Books

Shakira Hussein
From Victims to Suspects

In 2014 Senator Jacqui Lambie circulated a photograph online of a woman draped head to toe in a blue burqa, her hand lifted at a cool 90 degrees, pointing a gun towards someone unseen. Sourced from the anti-immigration party Britain First’s Facebook page, the jihadist image was captioned: “For security reasons it’s now time to ban the burqa.” 

But Lambie was misguided. The subject was not a deadly jihadist, but respected Afghan police officer Malalai Kakar. While she wore the burqa to conceal her identity in her work against domestic violence, it could not save her; in 2008 Kakar was assassinated by the Taliban.

In From Victims to Suspects, academic Shakira Hussein questions how it is in the West that the woman in the burqa has been transformed from a helpless victim “unable to cast off her shroud into a menacing terrorist…?” To explore that question, Hussein attends an Islamist Pakistani mass wedding, hangs out with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and recalls the devastating 2005 Cronulla riots, merging firsthand reportage with scholarship and personal anecdotes, and tackling this highly fraught topic in clear language.

Tracing back to Orientalist narratives, she writes that Muslim women have long been considered hapless or “dangerous agents of an alien ideology in need of discipline”. Since 9/11, and more recently the emergence of Daesh, the dichotomy has only deepened.  

The hijab takes centre stage, with Hussein equally baffled and frustrated at how it has come to dominate the conversation. She takes issue with the West’s desire to control the female Muslim voice, creating what she sees as “icon[s] of victimhood”.

Occasionally, such arguments seem too glib. She tells the story of the 2010 Time magazine cover girl Aesha, whose nose and ears were sliced away by her abusive husband in Afghanistan, leading to reconstructive surgery in the United States. There, Hussein says, Aesha was infantilised and treated as an “object of rescue”, and like others, was “expected to suffer in silence while others explain their condition and determine their fate”. Yet she never quotes Aesha directly; Hussein, like those she criticises, is speaking for her. 

Still, she does go some way to unravelling hard-etched stereotypes. Ultimately beneath the veil, Hussein insists, is neither a victim nor an assailant but a human being.  EA

NewSouth, 192pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Shakira Hussein, From Victims to Suspects". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: EA

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