor at the Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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