Emma Watson, Jacqui Lambie & co., and Islamophobia: racially-blind feminism at a time of racialised misogyny

In case you missed it, burqas remained in the headlines this week, a week after Cory Bernardi reignited his crusade against the Muslim women’s garment, decrying it as a “shroud of oppression” and a “flag of fundamentalism” and declaring that it has “no place in Australia”. Jacqui Lambie was to follow next, and managed to outdo Bernardi by appropriating the Facebook propaganda of a fascistic, far-right British group. It was all fine until it was revealed the photo had been stolen and was of Afghan heroine Malalai Kakar who had been killed opposing the Taliban. Far from apologizing for desecrating Kakar’s memory as she was accused, Lambie declared Kakar would have been honoured by the use of the image. It was then that Nationals MP George Christensen stepped in to scold her for tarnishing his beloved “anti-burqa movement”. What followed on Thursday was Bernardi then requesting a burqa-ban in parliament – to not see this as a warm-up for a nationwide one would be naïve in the extreme. And to not believe that the rest of the government of which Bernardi is a member are encouraging his crusade would also be naïve in the extreme.

When burqas are dragged into the spotlight, it is Muslim women who are really dragged into the spotlight, and this time it is in the midst of a truly toxic wave of Islamophobia rising in the nation. Mosques have been attacked, anti-Muslim rallies held, individuals attacked and threatened, bomb and death threats sent out, and a sensationalist political and media machinery thriving daily off the demonization of Muslims to a point of such desperate hyperventilation that a completely innocent young man has just been smeared as a terrorist by Fairfax Media in the feverish drive to profit from stoking the flames of racial hysteria. It’s tempting to look at Lambies’ Bernardi’s and Christensen’s actions as the idiotic antics of fools, but bigotry dressed in a clown suit is still bigotry and still ruins lives and too many lives have been ruined in the course of just a few weeks.

In the post-9/11 context the actions of these politicians must be recognized as deliberate efforts to cash in on the political currency of Islamophobia – with Muslim women central to their mission. Anti-burqa crusaders derive the value of their invective in cloaking it in the language of liberation, saviourism, and patriotism. And so logically, the burqa must be made to represent the antithesis of these things: anti-Westernness, otherness, oppression, and extremism – a “flag of fundamentalism” as Cory Bernardi put it. Anti-burqa crusaders masquerade as champions of liberty even though their agenda is one of authoritarianism, driven by misogynistic, racist, orientalist, and colonialist attitudes: the desire to control non-Western women and our bodies.

The fixation – or frankly, obsession – with non-Western women and our bodies is hardly new; in fact it has been integral to Western hegemonic aspirations, and one that Edward Said certainly touched on in his classic, Orientalism. Said noted how constructions and representations of non-Western women were first and foremost an expression of Western hegemony over non-Western cultures. Since then, many postcolonial feminist scholars have focused on the location of the female body at the centre of techniques of control, not least Meyda Yegenoglu’s incisive interpretation of just what it means to ‘unveil’ an Arab/Muslim woman. Yegenoglu observed that the burqa/veil signify not just the Oriental woman but the Orient itself. Thus, the control of the Muslim woman is by extension, to the Westerner, the means to bring Islamic culture and Islamic peoples under control – with the Muslim woman at the centre of the technique of domination.

And it is in this exact way that Muslim women in Australia have been made fair game for the worst kind of self-serving, dog-whistle politics, to unleash a wave of hatred upon a community in a way that is tantamount to persecution. Muslim women, who have been hauled into the spotlight to be treated as dehumanized bits of territory upon which Western politicians can control and use to exert their political agendas, as tools to be used in the harassment of a whole community.

The degradation and attempt to control women in such a way is nothing short of misogyny, and in this context, it is tied to racism. There are those who try to play the but-Islam-isn’t-a-race card to excuse bigotry, but the racialization of Muslims to the point that one can be mistaken as one on account of appearance, tells a different story. Muslim women, non-Western women, women of colour, stand at what Kimberlé Crenshaw described as intersectionality in her groundbreaking work: at the convergence of racism and sexism. The kind of bigotry that Muslim women are currently the targets of is a sexism with a racist character: it is nothing short of racialised misogyny.

That is why this week the irony struck me when the headlines were awash with news of Emma Watson’s speech on gender equality. Emma Watson, the rich, famous white actress, who together with her personification of the hegemonic Eurocentric beauty ideal and pure, clean-cut media figure, is what white supremacy’s very ideation of femininity is. I couldn’t escape how in the same week that feminism and gender equality supposedly became a global sensation, misogyny was still able to be deployed as a political weapon here at home. That the media that was salivating over Watson and her feminist speech was the very media that was churning out Islamophobia and racialised misogyny against Muslim women. That the same people fawning over Watson didn’t so much as flinch at the racialised misogyny running rampant in front of their eyes and used in the demonization of an entire community.

In order for misogyny to be able to be used as a political weapon the same week that feminism is a global sensation, that feminism must only apply to one type of woman, and so must misogyny. The misogyny directed at and unique to certain women must not be recognized as misogyny. And where the bounds of feminism and misogyny are narrow, it is because so is the definition of femininity. It is for the same reason that the fascistic ADL who have been terrorizing Muslim women, and the man who intruded on a Muslim school with a knife and threatened students will never be subject to terror raids. The extraordinary ironies, contradictions, and double-standards that we have seen this week can only be stitched together, upheld, and legitimised by the grotesque and barbaric system of structural racism and white supremacy.