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.
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