Academic journal article Hecate

Islam, Women and Australia's Cultural Discourse of Terror

Academic journal article Hecate

Islam, Women and Australia's Cultural Discourse of Terror

Article excerpt

Now it will be a case of, is that a kilo of C-4 in your pants or are you pleased to see me? (1)

The debate about how Islam situates women's rights has proven to be an enduring one. (2) The struggle of women within Islamic societies, notably the theocratic realisations of the Taliban and the Wahhabi sect, has generated heroic representatives of feminist emancipation, notably the Revolutionary Afghani Women's Association. But the debate from the other side -- the discourse of Islam and gender rights within Western societies -- also deserves close attention. Liberal democracies are avowedly open to the expression of choice and the toleration of religious freedoms, but these notions have been challenged in recent years by the global dispersal of refugees from the Third World, often Muslim, often from the Middle East. Furthermore, Islam in such societies as Australia remains part of a 'multicultural' system of difference only provisionally tolerated by white elites, (3) a situation that has proven precarious for Muslim women in the light of the current 'wars of terror' and traditional hostilities reserved fo r new migrants. (4)

Australian approaches to Islam and the role women play as referents within it in cultural discourses since the media-foregrounded gang rapes of 2000 in Sydney have been dominated by notions of fundamentalism, and of destructive violence, either potential or actual. Cultural discourses towards Islam in Australia have situated women vis-a-vis the Islamic faith in specific political and social contexts mediated by such events as the sexual assaults on women in Sydney by Lebanese males; the anti-Islamic sentiment evident in the immigration debate; the so-called 'war on terror' announced by President George W. Bush in response to the September 11 2001 attacks; and the subsequent Bali bombings of 12 October 2002.

These events have contributed to a continuing discourse of Islam as innately flawed, anachronistic and oppressive, evidenced in radio and television commentary, letters to the editor, public statements, and academic discussion. According to Donald Home, 'while race and ethnic hate have been the most talked about faiths of xenophobes in Australia, religious hate, in the form of Islamhate, is now taking over.' (5) A north Queensland paper, the Cairns Post, reflected such concerns in an early October 2001 column. 'What Western nations must decide is just how far a secular, liberal and democratic society should go to accommodate the "sensitivities" of a doctrinaire and unyielding Islamic culture without losing the very freedoms and liberties that differentiate the Western way of life.' Thus, the Cairns Post could express agreement with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's comments that 'no Islamic society extends to other faiths the same degree of religious and political tolerance and rights that Muslim com munities in Western societies enjoy.' The spectre of an uncompromising, unyielding Islam, haunting 'hard won' values of Western civilization, also posed the threat to Australia's women in general: 'Will Western women, for instance, be forced back into second-class status simply to avoid offending the tender sensibilities of insecure Muslim males?' (6)

These discourses of the body polity and the public on how women are treated within and without the Islamic belief-system can be analysed as articulations of distinct political and gender ideologies. This examination attempts to interrogate these ideologies and their contradictions by situating women's rights in various contexts: the positioning of Australian women as threatened by a 'misogynist' religion; the Muslim woman with her struggle for agential freedom in religious expression, and the politicisation of Islamic dress. It proceeds by looking first at some the sexual violence in Sydney's suburbia in recent years with its purported connections with Islamic culture; second, at Islam as symbolised by dress, with the chador, the hijab, the burqa seen as material for cultural conflict. …

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