Scholars of Middle East women’s studies have much cause for alarm today. The increasing prevalence of anti-Muslim rhetoric and action, the unabashed reassertion of white male power, and recent attempts to erode the rights of women, queers, immigrants, and people of color have serious consequences for our research, teaching, and engagement with public debates and communities. In the United States, the two executive orders (EO) Donald Trump signed soon after his inauguration in 2017 officially sanctioned and legitimized discourse and policy against Muslims. Thinly disguised as actions that would give the government time to review and strengthen already very stringent policies regarding visas of tourists, immigrants, and refugees, the EOs clearly target Muslims, cast them as security threats, and attempt to implement Trump’s campaign promise for a complete “Muslim ban.”
The anti-Muslim discourse and actions rely on and reproduce deeply gendered stereotypes about Muslims and Islam by depicting all Muslim men as potential terrorists, Muslim women as helpless victims of oppression, and Islam as inherently tyrannical, violent, and patriarchal. The reference to honor killings in the first EO is a prime example of how anti-Muslim thinking manipulates gendered (mis)conceptions. The EO appropriates violence against Muslim women by Muslim men to justify the targeting of all Muslims (men, women, children, elderly, young) as security threats and condones their collective punishment, echoing once again the historical enlisting of women’s suffering in the service of Western imperial projects and military invasions. This brand of imperial feminism is all too familiar and needs to be as persistently criticized as it is revived and recirculated. Yet it is also crucial to analyze the body politics of Trumpism more generally and link the attacks on Muslims to those on women’s, queer, native, black, brown, and immigrant bodies (Gökarıksel and Smith 2016).
Even as the US courts have challenged and issued stays on the EOs, their effects continue to reverberate across public debates, in the streets, and at border checkpoints. They negatively affect all Muslims and those who look like Muslims, as well as the relations between the United States and the Middle East. While Muslims have been subjected to surveillance, discriminatory practices, and hate crimes in the United States for decades, violence targeting Muslims and those who look Muslim has increased since the presidential campaign.1 Muslim women who wear the headscarf have become easy targets for attacks because of their publicly visible religious alignment.
The racialization of Muslims and the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim sentiment have profound ethical and political implications for those of us who work on or with Muslims and Muslim-majority societies. For this reason the Middle East Studies Association joined a lawsuit against the EO. As Beth Baron, president of the association, put it:
The Middle East Studies Association joined this case because the new executive order cuts at the very core of our mission as a scholarly association—to facilitate the free exchange of ideas. The order directly harms our student and faculty members by preventing travel, disrupting research, and impeding careers. The order hurts us as an association intellectually and financially. It is incumbent upon us to support the interests of our members and stand up for the peoples of the region we study and our colleagues. (Jadaliyya Reports 2017)
Resistance movements against the kind of white male dominance that Trump’s presidency represents and has been trying to restore have embraced Muslims alongside other maligned groups (immigrants, brown, black, native, Latinx, queer, women). For example, the Women’s March on Washington organizing committee included Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian American activist. The US flag hijab from Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” series has become the symbol of resistance against an exclusionary, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and patriarchal nationalism. Yet the actions and symbols that suggest the inclusion of Muslim women often reify difference even as they affirm it. The current political moment of a global political turn to the right calls for going beyond easy tokenisms and for questioning the simple folding in of Muslims into existing nationalist narratives about the United States (Gökarıksel and Smith 2017). Instead, more radical intersectional feminisms that grapple with inequalities across multiple axes of difference are needed.
The implications of the EOs and the deteriorating political climate in which Muslims and Muslim-majority societies of the Middle East are labeled the United States’ threatening other are deeply troubling for feminist and women’s studies scholars of the Middle East. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and action depend on and perpetuate assumptions about gender roles and relations, as well as gendered embodiments of Muslims. At the same time, images of Muslim women are sometimes too easily appropriated in the name of resistance. As the spaces for criticism narrow here and abroad, it is more important than ever to voice dissent and to carve out a position from which it is possible to criticize the US administration as well as the governments and political regimes in the Middle East and their appropriation of Islam and women’s rights for their own political purposes. The way forward must begin from this position of double critique.
1. According to an FBI Report, hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 reached 9/11-era levels (Kishi 2016). Think Progress has documented a rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims and other minority groups during the election year. See thinkprogress.org/thinkprogress-has-been-tracking-hate-since-trumps-election-here-s-what-we-found-e0288ed69869#.kfyfh4ov8.