In an interview with Muslim Press, Sharon Smith, an American activist, discusses the issues of women, especially Muslim women, in Western countries.
The following is the full transcription of this interview:
Muslim Press: How do you see women's rights in America, especially the inequality in employment?
Sharon Smith: It is important to emphasize that, while statistics show much advancement in women’s wages and salaries over the last several decades, further examination shows otherwise. For example, statistics show that in 1979 women earned roughly 59 cents for every dollar earned by men, whereas today the average is 79 cents for every dollar. This would seem to show great progress, but unfortunately it doesn’t: the wage gap between men and women has narrowed not because women are earning more, but because men—especially those without a college education—are earning less than they were 35 years ago.
For the last four decades, the corporate class has single-mindedly forced down working-class wages and living standards, while the incomes of the wealthiest Americans have skyrocketed. For this reason, the level of class inequality in the U.S. is the same as that during the Gilded Era 100 years ago. Plummeting wages and living standards is not good news for anyone in the workforce.
To be sure, ruling-class women suffer some degree of women’s oppression (Donald Trump’s misogyny toward Hillary Clinton is one obvious example). But Clinton benefits from the status quo far more than she suffers because of it. She shares nothing in common with working-class women struggling to survive from paycheck to paycheck. So social class is a key determinant of the degree of oppression women suffer, and whether they have an interest in opposing the inequalities of the system.
MP: How do you analyze the discrimination against women of color? Are they more subjected to more prejudice compared to white women?
Sharon Smith: Race also shapes the ways in which women experience sexism. All women of color face racism and discrimination as a constant feature of daily life, although often in different ways. Black women’s oppression dates back to slavery, and is thoroughly embedded in the foundations of U.S. society. Many Latinas are immigrants, living in communities under the constant disruption and threat of deportation, but Puerto Rican women are oppressed as residents of a U.S. colony. Women of Asian descent are lumped together as “the model minority,” despite the widespread impoverishment of Asian American communities. Arab and Muslim women are regarded in mainstream U.S. discourse as part of a culture prone to “terrorism,” while those who choose to wear a hijab are derided as aiding in their own oppression.
It is also the case that because of racism, Black women and other women of color are disproportionately represented among the poor and the working class. Black women earn just 60 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Therefore, there can be no “unified” women’s movement that claims to represent “all women” that does not also address the affects of racism and class inequality. Too often in U.S. history mainstream feminist movements, predominantly white and middle class, have failed in this regard.
MP: Do you think anti-Muslim sentiments—including those against Muslim women—are on the rise?
Sharon Smith: Anti-Muslim sentiments have risen sharply since the 9-11 attacks—not so much because of the attacks themselves but because politicians whipped up an anti-Islamic hysteria to justify invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. Islamophobia quickly spiraled out of control in the U.S.—as the USA PATRIOT Act sailed through Congress and thousands of Muslims were rounded up and "detained indefinitely" without charges or the right to legal representation, all in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Islamophobia has intensified throughout U.S. and Northern European societies, and “flying while Arab or Muslim” and other forms of racial profiling target both Muslim men and women. Another measure of the degree of Islamophobia today is the prevalence of violence against Muslims, including Muslim women practicing hijab.
In 2015, for example, Chicago police arrested Saudi student Angel Al Matar who was wearing a niqab at a subway stop. The police verbally abused her and then forced her to strip down to her underwear while handcuffed. They charged her with resisting arrest and reckless misconduct and forced her to spend the night in jail. But she was found not guilty, and she is currently suing the Chicago Police for their blatantly racist actions.
Muslim culture has been demonized in the political mainstream—as if Islam itself is a “violent” religion and those who practice Islam are much more prone to terrorism and other forms of senseless violence than others. This claim is utterly ahistorical, and ignores the millions of innocent people killed through U.S. and European imperialist wars over the past centuries, which continues today.
Secondly, Islam is no more reactionary or more violent than Christianity—especially considering the 200-year history of the Christian Crusades wreaking death and destruction against Muslims and Jews. Pope Urban II launched the first crusade in a speech in 1095, calling on Christians to wage a "holy war" against Islamic "infidels." And it should not be forgotten that George W. Bush frequently invoked his Christian "Almighty" as justification for the U.S. war in Iraq.
It is impossible to generalize about the beliefs of Islam any more than about the beliefs of Christianity or Judaism, since there are as many different interpretations of the Koran as there are competing interpretations of Biblical scripture.
It is also important to realize that claims of Western cultural superiority date back to the era of European colonization of Muslim societies—bearing a striking resemblance to U.S. and European imperialism today. Then, as now, the imperialists maintained that they had a duty to “civilize” the societies they occupied—singling out Islam’s alleged “degradation of women,” which they claimed was symbolized by the practice of veiling.
Since that time, imperialists and their apologists have targeted Muslim women practicing hijab with hostility, aiming to force them to uncover in the name of “women’s rights.” Today, Islamophobia serves as an ideological weapon to justify U.S. imperialist aims throughout the Middle East.
MP: How do you think anti-hijab rules show hostility toward Muslim women?
Sharon Smith: Anti-hijab laws do not merely show hostility toward Muslim women, but they also reek of both paternalism and hypocrisy. Again, this pattern dates back to the European colonial era.
During the British occupation of Egypt, for example, British Consul General Lord Cromer declared that Egyptians should "be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western civilization." Cromer targeted, "first and foremost," Islam’s "degradation of women," symbolized by the veil, as "the fatal obstacle" to Egyptians’ "attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization."
Cromer needed to look no further than the corseted and repressed women of Victorian England for examples of the "degradation of women." Back in England, Cromer opposed women’s right to vote and was the founding member of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Neither could Cromer’s colonial policies in Egypt, which were aimed at developing the country’s economy no further than as a supplier of raw materials for factories based in England, be described as advancing women’s rights.
Because he believed that government-subsidized education could foster nationalism, Cromer instituted school tuition fees, even though education was previously provided at government expense. The result: in 1881, the year before the British occupation began, 70 percent of Egyptian students received government assistance for tuition and other expenses. Ten years later, 73 percent of students received nothing. This severely curtailed educational opportunities for girls as well as boys.
British occupation denied women opportunities for education on another front. Before British rule, Egyptian women had been offered equal medical training with men at the School for Hakimas. But the British limited women’s training to midwifery. Once again, Cromer claimed cultural superiority: "I am aware that in exceptional cases women like to be treated by female doctors, but I conceive that throughout the civilized world, attendance by medical men is still the rule.”
MP: What about France’s hijab ban?
Sharon Smith: Today, France’s hijab ban in public schools, in place since 2004, illustrates the contempt for Muslim women such bans represent—criminalizing Muslim women in the name of supposedly advancing their rights.
On paper, the French law prohibits not just the hijab, but all "signs and dress that ostensibly denote the religious belonging of students." It also bans beards and bandanas that denote Islamic affiliation, the Jewish yarmulka, or skullcap, and "conspicuous" Christian crosses. Nevertheless, few in France, where the press calls the ban "the law against the veil," ever believed the target is anything but the hijab.
There is something profoundly hypocritical in banning Islamic religious symbols in the name of secularism and gender equality while the French government continues to subsidize private education for the globally influential–and reactionary–Catholic Church, as well as Jewish religious institutions. Beneath French officials’ talk of "laïcité" (separation of church and state), the status quo in French society is Christianity. Then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin even described France as "the old land of Christianity" during the debate in 2004.
It is just a short leap from the (stated and unstated) assumption of Christian religious and European cultural superiority to outright hostility to Islam. Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé argued, "It’s not paranoid to say we’re faced with a rise of political and religious fanaticism." Jacques Peyrat, then mayor of Nice–a far-right stronghold–argued in a speech, "Mosques cannot be conceived of as existing within a secular Republic.”
Chirac’s hostility toward Muslims, France’s largest minority, was apparent when he argued on December 6, 2003, "Wearing a veil, whether we want it or not, is a sort of aggression that is difficult for us to accept." Bernard Stasi, head of Chirac’s commission, was even more forthright in defending the ban: "We must be lucid–there are in France some behaviors which cannot be tolerated. There are without any doubt forces in France which are seeking to destabilize the republic, and it is time for the republic to act."
It is hard to believe that Muslim women who choose to practice hijab could be held responsible for “destabilizing” French society. But this claim has only increased since 2004. Today, hostility to Muslim women in France has reached the level of absurdity with the recent imposition of the so-called “burkini” ban.
MP: What does French burkini ban represent?
Sharon Smith: This ban is ludicrous on many levels. Again, it is difficult to believe that a type of swimsuit could act as the kind powerful social force as its detractors claim. The burkini ban actually demonstrates the enormous degree of Islamophobia and outright racism in France and throughout northern Europe today, which has reached the point of widespread hysteria.
When a burkini is worn with a headscarf, it shares the same basic features of a Catholic nun’s habit or the modest style of swimwear worn by Orthodox Jewish women. Yet only the burkini was banned. In a matter of two weeks in August, burkini bans spread to 30 French coastal cities as French leaders across the political spectrum worked themselves into a virtual frenzy in supporting them.
Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who invented the burkini, says that 40 percent of her customers are non-Muslims, including Jews, Mormons, Christians, and non-religious women seeking comfortable and modest swimwear that also protects skin from the sun. But these other customers can rest assured that they are racially protected as long as they are not found “swimming while Muslim” in France.
French politicians from the right and (self-described) reformist left agreed that burkini swimwear has placed the bedrocks of French society in such peril that immediate action was required. National Front leader Marine Le Pen on the far right argued that “the soul of France” was at stake in banning the burkini. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, from the center-right, launched his next presidential campaign for 2017 calling the burkini a “provocation” and pledged, "I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools...there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic's territory"—as 2,000 supporters applauded wildly, in an eerie resemblance to a Donald Trump rally.
But many Socialist leaders were equally self-righteous in their support for the ban, ostensibly as a blow against Muslim women’s oppression. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls described France as immersed in a “battle of cultures,” arguing that the burkini represents “the enslavement of women.” Laurence Rossignol, the Socialist Minister for Families, Children and Women’s Rights, declared that the burkini is a garment designed “to hide, to conceal the women’s bodies and the position it accords to women is a position that I fight against.”
In reality, the burkini ban is meant to collectively punish and scapegoat Muslim women, in a toxic intersection of Islamophobia, racism and sexism. Legally assaulting Muslim culture in the name of “secularism” is transparently racist and hypocritical. The assumption that women should not control their own bodies, including their choice of clothing—which instead must be regulated and policed—is profoundly sexist.
French lawmakers have decided that women must be unclothed on beaches, as a symbol of Western cultural superiority. This explains how the bikini is now held up as a symbol of women’s liberation. But the "freedom to uncover" can bring women no closer to genuine equality in sexist societies the world over—where uncovering merely leads to greater sexual objectification.
The “freedom to cover” might be a welcome change for those wishing to exempt themselves from the pressures of attaining hair-free and buff “bikini bodies” for any number of reasons, including the freedom to remove themselves from competition with other women.
MP: What's your take on the ban on face-covering clothing in countries such as France and Belgium? Do you think there should be laws protecting women who practice hijab?
Sharon Smith: For me, as a socialist, whether we are discussing hijab, niqab, burka or any other item of clothing, the issue is individual choice. Women should be allowed to choose their clothing for themselves, without anyone questioning their reasons. The point is women’s right to choose what they wear. They should neither be forced to cover or to uncover, and their choices should be respected.
I think laws should not mandate any woman to dress a certain way but rather should protect their right to choose. In the context of imperialism–and the racism that justifies imperialist domination–it is wrong to view the hijab, or other aspects of Islamic culture, only as symbols of women’s oppression. Today, the hijab is worn voluntarily by millions of Muslim women around the world as a symbol of cultural pride, often in overt opposition to Western imperialism. After the French ban on hijab in 2004, tens of thousands of women wearing hijabs marched in protest across the country, chanting slogans such as, "Not our fathers nor our husbands, we chose the headscarf." In London, thousands of young women wearing hijabs also marched, chanting against "racist laws." Their voices should not be ignored.
There is no contradiction between supporting Muslim women protesting the ban on headscarves and face-covering clothing in France and championing Afghan women in their fight against laws requiring them to wear the burka.
Moreover, Western feminists who allowed the Bush administration to equate the lifting of the Islamic veil in Afghanistan with liberation, and those who now argue that France’s burkini ban is a step toward women’s equality, perform a disservice to the fight for genuine women’s liberation, East and West. In 2004, journalist Natasha Walter described the common view among many Western feminists: "Many women in the west find the headscarf deeply problematic. One of the reasons we find it so hateful is because the whole trajectory of feminism in the west has been tied up with the freedom to uncover ourselves."
But the "freedom to uncover" is not actual freedom in Western societies, where women are degraded as sex objects and pressured to attain unrealistic standards of “beauty”. In the U.S., eating disorders have reached epidemic proportions among young women, cosmetic surgery is one of the fastest-growing branches of modern medicine, and Hooters is a popular national restaurant chain. Women are oppressed everywhere in the world, but in different ways in different societies.
Political economist Behzad Yaghmaian quoted a woman student from Istanbul University in 2003, who argued, "Hijab sends an important message that a person does not have to see my body to have a conversation with me." This sentiment is valid and should not be dismissed by any feminist. As a young Egyptian woman told reporters some years ago, she prefers the hijab because, "Many men treat women as objects, look at their beauty; the Islamic dress allows a woman to be looked upon as a human being and not an object."
All women should have the right to dress as they choose wherever they live, without government or anyone else’s interference. This must become a basic human right if all women are to be truly liberated. But widespread resistance to these bans also provides hope for winning the future freedom for every woman to dress as she chooses, answering to no one but herself.
Sharon Smith is an American socialist writer and activist. She is the author of 'Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States' and 'Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation'.