Archive for the ‘Lectures’ Category
House of Lords presentation: “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”
This is a presentation I delivered on “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?” in honour of the launch of the Turkish Review at the House of Lords on Friday 11th of Jan, 2013. The event was chaired by Lord John Alderdice and my co-panelists were Dr Gulnur Aybet- Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury and Kerim Balci- Editor of the Turkish Review.
A (poorly) edited short clip of proceedings can be viewed here:
Firstly I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to address this important topic. I should point out that my own research is focused on Morocco and specifically on the social movement from which emerged the main Islamic political party, currently in government, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). The PJD very much looks at the AK party as a ‘role model’, it has certain criticisms, particularly in terms of what it views as laxity in the party’s ‘islamic’ credentials, but it aspires to emulate its rise to power. When I interviewed senior figures, they went so far as to suggest the AK party had in fact drawn inspiration from their logo, a lamp, for the AK’s symbol, the bulb and meetings had occurred between the two groups previously.
Clearly, the PJD is not alone – the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rashid Ghannouchi, said in July 2012, that he saw “Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a model of success for his country to follow” and Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi, when he visited Turkey in September 2012, also acknowledged the inspiration of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Many in the Arab world are reassured by the combination of a democratic process and a commitment to religious identity. A recent poll (by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) over the last three months of 2011) found that Arabs see Turkey as a champion of regional peace and role model for religion and democracy living side by side ( with a 78 percent approval rating for Turkey and its policies.) In fact, 61% view Turkey as a model for their own countries – On what basis? 32% cited its democracy, 25% its thriving economy and 23% its Muslim identity.
It is no surprise that Turkey scored highest in countries where the Arab Spring has ended the rule of dictators and politics is in flux, with a 91% approval rating in Tunisia and 86% in Egypt. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Turkey polls rather more poorly in Syria.
This also tells us a bit about what Arabs tend to value in the models they aspire to – democratic practises, a booming economy, an attachment to identity. Those who don’t consider Turkey a model also tell us about Arab public opinion, notably their view of its “insufficient Muslim identity” and its “ties to the West”.
However, the question here today, is whether Arabs, both those who identify with the Islamic political movements and those who do not, should regard Turkey, which of course, means the Turkish political model, not simply the AK party, as a model.
Firstly, I’m not fan of models in general. They might be useful conceptual tools, especially when teaching, but the idea of blueprint capitalism or blueprint democracy is problematic. All countries have their specific history and its legacy will ultimately shape their development far more than a prescriptive model ever can or perhaps should. Surely we have something to learn from the errors of blueprint capitalism as applied to the former Soviet East. Why assume blueprint democracy could work any better?
More useful I think are universal standards and principles that all countries should be held to. Transparency, accountability, the separation of power, economic growth, etc. When we look at the evolution of countries according to these standards, we can say, for example, that Turkey has significantly improved on the corruption scale (despite a long way to go), or we can note that it has regressed on the scale of free speech and the freedom of the media. It is principles, married to the specific context of different Arab countries, which I think will be more beneficial in helping them achieve popular aspirations.
Secondly, one of the reasons we are talking about Turkey as a model for the Arab world today is because Turkey has an islamically inspired party in power, the AKP and in many Arab countries, islamically inspired political parties (or islamists as some might call them), have taken the lead.
From Morocco, to Egypt, via Tunisia, Islamically referenced political parties have proven to be the people’s choice at the polls.
Because of a longstanding view in certain sections of academia and politics that Islam and democratic politics cannot be reconciled, Turkey is advanced as a model of balance, having successfully integrated an islamically inspired party into a staunchly secular political system, returning the army to the barracks and fostering the type of economic growth we in Britain can only currently dream of. There were no hand-choppings, no bans on alcohol or nightclubs, and ties with the so-called ‘West’ have been strengthened. Which I’ll translate into layman terms as ‘business as usual’ with our Western partners, which is to a large extent, what it comes down to.
However, I share the view of Turkish academic Shebnem Gumushju, who writes:
“there is no “Turkish model” of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-democratic state working within a neoliberal framework.”
Do I think this is a model which is applicable elsewhere and specifically in the Arab world? I can say speaking of Morocco, which is I case that I know particularly well, that would be a resounding no there. Why? In Morocco, the king who is also known as ‘amir al mouninin’, is both the head of state and leader of the believers, a religious leader heading in all other regards a ‘secular state’. Despite a widespread desire for the King to relinquish power to elected bodies, most Moroccans do not want to get rid of the king, or his religious symbolism, altogether.
Turkish style secularism is not widely desired in Morocco, even if it can accommodate an islamically inspired party like the AK party. I wager this is the case in most Arab countries which will have to grapple between the Islamic identity a majority want reflected in the political system and international laws and standards premised on a religiously neutral public sphere.
However, Islamic political parties will benefit from the precedent of a party which has established a strong parliamentary system and which has worked with the opposition in devising the constitution. Egypt take note.
Economically, do I think neo-liberal economic policies are best for Egypt or Yemen or Algeria which don’t have Turkey’s skilled work force, its strong industries and bargaining weight – no I don’t. There are no equivalent ‘Anatolian tigers’ to fuel the construction of new businesses, no money in the coffers to build cities, schools, and infrastructure which could boost the economy as they have in Turkey.
Economically, Turkey’s model of growth is based on premises which are not found in most Arab nations. Tackling youth unemployment, as Turkey has done, and as Arab states must if they are to avoid future instability, is not a ‘Turkish model’, it is common sense. Turkey has made impressive social reforms with universal health insurance now covering almost the entire population and the increase in early childhood education and preschool enrolment. Prioritising health and education are important precedents for Turkey to set, but how Turkey has achieved this, namely how it has financed these, cannot be replicated in the Arab word.
Turkey is the 18th largest economy in the world, compare that with Egypt, which ranks at 43 and Tunisia at 77, according to IMF figures (and given the instability of the past year, this is likely to have dropped over 2012.)
Besides which, I’m not even certain neo-liberal economic policies are best for any of us, let alone developing nations. Turkey’s deficit measured in dollars is second only to America’s . Reliance on debt has become increasingly prevalent and you needn’t look much further than Europe to see where that leads.
So in answer to the question, Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model? – I think at this moment in time, they need inspiration and polls suggest this is what Turkey offers, since a widely held perception is of a country which has built itself on its own terms. A country which appears to have tamed the military, which has a booming civil society, economic growth coupled with a growing regional weight. However, Turkey has its own issues. The resurgence of authoritarianism is of concern, Turkey’s Kurds have been the major source of human rights violations and Turkey is rated as 148th in the Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, below the Democratic Republic of Congo and only slightly above Afghanistan. It has one of the highest incarceration rates for members of the news media in the world.
I have argued against the idea of viewing Turkey as a model not because I don’t believe that it hasn’t been successful on a number of fronts, but because of the prescriptiveness of models.
Among the unresolved tensions of Turkish politics are the public role of religion, minority rights and civil and religious freedoms. Given that both Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing the same tensions to a greater or lesser degree, they can look to Turkey for policies to adopt or avoid.
What the Arab world needs is to be held to the same standards as all nations, but to be given the flexibility to adapt these to their socio-cultural context. Precedents in managing similar conflicts are helpful – Tunisia in particular seems to me have interesting lessons for other Arab states in working with the secular opposition, managing extremist elements and reforming the judiciary.
Turkey, despite its pitfalls, offers the alternative of an islamically inspired party which also successfully manages the country in the public interest. Islamic political movements, most of whom are still very new to the political game, have a precedent in the AK party which should broaden their view of what is ‘permissible’ and desirable. Or not, as the case may be. At the very least, Turkey, rather than model, is an aspirational example for nascent independent Arab nations.
(This was a lecture I was kindly ask to deliver at Mill Hill School on Tuesday November 13th.)
I’d like to thank Karen Willetts and the staff at Mill Hill School for inviting me to address you this evening. The topic I’ll be discussing in light of your overarching theme of ‘Turning Points and Breakthroughs’ is ‘Faith in the modern world’.
I’m acutely aware of the irony of my topic this evening, in light of the fact this lecture series represents a celebration of Francis Crick, whom Wikipedia reliably informs me believed that: “Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.” I will have to respectfully disagree with Mr Crick’s stance this evening, in full deference to his monumental contributions to the realm of science.
I purposefully selected the title “Faith in the modern world” with its inherent ambiguity over the meaning of faith. Am I discussing the faith we ought or ought not to have in the modern world, arguing for a more critical perspective in the face of some of the assumptions which underlie our contemporary societies? Or am I seeking to address the location of faith in the modern world, the question of the relevance of spirituality in post-enlightenment Europe, where the dwindling influence of religion in the public sphere has largely gone un-mourned. In a sense, I intend to seek to address both of these. The challenge posed to me by this discussion, one which hardly had me hanging off the edge of my seat as a teen, was to make this interesting – or at the very least relevant to a younger audience. I’m not certain I’ve succeeded.
After all, faith in our day and age is often associated with the two extremes of theological tedium or political violence. There is an ad currently running for Old PAsos fajitas which pretty much sums up the dominant perspective on religion – a young and hip ‘modern’ family, is at a food fair seeking out the latest culinary thrill –the camera pans onto a gormless priest, dozing at a stand offering dull ‘cucumber sandwiches’ – the only possible choice is fun, funky fahitas – party food for those who really know how to enjoy life.
Implicit of course is the idea of religion as outmoded, as stifling of our inner fajitas eating selves.
In a culture which extols the virtue of giving in to our sensory desires, the idea of restraint and patience, sobriety and contemplation seem terribly old fashioned.
Where’s the fun in that eyh? Because of course, the point of life is to enjoy ourselves…. right?
Of course, we all have a right to pursue happiness. And spiritual traditions are there to point to the best way to achieve balance and serenity in our lives and the world more broadly. But the central objective of religious traditions, whether Islamic, Buddhist or other, is not happiness for happiness’sake. It is the recognition of certain universal principles, from which states such as peace, serenity, happiness and others can flow.
We might even ask, despite the incessant mantras about finding happiness in self help books and TV series - how important happiness actually is? Ask yourself this, ‘Was Jesus happy? Was Mother Teresa happy? Socrates? Martin Luther King Jr.? Gandhi? Once we ask the question in this light, we can see that meaning, purpose, significance, flourishing and fulfilment are different from happiness. Happiness is a by-product of a much deeper search for significance.
At this point, I can hear a few of you stirring. You’ve just referred to different religious traditions which all lay claim to their own truth. How can you speak of these religionS as ‘religion’ when they are seemingly mutually contradictory. I’ll answer this if I may, by recounting a west African tale, full of wisdom and humour.
The story is told of a trickster, Edshu, one of those trouble-makers found in a number of mythologies who set snares for the foolish and, at the same time, enlighten the wise. This same Edshu walked one day down the path between two fields wearing a hat that was red on one side, white on the other, green in front and black behind. The farmers watched him pass and, meeting that evening in the village, discussed the odd-looking stranger they had seen. “ A little fellow in a red hat” said one. “Red? Nonsense! It was a white hate.” Another: “Green!” And another: “Black!” The farmers came to blows, each knowing himself to be right, and they were brought before the headman for judgement. Now Edshu revealed himself, complete with multi-coloured hat; deceptive dancer, trickster, prankster.
My take on this particular issue is better expressed by the Poet Rumi than I ever could, when he said: “Religions are like different rivers flowing into the same Sea. They may have different ways, but the destination is the same.”
In Islam, as in many other traditions, life is about seeking peace. Inner peace, learning to master the ego, control one’s impulses and free ourselves from the tyranny of base desires. And outward peace, by working to establish justice and its corollary peace in the expanding circles of family, community, society and world.
A short poem by imam al Haddad recounts this wrestling with the ego: “To discipline the ego, always isolate yourself. Keep silent, sleepless, hungry, you’ll then control yourself.”
Similar ideas are found in Buddhism. Not the fashionable wishy washy stuff about meditation and the personal psychological goods derived therefrom. No, actual Buddhist philosophy which teaches that there is abundant suffering in the world, that much suffering is caused by avarice and clinging to what we want but don’t need; that everything is impermanent including ourselves; and that we ought to live like a bodhisattva, attuned to the exploitation and misery in the world, not only in oneself. I’d love to see Jennifer Aniston promoting that.
Seeking peace is not an introverted, individualistic search for self serving satisfaction. It’s not a yoga class on a Sunday morning. It involves service to others alongside that belief. The Quran teaches that to be a Muslim is to believe AND do good deeds. In Islam, there can be no true belief without commensurate action.
I remember listening to the Queen’s xmas message a few years ago in which she said that of all the people she’s met over the years, the happiest and most content were those who’d dedicated their lives to the service of others. It struck me that service, obligations, caring for the marginalised and the disenfranchised is not, apparently the ‘coolest’ thing to do, but apparently, it is the most fulfilling. Commercialised pop stars sell us dreams of happiness through consumption. But the vaccuousness of an existence without higher purpose can only temporarily be ignored. Eventually, we all seek our own plugs to fill the gaping hole. We all find things to worship, power, wealth, fame as a substitute for the ultimate connection.
Our contemporary view of religion, here in Britain and Europe more generally, does require some contextualisation. We often assume that what is taken as normal and standard here and now, is recognised as such elsewhere. That the view of religion as a relic from a bygone era is widely shared globally. It is not.
Unlike Britain which may arguably no longer be described as a Christian country, the majority of the world still considers faith to be important and relevant.
It would be ahistorical and myopic of us to examine our relationship to religion today without examining how we got here and why. After all, the bishops in our House of Lords and the fact our Queen is also the head of the Church suggest a time not so long ago, when religion was perceived as having a positive influence on the public sphere.
In my earlier days investigating Islam, I came upon the writings of a British diplomat, Charles Gai Eaton who had himself converted to the faith. Discussing religion in general, he spoke of religious wisdom as a type of inheritance, a form of knowledge which we’d acquired from previous generations but failed to recognise the value of. The wholesale dismissal of religion, he compared to a young person who receives an inheritance but dismisses it without examining it more closely. He or she could, he speculated, inadvertently be overlooking immense wealth.
My own evolving view of such matters is indeed that a very specific socio-historical juncture , namely the enlightenment, has led too many of us to often wholesale dismiss religion, without examining the rich heritage which religions-plural-offer us. Could we actually be overlooking centuries of wisdom in so doing?
Quite understandably, the excesses of the church and abuses of institutionalised religious authorities, the conflict between science and religion, as well as some of religion’s most literal readings, gave rise to a movement, The enlightenment, which associated religion and religious people with hypocrisy, a deficiency in reason and discrimination. Many of the critiques which emerged during this period were valid and contributed to purging religion, but specifically institutionalised religion, of some of its worst excesses. But my own examination of religious philosophy has led me to conclude that we mistakenly threw out the baby with the bathwater.
As someone raised in the UK but educated in a French school, many of the enlightenment’s assumptions were moulded into my DNA. As a teenager, I was excluded from English class by a Catholic teacher for suggesting Pope Pius XII was aware of the Nazi’s atrocities and failed to speak out-(I’d just read the, in parts historically questionable, book “Hitler’s pope” and was high on self-righteousness) . When later, my philosophy teacher described Jesus and Mohamed as ‘impostors’ during a philosophy lesson, and a Muslim Moroccan friend squirmed uncomfortably, I sniggered at his naivety. After class, I lambasted this gentle soul with accusations of sexism, referring to a Quran I’d never read. That same philosophy teacher signed my yearbook later that year with a note which reads “I look forward to seeing you perform at the ‘Lido’ a topless Cabaret in Paris.”
He was aware that I was an actress and presumably this was a reference to my performance background. Though clearly an entirely inappropriate one.
Despite my youthful antipathy towards religion and my prejudice that religious people were, well a tad weird, I could still see, objectively, that religion did seem to encourage some people to do more good than I did. Volunteer their spare time WITHOUT getting paid, not give their mum chatback, offer random acts of kindness like helping me with a maths problem I was struggling with. Not that these traits are exclusive to religious people mind due, but I did recognise that these were the sorts of actions religious people considered important. My view was that they were all goody two shoes who made me look worse than I was. They were naïve I told myself and duped by an elaborate conspiracy theory.
I recognised that my grandmother’s Irish catholic upbringing had instilled in her a compassion and kindness which were grounded in the values of the Church, but as a hardened teen, I confused kindness with weakness. These values would see you ‘eaten alive’ nowadays I reasoned, You can’t just walk around being kind to people – you might aswell hand them your cheque book and dignity –(tied as they are to one another) – No, in a dog eat dog world, these religious people were dinosaurs whose unfolding extinction I watched not so much with glee, as a sense of validated satisfaction.
I told you so.
This wasn’t to say that I was a ‘bad’ person as such – I felt guilty when I passed a homeless person, I decried grannies being mugged and the exploitation of the third world. I was just so deeply cynical about my ability to affect change within this grand scheme, where Machiavelli seemed to have won the day – that I caved in to the “if you can’t beat’em, join them” mantra. Once I’d made it by trampling on the weak along the way, I’d set up a sizeable direct debit to a charity or five – I might even establish a foundation in my name – good deeds and some kudos to go with it. Result.
Although I’d been raised with a number of friends who had religious beliefs of some kind, I’d remained largely blinkered to them, convinced that their cultural attachment to what I then viewed as fairy tales would soon fade in the overwhelming face of ‘reason’.
Of course, I represented reason in this scenario.
This sense of arrogance vis a vis the views of religious believers was certainly compounded by my French education and upbringing which confirmed and validated this view of religion as archaic. Sartre, Nietzche, Freud essentially had all the answers I was looking for and anything else I deemed either a political soporific or a mental crutch. These people were clearly just obsessed with an infantile need for a powerful father figure. I on the other hand, at 17, definitely didn’t feel like I needed a SECOND dad.
Clearly, I was not alone in this view. Modernization theory holds that all societies are evolving according to a linear model, with Western industrialised societies as the epitome of human development and so-called primitive, i.e. preindustrial cultures, viewed as backward and doomed. This outlook continues to underpin much of how we view the rest of the world. We assume that technological development is concurrent with human, social and ethical development. That the most technically advanced and wealthiest nations are somehow beholden to superior knowledge in all realms. Is to be more technologically developed to be necessarily more ethical? After all, our governments spend far more money thinking of ways to destroy human life by investing in military technologies than they do in seeking to save it.
Inline with modernization theory, there is a widespread assumption that progress means becoming more secular. Here in Britain, Half of those brought up in a religion say they have abandoned it. We often assume that our economic success and relative wealth are tied to this secularisation, noting as many do how much of the third world remains deeply religious, evidence some claim, of their economic and moral backwardness. And yet, the somewhat large exception to the secularisation and development rule is the US, which was and continues to be very religious and also very modern. In the US, 92% of adults believe in the existence of God or some kind of universal spirit, 70% are “absolutely” certain of God’s existence.
In their book “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist magazine, trace how in the 19th century, the most influential thinkers predicted that modernity and secularization would go hand in hand. Throughout most of the 20th century, it seemed this was the case. But by the late 1960s and 1970s religion began to reappear in the public square and in the people’s lives, confounding -modernisation theorists who couldn’t understand how we could be DE evolving!
In this sense, not only does the period in which religion disappeared from the European public and private spheres appear to represent a small blip in an otherwise consistent presence of religion throughout human history, but that blip is a distinctly European phenomena which is at odds with the manifestation of religion globally.
Globally, it is our societies in Europe that are the anomaly.
While just half of Britons say that faith is important to their life (only 44% identify as Christian), according to Ipsos Mori, almost everyone in Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India say faith is important to theirs.
For many people of faith, religion offers both tangible and less tangible benefits: a sense of community in an otherwise highly individualistic world, a sense of purpose when we’re bombarded by a consumerism which seeks to define our very identity through our consumption patterns, a support system in the form of people who believe in the obligation of service to others.
You can’t see God but you can certainly see him through people’s actions.
Like many elderly people today, a family friend of ours is currently living in a care home. A recent survey showed that more than a third of older people in the UK are plagued by loneliness, living with neighbours they barely know only feet away. According to a recent campaign, almost one in five old people sees family, friends or neighbours less than once a week – and about one in 10 of them experiences such social interaction less than once a month.
Our family friend is a childless widow, he has no family to visit him, and relies on church friends and his priest for regular companionship. I can safely say he is one of the residents who receives the most visits. For him, religion has both spiritual and very tangible benefits.
I recounted his situation because for many people, religion is far removed from the intricacies of theology or the nuances of dogma. Rather it represents an assurance of a social bond, it represents human warmth and support.
For others, the discovery of one’s ultimate sense of purpose is unquestionably the single most significant realisation in one’s life. I would compare it to a redirection, a reorientation of the spirit from which necessarily flows a reprioritisation of what one deems important.
In this sense, I view my daily prayers as a ‘distraction from the real distraction’ and a reminder of the greater scale of things. More than anything, God consciousness is about awareness. Full awareness, of one’s blessings, one’s responsibilities and what ultimately matters on the grander scale.
Interestingly, studies suggest that people of faith are general more content.
According to Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).
“Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”
As a sociologist by training, I can safely say that as I got to know more people of faith at university, it helped redefine my view of religion. From hostility and contempt, I came to see religion as relatively benign and largely socially useful. I came to the view, and I’m stealing this from Academic Terry Eagleton, that : “Dawkins’s refusal to admit that “a single human benefit has ever flowed from religious faith, [is] a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false”.
But I wasn’t convinced it was for me. There was no big, burning hole, no longing or deep dissatisfaction I could identify then or that I might even work into a rereading of my own history. I grew up reading the works of French existentialist philosophers, the majority of whom were atheists, Albert Camus and in particular Jean Paul Sartre. I had a philosophy, namely that we humans are the sum total of our actions, a philosophy which considered the importance of doing good deeds central to our self definition as humans. Speaking as a Muslim today, I recognise in existentialist philosophy a very similar premise to that contained within my current belief system, namely the idea that ultimately, we stand each and everyone of us alone, faced with the balance of our good and bad deeds. The added perk is that in Islam, even your intentions are rewardable, making it easier to stake up that good deeds pile than relying on actions alone!
My exploration of religion was an extension of a heightened sense of curiosity. I was particularly blessed in growing up in a multicultural school, in a multicultural city, with bicultural parents, all of which contributed I believe, to an openness on other experiences and view points.
Within the fairly small remit of my city alone, I visited Morocco, Ghana, India, Venezuela, and these experiences fed the curiosity within. After my baccalaureat, I headed to Thailand with my best friend. Of all the memories I have, one of the most poignant is that of arriving at dawn on a small island and being dropped by a Buddhist temple. Exhausted and disorientated backpackers that we were, only seventeen at the time, we huddled together and tried to sleep a few hours before the buses would start working. A Thai lady took pity on us and invited us onto her terrace where she prepared breakfast for us, alongside two young children. A small act of kindness, guided by a culture which places a primacy, as so many traditional cultures do, on welcoming the guest and hospitality. I can’t say Buddhism drove this women to act the way she did, but I can say that Buddhist rooted values of compassion and kindness are still very commonplace in Thailand.
The year after, I travelled to Equador where I witnessed the devastation that neo liberal economic policies had wrought on that poor country. The overwhelming memory I have is of abject poverty, people barely surviving while huge billboards advertising virtually only coca cola peppered the landscape, wherever we went. In many places, coke was cheaper than bottled water. They didn’t and still dont have their own currency but rather used the US dollar. Today 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, more than double the rate five years ago.
In my final year at university, my friends and I headed to Morocco, where we back packed across the country and often stayed with family of a Moroccan friend we were travelling with. My overwhelming memory was of a hyper masculine public space, where, despite being tomboyish in character, I was suddenly made acutely aware of the fact I was a woman and that this meant something very different to being a man. That summer in Morocco might well have put me off Islam altogether if it wasn’t for the warmth and kindness, inflected with references to the Almighty, which softened the blow of travelling on a micro budget, in a country with flying coackroaches the size of small rats.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the male entitlement I was encountering was somehow grounded in their religion. After all, it conformed to much of what I already believed. I’d read “Not without my daughter”, the shocking story of American Betty Mahmoody whose Iranian husband kidnaps her children following their separation and who finds only discrimination in the Iranian courts. I’d heard about Islam. Women’s inheritance was half of a man’s, women have to walk ten paces behind, the men force them to cover. I knew what this religion was about. Kinda. If you counted heresay…
As I returned to the UK, a small verse from the Quran hung around my neck, a trinket purchased in a market. “It’s for protection” my friend’s mother had said. I thought it looked pretty and moreover, I was coming round to the idea that it is humans alone who transform the beauty of the sacred into oppression. God, Allah, whoever was greater than these ridiculous rules men devised to control women. I believed there was something sacred about it without even understanding the verse itself.
I have omitted to mention so far the fact that I was a professional actress. From the age of 12, when I landed the role of Margaret Dashwood in Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I had kept a finger in the acting pie, making two more films whilst still at school and many more amateur plays. I loved acting. To me, it was an extension of my love for reading, the possibility to conveying an added layer of emotion and depth to text. It was 3d books before the idea of 3d even existed.
Once I’d graduated from university, I was faced with the prospect most actors must contend with. Work part time in a dead end job and hope you land THAT big audition that will change your life. The transition from child actress to adult actress was one I experienced with difficulty. I had always enjoyed playing characters, multifaceted people, but found that many of the jobs I was going up for were looking for a bit of eye candy, it was always the girlfriend, the love interest, that girl. The scenes often involved kissing and often significantly more. Some involved varying degrees of nudity. Some around me sought to convince me that there was artistic value in these depictions. Not to worry about it. To see it as part of the job. Noone loves all parts of their job.
But all I could think of was my granddad watching the film and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scenes were exploitative. Female characters written in only to provide eye candy to otherwise poor scripts. This wasn’t acting.
It is interesting to me in the years since then, to read what some of the young actresses who’ve found fame this way, say about their experiences. Interestingly, Meghan Fox who made her name in the Transporters franchise was cut following suggestions she’d begun to rebel against Director Michael Bay’s lascivious way of shooting her. Her former co star Shia Leboeuf is quoted as saying : ““Mike films women in a way that appeals to a 16-year-old sexuality. It’s Michael’s style. And I think [Fox] never got comfortable with it. This is a girl who was taken from complete obscurity and placed in a sex-driven role in front of the whole world and told she was the sexiest woman in America. And she had a hard time accepting it. When Mike would ask her to do specific things, there was no time for fluffy talk. We’re on the run. And the one thing Mike lacks is tact. There’s no time for [LaBeouf assumes a gentle voice] ‘I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees.’”
As some of you may know, Megan Fox was then replaced with a model, someone who might comply more readily with the order to ‘arch your back’ a little more and whose physicality was clearly placed over and above her, until then unexistant, acting credentials. Movies don’t even need actresses anymore, they need compliant bodies…
Turning up for auditions only to have people look you up and down felt very reductive. I was uncomfortable with the importance being attributed to my physique and I was itching for mental stimulation.
Concomitantly, I’d started to read the Quran and was immediately convinced I’d stumbled on remnants of ancient wisdom. Like a sceptical archaeologist tripping over a dinosaur bone, my eyes were opened to a whole new dimension to the world, one in which my physique was totally alleatory and where my soul, a fairly new concept to me then, was the true essence of my being. Rather than investing so much time and energy in this never ending fight to be the most outwardly attractive, I was confronted with the ultimate equaliser. That this exterior counts for nothing but that it is only the good deeds and pure heart that we cultivate which ultimately are real.
In a society which values wealth and beauty over almost all else (in women at least, in men it is power and wealth), where the elderly, the disabled, those defined as unattractive, the poor and the disenfranchised are ignored in favour of what is typically vacuous but aesthetically pleasing, this felt like a just reordering of the world.
Those we herald as ‘modern’ saints tell us a lot about what we value. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple was the visionary behind the idea of making technology fashionable. Applauded for adding another layer of consumers to the market, he ensured that obsoleteness no longer occurrs through technological innovation alone, but also as a product of seasonal changes in fashion. As if the planet wasn’t struggling enough with our waste, we now throw out perfectly functioning objects which are no longer ‘cool’.
IPhone 4S? Pfwww. Everyone knows it’s all about the iphone5.
When Jobs died prematurely, he was eulogised. But Jobs was a pure, unabashed capitalist. One of the first things he did when he rejoined Apple was to cancel all of its charitable donations. The company was run for profit he responded to critics, not charity. In 2011, Apple’s annual revenue was $108 billion.
My journey towards faith occurred alongside a growing disillusionment with the modern world and its charades of advancement. Beauty disguised as goodness. Wealth as success. Destruction as progress.
My decision to ‘convert’ to Islam in 2004 felt very natural to me. It was an extension of all I’d always felt was right and a recognition of my place within the Universe. What was less easy perhaps was dealing with people’s reactions. I was aware of the hostility towards Islam, particularly post 9/11. In fact, I was prompted to look further into the faith following a book recommendation from someone very close to me. The book was by Italian polemist Oriana Fallaci and in it she argued that Muslims were a type of ‘vermin’, comparing them to a mangy dog. I was perfectly aware of how one deals with a mangy dog and the language and tone of the book concerned me deeply. As someone who’d be raised on the works of Primo Levy, Joseph Joffo and other Holocaust survivors, I shuddered at the thought we Europeans were yet again referring to a minority in our midst using the dehumanising language of vermin. At the time, I never contemplated that minority would ever be me.
Reactions from loved ones ranged from the all out hostility, to genuine concern I’d be brainwashed by some sort of a cult, to sheer dismay. Some of my closer friends smiled with a look of “oh just the latest fad, we get it”. Eight years in, some think the joke is wearing a little thin.
I began wearing a headscarf a few months before my conversion. One of my points of contention with some of the Muslim ladies I’d been speaking with concerned their style of dress. I was certain their parents must be making them wear it and couldn’t conceive of the fact they’d actually rather be dressed this way. Gradually they challenged me. Why was I wearing that particular style of garment? I was being dictated to by fashion norms which I never questioned, I adopted styles which I found uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to move around in because they were said to ‘look good’. And what did ‘look good’ mean anyway? That they ensured my body conformed to males expectations of feminity. Not that they ever would, fashion magazines and advertising had taught me that I’d never be truly adequate since you cant airbrush your waist to 6 inches in real life and nobody actually has flawless hair and skin at all times. Gradually, I came to view the idea of clothing as a means of minimising the importance of the body in human interaction as deeply empowering feminist stance. No longer could I be judged on my weight and ‘sexyness’, but instead, shielding the body from the gaze of all but those closest to me, was a means of placing greater emphasis on my voice.
Truth be told, it made life a lot harder. If I didn’t have the right bus fare, I could no longer rely on my “charms” to get me by. I wasn’t offered “free” stuff quite as regularly. Unless you count a free Quran. And it struck me that the importance we attribute to the female form in particular, in the evaluation of a woman’s worth, actually led to a diminished importance being afforded to her voice. I could speak as loud as I wanted, but I wasn’t playing the game right. You cant just be smart. You have to be smart and sexy to be seen. And then possibly heard.
For me, modesty is central to my conception of faith and I don’t mean physical modesty alone. I mean humility as a concept, is at the core of my faith. The struggle to combat the ego and its desires is limited only by an attempt to retain humility in the face of God. Arrogance (kibr) is considered a disease of the spiritual heart, as are anger, the ocean of all sins, avarice, envy, backbiting, prejudice, hypocrisy and others. For myself and many muslims, the word ‘jihad’ has nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but rather everything to do with learning to master the self, tame the ego and maintain humility in the face of God. In the words of Kanye West, “we’re at war with terrorism, racism and society, but most of all we’re at war with ourselves.” Word.
Physical modesty, with or without a headscarf, is a part of that for me. It is a tool in that struggle against the ego. It is a reminder to limit the importance I place on the ephemeral and focus on the higher, more noble values which I should seek to cultivate in myself. It isn’t about negating objective beauty, of design, of fabrics, colours or textures, but it is about not fetishizing the human body. There is a saying in Islam, “God is beautiful and He loves Beauty.” Recognising the divine origin of anything, but beauty in particular, limits the extent to which it can be sacralised on its own terms. Beauty points to God, so worship not the sign but the origin of all things.
To me, spirituality is meaning in action. The very purpose of our life on this earth is to satisfy God by serving the people. Prayers throughout the night should feed the desire to serve during the day. Rituals serve as reminders on this path.
Since I’m speaking in a school today, I’ll end by saying a word or two about education. There is a very common prayer which the Prophet (saw) taught “I seek refuge in God from a knowledge which has no use” and he also said “the knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure from which no charity is bestowed in the way of the Lord.”
When the Prophet spoke of useful knowledge, he did not mean useful in the utilitarian sense – he meant of course knowledge which fails to be actualised, practised, lived for the benefit of others – and as Gai Eaton so eloquently put it “embodied through the transformation of the lower self through inner work (the greater jihad) and thereby through right action in the world.”
Ultimately, we stand alone, each of us, burdened with all that we have done and all that has been made possible through our presence in a particular place at a particular time. IF I have any advice at all to bestow, it is to make sure, you make your time in all places count.
… Say not, then, that all these creeds are false,
The false ones ensnare hearts by the scent of truth,
Say not that they are all erroneous fancies,
There is no fancy in the universe without some truth,
Truth is the ‘night of power’ hidden amongst other nights,
In order to try to spirit of every night.
Not every night is that of power, O youth,
Nor yet is every night quite void of power.
In the crowd of rag-wearers there is but one Faqir;*
Search well and find out that true one.
Tell the wary and discerning believer
To distinguish the king from the beggar.
If there were no bad goods in the world,
Every fool might be a skilful merchant;
For then the hard art of judging the goods would be easy.
If there were no faults, one man could judge as well as another.
Again, if all were faulty, skill would be profitless.
If all wood were common, there would be no aloes.
He who accepts everything is a true fool,
But he who says all is false is a knave.
*Faqir: Literally, a beggar, but here used to mean someone with real spiritual knowledge and humility.
This is a lecture I delivered at Kings College, London on “Modesty” in February 2012
Women’s clothing is a bizarrely emotive topic. It does baffle me that it can seemingly arouse such strong emotions in people, whatever side of the spectrum they’re coming at the discussion from!
I don’t really want to discuss the headscarf for the sheer fact that represents a deepening of what is, in my opinion, an already grossly exaggerated fixation with it. I prefer to discuss the value of modesty and its contribution to female empowerment. I said ‘female empowerment’, not Muslim female empowerment and this is crucial.
The Prophet is described in the Quran as a mercy to ‘mankind’ and as Muslims, we believe that Quranic values were sent for the benefit of the whole of humanity – the question thus is – how, as European Muslims, do we draw values from our text, which can help to improve the lives of our fellow citizens and help propagate the universal values of human emancipation, enshrined therewith.
I’m going to focus on one value within the Islamic tradition, that of Modesty, which is both a central value of the Islamic faith and a powerful tool for the emancipation of the modern woman.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Every faith has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty.” – Al-Muwatta, Volume 47, Hadith 9
I take it as a given that there are norms of modesty enjoined by God upon all people, norms which can be found in all faiths, all traditions, including the Islamic tradition. I’m not going to go into the theological roots of Islamic dress, nor the evidence therewith, although I do no dispute their existence or validity.
The real question is how do we reconcile this facet of our faith with a world in which, let’s face it, nothing is anything unless it’s sexy.
The discussion on the headcarf or the ‘hijab’, or the ‘khimar’ cannot be disassociated from the broader context in which Muslim women are discussed. I do say “are discussed” in the passive sense, because it does so often feel like others, often white men in positions of power, talking about Muslim women (usually, poorer, often disenfranchised, brown women) without necessarily engaging Muslim women themselves in the discussions at hand.
To some extent, Muslim women have been taken hostage between two extreme perceptions a rigid conservative approach within the community and an ethnocentric and islamophobic approach, often found outside of it. The two outlooks share a number of things in common – most notably an unshakable belief in their view, which makes dialogue and discussion difficult..
Muslim women undeniably live in various countries where oppression masquerades as religion, whereas in some European countries, fundamentalist secularism masquerades as freedom.
France recently joined the ranks of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia in being one of the few countries worldwide to regulate women’s clothing quite so strictly. In addition to the ban on headscarves in government buildings, in force since the 1990s, a recent law being passed through the Senate now forbids child minders from wearing headscarves, even when working for a private household. That’s right, a Muslim women would not be allowed to wear her scarf within a private home , on the grounds that this somehow represents an affront to France’s values of ‘laicite’ – one wonders just how shaky those values are if they can be undermined by a few nannies in headscarves.
Only recently, we saw the ‘burka ban’ debate raging across Europe and its enforcement in an increasing number of countries, where Muslim female garb is apparently, at this time of acute economic crisis, the most pressing issue on the political agenda – in France, in parts of Spain, Belgium, in the Netherlands, in Italy- where the president’s wild orgies with under-age minors were apparently minor concerns compared to the handful of Muslim women wearing face veils…
The Burqa debate has captured European imagination. Despite being worn by a fringe within a minority, the covering has emerged at the forefront of the European political map, and been met with near unanimous condemnation across the political spectrum. In Tarres, a village in north-east Spain, the parish council was debating the ban, despite none its 108 inhabitants actually wearing a burqa, while its nearby provincial capital, Lleida, formally passed a ban. Barcelona became the first major Spanish city to ban the use of face veils in municipal buildings and in Belgium, a country which can’t even agree on a national language, a parliamentary committee last year agreed to ban face veils in public.
In neighbouring France, the lower house of parliament approved the ban. President Sarkozy had stated his belief that the garment reduces women to servitude and undermines their dignity, saying the burqa is “not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity”. This, despite (or perhaps because?) not having included a single woman who wears the face veil in the committee set up to “discuss” the issue. In a move which presumably is not an affront to human dignity, Sarkozy announced that women wearing full-face veils would be turned away from hospitals, public transport and government buildings and his UMP colleague Frederic Lefebvre demanded that any woman breaking the proposed law, be “deprived of her rights”.
Meanwhile, the ripple effect of this discriminatory legislation is vindicating already widespread islamophobia and racism. French Muslims of Maghreb ancestry are already the victims of nearly 68 per cent of racist violence and in May, a Muslim woman’s veil was ripped off in what police describe as France’s first case of “burqa rage”.
So, clearly, the other parameter to the discussion on muslim women’s garb, is of course that of national identity.
Many of the countries where the ban was enforced are struggling with issues of national identity in our multicultural, globalised world where it is increasingly unclear what it means to be “British”, “Spanish” or “French” and where such questions are a welcome distraction from government’s inability to resolve more substantive issues of unemployment, debt and mounting poverty.
Modern France is very much in the midst of an identity crisis, just like, if not worse than, that being faced by the rest of Europe with the consequence that issues of secularism and immigration have become central to the presidential campaign.
The homogenous nature of Europe’s intellectual elites has, like broader society, begun to shift. This change has led to a questioning not so much of society’s guiding principles, but of some of their real world applications. This challenge to the hegemony of the older European elites in matters of culture and power continues to be filtered through the, as yet unburied spectre, of (post-?) colonial superiority. Historically, the colonised Arabs needed emancipation from their debased state of being through the imposition of “French” culture, the so-called “civilizing mission”. Today, many French can’t tolerate the thought these former barbarians turned citizens might have a say in defining modern French identity. The consequence is reactionary legislation aimed to somehow ‘preserve’ French culture.
The Dutch argued that burka does “not fit into our open society and women must participate fully.” One wonders what kind of an ‘open’ society goes around restricting women’s choice of attire and how exactly, such as ban, is likely to increase female participation, when in all likelihood, many of these women will chose to leave the house as infrequently as possible. Criminalising women in order to free them doesn’t exactly send an inclusive message to the women, so this perverse suggestion the ban is well meaning, is to be denounced for the political manoeuvring it truly is.
During the burka ban debate, many feminists, including in France and Italy supported the ban which saw French women denied access to basic services such as access to hospitals, government buildings and the underground. They supported the ban on the basis of a false assumption, namely that the banning of burka’s in Europe could represent a stance against the enforcement of the burka in Afghanistan.
In fact, women in Europe don’t generally wear a burka, the traditional garb imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but a small minority of European Muslim women choose to wear the face veil, and most do so out of their free will. So how could women purporting to be supporting women, start advocating an imposition on other women’s dress code? Surely the sheer irony of it would be obvious? Alas it is not. And this is partly due to an inherited view of Muslim women, from the colonial era and orientalist literature, which presents Muslim women as submissive, oppressed creatures in need of saving – and sadly, that stereotype has taken an awfully long time to die out.
There is often a feeling Muslim women need to be saved! Even from themselves – undermining autonomy anyone?
And that needs to be recognised in the context of a continuity of the depictions of Muslim women as oppressed by their backward barbaric faith advocated and propounded in Orientalist literature to justify European colonial expansion. Needless to say, not much has changed. The invasion of Afghanistan was itself partly ‘legitimated’ through recourse to the ever fashionable theme of liberating Afghan women, by Mrs Laura Bush no less – feminist objectives cynically manipulated to support American imperialism. And what of Muslim women’s rights in today’s Afghanistan, ten years into the debacle – RAWA a leading independent political/social organization of Afghan women sidelined by the Karzai government. Selay Ghaffar, executive director of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan notes the window dressing of many of the posts in which Muslim women can be found, noting they’ve been largely kept out of the decision making positions, including on the future of Afghanistan whereby in 2010, no women were invited to a high profile London conference on the topic – Selay herself got in with a press pass!
Feminists often ask why Muslim women cover? The mistrust of ‘modesty’ lies partly in Europe’s own historical relationship to women’s clothing, the uncomfortable corsets and cumbersome dresses were designed to ensure women could be seen to be pretty, but not heard (or breath in some cases!)
There was also a reaction to the idea of a ‘male’ God telling women how to dress and what to do, something which is thankfully absent in the Islamic tradition. Abdel Hakim Murad points out: “Islamic theology confronts us with the spectacular absence of a gendered Godhead. A theology which reveals the divine through incarnation in a body also locates it in a gender, and inescapably passes judgement on the other sex. A theology which locates it in a book makes no judgement about gender; since books are unsexed. The divine remains divine, that is, genderless, even when expressed in a fully saving way on earth.”
Muslim woman writer, Sartaz Aziz, writes: “I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam because I was able to think of the Highest Power as one completely without sex or race, and thus completely unpatriarchal . . .We begin with the idea of a deity who is completely above sexual identity, and thus completely outside the value system created by patriarchy.”
Thus, the very Western rebellion against a restrictive modesty imposed by a male God is not a battle Muslims need to fight and means as Muslims, the feminist antipathy towards religion may seem somewhat misplaced. (this is not the case when we look at its practitioners, where it is often entirely justified!)
Feminists rightly questioned the logic in women wearing clothes which made it impossible to sit comfortably, let alone indulge in worldly activities, which were left to the men.
In addition, many feminists today, myself included, question the value of investing so much female attention on our bodies, our looks and fashion when surely, there are more pressing issues –like discrimination, harassment and all round misogyny still affecting our daily lives. Even political representation isn’t a won battle – 2011 data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on female political representation in parliament indicated that Britain ranks 49, above Uzbekistan at 50 and below Eritrea….According to the Fawcettt society, at the current rate of progress it will take 200 years – another 40 elections – to achieve an equal number of women in parliament.. and despite nearly 40 years of equal pay legislation, women are still paid 17% less than their male counterparts for the same jobs.
To me, the obsession with women’s clothing often represent the sort of symbolic gestures towards “equality” which actually mask serious ongoing issues of inequality. The fact that female journalists and writers receive so much vitriol directed at very personal aspects of their person and underming their very presence in the public sphere, suggests we still have a long way to go. Helen Lewis Hasteley, a writer at the New Statesman recently pointed out that in response to an article she’d written, a male commentator wrote: “nice article love, now make me a sandwich”.
That said, the continued interest in muslim female garb shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. It comes within broader discussions, necessary discussions, in feminist circles over the ‘liberated body’ and what that actually means. In a society where our self-worth as women is so often premised on our looks, where according to Deborah Rhodes of Standford University ( “The Beauty bias”), virtually all women consider their looks as key to their self image – indeed, “over half of young women said they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat,” this is actually an important discussion in which more Muslim women should be engaged.
What does it mean to have a liberated body – our bodies having become battlegrounds for competing ideological and at times, commercial interests.
Does the idea that one might wish to limit visual access to one’s physicality in the public sphere such an outrageous notions when we’re fed a consistent diet of visual imagery which premises a woman’s worth on her physical attributes, over and above any other aspect of their person.
In other words, where rather than competing on equal terms with men, our beauty has become a yardstick from which to measure our worth, a competition in which we decide who the worthy and unworthy women are based on gracious genetics or a fervent commitment to a rigorous exercise and starvation regime.
It’s great you’ve become one of the few female MPs in our parliament, but if you don’t look ‘hot’ doing it, expect to be judged and berated publicly for your lack of ‘femininity’, in other words, your ability to live up to male penchants, and if you do look ‘hot’ doing it, expect your physicality to take precedence over your actions and for any and all attention to be focused on your sex appeal rather than any genuine contributions you may be making to the political domain. A la Louise Mensch…
Natasha Walters lists a number of particularly shocking examples in her book ‘Living Dolls’. When Ann Widecombe, the conservative MP appeared on Have I Got News For You in 2007, many of the jokes focused on her looks and how ‘unsexy’ she was said to be and when Harriet Harman, Labour MP called for more women in power in 2009, a commentator in the Spectator responded: “So-Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean, after a few beers, obviously, not while you were sober… I think you wouldn’t.” (p121)
When Sarah Palin ran for vice-Presidency in 2008, manufacturers released a ‘naughty schoolgirl’ Sarah Palin doll with a red bra showing through the school uniform (we’ll leave the discussion of the sexualisation of school girls for another day) and even a blow-up sex doll… Walters rightly argues that this bullying of women who choose to enter the public sphere, the public berating of any female figure who doesn’t live up to the porn star ideal, leaves many uneasy about entering the field at all. I wonder why!
In the City, despite having to worry both about performance and looks (and don’t mention the M word – motherhood!) expect to be paid less than male colleagues and to have to spend more time worrying about how you look. Only recently, female lawyers at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer were advised to team their stilettos with skirts rather than trousers to ostensibly ‘embrace their femininity’… or, to translate that for you – be sure to draw on your physical attributes as part of your professional activities. It is not enough to be a good lawyer like your male peers, no, if you’re a woman, success means being a ‘hot’ top lawyer.
So is it really any surprise that we are so miserable about our looks, that a 2006 Grazia survey found that only 2% of women are satisfied with their bodies, that eating disorders are on the rise, that we spend literally billions on cosmetic surgery just to feel ‘normal’ – normal now being defined by the nipped and tucked airbrushed models, whose body size represents roughly 5% of all body types- who grace our billboards and TV screens, our magazine and now our films, where we’ve got rid of actresses, replacing them with models instead – giving us some insight into what ‘skills’ are valued in our actresses! the actress/model Meghan Fox, replaced by Burberry model (no slash)Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who apparently was less prone to whining about Michael Bay’s lascivious shots, more willing to arch her back just another few degrees without questioning the message these images are sending out to young men and women.
Self-worthiness is only established when we obtain male approval, as if being an innately desirable woman is something one must work towards, as if it were not already a God given right and a fact of our existence.
The more we allow our body to be the primary defining aspect of ourselves, the more we are in fact allowing men to define our value, based on a scale and premise that is fundamentally male.
In 19872, John Berger wrote:
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Ways of Seeing
The Islamic response says this – women (and men!) are sexy, you don’t need a cream, or a diet or a workout or a new hairstyle acquire to ‘become’ attractive, rather, it is a given. The question is, in the public sphere, do we wish to make alleatory physical attributes the defining quality on which we judge one another? And when we do bring our sexiness into the public sphere, does it have a tendency to become the overriding aspect upon which we are judged, as some sort of very primal, almost animalistic response, precedes our ability to relate to one another on terms which value more substantive qualities.
This isn’t to say – let’s be clear here – that men, or women – can’t control these sexual impulses – in order words, there is no justification for people acting on unrequited lust, which isn’t to say the feeling of lust is something people can control. We don’t control our emotions, but we do control whether or not we act on them. In this sense, rape is 100% the rapist’s fault – it doesn’t matter what the victim was wearing, where she was, how intoxicated, etc – the responsibility for rape is with the rapist. Unequivocally.
This is where a broader feminist discussion comes into play – are we all blank slates upon which society has enforced a gendered notion of self – is there anything intrinsic about being a woman or a man? The drive towards full equality has largely sought to minimise physical or biological differences in favour of the idea that there is nothing inherent or “hard-wired” in men or women. Sure, women may have wombs, although according to Germaine Greer, that isn’t entirely true – she’s quoted as saying “The 1969 female eunuch was nothing but womb. The 1997 female eunuch has no womb” – and men may have measurably higher levels of testosterone floating around their bodies – amongst other biological differences – but these, we are told, have no noticeable impact on our inherent state of being. That is all socialisation. The whole nature Vs nurture debate. We wont be resolving it tonight.
That said, it is interesting to note a number of pieces of research which suggest men and women’s sexuality differs and I would put to you that the ways in which our sexual arousal differs is reflected in Divine injunctions designed to limit the intrusion of sex into the public sphere, which Muslims believe should be a place in which the only distinction between people is based on “piety and good deeds” – in other words a public sphere in which all other markers of difference are minimised in favour of fostering an atmosphere in which people compete in kindness, generosity, truthfulness, justice, etc.
Freakanomics is a collaboration between the economist Steven D. Levitt and the author Stephen J. Dubner – they produced a book and other interesting findings on podcasts. Amongst these were, what’s “clear from both online erotica and clinical research is that male and female sexuality are quite different, raising questions about whether we should apply male standards of “erotic” to women.”
For example, the most popular form of female erotica is the romance novel. The audience for the romance novel is 90 percent female, and there were almost as many purchases of English-language romance novels in 2008 as there were visitors to North American porn sites (~75 million vs. ~100 million).
Though romance novels aren’t necessarily erotic in the same explicit way that porn is erotic—there are certainly plenty of romances that feature minimal, non-graphic sex—they argue that the romance novel reflects female sexuality in the same way that pornography reflects male sexuality:
“there is a very smooth literary continuum from non-sexual romance novels and romantic fan fiction (half the stories on fanfiction.net are tagged as “romance”), through erotic romance, slash fiction, literary erotica, all the way up to hardcore female-authored stories…” In other words, these romance novels cater to all tastes!
They go on to explain that the sexual cues that tends to trigger arousal in women are mainly psychological, including a man’s social status, his confidence, his desire and ability to protect his family, his emotional availability, his emotional commitment, his strong sexual desire for her, and his popularity with other women—all common elements in romantic and erotic stories for women. And if we think of the Islamic prescriptions on male modesty, these very much speak to this desirable traits– men are forbidden from wearing silk, one of the most expensive fabrics, a marker of status and wealth. Similarly, men are forbidden from wearing gold – if we think of gold, particularly in traditional societies, it was given to women as a dowry and the more gold, the wealthier the man – so again, men are limited in their ability to publicly parade their status and affluence, although in the private setting of a marriage, the man can ‘display’ his gold, just as woman can display her allure…
According to CCBill, the largest billing company of the adult industry, about 1 out of 50 porn site subscriptions are purchased with a woman’s name—an incidence so rare that they used to flag female names as potential fraud, since an angry mother or wife so often called to demand a refund!
They found that men tend to prefer visual erotica with anonymous, emotionless sex, with some culturally specific responses to visual stimulation but also very consistent results in men’s anatomical preferences across cultures.
This research suggests that men and women respond differently to sexual cues and that, while women’s sexual drive is tied to psychological factors, men are more visually stimulated than women.
Now – what is the consequence on men, whom I’ll take as a given are more visual creatures – of constantly viewing women through a sexualised lens?
Well according to research by Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University, sexualised images of women in bikinis lead some men to see them as objects, according to her study of male behavior. Brain scans revealed that when men were shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tool use lights up. Now this isn’t to say men are evil, sex obsessed creatures – there is a natural tendency within men towards visual stimulation, which in a certain setting, Islam would not consider a negative thing. It has a place in a healthy relationship. But in the public sphere, this can become perverse and lead to an objectification of women and a dehumanizing of their person.
According to Fiske, men were more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as “I push, I grasp, I handle,” and she noted, some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another’s intentions.
This means that these men see women “as sexually inviting, but they are not thinking about their minds,” Fiske said. “The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”
And there are very real and serious consequences to this objectification, not least the dehumanization of women.
The use of ‘object women’ to advertise anything from cars to washing machines actually dilutes the force of sexuality and in doing so, forces people further and further down the route of strange and increasingly dark perversions. You need look no further than the recent PETA ad to see how we are constantly pushing the boundaries of sexy to create more and more ‘shocking’ ads.
Some have argued that a culture of objectification in which women cease to be viewed as people, but rather as things, consumerist commodities, fosters an atmosphere in which violence against women becomes normalised. In a fantastic documentary you can find on you tube, “killing us softly”, Jean Kilbourne points out that the dehumanised bodies of women found in advertising (but also beyond!), often with heads cut off, or in painful or vulnerable poses, reflects a climate in which women are the objects of violence – she claims the images we see in advertising for example, foster a climate in which women are dehumanised and are therefore open to violence.
And what of even more overt sexualised images, so readily available – An article in the Times recently discussed the ways in which teenage access to pornography is killing intimacy and distorting their understanding of relationships and the female body. This was also impacting their interaction with women, with some unable to relate to women beyond the images they had been ingurgitating: ““I was unable to think of women except as potential pornography. I looked at them in a purely sexual way. I remember one day I was walking to school, I was about 15, and I got talking to a girl who must have been about 18. I immediately said I wanted to grope her breasts. I had no idea how to interact with women as people.”
This is where the choice some Muslim women make in shielding themselves from what can be a dehumanising and objectifying gaze, comes into its own. It is a conscious decision, an empowered decision to reject the tyranny of female objectification, inline with what Muslims believe to be divine guidelines which speak to fostering the most harmonious environment for human development, in light of divine wisdom concerning the inherent characteristics of humans.
Let’s also get something absolutely clear – muslim women who choose modest dress do not do so because men cannot control themselves. As previously stated, the vast majority of men can and do – however, it is the tendency to objectify the female form, far more so than the male form, as the thousands of female mags containing a majority of images of women (and lets be clear, men’s mags don’t contain a majority of images of men) testify – which modest dress, as part of a broader dedication to maintaining modesty in all other aspects of one’s being, toward which Muslim women aspire.
I’d like to draw a distinction now between modesty and shyness or lack of self-confidence.
There is some confusion over the notion of modesty, of ‘hayah’ , which does not mean NOT being assertive.
‘Aishah Radiyallahu Anha said: “How good are the women of Ansar. Shyness does not prevent them from learning the Deen (religion).” (Source: Summarized Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, Hadith No.172)
The opposite quality of ‘haya’ is rendered in the Hadith as vulgarity, including a range of bad manners, such as vulgar language that demonstrates lack of propriety and decorum.
Haya covers a wide number of concepts – modesty, self-respect, shame, humility, etc. The original meaning of Haya according to a believer’s nature, refers to a bad and uneasy feeling accompanied by embarrassment, caused by one’s fear of being exposed or censured for some unworthy or indecent conduct.
So this value of ‘modesty’ does not mean fading into the background, it doesn’t mean lacking self-confidence or the ability to express oneself. Rather, modesty is a tool to regulate human interaction, both in men and women, with slight differential manifestations of that in each, based on inherent human characteristics specific to each gender (to varying degrees, yes..)
What we’re saying is that in the knowledge of this inherent aspect of the male psyche – which of course, some may dispute, but I think is fairly obvious – one can make the empowering decision of saying, no, I will not allow myself to be viewed in a sexualised manner – I choose to ensure the focus of my being is on my soul, my person and my actions. Everything else is frankly, none of anyone’s business. The public sphere is one where Muslims aim to see neutralised through a focus on meaningful and substantive values.
A saying by Prophet Mohamed tells us, “God does not judge according to you bodies and appearance but He scans your hearts and looks into your deeds.” And this is what we seek to reflect in our public sphere.
Part of the reason modesty has such a bad name in the west is because it is assumed that only people who hate their bodies, who are embarrassed about them or wish to hide them, could possibly choose to cover them. The assumption is that modesty somehow represents a lack of self-confidence, which clearly is quite distinct from parading one’s body, or, the repression of sexuality, and not as I would suggest a recognition of its power and a respect for its function in specific, desired circumstances.
Islam insists that holiness does not emerge from the suppression of human instincts, but from their affirmation through regulation, so that the natural rhythms of the body are not to be ignored or suppressed, but regulated and commemorated in religious ritual.
The sublime medium, the exquisite middle road that is advocated by Islam, enjoins modesty upon both sexes. It rejects both self denial and excess: sexuality is not seen as evil, but is meant to be expressed in a private domain, kept out of the public sphere, where the ‘real’ values, the substantive, meaningful values which men and women can compete on equal footing on, ought to be given precedence, that is piety and good deeds.
Anam Majeed goes on: “the truly empowering force of modesty can be seen in the woman who fully accepts her desirability, her femininity, her ability to attract a male, her feeling that her sex is too powerful to remain unguarded. This is an innate sense of the female’s power; it is a subconsciously realized truth, one that is so deeply connected with the female psyche that it cannot be labeled as conceit.”
On the other hand, my discourse should not be seen as letting section of our community off the hook. As a convert, I encountered powerful, entrenched and shamelessly legitimized sexism through recourse to religion, and continue to feel that the weight of over-bearing male dominance continues to cast its shadow of the true reflection of our faith.. in the words of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, “The problem is its the 98% of men who give us 2% of men a bad name.”
Feminists and Muslims need to listen to one another more, as peers, take each other’s arguments seriously and assess them for their worth, not assume a position of enlightened benevolence or reactionary rejection. It seems to me there are many issues on which Muslims and feminists and their hybrid, Muslim feminists, can dedicate their attention. And it seems to me that in our shared struggles, our current obsession with attire may be masking serious challenges we have yet to overcome. These are shared struggles and we need to stand together to tackle them, united.
This is the audio of a lecture I gave at various universities on the topic of “Mohamed, a mercy to mankind”
I may post the text once I’ve finished giving it, end of April (ish)
ps. I didnt post the talk, nor did I put up the image, which erroneously describes me as an “Oxford grad” – still working on the “grad” part
This is a lecture I delivered at the university of Southampton, a join Islamic society and Feminist society event in January 2012.
This was a lecture I delivered at UWE university in Bristol in February 2012, on the topic: “Is Islam a religion for Arab Men?”
A talk I delivered at Northampton University in February 2011, in light of David Cameron’s Munich speech on Multiculturalism:
This is a talk I gave in Reading at a ladies’charity function, to raise money for the local community’s mosque renovation:
It an absolute pleasure to be here, I’d like to thank the mosque for giving me this opportunity to join you on such a “fine” British summer’s day…
My first experience of a mosque, as someone new to the faith, was hardly a pleasant one – after walking through the main entrance, I was shooed out of the building confused and a little intimidated, by a shadowy figure who scolded me and told me to use “the back door”, over there, by the garbage bins – NICE. As I walked past the rubbish, holding my nose, I stepped into a window-less room, with a massive, outmoded speaker out of which the imam’s voice was trailing in and out… “and Muslims ….recognise the importance……shirk……haraam….”
I don’t think any of us actually knew what he was talking about – we sat there in the baking hot, sweaty room, probably wishing that he would end this pretty soon so we could escape the baking hot dungeon. As I got up to walk out, I was reprimanded by a young women for wearing trousers – the angels, she informed me, were cursing me…. I can’t say that made me want to return to the mosque, (though I did), it certainly left me with a fairly negative impression of the community. It also meant I assumed, as an outsider, the mosque was “just a place to pray”, hence the lack of importance afforded to basic standards – and that women weren’t terribly welcome in the mosque… a message which would be hammered in, in years to come as I was turned away from other places entirely….
I realise your community here in Reading has been in the process, for several years now, of trying to renovate this mosque and it only takes not having access to one’s own place of worship to realise the real importance of the mosque in our lives, as Muslims. Indeed, ideally, the mosque should be a hub for our community’s activities, for all its members, young and old, women and men. The mosque in its idealised form is a place where the community comes to worship of course, but it is also a place of learning, of socialising, of support, it’s the heart of our community and should reflect the importance of those activities to our lives. One of the first things the early Muslim community did upon migrating to Medina was establish a mosque. Mosques in Islam are not only centers for worship but are also a reflection of the characteristics of Muslim society and its civilization. That’s why when we travel to different countries, we admire the culturally specific manifestations of islamic architecture, the grandiose Blue Mosque, Al Aqsa, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which all reflect their locality while retaining a central core.
The mosque in theory, ought to be the base and the foundation stone of Muslim society, the point from which the light of knowledge and wisdom should emanate and enlighten the surroundings. When one hears the mosque described in this fashion, it is hard to place a price on the true value of its contribution in our lives. And yet, our mosques have a long way to go. While some may ornate their mosques with expensive chandeliers and thick carpets, these superficial embellishments often masque the far deeper issues confronting them. Autocratic structures, discrimination, racism, lack of access for women, or when there is access, sub-standard conditions, women’s isolation from mosque management, their absence from mosque communities – all of these are unacceptable and un-islamic practises which it is your responsibility to confront and change. In the Medina mosque, men would line up in front and women at the back – they were together, in the same place and women would express their views on all sorts of issues, including political matters. During festivities, women are often kicked out to make more room for the men, leaving the women at home or with no possibility of joining the congregation. You might not think it a big deal that mosque management is almost exclusively a male affair, but this has a serious impact on the mosque’s output – so that the activities, are run in accordance with a specific vision of the role of women – it is in these councils that the real change can and will happen, but it can’t happen without your involvement, nor can it happen without educating yourselves about your role as a human soul on this earth.
We often hear repeated the cliché that a Muslim woman is little more than a glorified womb – but when we see the limitations on female involvement in the real centres of power, mosques, educational establishments, amongst scholars, it starts to ring eerily true. Many women themselves seem to think they should remain within the home, unless there is a “real” reason to be out, forgetting their duty and responsibility to broader society. And yet, history shows us this is not the islamic view of a woman’s participation in either the mosque or society. The Qarawiyin university, the first university in the world, which is linked to a mosque, was established by a woman, Fatima al Firhi. Some of the great scholars in Islam were women and I have to recommend on this topic Shaykh Akram Nadwi’s several tomes on precisely this topic. This is our forgotten legacy and our lacking contribution – it is up to you ladies!
The importance of the mosque is partly premised on the centrality of knowledge in Islam “ilm”, is the Arabic word. In fact, gaining knowledge is an obligation upon all Muslims, male and female and hampering someone from acquiring knowledge about their Deen is a very serious matter indeed. Acquiring knowledge is our right, a basic and vital right, denied to so many. Everyone is required to strive to acquire as much knowledge as they can about their religion and will be accountable before God for their efforts on the path of knowledge.
The Quran could not be more explicit on this point, to know is to gain access to the reading of the signs, both the literary signs in the Quran but also the signs in the world at large. “The pursuit of knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim man and woman” the Prophet stated in a hadith. To be able to read and write, to find through education, the way to one’s identity and human dignity is essential, primordial. To be Muslim is clearly to “know”, but then one must move to greater knowledge, constantly, never resting on our laurels. So the importance we place on education within our community must reflect the importance God places on it from within our tradition – yet we are very, very far removed from this idea.
We are often willing to spend inordinate amounts of money on clothes, weddings (I hear some need a second mortgage for some weddings), designer handbags, even on several trips to hajj (the obligation is one) – but we resist putting any money in the heart and soul of our community, its mosque.
Too often do I hear women asking the most basic questions – am I allowed to work, can I leave the house – questions which frankly are dehumanising- and then have to rely on the very men, who often have a strong vested interest in the response, to inform them. Educate yourselves ladies- men, like women can and should be teachers, scholars, educators – You can learn half your Deen from Aicha (ra), and this is not exclusive to women – this means, that despite all the cultural taboos, there is absolutely no reason why any one of you couldn’t lead an educational circle, teaching men about religion – of course you can – the best of women in Islam did just that – Imam Shafi was taught by a female teacher – to previous generations, this was as normal as it may seem odd to some now.
Anywhere Islam took hold, mosques were established, and basic instruction began. Once established, such mosques could develop into well-known places of learning, often with hundreds, or thousands of students, and frequently equipped with extensive libraries. The first school connected with a mosque, was set up at Medina in 653, whilst the first one in Damascus dates from 744, and by 900 most mosques had an elementary school for the education of both boys and girls. This follows a tradition long established by prophet Muhammad whose mosque was connected to a building which served as a school and as a hostel for poor students and out-of-towners. Assistance for students in the various mosques was substantial. At the Qarawiyyin, for instance, students were not only exempt from paying fees but were also given monetary allowances periodically. How does this compare when we look at some of our mosques today where some struggle to provide educational classes for kids and often pay the instructors measly sums so that we are left to rely on the good will of individuals – a resource sometimes more scarce than money…
Islam is not about being insular – it is not about staying amongst ourselves – it is about drawing on the values of Islam to try and make the world a better place for everyone. There is no reason why that can’t start in the home – but it certainly can’t end in the home. It starts by nurturing and developing values in yourself, which you then spread to your family, community and then the world more broadly. But you can’t nurture anything without knowledge and I don’t mean learning the Quran by rote in a language which you can’t understand. It is obtaining a deep and profound knowledge of the religion, sharing that to help educate others and helping to use the transformative potential of those values so that they don’t remain under our beautifully decorated domes, but are used to improve our community and society. One day, and hopefully starting with your mosque here, we can move towards the mosque becoming a centre for the whole community, Muslim and non-Muslims. We will have shelter for the homeless, or cook-ups for the elderly, activities for the disabled – Muslim or not – our mosques, need to be places from which the light of islam radiates – this does concretely require an investment of your energy, time and yes, money… so please give generously to help your mosque…
A recent talk I was kindly asked to deliver on the ubiquitous topic of “women in Islam: liberated or oppressed?”
+ Q and A
Reading University islamic society: Muslim women, liberation or oppression?