By Jenny Manrique
Muslim, Asian and Latina women are the main victims of xenophobic attacks in the United States during the recent increase in hate crimes against immigrants. The phenomenon, said experts convened by Ethnic Media Services, reflects the fact that marginalized groups end up being the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in the country. But why women?
According to the new survey, “Islamophobia in the Eyes of Muslims,” women (76.7%) are more likely than men (58.6%) to be victims of Islamophobia, and 91% of women reported that Islamophobia affects their emotional and mental well-being compared to 84% of men.
“Women are viewed as a symbol of a visible (wearing the hijab), external and opposing culture,” said Basima Sisemore, a researcher for the Global Justice Program at the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, which conducted the survey.
“And that culture is Islam and the East, and Muslims who supposedly are at odds with Western ideals and democratic values.”
The survey is the first national study to ask Muslim Americans (about 3.5 million people) their perceptions and experiences regarding Islamophobia. It was conducted in 50 states, and 1,123 respondents participated.
Sixty-two percent of all respondents reported that they, relatives, friends or members of their community have been affected by federal and/or state policies that disproportionately discriminate against Muslims.
Islamophobia, says Sisemore, already existed before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and dates back to the beginning of the nation as 20% of the African slave population was Muslim.
It has been perpetrated by people in individual acts of violence and institutionalized by “structural racism” in the United States with policies such as “the travel ban for Muslims, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs or even anti-Sharia legislation.”
“Liberal and imperialist feminism feeds into the false and dangerous narrative of Muslim women as oppressed,” continued Sisemore.
“That feminism says that women have no equality under Islam, and are seen in need of being saved from violent and oppressive Muslim men, which is a very dangerous narrative that played out in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as a means to garner public support toward the narrative of white saviorism.”
While in some Islamic countries women need to go out in public with their husbands or have severe restrictions on their rights, Sisemore says that these are “extreme examples” and that the media could highlight other aspects of Muslim culture such as “women play an intrinsic role in all parts of society.”
According to Elsadig Elsheikh, director of the Global Justice Program at the Othering & Belonging Institute, in some African countries women have led the struggle against dictatorships and invasions and there are exemplary cases of leadership in the East such as that of Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, and Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim-majority country like Pakistan.
“I’m not quite sure the representation of women in most liberal democracies in the West exceeds 20%,” Elsheikh said.
Elsheikh said that another worrying finding from the survey is that almost a third or more of Muslims have hidden or attempted to hide their religious identity “because Islamophobia has made their place of worship linked to ‘terrorism,’ which makes it hard for Muslims to engage with each other…if I see a guy with a turban on his head, I am also filled with rage against those who will come into bombing our country.”
Many Muslims censor themselves by avoiding talking about their beliefs or place of origin and in the case of women “almost nine out of 10 women do that in their everyday life; they try to get away from speaking their mind.”
For Elsheikh, Muslims and other marginalized groups “seem to be the scapegoats for everything wrong in the United States.”
This experience is similar for Asian-American communities that have been the subject of a wave of racist and xenophobic incidents related to the origin of Covid in Asia. According to the Stop AAPI Hate Center, from March 2020 to June 2021, more than 9,000 incidents were reported against this community and more than 66% of those attacks were against Asian-American women, including school-age girls.
“With that idea of ‘Make America White Again,’ the rest of us are foreign invaders and whole groups of people are rendered as being second class, less than human,” said Helen Zia, an AAPI activist, author and journalist.
“Add to that a layer of gender-based attacks against women, which puts immigrant women to face multiple jeopardies for being just who they are,” said Zia. She mentioned the massacre in Atlanta, Ga., where six Asian-American women who worked in spas were killed and said that the hate incidents, although not documented by gender, date back to 1980.
“The sexualization of Asian women, and women of color in general, plays a role in these kinds of incidents,” Zia said. The most difficult thing for women is to report “because they know that in society overall they are diminished, they are shamed and blamed, and they may even face stigma within their own community.”
Among the Latino community, labor and sexual exploitation occur in silence due to the latent threat of deportation. Latina and indigenous agricultural workers, particularly immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, escape various forms of violence in their countries of origin, but by seeking refuge in the United States they continue to be victimized.
“Latina women have faced a lot of sexual violence, especially in the fields, considering the dynamic that exists with their citizenship status,” said Irene de Barraicua, director of Operations for Lideres Campesinas, a network of agricultural workers that supports women with their asylum cases.
“They are afraid of retaliation and deportation and do not seek assistance for fear of being deemed a public charge,” added Barraicua. During the pandemic, “they were the first to go when business and growers farmers had to stop or wanted to keep the fastest workers.”
Barraicua says that all these forms of violence can only stop when “we see a fair immigration reform” and for that “we will continue lifting these voices.”
Jenny Manrique is an associated editor at Ethnic Media Services.