Veiling Islamophobia as 'feminism'

February 8, 2007

Following years of a sustained campaign by the ruling elite to vilify Islam, the 2007 federal election is shaping up to be a "Muslim" election, with the two major parties trying to out-do each other with racist slurs against Arabs and Muslims.

This is a classic case of divide-and-conquer politics. Racist ideas encourage working people to think they have more in common with capitalists of their own ethnicity or religion, instead of with their fellow workers of a different race or religion, and this undermines people's willingness to collectively fight against their common enemy — the capitalist class that is exploiting and ruling us all.

Today in Australia, the ruling class is using racism and nationalism to justify its brutal foreign policies, such as its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the same time as using it to launch vicious attacks on our democratic rights, and on the rights of workers through "Work Choices". If you dissent to government policy, you're "un-Australian" at best and a "terrorist" at worst.

The 'new feminists'

A recurring theme running through imperialism's ideological efforts to whip up Islamophobia, in an attempt to persuade the working class in the imperialist countries that Muslims are "alien" to the "Western way of life", is that Islam oppresses women. So "feminist" arguments are used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, which started as a "war against terrorism", but somehow merged into a mission to "liberate" Afghan women.

Yet PM John Howard and US President George Bush remain silent on the question of the oppression of women in "ally" states such as Saudi Arabia, or indeed, by the fundamentalist warlords they've tried to replace the Taliban regime with in Afghanistan. Howard's sudden concern for women's rights rang hollow to many women who have suffered the impact of a decade of his government's attacks on women's rights and services in Australia.

Author Christina Ho ironically refers to these politicians and media commentators as "Australia's new feminists", who pose as defenders of women's rights as a way of articulating an anti-Muslim nationalism. These commentators have tried to blame the racist lynch attacks in Cronulla in December 2005 on "disrespect" for white women by Middle Eastern and Muslim men.

Then-NSW police minister Carl Scully said of the attacks: "I am concerned a small number of Middle Eastern males appear to have a problem with respecting women and I think that was an underlying current."

Cronulla came after the NSW Labor government, the federal Coalition and the media deliberately racialised some appalling gang rapes in western Sydney. The cynical use of the gang rapes to whip up racism created the environment that encouraged the Cronulla rioters to claim they were on Cronulla beach to "protect our [white] women". There are parallels with the Nazis in this, and with lynch attacks against African-Americans in the US.

Sexism crosses party lines

But while these gang rapes were terrible crimes, the government's racialisation of the attacks meant they became race issues instead of women's rights issues. Other gang rapes that happened in Sydney at the time didn't attract any media coverage, and according to the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, women are being led by the media to believe that if they stay clear of Middle Eastern men, they will be safe. The centre said the reality is that gang rapes are happening most weekends, but the media is only interested when the rapists are "ethnic".

A similar racialisation of sexism can be seen in the responses of the government and right-wing shock jocks to Sheikh Taj al Din al Hilali's comments about women and rape in October. The issue became "Islam" rather than sexism. Hilali's remarks should have been condemned, not because he was a Muslim preacher, but because all sexist remarks should be condemned regardless of who makes them.

The fact is that sexism is widespread throughout mainstream Australian society. A letter endorsed by a wide range of women and women's organisations across Australia in March 2006 condemned Howard's hypocritical rhetoric about "defending women's rights" in order to attack Muslims: "Sexist and misogynist views are widespread throughout the entirety of the Australian population. No one community has a monopoly on poor attitudes to women. It crosses party lines."

An Amnesty International survey conducted in Britain last year found that one-third of those polled believed "a woman is partially or completely responsible for being raped if she has behaved flirtatiously".

The height of hypocrisy is reached by those who, claiming to "defend women's rights", have attacked Muslim women. The racist thugs at Cronulla, in their effort to "defend women", chased down a 14-year-old girl and ripped off her hijab. A 2004 report to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by Scott Poynting and Greg Noble documented the rise of racially or religiously motivated attacks against people of Middle Eastern background and Muslims since September 11, with Muslim women reporting the highest number of attacks, describing a climate of fear that has led to women feeling imprisoned in their own homes.

Anyone who truly supports women's rights needs to reject this fake "feminism" of the ruling class. Imperialism is the biggest threat to the lives and rights of women around the world, and fostering racism and nationalism is the key way the government is trying to pacify, weaken and divide us here in Australia. Building the movement to stop the wars in the Middle East and to reject the racist crap that the politicians and media are trying to force down our throats — this is what will in reality create a better world for women, and for all.

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