This week, the US president announced a second take on his travel ban transparently targeting the Muslim community, though the administration hotly insists that this isn’t about religion — surely, it’s just a coincidence that the six nations named in the ban are majority-Muslim, the president constantly rails against Islam, and the US right enjoys implying that all Muslims are terrorists. (Obvious gross inaccuracies aside, the biggest threat to American security is, as it has always been, white, Christian men.)
The ongoing vilification of Islam and immigrants undoubtedly contributed to three recent shootings, two fatal, of Indian-Americans by people who apparently assume that all brown immigrants are Muslim, or were perhaps driven by the overall rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. In two, the men were told to ‘go back to your country.’ It took the administration an appallingly long time to admit that the first shooting, which killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla, in Kansas, was possibly racially motivated.
But now, the administration is taking up another issue, in a clause buried inside the ‘Muslim ban’ that isn’t getting much air time: A note about ‘honour killings,’ an atrocious practice in which women are punished for failing to live up to the expectations of their male family members. Familicide can and should be aggressively investigated and prosecuted, as should any murder, but one place where familicide in this context is not really a pressing problem is in the US. The Department of Justice estimates that roughly 30 possible familicides of this nature take place annually, which is 30 too many, but hardly an epidemic of violence.
By lodging familicide in the executive order, however, the White House codified it as a problem that the American public should be concerned about, raising the spectre of Muslim families across the United States chasing disobedient daughters down in the streets and stoning them to death. That’s the popular perception of familicide in this context, which in the Western eye is often presented as a problem of Islam, rather than what it actually is, which is a problem of misogyny and social control. Women from families of all faiths are punished by male family members, sometimes brutally, for being sexually independent, or having opinions that differ from those of a patriarch or older brother, and those punishments include murder, including in the US.
Yet, the US right maintains a stranglehold on positioning Islam as dangerous and harmful to women, sometimes leveraging feminist rhetoric and ideas in the hopes of bridging divides and uniting forces who would normally work in opposition. Thus, the fixation on hijab, with many Americans believing that headscarfs and other forms of modest dress are inherently oppressive to women, thinking that Muslim men force women to wear hijab, and arguing that women must be stripped — sometimes forcibly and in public — of religious garments to free them from oppression. Similarly, people fixate on the notion that Islam both condones and promotes polygamy, positioning this as further evidence of depravity.
Many Americans of all political stripes are uninformed about what the Qu’ran actually says about women, and the role of women in Islam. Instead, their beliefs are coloured by anti-Muslim propaganda, and that takes a key role in driving policies like this. As American Muslims desperately fight back against institutional discrimination, they’re also facing sentiment from the American people that supports that discrimination and lauds policies that transparently target Muslims.
Invoking familicide is a master stroke on the part of the administration, pushing it back into the public consciousness.
People who work on familicide in nations where it is an endemic problem recognise it not as a religious issue, but a sociocultural one, and understand that fighting it requires tackling social attitudes about women. To fight familicide, you need to address misogyny, and you need to aggressively push back on the notion that men should be allowed to control women’s lives and bodies.
This executive order, though, takes the conversation about misogyny out of the equation and makes this about Islam. This doesn’t just mean that such killings will likely not be addressed in an effective manner on the rare occasions that they do take place on US soil. It also serves to vilify Islam and Muslims, which is very much the goal — the desire is to enhance the positioning of Muslims as ‘other’ and to suggest that Islam is a threat to American values.
The United States has a grave problem with misogynistic violence — ask the 1,500 women killed annually in intimate partner violence, and examine the troubling statistics surrounding gun ownership and violence against women. Notably, numerous mass killers have started with intimate partner violence, abusing partners in an escalating pattern of misogynistic attacks before graduating to opening fire on crowded night clubs or storming Planned Parenthood centres. If the administration is truly concerned with the lives of American women, and the threat misogyny poses to everyone’s safety, it should perforce be investing heavily in tracking and studying intimate partner violence. But it’s not. Instead, the president’s budget proposal is likely to eliminate DOJ funding designed to study and prevent violence against women.
The administration doesn’t care about the handful of women who may be killed in familicides within the context of Muslim families every year, because it doesn’t actually care about violence against women. It very specifically cares about demonising Islam and Muslims, deepening an us versus them divide, and slyly implying that Muslims can’t ‘assimilate’ to America and will never truly fit in. It’s up to Americans to recognise this naked appeal to populist sentiment for what it is, and to fight back by challenging the administration.
Gender based violence does indeed pose a threat to ‘public safety and security,’ as the executive order comments. That’s why it’s imperative to aggressively study and pursue across the country in all settings, not just those that suit the government’s Islamophobic agenda. Americans should be challenging this dogwhistle embedded in the ban, and they should be calling their members of Congress to demand that funding for programmes addressing violence against women be retained in the upcoming budget. That includes, of course, misogynistic violence that is specifically Islamophobic in nature, as Americans need to be put on notice that violence against Muslimahs will not be tolerated in a political environment where violence targeting the Muslim community is becoming a daily way of life.
Photo: Isa Sorenson/Creative Commons