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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The gendering of Muslim experience in Europe: a story from Greece

In the video below (in Greek with English subtitles), Anna Stamou, Public Relations at MEE (Greek Muslim Union), speaks at Tatiana Stefanidou's show "Αξίζει να το Ζείς", on Star Channel. The conversation revolves around  her decision to convert to Islam and, perhaps more importantly, her decision to wear the hijab. This was a very positive moment for Muslims in Greece, especially for those who have converted to Islam and face disapproval and marginalization. Stamou's presence in the programme went some way to challenge representations of Islam and Muslims as alien - she represented an example of both boundary crossing (converting to Islam) and challenging boundaries (as she did not fit to the stereotype of an "outsider", of someone who "did not quite belong"). 

Having said that, interestingly, the discussion was advertised as focusing on the "Greek woman who married to the President of the Muslims [Greek Muslim Union] and wore the scarf". Stamou is approached by the presenter as symbolic (and symptomatic) of a clash of cultures. The emphasis in the questions is on crossing to the other side, as the discussion focuses on Stamou's "loss" and on her "difference". Camera shots zoom on her covered head, but also play with ambiguity, focusing on the stylish high heel shoes visible underneath her long dress, or her makeup. By rendering difference exotic and picturesque this type of voyeuristic "multiculturalism" merely reduces other peoples’ reality to an "afternoon stroll" (May 1996).  But, leaving the sensationalism and voyerism aside, as we argue in our forthcoming book Islam in Europe, what we are witnessing in this encounter is the transformation of Muslim women into battlefields; 
the gendering of Muslim experience in Europe is hard to ignore as, apart from the different perspective that gender in itself brings to daily life, the context of European, more or less secularised, societies brings additional challenges. For example, as the various headscarf and burqa debates demonstrate, apart for having to negotiate through the maze of patriarchy within Muslim communities, Muslim women have often to confront an inimical state that selectively targets them and victimizes them by effectively turning them into “battlefields” on which it launches assaults against the difference and “backwardness” of Muslim cultures by introducing stigma, prohibitions, sanctions and forcing them to make choices that may subject them to further stigma or communal sanctions (Sofos and Tsagarousianou 2013). 
Stamou responded to the persistent questioning of her choice to wear the hijab by representing it as what it is in many cases of European (and non-European alike) Muslim women. She pointed out that women in Turkey defied the aggressive secularism of the state and chose to cover their heads, "just as women in Iran, Afghanistan and Tehran did as well". Indeed, there are women that make this choice and that choice was clear in the cases of Turkish women who, at some cost, wore the headscarf or of the Iranian women who protested against the "authoritarian modernization" project of the Shah that denied them the right to choose lifestyles conforming to their religious beliefs. And, no doubt, many Muslim women elsewhere exercised the same right, the same choice. However, her response is indicative of the polarization of public debate on Islam in Europe, as her need to defend her decision relied on a blanket generalization ignoring the plight of women who are denied the choice inherent in the decision not to cover in countries where society or the state expect them to.

May, J. (1996). 'A Little Taste of Something More Exotic': The Imaginative Geographies of Everyday Life. Geography. Vol. 81, No. 1. pp. 57-64.

Sofos, S and R. Tsagarousianou (2013). Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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