Beware pro-choice memes normalizing Islamophobia

March for Life on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, 2016. Photo: Ross Dunn/Flickr

When a group of white, male, fundamentalist Christian Alabama legislators passed the most restrictive women's reproductive health law in the country last week, many seemingly progressive people immediately reacted in the logical fashion of a society in which Islamophobia is the default: they blamed Muslims.

Indeed, you may have found yourself liking the memes that said "Sharia Law Arrives in Alabama" or "Meet the American Taliban." Maybe you were one of those who posted the inflammatory meme that posited a scenario in which an "Iranian court" ruled that an 11-year-old girl who'd been raped had to carry the baby to term, followed by the interruption that this is in fact a scenario being played out by Ohio Republicans.

Part of the illogic of racism is that white people can never see themselves as capable of producing such outrageous injustices without first being perniciously infected with some kind of foreign ideological agent. While everything from flash floods to teen promiscuity was the fault of communists during the Cold War, anything evil ever since has been the fault of Muslims, Arabs, or those perceived to be one or both.

Alabama 'Sharia'

Indeed, Birmingham author Lanier Scott Isom, who recently helped pen a book on the fight for equal pay and would be generally viewed as a good southern liberal, produced a horrible response to the Alabama law that cried out: "fundamentalists have enacted the Christian version of Sharia law in the Heart of Dixie. Alabama politicians want women to trade in their tube tops for a hijab." Even though the hijab is not part of the legislation, that head covering was nonetheless conflated with attempts to shut down women's freedom in the Crimson Tide state.

While the ostensibly progressive Christian Democrats of America similarly condemn "the GOP's Sharia law," writer Siraj Hashmi points out that, "The irony is that the people arguing for abortion to be legal in the first trimester are closer to most interpretations of Sharia," with many saying it is acceptable within a 120-day period.

Meanwhile, those posting memes about the Iranian court and the 11-year-old girl perhaps did not think about how they were adding to the Trump administration and Ottawa's sabre rattling for war with that country. Perhaps they failed to question how this contributed to the "otherism" of the Iranian people and their country as one of the apparent wellsprings of original evil.

While the regime in Iran and the Taliban both have a litany of human rights abuses to answer for, using them as a standard comparator on the issue of access to abortion doesn't help. Rather, it just contributes to the Muslim-hating atmosphere that is reflected in everything from mosque massacres to Quebec's horrific Bill 21 (the religious symbols act which, as a new poll shows, is built on anti-Islam sentiment). It also erases our own (North American) responsibility for the promotion and sustenance of misogyny and the denial of agency to women when it comes to choices about their own health. Indeed, the constant references to "Alabama sharia" erases the role of those homegrown Christian fundamentalist individuals whose public statements and actions help create the woman-hating atmosphere fueling the medieval drive to shut down part of women's health care, from the White House and the newest Supreme Court judges to the state legislatures, the pulpit, and the incels.

The American Plan

It also ignores the institutional misogyny -- which does have a name, patriarchy -- that still refuses to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ("Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.") Meanwhile, anyone looking for comparators to the current state of woman-hatred spewing forth from state legislatures need only look at their own history to find countless examples of similarly repressive measures.

Indeed, in the recently published The Trials of Nina McCall, author Scott Stern recounts "The American Plan," which was used for much of the 20th century under the guise of public health in which "tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of American women were detained and subjected to invasive examinations," often without due process, and injected with painful shots of mercury. This massive quarantine was carried out by federal and local law enforcement and private groups who scoured the streets looking for women whom they "reasonable suspected" of carrying sexually transmitted diseases. Inevitably, countless women were picked up simply for walking unaccompanied by a man, which officials associated with prostitution and treated as a national security issue, especially during both world wars.

In this country, the notion that it is acceptable to shut down women's reproductive health care is perpetuated by everyone from white male supremacist Jordan Peterson calling abortion "clearly wrong" and adding "You wouldn't recommend that someone you love have one" to Green Party leader Elizabeth May's very dangerous public statements ("If one group of people say a woman has a right to choose, I get queasy because I'm against abortion. I don't think a woman has a frivolous right to choose.").

Indeed, May has been particularly slippery on the issue, as witnessed when the Canada Summer Jobs application required that individual organizations receiving government funding could not have as a core activity efforts to restrict women's reproductive choice. She voted along with NDP MP David Christopherson to support a Conservative motion to remove the attestation, pulling a page from Orwell when she claimed: "I will be voting for the opposition motion because I believe the attestation box was a mistake, but not because for one second I will surrender on a woman's right to equal choice and equal rights." (Given that May's prior comments have ignited a social media firestorm of concern, the Green Party leader has since tweeted: "NEVER ever retreat from our right to safe, legal abortion rights. Period.")

Then there's the case of 12 MPs (11 men) who attended the annual March for Misogyny (improperly labeled the March for Life) on Parliament Hill earlier this month. This publicly funded anti-choice rally (paid for by taxes that go to Catholic school boards that invite anti-choice zealots into their schools but claim having pro-choice voices is too political) featured speakers who spoke in the vein of Donald Trump, attacking the media for being "dishonest" on such issues. While Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said he will not re-open the issue if elected, he was silent on 15 per cent of his caucus showing up at this rally.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Ontario MPP Sam Oosterhoff was on record as calling for abortion to be "unthinkable in our lifetime." Those words will follow him for a lifetime, thankfully, and within a few days he was surrounded by demonstrators calling him out on his misogyny. 

And as many Canadians rightfully criticize U.S. repression, fewer are aware of the ongoing barriers faced by women on this side of the border. Indeed, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expresses his concern about Alabama, he's done nothing to ensure that women in New Brunswick have adequate access to abortions, with Health Canada noting a provincial failure to fund abortions at clinics -- they will only do so at hospitals -- "remains a concern."

With the frightening prospect that the right-wing gains in provincial elections will be reflected federally this fall, the idea that abortion access will remain "off the table" both provincially and federally is a pipe dream. Women's health services will continue to be the focus of attacks by a group of largely white men calling out their professed Christian faith. But hopefully in our resisting those attacks, we will name them for what they are and where they come from, and refuse to succumb to the rampant Islamophobia which has so far infected this critical discussion.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Ross Dunn/Flickr

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