In 2011, France campaigned to ban niqabs -- face veils worn by Muslim women -- in an effort that center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy said was critical in ensuring women's rights. Much debated and contested, the veil ban -- which affected only 2,000 women out of 5 to 6 million Muslims living in France -- was supposedly an example of France doing the right thing: fighting the backwards Arab-Muslim traditions that oppress women. However, in doing so, it failed to recognize its own role in stripping women of their rights by enforcing a law restricting women's dress and public behavior, without consideration of their preferences in the matter.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Muslim women have reported discrimination for their religious beliefs and way of dress. In 2009 alone, 425 Muslim women filed workplace discrimination complaints, a number that is on the rise. In one notable case , a 19-year-old Muslim college sophomore was fired from her position as a stockroom clerk at a Bay Area Hollister because she refused to take off her hijab, or headscarf, on the basis of religion. Unlike a cross or yarmulke, the Muslim veil has been the subject of numerous attacks and removal campaigns. It is the most visible sign of the Arab-Muslim culture and has long represented to the West the extremist views of Islam. However, it is not this piece of fabric but a conservative contingency that is truly the culprit in stripping women of their freedoms and futures.
The history of women's rights across the globe demonstrates time and again the propensity of conservatives to adopt "women-centric" agendas that do everything to scapegoat women's freedoms in order to bolster their own platforms. In recent months, in the United States, this has been demonstrated over the debate on women's reproductive rights at the height of the Republican primaries. Just last month, in Arizona, personhood was redefined to designate zygotes with the same rights as adults. Abortion rights were also increasingly restricted as a result of a new bill, which passed into law in April by more than a half-dozen states. As a result, abortions after four months have been banned, inciting debate on the circumstances that might surround a late abortion, for instance, health concerns for both fetus and mother. Former Republican contender Rick Santorum showed support for banning abortions even in the case of rape. He said, "As horrible as the way that that son or daughter was created, it still is her child...I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created -- in the sense of rape -- but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you."
Access to contraception has also been widely debated. A clause in the draft healthcare bill stipulating that employers are required to provide standardized insurance to women, including coverage for birth control, was labeled by GOP supporters as an assault on religious freedom. And it didn't stop there. Outspoken conservative talk show personality Rush Limbaugh famously berated Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke for testifying at an unofficial Democratic hearing in support of insurance coverage that includes birth control. In his words: "She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception." Later he elaborated, "If we are going to...pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." Ms. Fluke became a scapegoat, subject to attacks from conservative blogs such as CNS News, which reported "Sex-crazed co-eds going broke buying birth control, student tells Pelosi hearing touting freebie mandate." The reaction of GOP candidates? Rick Santorum said that Limbaugh was "being absurd" and Mitt Romney (now a likely presidential nominee) dismissed it, sharing, "it's not the language I would have used."
The women of the Arab revolutions have faced similar backlash as post-revolution nations such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunis work to rebuild their governments and constitutions. Conservative Islamist parties have threatened to reverse laws providing women with rights in divorce and expanded custody, as well as laws on polygamy and early marriage. In fact, in Egypt, laws canceling the khul or no-fault divorce law and lowering the marriage age for girls from 18 to 14 have already been drafted. In November, Tunisian Ennahda candidate Souad Abderrahim called single mothers "a disgrace to Tunisian society," and said that they should not benefit from state protection and "do not have the right to exist."
This type of conservative condemnation -- whether from Limbaugh or Abderrahim --consistently disregards the fact that women did not create these situations on their own. Who has fathered their children? Who are they having sex with? Shouldn't there be equal criticism of the men? But this is nothing new. Women in both the Western and Arab-Muslim world have been blamed by conservatives for the plight of society. A cleric in Iran notably stated in 2010 that women who dress provocatively and tempt people into promiscuity are to blame for the nation's earthquake disasters while far-too-popular American television evangelist Pat Robertson called feminism "A socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." Despite these outrageous statements, he has a strong followership. In 1988, he sought a presidential bid after three million people volunteered for his campaign and as host of The 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he has a platform to share his ideas with an average daily audience of 1 million people.
And it goes beyond women. Conservative voices have attacked minorities across the board. Take for instance the stance on immigrants. In the United States, members of the Tea Party sent out a request to over 35,000 members to combat proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants by sharing "stories of the horrors of illegal immigration," as well as photos or videos of "illegals or their supporters doing outrageous things (like putting the Mexican flag above ours, or showing racist posters.)" Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the PVV party consistently promotes anti-immigration, including campaigns to close Islamic schools, prevent immigrations from Muslim countries, and oppose dual-citizenship for Dutch residents. Party-leader Geert Wilders compared the Quran to Mein Kampf and has blamed immigrants for causing "street terror" across the Netherlands.
Looking beyond outrageous statements, let's take a look at the hard facts on discrimination and violence. In the US, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Three women a day are murdered by an intimate partner, and the Justice Department estimates one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, with less than five percent of these reported. In this environment and with elections looming -- just as in the Arab world -- American women are witnessing laws take away instead of protect their rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, 135 new reproductive healthcare laws were enacted. To add insult to injury, members of the Republican Party have focused on cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides essential healthcare for low-income and uninsured women, voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, voting against equal pay for women, and even an ill-fated attempt to redefine rape. In the Arab region, attacks on women's basic freedoms have ramped up post-revolution. Recently, early marriage -- which is statistically dangerous to women emotionally, physically, and economically -- was espoused by Salafist MPs in Egypt as a strategy to ward off vice and spinsterhood. In Saudi Arabia a Facebook campaign called "We Want Them Four" asks every capable Saudi man to marry four women to reduce the number of spinsters in the country. It is clear then that our enemy is not each other. It is not the Arab region versus the West or Christians versus Muslims. Who and what we are fighting are conservatives and their anti-women, anti-minority agendas. We are collectively working --across religious and regional boundaries -- toward a common goal. And thus, we must reconsider the burqa. What is a piece of religious clothing to some has taken on a life of its own as a symbol of oppression, restriction, and violence. It adds an element of otherness that has moved beyond the women's movement or women's protection, but has been used to separate us. But in truth, the burqa or niqab is just a piece of fabric. What is the real culprit is the invisible burqa -- the economic, political, and social discrimination and violence that we all face, no matter what we choose to wear. It is the struggle that still remains for women across the globe to fully participate in society as equals, as they were born to do, and this is what we must work together to remove.
Like my Egyptian activist friend said to me the other day, we need our own revolution, not as Egyptians or Arabs, but as women. We are sisters in this fight, and as soon as we recognize this, we have a stronger network of voices fighting on our behalf. None of us are free if one of us remains in chains, and we must work together to ensure our collective freedom, advancement, and dignity above all. The fact that there is a movement around suppressing our voices only confirms how strong they must be, so let's come together now and share them.