Burkini Ban: Racialization of Muslim Women’s Bodies

For most of my life, I’ve traveled between the US and the Middle East. During the school year, my neighbors and friends were devout Christians in Texas. In the summers, I socialized with my extended family and friends who were equally devout Muslims in Egypt. Each society believed the other oppressed its women. Both based these conclusions on the covering or uncovering of women’s bodies.

My Christian friends often lamented how Muslim women must be subjugated under the headscarves and long gowns that they presumed were imposed on them by men. The hijab, in its various forms, corroborated the Orientalist critique that the Middle East had failed to modernize with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, my Muslim friends pitied American women for exposing so much of their bodies due to a presumed need to please men’s sexual desires in a patriarchal society. Bikinis and miniskirts was further proof that hedonism and materialism was subjugating women in Western society.

Thus, the current debate over Burkinis is just the latest iteration of a transnational fixation on women’s bodies in public debates over morality, modernity, and freedom — with a new twist. Women’s bodies are now at the center of national security anxieties. Weeks prior to the Burkini bans passed by over fifteen French cities, a French citizen killed eighty five people when he ploughed through a crowd in Nice. The tragedy understandably engendered debates on how to improve security in France.

But the perpetrator’s Muslim identity also unleashed collective punishment on France’s Muslim population, with a particular focus on women. Indeed, French controversy over Muslim women’s head coverings has surpassed purported claims to preserve laicite. What a woman wears now affects whether citizens feel safe from terrorism. That is, the very sight of a Burkini in France instills fear and anxiety among (non-Muslim) French citizens.

Such irrational fears are privileged over France’s proclaimed commitment to individual liberty, as the Muslim woman is denied her right to choose what to put on her body in a public beach. Instead of being viewed as an individual French citizen with liberty rights, she is a representative of a group held in contempt solely for its religious affiliation.

The Burkini controversy in France, however, is not much different than the culture wars over abortion in America. Nor is it dissimilar to cultural family honor codes in Muslim majority countries. In America, women’s bodies are at the center of moral debates about life, death, and morality. If a woman becomes pregnant, her choice as to whether to carry the fetus to full term is not a matter of private liberty. Rather, it is at the center of a heated public debate about when life begins and murder occurs. As lawsuits and media campaigns contest these issues, American women’s bodies are transformed into passive vessels. The latest chapter in this culture war was recently on full display when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that shut down fifty percent of the state’s abortion clinics.

Similarly, in many Muslim majority countries, women shoulder the burden of preserving the family’s reputation and honor in society. If her clothing or behavior signals a lack of morals or sexual promiscuity, the entire family’s reputation is tarnished. All the while, her male relatives are often given a free pass if they violate religious tenets. Thus, what a woman places on her head, face, and body are a matter of public concern in a patriarchal society. While most Muslim-majority societies enforce these rules through cultural practices, Saudi Arabia and Iran have codified into law women’s dress codes in public—much like the French city laws banning the Burkini.

Women in both Eastern and Western societies face multiple coercive measures—through law, religious precepts or social pressures—to manage their bodies in ways that appease patriarchal norms. Whether the fight is over a woman’s reproductive organs or her hair, the latest Burkini ban controversy shows that the fixation on women’s bodies traverses continents. Until women’s bodies are no longer the political footballs in policy debates that hold little regard for a woman’s individual liberty, gender oppression will remain a transnational problem.

Sahar Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim American Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality

This article first appeared in The New Arab and is reprinted here by permission.

Muslims and Racialization: A Response to Foner

This year’s presidential keynote lecture at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual conference was given by Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology (CUNY). The conference theme was “Crossing Borders,” and Foner took up the question of whether or not Islam in Europe is similar to race in the United States.

Nancy Foner ESS Presidential Address

(Image source)

As a scholar who studies the racialization of Muslims in the United States, I was eager to hear what she had to say given her expertise as an immigration scholar. In my work, I argue that in a post-9/11 society we need to examine the experiences of Muslims as racial in nature.

This requires scholars to come up with newer ways to examine race that reflect the political, cultural and economic contexts within which we live in. Fortunately a growing number of scholars are doing the work of re-theorizing race, reflecting the fact that race shifts over time and is fluid rather than a static/rigid concept. For example, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues in his Latin Americanization Thesis (pdf) that the United States has moved from a bi-racial system to a tri-racial one.

Bonilla-Silva argues that due to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the racial classification has changed in the United States from a black and white one to one that includes collective blacks, honorary whites and whites. This framework makes space for an understanding of how various racial and ethnic groups experience race and racism differentially due to a myriad of factors aside from just skin tone, delving into the complexities of race in the United States.

Unfortunately, Nancy Foner’s analysis of European Muslims to “color-coded” race in the United States did not provide that complex analysis of race required to understand the connection of immigration and religion to race. Instead, Foner’s talk highlighted how race is perceived in the United States. Many people, including scholars, think race is limited to skin tone.

The need to equate someone’s racial experience with African-Americans limits an understanding of race to a black and white paradigm. It ignores the intersecting factors that contribute to the social construction of racialized identities, such as language, clothing, nation of origin and religion. It also assumes racial experiences do not change over time. For example, African Americans’ experiences with racism have changed over time, partially due to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While we do not live in a post-racial society, as some may claim, racism has changed over time. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow examines how mass incarceration is a new system of oppression that strips African-American men of their basic rights. By chronicling laws and policies put in place that have resulted in the hyper-incarceration of African American men, she finds the system of Jim Crow is still alive and well. Racial projects shift and change over time.

In a similar way, anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia has shifted over time, particularly since 9/11. Anti-Muslim sentiments spiked immediately after 9/11 and then declined. But in the decade since 9/11 public opinion toward Muslims has increasingly gotten worse, especially with the continuous coverage in the media of Muslims as terrorists.

Muslim experiences with racism must be understood within the context of 9/11 and the War on Terror. In a post-9/11, discrimination against Muslims has risen in the United States. A Muslim religious identity has become racialized as a threat to national security and as a consequence they are subjected to increased surveillance and are denied the privileges with citizenship. For example, policies like the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) required non-citizen men aged 16 and over to register with the state. Out of the 25 countries on this list, 24 are Muslim majority. Although this policy has been deactivated, its impact on Muslim immigrants lingers.

Anti- Muslim sentiments do not just impact immigrants. Muslim Americans are also treated as suspect. They have been repeatedly stripped of their civil rights privileges associated with citizenship such as being viewed and treated like loyal members of society. Instead they are treated as a threat to national security and endure hyper surveillance in places like U.S. airports.

Nancy Foner has written that in the United States religion provides a pathway to integration for new immigrants while in Europe it can be a barrier. She and her co-author argue for Hindus in the United States, religious spaces have provided new immigrants with access to certain resources, such as language instruction and assistance with jobs creating a path to Americanization. In countries like France, Islam is treated as a barrier to integration. But while Muslims in France face harsher forms of discrimination through policies that prohibit their religious practices in public spaces, this does not mean that Muslims in the United States are exempt from racial experiences. In this new era of the War on Terror where the United States is increasingly becoming a surveillance society, Islamic religious institutions have become a site of surveillance rather than a path to integration into the American landscape. Life for Muslims in the United States has changed drastically due to a changing political structure that is hyper concerned with security both internationally and domestically. As a result, the state has contributed to the social construction of a Muslim enemy resulting in Muslim bodies being racialized as a threat to national security and are treated as such.

Vilna Bashi Treitler makes a persuasive argument in “Social Agency and White Supremacy in Immigration Studies,” that immigration scholars fail to ignore the structural constraints immigrants face in society and offers racialization as a better model than assimilation to understand the immigrant experience. Treitler’s article highlights how integration is not always possible due to structures that are racialized and reject certain groups from gaining access to resources. This study provides a much-needed response to immigration scholars who fail to understand the restrictions and barriers faced by immigrants due to structures that are racialized.

So, even though one immigrant group may enjoy access to financial resources, this does not mean they avoid racism all together. Furthermore, racism needs to be understood contextually. Japanese experiences with racism differed during internment due to World War II than they do today. In a similar fashion, Muslims are increasingly experiencing more prejudice and discrimination due to their religious identity than they have in the past. Finally, not all racisms are equal. Experiences with racism and its impact are varied. In other words, racism is fluid.

Nancy Foner’s keynote address created a space for more discussion around religion, immigration and race. While I do not argue Muslim has become a new race, their religious identities have acquired racial meanings associating their bodies with terror and violence resulting in their increased experiences with racism. There is much room for debate and discussion around these ideas and hopefully scholars of race will start to engage with the complexities of race as it relates to religion, immigration and gender rather than compartmentalizing each one.


~ Guest blogger Saher Selod is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Simmons College

“Muslims” versus “Americans”?

I just ran across a book put out by the Gallup press last year, titled Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by researchers John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. Gallup did tens of thousands of interviews with people in 35 predominantly or significantly Muslim countries, asking them an array of questions about their views of the West and Islam. Here is a bit of the Gallup summary of their findings:

Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.

All their points in the Gallup summary are presented as “counterintuitive discoveries.” And rather uncritically too. The Western bias even in this “liberal” analysis is obvious. It does not take much familiarity with the non-Western media online to know this in advance. Mainly for Westerners would this “duh” conclusion be “counterintuitive.”

In addition, the U.S./Western bias leaps out at the reader in the major part of the summary that accents Western “concerns” about Islam:

When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job. . . . Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified. . . . Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population. . . .

Again, this is not really counterintuitive for people living in these countries, or indeed I suspect in most of the non-Western world. Featuring this Western obsession over “jihad” in a major survey tells us much more about Western stereotyping of non-Western Muslims than it does about the latter (billion) citizens of planet Earth.

The summary adds this:

What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.. . . . What Muslims around the world say they least admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values — the same responses given by Americans when posed the same question.

The strong and ethnocentric dichotomy throughout the summary is very revealing. There is the odd phrasing the Gallup folks use a couple of times: “Muslims and Americans.” And they carry out this dichotomy in describing (unmodified) “Muslims” and “Americans” as having similar values and views, but again without making it clear that millions of Muslims are indeed Americans. Apparently it does not occur to them that one can be both Muslim and American, all across the U.S.

The ethnocentrism and ignorance about Muslims, including U.S. Muslims, in the U.S. is indeed staggering. Maybe the naïve survey does move in the direction of seeing Muslims everywhere as human beings? As the summary notes:

Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam.

Indeed. And do a little research and reading.