Powerful Actors or Oppressed “Others”?: Violent Muslim Women in the News

Powerful Actors or Oppressed “Others”?: Violent Muslim Women in the News October 2, 2012

In recent news, Muslim women have been highlighted for their violent actions towards in men in their society.

While comparing different articles reporting on the incident of the unnamed Iranian woman (whom I will refer to as the Bad Hijabi for convenience) who beat up the cleric who policed her for her “bad hijab,” I couldn’t help but marvel at the remarkably imaginative accompanying photos:

Iranian women dressed all in black. Via CNN.
Iranian women dressed all in black. Via Daily Mail.
Iranian women dressed all in black. Via Global Post.
Iranian women dressed – surprise! – all in black. Via Huffington Post.
Iranian women dressed in purple with pink stripes and lime green polka dots. Just kidding. They’re wearing black. Via Bloomberg.

Okay, women in Iran wear black chadors, we get it. But there’s a class and ideological dimension to the chador, just as there is a class and ideological dimension to the women in Iran who wear manteaux, show some (highlighted) hair, and wear visible makeup. In fact, just like many of the harassed women, the Bad Hijabi was probably dressed like this:

An Iranian woman wearing some colour (for real). Via NPR.
More Iranian women. Are those coloured headscarves? Via RFERL.

By showing Iranian women only as black tents, living in a country where women’s rights are in a “sordid state,” these articles serve to compare Iranian women to their Western counterparts who are fighting to “go topless.” The lack of women’s rights is framed to focus on what they cannot wear and what they cannot do, even as similar restrictions on what they cannot wear are underway in FranceNetherlands, and Canada. Once again, we are invited to pity these Muslim women who must live under such repressed conditions, and support their efforts to fight against the men who hate them.

But it’s not actually about the hijab. In an article for her blog Persian LettersGolnaz Esfandiari gives a historical explanation as to why the Bad Hijabi “lashed out” at the cleric. According to Esfandiari,

“For the past 30 years, Iranian women have been harassed, detained, fined, and threatened by the morality police, security forces, and zealots over their appearance. Women have fought back in different ways, including by pushing the boundaries of acceptable dress and criticizing the rules, which apply only to women…

Of course, when the same type of incident is reversed — a “badly veiled” women beaten in public by police — it’s simply a necessary enforcement of the dress code.”

It is only against this long context of the double standards of policing and punishment that women fight back. Yes, women –  in her article, Esfandiari also lists some other clerics who have been beaten up by other women for the same reason. While one could argue that Bad Hijabi’s violence is only in response to male violence, many members of the basij, or morality police are women.

Could we start seeing Bad Hijabi as rightfully demonstrating her personal and political dissatisfaction through violent means? A rational actor who interacts with her surroundings? She did not fight back just because she was a woman having a bad day. But in many of the articles reporting on this, Bad Hijabi’s actions are portrayed only in relation to her being a capricious woman, instead of perhaps having a broader political purpose.

As Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry write in their book Mothers, Monsters, or Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics:

 “Instead, women who commit violence have been characterized as anything but regular criminals or regular soldiers or regular terrorists; they are captured in storeyed fantasies which deny women’s agency and reify gender stereotypes and subordination.”

These authors argue that when women are violent, their violence is often explained by their gender. Narratives of violent women often categorize them into the mother, monster or whore narratives: women are violent in order to protect their children, because they are mentally disturbed, or to fight against their sexual possession by men. The following case is a fitting illustration of all three narratives.

A few weeks ago in Turkey, Nevin Yildirim shot and beheaded her rapist after she was refused an abortion, and she is now awaiting trial for murder. According to her quotes, Nevin is constructed as a protective mother (“Everyone would have insulted my children”), and mentally unstable – she mutilated the rapist’s body (“I knew he was dead. I then cut his head off”) and displayed the head in the village square – after being a victim of repeated physical and moral assault (“I knew he was going to rape me again”).

On the other hand, she had a clear ideological intention for her actions (“I saved my honour”) and seemed to have made a rational decision by killing the rapist (“Since I was going to get a bad reputation I decided to clean my honor and acted on killing him. I thought of suicide a lot but couldn’t do it.”)

However, just like Bad Hijabi, the articles on Nevin Yildirim guide the readers towards conversations about women’s rights in Turkey, abortion restrictions (here and here), the salience of honour in Turkish culture, the mental health of women who face rape, or even all three topics. Rural Muslim women are depicted to be living in such terrible conditions, where they cannot get justice when they seek it and are so desperate to the point of committing violence. Their violence always has a socio-cultural or psychological reason; they aren’t just ordinary criminals.

These articles raise important questions: Are we fascinated by these women because their violence transgresses the norms of behaviour expected of women (and Muslim women especially)? When does violence become unacceptable and when does it become special and celebrated?

Violent women already suffer from being stereotyped as a mother, monster or whore, according to Sjoberg and Gentry’s book. But violent Muslim women must face the additional stereotype of being an oppressed ‘other’ in relation to violent Western women. The news coverage of Bad Hijabi and Nevin Yildirim don’t only talk about their violent actions, but also link it to the restrictive conditions in their countries. The images and text of Bad Hijabi’s news coverage hone in on the lack of women’s rights in Iran, while the text of Nevin Yildirim’s coverage focuses on abortion and honour in Turkey. Aimed at a Western audience, this indirectly continues to reinforce the differences between Western and Muslim women. Talking about what Third World women don’t have serves to remind Western women of what they (should) have.

Although the media may intend to showcase the bravery of these women who dare to fight back, their violent actions actually serve to make Muslim women the “Other,” and consequently, construct the self-image of Western women. These depictions of Bad Hijabi and Nevin Yildirim serve to in fact, reassure women in the West that they have indeed the freedoms to dress as they wish, have abortions and seek justice for rape, even if reality in those societies too is a bit more complex.

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