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From victims to suspects: Muslim women since 9/11

By Alice Aslan - posted Thursday, 19 May 2016

In her book From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women since 9/11, Australian scholar and writer Shakira Hussein recounts how Muslim women have been perceived and portrayed as victims and suspects in Australia and in other Western countries since 9/11.

Western societies have always viewed Muslim women as "hapless victims in need of rescue and dangerous agents of an alien ideology in need of discipline". These stereotypes have become more pronounced during the post-9/11 era.

Following the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, United States First Lady Laura Bush made a radio address to the nation "to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban".


Laura Bush's speech became a mission statement that described American retaliation, the War on Terror as a war to rescue Muslim women not only in Afghanistan but all over the world. Therefore American imperialist intervention in the Middle East became a legitimate mission to save Muslim women.

As Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, points out the First Lady's speech helped recreate "an imaginative geography of West versus East, us versus Muslims-cultures in which first ladies give speeches versus others in which women shuffle around silently in burqas". And Western nations began to overwhelmingly explain "the post-9/11 landscape in terms of Islam's treatment (or mistreatment) of women".

Imperial feminism, approving Western imperialism in order to save other women, has a long history. For instance, Gayatri Spivak, an academic at Columbia University, coined the famous phrase "white men saving brown women from brown men" to describe the British colonial efforts to save Hindu women from death by sati ("self-immolation on their husband's funeral pyre").

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, normally not known for his commitment to women's rights, joined in the imperial-feminist chorus declaring "there is within some sections of the Islamic community an attitude towards women which is out of line with mainstream Australian society."

Since 9/11, Muslim women have also been viewed as suspects. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks the fear of terrorism was very acute, and such fears have been revived by other terror attacks in other places like Bali, Madrid, London and Boston. Also most recently hundreds of young Muslims from Europe, North America and Australia have departed to join the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, escalating these fears.

For example, Australian politician Jacqui Lambie wanted the burqa banned from the nation's streets for security reasons. But, as Shakira Hussein highlights, "the threat supposedly posed by Muslim women is not limited to" these security reasons.


Besides fear of Islamic terrorism there is "a growing fear of Islam that is gradually undermining Western societies from within", and Muslim women who transmit Muslim cultural practices are held responsible for this infiltration. In addition to this, Muslim women are accused of reversing "the gains made by generations of feminists in the West, re-opening questions that had been considered resolved" because of their so-called "chosen" subservience.

As a result of events such as 2005 attacks in London and the Cronulla riots in Sydney, Islam became a domestic security issue rather than an external problem. And as Hussein points out "unsurprisingly, the domestication of the enemy has also feminised it, with women seen as key agents of Islamic infiltration".

As "the Muslim question" has become the dominant issue in domestic and international politics in Europe, North America and Australia, "Muslim women have come to be regarded as the accomplices rather than (or as well as) the victims of Muslim men". The recent stories about some Muslim women and girls who abandon their families and homes in the West to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have strengthened this new view about Muslim women as "Islamic fifth columnists within the West".

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, women wearing hijab and other forms of Islamic dress became the main targets of verbal and physical harassment and abuse in Western countries. According to the report of Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), there was "a heightened sense of fear among Muslim women after experiences such as being spat on, threatened and assaulted" and also the forcible removal of headscarves by strangers in public places, which Muslim women regarded as degrading as rape.

Now Muslim women are "no longer regarded merely as passive victims awaiting rescue". But instead of acknowledging the diversity among Muslim women, current mainstream views describe them as either good or bad Muslim. And good Muslim women are those who confine their religious practice to private space; who prefer their national identity to ethno-religious identity; and who successfully embody Enlightenment values in their own lives but also promotes an internal reform based on these values within their own societies and communities.

And Shakira Hussein concludes: "Muslim women are told by all concerned that they must determine where their loyalty lies, and act accordingly. Any deviation from the script renders them inherently suspect."

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About the Author

Alice Aslan is an artist, thinker and activist passionate about arts, culture, ideas, justice and wildlife.

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