why islamophobia should matter to you...
In the midst of Islamophobia Awareness Month and in the wake of violent attacks against muslim women, the director of a new documentary looks into the worrying state of Islamophobia today...
"So you're a Muslim?" is the blank retort I've been met with after explaining the concept of Expoliting It?, a short documentary that looks the ways in which Islamphobia is gendered. For as long as anyone can remember, stories, trends and narratives have been stolen and regurgitated as if the thievery was genius that just slide into wealthy and white minds. And, now, given our obsession with tales from the Middle East, ISIS and anything that can be perceived as Islamic, I could understand if people of colour treated me with suspicion in the development of this documentary. However, what has been the most surprising is how many people have thought that to want to talk about the fetishisation of Muslim women that you'd have to be one or why else bother?
Well, it isn't because Islamophobia affects us all. Sure, we cannot escape the stereotypes of terrorists and the image of women in black veils which follow us around like a tedious argument, even in fiction, like Homeland. But, the repercussions of botched British foreign policy decisions and a narrow minded media don't haunt us down the street. As feminists, we have fought for the right for women to wear what they like... but, as I have been told by some of my collaborators, they are abused and harassed for their choice of clothing. In fact, one of the women I interviewed, Ruqaiya Haris, said that her choice to wear the hijab "made her a walking symbol of Islam and subsequent hatred". Instead of being ascribed the narrative of an oppressed woman, we need to see women like Haris as powerful and brave. Through her dress alone, she is standing up for what she believes in and won't let public opinion bring her down.
Given our obsession with ISIS brides and hijabs, Muslim women have been opened up to a unique kind of abuse. White liberal feminists tell them they are oppressed whilst the British government uses them as a excuse to invade their countries. On top of this, the hatred is having very real consequences with organisations reporting that women are on the receiving end of the 70% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. Despite this, artists such as Sarah Maple, are still told that her "art is only successful because I am attractive and Muslim". In an interview, we asked her to expand on this point and she replied that she felt that this comment, received in the form of online abuse, was a way of silencing her as she was just exploiting her identity. This comment became the name of our film as we began to wonder who was really exploiting who, when issues surrounding the muslim world are constantly in the news.
However, it isn't just public opinion and our consumption of media based on shallow portrayals of Muslim women that is contributing to a society saturated in Islamophobic sentiment. Another of the films protagonists, Aysha Fekaiki, eloquently discusses how terror legislation is allowing police to enter prayer rooms on university campuses to assess who is at risk of 'radicalisation'. She goes on to add how "radicalisation has become a racially loaded term", which is evidenced by the fact that some of the criteria that the legislation uses to signify potential radicals is the growing of a beard or the wearing of a hijab. Cases where foreign terror suspects were detained without trial, demonstrate how the laws of the United Kingdom were already being bent to 'protect us' against terrorism. But, if that wasn't Kafkaseque enough for you, the legislation is even more sinister as it not even criminalising thoughts, but literally preventing potential thoughts developing through censorship.
The silencing of the intellectual curiosity of Muslim students is happening on university campuses across the United Kingdom. "It is taking away from our freedom of speech", explains Aysha Fekkai in one of the film's interviews, after recounting how student's emails are being monitored for any sort of interest in political Islam. But, our film also shows how these disturbing findings are not restricted to universities - it is also affecting artists' creative practices. In July, Nadia Latif's play, Homegrown, was pulled from the National Youth Theatre. The performance, devised in collaboration with Omar El-Kharif, came about when "three girls left the Bethnal Green academy to go and join ISIS," she explains. "When we watched the media shitstorm around that we realised that we could use that language to make something really subversive." But, apparently, it must have been too subversive as the show was cancelled. leaving Latif feeling that "they were saying that we are no longer talking about this issue [radicalisation]."
Isn't it curious that a theatre would want to shut down a play about extremism when such headlines are the very thing that sell papers? On the surface, it would appear so. However, Latif's experience, when placed next to the stories of women such as Hani Richter and Samia Malik, seems to make more sense. Young journalist will usually do pretty much anything to secure themselves work, but when Hani was asked to pose as an ISIS recruit for a conservative magazine she told us how she "had to say no". Her reasoning was that "they only wanted the article to keep fuelling [Islamophobic sentiment]." The honest and outspoken artist, Samia Malik, has also said that she has come under criticism for her political artwork that is critical of British foreign policy, which, she says, has led to her being labelled as an extremist or involved in ISIS. In such suspicious and unfriendly times, crass comments can cost a creative their reputation and see them excluded from artistic spaces. From these accounts, one is able to see that women who are racially profiled as Muslim are only allowed to be political on other people's terms otherwise institutions are happy to silence them. Indeed, this was confirmed to use through an interview with an interview with Julia Farrington, who works at the Index of Censorship, she said that she believed "institutions would be looking for a certain kind of narrative from a Muslim".
Conversations about identity, racism and radicalisation are ones that we desperately need to have. But, people in the best position to start them are being deprived of the platform to have them. You only have to check David Cameron's speech about CAGE, a human rights organisation, to see how our Prime Minister uses the language of terrorism to delegitimise. Whilst it has always been trendy for young white people to bear the banner of being 'radical', we must acknowledge how even being able to define one's self as radical can be a form of white privilege.
But, it isn't a simple division between us, the right wing media and the Government. Through the creation of our film, we came to acknowledge how we are all complicit in stereotypes even by the way we consume media. So, we want to situate some of Exploiting It? in a conventionally middle class British household as an acknowledgement of the way we are also involved in the production of Islamophobia. Furthermore, we have deliberately collaborated with a diverse range of women in order to amplify different voices all of which may not agree with one another but in a hope that together we can start a conversation about the deep, and far reaching, effects of Islamophobia on our society and culture.
Exploiting It? is a short creative documentary written and directed by Jade Jackman, produced by Alessandra Bilic with Nadira Amrani as the Director of Photography. They are currently crowdfunding in order to give the film the most impact and would love anyone who is interested to reach out to them.
Text Jade Jackman