Tag Archives: niqab

Where Are The Feminists?

Suffragettes

The release of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book ‘Heretic’ has predictably reignited the debate on the status of women’s rights, particularly, though not exclusively, within Islamic cultures at home in Britain and around the world.  My regular readers will be aware that I’ve already laid out many of my thoughts on this subject elsewhere on my blog – for example, see: www.believethetruth.co.uk/veil-of-confusion.

However, a brief glance at my twitter timeline has made me feel more than ever before that there is a very fundamental misunderstanding in play here that is subverting the crucial conversations that ought to be taking place, so I am going to revisit this topic.

Firstly though, such is the level of toxicity associated to many of my contentions (indeed I’ve been blocked on Twitter multiple times, but not before being called ‘an EDL-type’ or similar) that it is necessary to preface my thoughts by stating my political persuasions; I call myself a true liberal, mostly of the left but I have opinions that cross the political divide.  I’m an atheist, I support socialised healthcare (the NHS in the UK), I’m pro-immigration, pro-drug legalisation (read strict regulation), pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights including marriage equality, I support the right to die campaign and I’m a passionate defender of animal rights – in fact I spend most of my time working and fundraising in this field.  I despise UKIP with every sinew and I happen to think nationalism a divisive concept – indeed it appears to be the last western government endorsed form of prejudice.

So, while I may be correctly accused of many things, I hope it’s clear that I’m not a far right-wing nutjob!

Below are a couple of tweets I recently read.  This article is not meant as a personal response but they are a useful summary of the challenges I believe we are facing:

“Women within Islam challenge things all the time. Why can’t we just support that?”

“What is our role – it isn’t for us to decide.”

Sometimes it feels as if people who say things like this are totally unaware that, for example,  women were once banned from voting, that black people were treated as second class citizens and that gay people were thrown in prison – all within living memory in western societies.  It’s truly staggering how quickly people forget, how quickly they take their freedoms for granted and how they fail to imagine the complexities of oppression or the barriers it may construct.

The truth is that the progress of western women and various minority groups with regards to human rights would have been impossible without tireless campaigning from outsiders – simply cheering politely from the side-lines but otherwise keeping out of it, as the above comments seem to recommend, would have been all but useless.  The most important step in the liberation of the oppressed from their chains always comes from State backing and legislation.  It ought to be obvious that this is somewhat difficult to achieve for minority groups and for those who are silenced, unless they receive the full and unequivocal backing of other good people.  It ought to be.

Frederick Douglass

Women’s rights in cultures that have their roots in the developing world are facing an emergency.  Currently, the situation is so uniquely terrible that we now have fascism playing both sides of the board.  On the one hand, religious fascists, largely from the Islamic community (this is not to say that all Muslims are fascists – but various surveys inform us that some significant percentage clearly are, and it is those to whom I refer), are campaigning to keep women in the dark ages via the concept of ‘honour’ enshrined within their faith.  This, they believe, entitles men to decide who women can have sex with, who they can marry, what clothes they can wear, what, if any, education they should receive, when they can go outside and with whom, and even if they should have a clitoris or not.

Yet as I write this, the only significant pushback to this dreadful set of circumstances that millions of women endure every day, is coming from the far right and white supremacists in Europe and from the Tea Party conservatives in America.  This is a shameful and un-mitigating disaster for women everywhere, for all of us in fact.  One only has to take notice of how these people tend to talk to white women (the ‘get back to the kitchen sink’ brigade) to know that they do not really care about women’s rights.  They are simply using the plight of Muslim women as a pawn in their racist, anti-immigration, bigoted agenda.  Imagine how hopeless this scenario must appear to those who dare to dream of one day deciding their own destinies.

Western liberals, particularly feminists, have a responsibility to take this fight out of the hands of people with ulterior motives and to stand up to misogyny in all its forms.  That it may occasionally be justified within holy texts should make no difference, and frustratingly, when it comes to the various outrages against women with regards to birth control that are becoming increasingly common across the Bible belt in the US, most seem to understand this.  But bizarrely, when the backdrop switches to other cultures, far too many people are seduced by cries of racism or Islamophobia.

This must stop.  Now.  We must not allow the terrible behaviour of our ancestors in the colonies to fool us into believing that only white Christians can ever oppress people.  Sadly, it isn’t even necessary to journey to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan to witness State complicity in the oppression of women.  Here in the UK, tens of thousands of women have been genitally mutilated (to say nothing of the millions of men, without explicit consent) yet there has not been a single conviction – and only one case has ever been tried.  Forced, arranged marriages are all but ignored.  Shari’a jurisprudence is allowed to take precedence over inheritance claims, meaning that women are often left with no financial support to raise their children.  In mosques and on university campuses, gender segregation is enforced and protected, and the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal has revealed that many of our state funded schools are also segregating children on the basis of gender, as well as teaching some truly awful things about the roles of men and women in society, including that women cannot say no to men in the bedroom.  Finally of course, many liberals wear the defence of the effacing of women via the niqab, as a badge of honour.

I believe that now is the time to rediscover the spirit of the suffragettes and finally call time on these injustices.

Will you march for Muslim women’s civil and political rights? Or will you wait half a century for the movie..?

-Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Veil Of Confusion

The Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, has said today (17th September, 2013) that we should have an open debate about whether the niqab, which is the face covering portion of the Burqa (the all encompassing garment often seen covering Muslim women from head to toe), can be worn in public places.

Absolutely!  By all means let’s have a debate.  But what are those in favour of allowing the niqab to be worn in public likely to say?  They will reliably argue that it is a matter of religious freedom, freedom of expression, and tolerance.  They will tell us that Muslim women who wear the veil do so out of choice.  And they will say that it does more harm to ban it because doing so will be a hindrance to cross cultural relations (in fact the ever feeble Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has already offered this defence of the niqab).

So is this just about freedom and civil rights?  We must first un-muddy some waters.  Liberty and tolerance do not require one to turn a blind eye to everything.  If they did, we wouldn’t require a police force.  Freedom of speech is a wonderful and precious cornerstone of our culture, worthy of vigorous defence, but we do not allow people to say literally anything, and for good reason.  One cannot incite or threaten violence.  One cannot even incite hate without some constraint.  Would we, for example, allow a media campaign recommending the boycott of all Jewish stores, as was done by the Nazis in the early 1930’s?  Of course not.  We do however allow campaigns for the boycott of certain stores if, for example, it is discovered that their suppliers use child labour abroad or test their products on animals.  The distinction should be clear; the latter is aimed at a faceless corporation that can immediately adapt its ethical behaviour (i.e. switch suppliers), whereas the former targets human beings distinguished only by that which they cannot change and did not choose, such as race, ethnicity or sexuality.

Further to this, we can easily see that we do not allow religion ‘carte blanche’ either.  Liberal societies are all broadly in agreement on the need to resist the imposition of Shari’a – Islamic religious law that often condemns criminals to brutal, medieval punishments and prejudices against woman, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in legal matters, particularly where sex crimes, divorce, domestic violence, child custody or inheritance are concerned.  We do not allow apostates to be murdered, as is demanded by most interpretations of Islamic doctrine.  We certainly do not allow people to be killed for working on Sundays, as the Bible recommends.  Both Yahweh and Allah are clearly for slavery and against homosexuality, but thankfully our laws reflect the opposite view.  So we must do some more thinking – to simply cry (religious) freedom doesn’t cut it.

Is this a feminist issue?  Yes it certainly is, but the other way about to how the argument is often formed.  Make no mistake, the niqab is a garment promoted by men, in the name of Islam, to protect their honour:

“Tell your wives and your daughters, and believing women, to draw their veils over their bodies. It will be better that they should be known as respectable woman.” (Quran 33:59)

Many Muslim men (not all) feel their honour is dependent on how submissive the women in their lives are because they believe, on the basis of religious scripture, that women are essentially their property – objects that can be bought and sold (think dowry – selling their daughters to other men in arranged, forced marriages), objects that must represent and serve the men who own them before themselves, and of course objects used for breeding.  To protect such misogyny beneath a cloak of feminism is an obnoxious insult to the extremely vital cause of real sexual equality.  It is also a form of cultural snobbery, as it suggests that western feminists believe freedom and equality to be indispensable for themselves but not necessarily for Muslim women – the soft bigotry of low expectations.

It is true that some Muslim women defend their right to wear the niqab, but then sadly it is also true that some Muslim women also defend and participate in the forced marriages, honour killings and genital mutilations of their own daughters.  No one of sound moral judgement argues that these are feminist issues.  It’s therefore impossible not to conclude that these women are just scared.  Scared of the men in their lives or scared of Allah – a fictional character whose lines were written by men, all too often with the express purpose of subjugating women.  In this regard, we may also wish to ask ourselves whether our real responsibilities lie with women who yearn for freedom or with those who are glad of their chains.

We also often hear western feminists explain to us that not every woman wants to present the image of herself that the more revealing end of western style clothing can generate.  This is perfectly reasonable of course, but it is remarkably easy not to conform to western ideals, or to otherwise remain inconspicuous, without wearing a cloth bag, with only a thin slit for seeing through, for the whole of your adult life.  Millions of women manage it every day.  However, only Muslim women dress as shown in the photo at the start of this article.  It is the urgent responsibility of all of us to wake up and realise why.  Quite frankly, I find it remarkable that the fact that no one else, anywhere in the world, with a genuine free choice dresses in this manner doesn’t raise more alarm bells.

Is banning the niqab worth the consequence of creating more tension in our relationship with Muslims here in the West?  We need only ask if it was worth upsetting slave masters by releasing slaves from their chains.  It is difficult to think of a more selfish and lethargic approach to social reform than to effectively say “scenario A is really bad for them, but scenario B isn’t great for me, so let’s keep scenario A.”  The journey we must actually embark upon is a far grander and more ambitious one than that.  With freedom comes great responsibility.

It should be clear to all moral, thinking people that the effacing of women via the niqab (as opposed to the covering of their hair and bodies in the form of the hijab) is a form of violence and oppression against women, and as such has no place in any society, anywhere.

 

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.  The grave will supply plenty of time for silence”

Christopher Hitchens