by Matilda Branson. Matilda is a passionate feminist currently working as a gender and development consultant with a feminist NGO in Nepal. With a Master in Gender and Development from the University of Melbourne (in Australia, mate), her favourite past times include stalking beach destinations on GoogleEarth (the Himalayas are a long way from the sea), fishing and singing Disney classics.
“Girl, you look gorgeous – but a bit too much like a Muslim.”
These were the words delivered to my white Australian friend by a random man as she was walking down the street in a long skirt, t-shirt and a sweater tied around her head – a little unorthodox, to be sure, but a means by which to protect her delicate complexion from the burning rays of the Australian sun (those rays really, really burn). This man walked up to her, voiced his concerns, and walked away. My friend was outraged but also unwilling to hurl abuse at the stranger in case he did something unexpected.
This is not the first time I’ve heard of this kind of thing happening – it really worries me though – what on earth does this say about Australian society and prevailing attitudes towards Muslims and Islam generally? And even if such views are harboured, who said it was ok to share such beliefs with girls in the street wearing sweaters on their heads? The general outlook is not particularly inspiring.
Such a peculiar but all-too-common occurrence highlighting such attitudes lurking within the Australian psyche makes me think of Spivak’s (1988) sceptical observation on the phenomenon of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. Thank goodness that guy saved my friend from her near-Muslim experience.
Rhetoric regarding concern by Western liberators for helpless women from their foreign cultures or religions isn’t a new thing. The colonial French in Algeria were uncharacteristically obsessed with the unveiling of Algerian women (Scott, 2007); the British in India outlawed sati (a religious funeral practice among some Indian communities in which a recently widowed woman threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre (not to say that the dying out of self-immolation customs isn’t a bad thing). From whence (yes, whence) did such attitudes come? From a perceived imperialist responsibility to educate and redeem the ignorant savage and the uncivilised from their own harmful cultural customs?
I suspect that similar attitudes persist in Western societies today, cloaked in new terms, evident in bureaucratic weasel-words referring to ‘harmful cultural practices’ of ‘Other’ cultures on issues of ‘cultural differences’. Didn’t Laura Bush say that ‘the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’ in Afghanistan?
Post-September 11 I think the cultural ‘Other’ has become synonymous with ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ in popular culture.This is evident in debates surrounding the sartorial hijab, honour killings and female genital mutilation, all of which (of course) centre on women’s bodies, the eternal sites of contests for these debates.
What bothers me, is that this little saviour-victim complex persists to the extent that a stranger thinks they can go up to someone in the street and advise them on the dangers of being too close to that cultural Other.
My point? Next time a stranger admonishes you for dressing too much like a Muslim – deck him.