Beyond the burkini: Muslim women and the global war on terror
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The French burkini ban debate may no longer be trending, but there is an ongoing civil rights case against the city of Chicago initiated by a Muslim woman against six police officers who unlawfully strip searched her because they thought she was a lone-wolf suicide bomber. This case has not received as much attention as it should, with most of the attention focused on the election and gun violence. However, the burkini ban and the Chicago civil rights case are symptomatic of a larger problem within the Global War on Terror. Over the last decade, a major frontier of the War on Terror has become the Muslim woman.

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To be clear, this is not the first time that women have become cannon fodder in interstate or civil conflicts. The most studied way through which women become a part of the front in wars is rape, which has been deliberately used as a weapon of war in Bosnia, the Congo, Japan and Chechnya, to name a few. However, with the War on Terror, the manifestation of this problem is more subtle, and worse, is often couched in claims of female empowerment, as with the French burkini ban. In reality, this crackdown on Muslim women shows the general frustration with state failure to effectively fight terrorism. Muslim women become natural targets in trying to dominate radical Islam in order to show strength faced with an enemy who has figured out how to strike at the heart of Western civilization.

What becomes more frustrating, particularly for Western states that fall victim to terrorism, is its persistence despite its political ineffectiveness.  Since the 1980s, it has been agreed that terrorism is ineffective. In fact, the Rand Corporation found that “terrorists have been unable to translate the consequences of terrorism into concrete political gains.” In that sense terrorism has been fundamentally a failure. How, then, does a state combat an enduring threat that is neither deterred by failure nor law and whose “root causes” are not discernible?

In many cases, it is by attempting to show some semblance of control and national cohesion. Muslim women who wear the burqa, niqab, hijab or burkini are seen to be a constant reminder of the limits of state control regarding terrorism. In dressing modestly, they inadvertently brand themselves as foreign and maladjusted. It becomes irrelevant that they may have voluntarily chosen to dress in that way. That very choice effectively brands them as the “enemy.”

In his paper, “Enemy Aliens,” Georgetown Law Professor David Cole argues that in the wake of 9/11, the US government started to infringe on the rights of immigrants, specifically Arabs and Muslims, under the banner of “national security.” Thus, the distinction between alien and citizen was “resorted to as a justification for liberty-infringing measures in times of crisis.” Choice of dress, even for Muslim women who are citizens of Western countries, becomes an easy way to distinguish between “friend” and “foe,” opening these women up for unfair treatment from law enforcement officers. The War on Terror becomes conspicuous, not only in bombed buildings, but on their bodies.

Yet, infringing on the individual liberties of Muslim women in a desperate bid to show defiant strength is bound to have blowbacks that extend further than civil rights lawsuits. It has the potential to detract from a scarier reality: the extent of state desperation in the face of terrorism.

The War on Terror has constantly evolved, using measures ranging from assassinations, extraordinary rendition, drone attacks, sanctions and surveillance on the citizenry. Now it is threatening free speech, with experts like Eric Posner — the fourth most cited legal expert in the USA — arguing that ISIS leaves America “no choice but to consider limits on free speech.” Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts report Warner attempted to talk to dossier author Poll: Nearly half of Iowans wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2020 Rubio on Warner contact with Russian lobbyist: It’s ‘had zero impact on our work’ MORE has already hinted at forcing tech companies to fight ISIS and pre-empted criticism by saying, “You are going to hear all the usual complaints. Freedom of speech, et cetera.”

Freedom of speech, et cetera — never mind that it is the cornerstone of every thriving, free society.

While France has revoked the burkini ban, the policing of Muslim women is not likely to stop. As states become more desperate in the Global War on Terror, the citizenry must become more vigilant and not swept up in anti-Muslim hysteria. The policing of Muslim women could only be the beginning of human rights infringements on every citizen.

Stacy Ndlovu is the managing editor of Young Voices, a project for aspiring writers. Originally from Zimbabwe, Stacy graduated from Cornell University in 2016.


 The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.