myriamfrancoiscerrah

Just another WordPress.com site

Posts Tagged ‘feminism

New Statesman Book review: “Refusing the veil” by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

with one comment

You can read the original here on the New Statesman website.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a woman who prides herself on bridging worlds, denouncing racism at west London dinner parties while opposing religious bigotry down at the mosque. A committed anti-racism campaigner, she has been an almost-lone Muslim voice in the mainstream British media arguing against immigration scaremongering and retaliating against sweeping stereotypes of Muslims as anti-British terrorists. Her latest book, Refusing the Veil, part of a series entitled “provocations” for Biteback Publishing, is a passionate treatise against what she – as a Muslim, feminist and liberal – considers to be submission to a misogynistic symbol of women’s inferiority.

“The veil,” she argues, “in all its permutations, is indefensible and unacceptable”.

But this is no theological treatise aimed at challenging the textual validity of “veils”, though Alibhai-Brown does also question that. It is a fundamentally political treatise on the place of Islam and Muslims in Europe, in which Alibhai-Brown contends that Muslim women are exploiting “the weaknesses and vulnerabilities at the core of free societies”.

The book opens with her bemoaning the “bullying” of schools over the right of female students to wear face veils, arguing that “veils are now ubiquitous”, something she refers to as a “depressing and scary development”. The bullying, we are told, is happening from radical Muslims allied with well-intentioned liberals, who misunderstand the meanings behind the face veil. While the face veil has become a source of tension in certain contexts, namely schools and court buildings, establishments have typically found a compromise between upholding security requirements or other societal obligations and the freedom of religion of individuals. Sadly, discussions of mutual accommodation, itself a manifestation of the very integration allegedly at stake here, are entirely absent in favour of a confrontational binary between entitled radical Muslims on one hand and beleaguered liberal institutions on the other.

Nor is the underlying argument particularly original. Abandoning the veil as a renunciation of the “backwardness” of traditional religions has its earliest permutations in the Sixties and Seventies in Muslim majority countries, where reformers sought to emulate the west’s “success” through the wholesale adoption of European mores and habits. In Iran, this involved the forced imposition of bowler hats in place of turbans by the then Shah. Elsewhere, it manifested as a move away from the headscarf and traditional clothing in favour of European-style skirts and suits. Since then, postcolonial critics have argued against linear view of these developments, promoting instead the idea of multiple modernities, within which traditional symbols can and are inverted to produce new meanings. Contemporary academic studies of veiling widely recognise it as one such example, with multiple meanings ascribed to a garment – the significance of this is open to evolution as part of Islam’s discursive tradition. Although Alibhai-Brown quotes the academic Leila Ahmed approvingly, Ahmed’s most recent publication is a refutation of these views, in which Ahmed asserts that many women who wear the hijab, or headscarf, “now essentially make up the vanguard of those who are struggling for women’s rights in Islam”.

Indeed Alibhai-Brown seems out of touch with contemporary debates among Muslim women surrounding the significance of veiling, not least as a feminist principle aimed at challenging the very patriarchy she claims underpins it. Contemporary arguments examining how the global south has re-appropriated traditional symbols as a means of resistance and national cultural reassertion are all but lost in favour of simplistic arguments concerning the veil as a sign of commitment to backward values. This is a view buttressed by support for the views of intellectuals like the Egyptian thinker Qasim Amin, who believed in the superiority of European civilisation, or the dubious feminism of the late nineteenth century colonialist Lord Cromer who, while he did reject the veil as backwards, simultaneously opposed the suffragettes back in the UK.

Of the many critiques which can be made of this book, its lack of conceptual clarity is surely the most glaring. To pen an entire book on “the veil” without clarifying what exactly one is referring to at any point lacks intellectual rigour. This may well be the desired objective, to lump all Muslim women’s religious attire together under one problematic term – except that these varied manifestations of faith, and sometimes culture, are motivated by different worldviews. There is no single, monolithic, misogynistic worldview underpinning all of them, (although such motivations may exist among individual wearers) and consequently her objections are united by one common theme – the problematisation of the visibility of Europe’s Muslim population. This aligns Alibhai-Brown’s voice with the Swiss ban on minarets, the French face veil ban and the Danish ban on halal meat, which are all reflections of European crispation in the face of a more confident and assertive Muslim identity.

And yet, Alibhai-Brown is unwilling to recognise the continuity of her discourse with that of the far right, whose increasing presence on the European political scene has allowed them to dictate the terms of national discussions, including on this very issue. Her sole acknowledgement of this overlap is a single line when she states “these people don’t matter”. Sadly, that isn’t entirely accurate. Just this year, the French Front National (FN) captured its historic first senate seats, following a strong showing at the European elections in May. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the FN is “at the gates of power”. Polls even suggest that FN leader Marine Le Pen could easily make the run-off in the 2017 elections and even win if up against Francois Hollande. In Germany, anti-islamisation protests, which have nothing to do with the far right, are growing. Here in the UK, the rising popularity of the xenophobic Ukip can hardly be divorced from a broader climate in which Muslims are regularly the focus of national ire. Consequently, and according to new research, Muslims are facing the worst job discrimination of any minority group in Britain, with Muslim women up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. According to Dr Nabil Khattab, of Bristol University, the situation was “likely to stem from placing Muslims collectively at the lowest stratum within the country’s racial or ethno-cultural system due to growing Islamophobia and hostility against them.”

Alibhai-Brown herself has been the victim of this growing racism, writing recently of how she was spat at by a middle-aged white woman who shouted at her “bloody paki“ on a bus, a fact which only makes her blind spot on this all the more troubling.

The book links the veil to problems of integration and national identity, yet ignores the broader dynamics of integration – the reception offered to migrant communities, unemployment, racism, ghettoisation. The veil becomes the focal point for societal ills because, it is claimed, it represents a commitment to backward values, rather than the progress epitomised by western societies. This teleological view of progress underpins the entire book. We are given the sense of a besieged liberal Britain under attack from fanatical veiled hordes.

Alibhai-Brown claims not to want to ban the face veil, but provides all the moral arguments necessary for precisely that. Whether she supports the legislation directly or not, her arguments complement a growing tide in Europe which seeks to criminalise Muslim women, ironically in order to free them – despite themselves! Amnesty International has condemned moves to ban face veils as “an attack on religious freedom”, in recognition that restrictions on women wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as forcing them to wear one. But Alibhai-Brown doesn’t even engage with the arguments concerning the co-opting of feminist rhetoric and the language of human rights in order to mask a growing tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The complexities are numerous – some Muslim women, such as the granddaughter of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who wears the headscarf out of conviction, also object to state imposition of the headscarf. Award-winning Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, an outspoken critic of the “veil”, believes “It is surely a basic human right that someone can choose what she wears without interference from the state”.

In a Foreign Policy article discussing the headscarf, one woman explained: “I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke,” but there is no discussion in YAB’s book of whether all religiously associated garments are to be problematised – the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skullcap, say – rather the entire focus is on the uniquely troubling item worn by Muslim women. This is a view that feeds into this view of Islam as distinctively troublemsome, and as somehow singularly oppressive to women.

This assumption of coercion permeates the book over and above than the myriad voices of the women Alibhai-Brown consults and who offer up a range of motivations for their sartorial choices, from resisting consumerism, to spirituality, through to political solidarity. And this simplification of Islam is recurrent in the book – elsewhere, she falls into classic orientalist depictions of over-sexed Muslims, as the reader is told “Muslim men and women spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, talking, regulating and worrying about sex.”

For all its pleas of defending liberalism, this is a socially conservative book dressed up as a liberal feminist manifesto. It expounds an intolerance regarding the visible difference of others which is distinctly at odds with core liberal principles and their very British articulation in the shape of “live and let live”.

Its feminist credentials are equally questionable, especially given that any explanation articulated by “veil”-wearing women is delegitimised through an appeal to arguments about “false consciousness” and brainwashing, denying Muslim women agency in their decisions and reducing them to passive recipients of male intent. Muslim women are described as “severely controlled”, and “hard” Muslim men, we are told, “want to banish Muslim women from shared spaces”. Although the existence of controlled women and controlling men, Muslim or otherwise, is undeniable and a serious cause for concern, the suggestion that this is the predominant case when it comes to women and “veiling” is not only at odds with academic studies (Scott, Ahmed, and others) but confirms precisely the sort of stereotyping Alibhai-Brown has spent so much of her life denouncing.

Refusing the Veil might be a revolutionary title in Iran or Saudi Arabia where it would signify opposition to a legal imposition on women. Here in Britain, where despite the undeniable existence of community pressures on women, most adult women have a considerable margin of freedom concerning their sartorial choices, it is just another call for policing women’s clothing.

In the book, Alibhai-Brown slips fluidly between Saudi Arabia and Hammersmith with no attention to the differing contexts and consequent meanings each place carries. While the Saudi government undoubtedly uses clothing as items of subjugation, it is wrong to assume that women in the UK are experiencing anything like the same subjugation. This a problematic conflation of Muslim female victimhood, which perpetuates stereotypes of passive, voiceless victims.

Alibhai-Brown presents herself as the middle ground, referring disparagingly to veils, while denouncing other women’s clothing as “tarty”. Yet the patriarchal impulse underpinning any public call to define what should constitute appropriate women’s clothing remains. In a section in which she seeks to debunk the idea that covering will protect women from rape, she doesn’t address the worrying assumption that rape itself is linked to clothing, and that discussions of rape in terms of women’s attire only confirm the view that women are somehow complicit in their abuse.

Alongside the fluid use of the term “veil”, other, disparate phenomena are put in the same bracket. Honour killings and domestic violence both end up linked, through reference to personal anecdotes, to women wearing the “burka”. It is worth stating with force that neither so-called “honour killings”, themselves a form of domestic violence, and domestic violence more broadly are in fact a “Muslim” phenomena and sadly exist across cultures. Burkas may well cover bruises, but so does make-up – neither can be causally linked to the violence itself.

According to Alibhai-Brown, the main culprit behind the rise in “veiling” is the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi petro-dollars – but the truth is while some women who cover their face certainly are Wahabi-inclined, others may well be traditionalists or Islamist, and some even claim feminist motivations. It really can’t be overstated how problematic it is to attribute meaning to people’s choices without ever even enquiring as to the basis for those choices.

Too often discussions about the meaning of religious coverings are undertaken – as was the case of the French face veil ban – without involving the voices of the women who choose to wear the items. In her book, Alibhai-Brown sees a woman in a full face veil pushing a pram in the park, and proceeds to impute a whole series of ideas to her, without even stopping to speak to the woman – her defence? Her face being covered made it impossible to communicate. But the truth is, to quote Arundhati Roy: “There is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately unheard.” Alibhai-Brown could have just as easily approached the woman and struck up conversation, particularly if, as she claims in her book as grounds for opposing the “veil”, she is that concerned that under every face veil could lie a battered body. In the modern age, so much of our interaction occurs without being face to face, without eye contact or the ability to read facial or body language. While you might prefer eye contact, it can hardly be said to be an absolute impediment to any form of interaction.

Many of the arguments in the book are emotional – why are babies or young girls being dressed in headscarves? Burkas hide bruises! Solidarity with women who are forced to wear them should make you remove it! Where will you get your vitamin D?! None of these are particularly original and many are completely nonsensical. For a start, solidarity with women who are legally coerced into wearing certain types of clothing might arguably be better served by supporting women’s right to make informed choices, whether in Saudi Arabia or in France. Secondly, evidently not wearing burkas isn’t the solution to ending domestic violence, with 30 per cent of British women – most of them not wearing burkas – experiencing domestic abuse. As for arguments about vitamin D deficiency, they hardly warrant a rejoinder but to note that like any vitamin deficiency, a supplement – not a political debate – is a more apt response.

A final, salient critique of the book, is its middle class bias. That the veil offends the sensibilities of west Londoners out on walk on Ealing Common should hardly provide the basis for a repudiation of a garment which, whatever its symbolic ascription, is often worn by a strata of women already facing many different challenges. To claim to do so out of a feminist concern for those very same women, while actively contributing to their dehumanisation through the use of terms like “cloaks” and “masks”, to legitimate “revulsion” by empathising with such reactions towards them, is to give credence to the very same racist and discriminatory attitudes which Alibhai-Brown has made her name opposing.

This book is a validation of quiet, middle class prejudice, the type which dare not speak up for fear of being accused of being racist, but as Alibhai-Brown herself reveals in the book, feels deeply uncomfortable with “the veil”. Rather than challenging that prejudice, Alibhai-Brown provides the ultimate insider’s reassurance that such emotions are warranted and legitimate. For such a pivotal anti-racism campaigner, it is a sad capitulation to anti-Muslim prejudice.

Written by Myriam Francois

December 12, 2014 at 16:27

HuffPost blog: “What I Might Have Said If I Had Been on Newsnight…”

with 2 comments

You can read the original post here:

On Monday evening, Newsnight convened a panel of Muslims to discuss a short film on the topic ‎of “who speaks for Muslims”, made by Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz. The panel included ‎the journalist Mehdi Hasan and the Muslim commentator Mo Ansar and was chaired, (although ‎arguably not much!) by Jeremy Paxman.‎

The film itself featured a number of voices which Nawaz argued were marginalised by the Muslim ‎community and served to illustrate his point, on the backdrop of his tweet of a Jesus and ‎Mo ‎cartoon, that Muslims need to be more inclusive and attentive to minority voices. ‎

So, what would I have added to the discussion if I had been present? Probably not much given its ‎shambolic nature, but here are a few points I was hoping to make:‎

‎1)‎ Was the cartoon Maajid tweeted offensive?

The simple answer is, yes, to many Muslims it ‎was, for the simple reason that Islamic art, at least in its Sunni variant, traditionally prohibits ‎pictorial representations of prophets. Even among Muslims who do represent prophets, ‎the images are of the sacred variant – in other words, they are reverential, respectful. If you ‎don’t want to take my word for it, then just read on:

“Islamic visual arts are decorative, ‎colourful, and, in the case of religious art, non-representational. The Koran regulated every ‎detail of the lives of the Faithful but gave few precise rules for the arts apart from banning ‎the production of cult images.”

And yes, that’s from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art ‎Terms, that typically ‘islamist’ source. ‎
Ah, but it wasn’t Islamic art now was it, it was atheist “art”? Well you’d be right to point ‎that out. The anonymous author of the Jesus and Mo series himself says:

“I think it’s ‎important to remind people of a religious persuasion who might be upset or offended by ‎Jesus and Mo that it is not for them. They are not the intended audience, so to complain ‎that they find it hurtful or offensive is irrelevant. Why are they looking at it?” ‎

Why indeed! Hold on, they’re looking at it because Maajid – the establishment’s go to ‎person on Muslim issues – tweeted it. When he says “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened ‎by it”, what he’s actually saying is “I, as a ‘moderate Muslim’, don’t take offence, so neither ‎should others”, thus casting the insidious shadow of ‘extremist’ doubt over those who did ‎feel offence.‎

Let’s be clear – Maajid is entitled not to adhere to the predominant view among Muslims ‎on the pictorial representation of prophets and the even more widespread view that ‎intentionally deriding images of anyone’s sacred symbols is offensive, but you can’t feign ‎naivety over people’s upset. I mean, that’s the actual point of the cartoons – to ridicule ‎believers.‎

Maajid’s defence is that he wants us all to become a little thicker skinned, to counter the ‎‎’blasphemy’ culture and all that jazz which quite incidentally I’m sure, makes for enticing ‎sound bites for potential funders. But given prior reactions to the posting of other religious ‎‎’satirical’ cartoons – think Denmark 2005 – global protests – what exactly was the strategy ‎here? Light the tinderbox and then reveal you are in possession of an ideological fire truck? ‎I’m not sure how effective a tactic that truly is.

Violent reactions (of which on this occasion ‎it should be pointed out, there were none) are unacceptable, but so surely is seeking to ‎provoke them in order to prove a point. Meaningful change is the type of gradualist work ‎undertaken by activists on the ground who seek to change mentalities with, not against ‎the community.‎

Thankfully the reaction among British Muslims was meek to say the least. Well, if you ‎consider over 22,000 signatures opposing Nawaz meek. Perhaps not meek then – maybe ‎more like, moderate? Surely Maajid should be proud, Muslims, displeased with the ‎behaviour of a prospective MP, started a petition (how civilised!) calling for an investigation ‎by the Lib Dems into his behaviour. Judging by their response you’d think Britain’s most ‎‎’obscurantist’ Muslims might not actually be in need of mass surveillance and ideological ‎re-alignment – they seem to have this democracy business pretty much figured out.‎

‎2) But why should the majority of the British public have to respect the religious eccentricities ‎of Muslims?

Well ironically enough, Maajid’s report was all about the importance of ‎tolerance and respecting the voice of different minorities within the Muslim minority (gay, ‎ex-muslim, feminist). Presumably that extends to minorities within a majority as well? Or it ‎is only Muslims who should feel compelled to respect minorities in their midst? ‎

No, that doesn’t mean censorship, it means treading lightly around people’s sacred ‎symbols. ‎

Are some people still going to be offended? ‎Probably. ‎Does that mean we shouldn’t show images of the Prophet? ‎ No, it simply means those who use offensive images to further an extremist anti-religious ‎agenda should be outed for their deliberate provocation, not heralded as martyrs of free ‎speech. ‎

The Jesus and Mo series existed long before Maajid decided to tweet about it. It became ‎an issue because:

a) Maajid describes himself as Muslim so there was some expectation among Muslims that ‎he would not deliberately trample all over Muslim sensibilities ‎

b) while Muslims could and did ignore the Jesus and Mo series while it remained in a ‘look ‎if you want, don’t if you don’t’ corner of the internet, they could no longer ignore it when ‎one of the most prominent Muslim figures in the UK tweeted it and proclaimed the rest of ‎us were loons for being upset by it. Cheers Maajid. ‎

c) finally, although Maajid likes to reiterate the fact the particular cartoon he tweeted is ‎fairly innocuous (and as far as religious satire goes, it is!), it is not a stand alone image. It is a ‎part of a series intentionally created to mock, demean and belittle the faith of Christians ‎and Muslims. Surprisingly – or not perhaps, many faithful interpret the images as they ‎were intended. Don’t take my word for it, here’s the author of Jesus and Mo: “I have to ‎admit that the potential offense of an imagined religious reader also adds an element of ‎humor – of a childish, sniggering variety.”

And while I’m here, there is something quite ‎sinister about depicting Prophet Mohamed with a hooked nose and a uni brow – playing on ‎Arab racial stereotypes? How hilarious. ‎

‎3)‎ Is this really all about cartoons? Actually no! The ever perceptive author of the Jesus and Mo ‎cartoons himself responded on this issue by saying: “It shows that the whole business is ‎not about the comic, but rather a personal attack on Maajid Nawaz”.‎

‎A personal attack on Maajid? That sounds terrible. Why would people want to personally ‎attack Maajid. Well, despite his gleaming reputation as the bulwark against the hoard of ‎barbarians (or the modern variant, the “islamists”), many within the Muslim community ‎regard the Quilliam Foundation (QF) and Maajid in particular with some suspicion. ‎

For one thing, an oft-repeated critique is that he has retained the Manichean outlook developed ‎during his time in the radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Maajid has a nasty little habit of smearing his ‎critiques as ‘islamists’ and suggesting all those who object to the QF’s undertakings are closet Al ‎Qaida groupies. Needless to say this has irked quite a few people. Not least those individuals his ‎organisation flagged up as allegedly sharing the ideology of terrorists in a secret memo to the ‎Home Office. The list included the terrifying anti-war campaigner Salma Yaqoob.‎

And that’s not all people are angered about. QF has consistently advised the government in a ‎manner which has increased surveillance and suspicion of Muslims despite very little evidence to ‎suggest their ‘conveyor belt’ theory is actually in any way credible. According to the author and ‎Guardian journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed:

“Government advisers, counter-extremism officials, and ‎‎(current and former) civil servants confirm that the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy is ‎failing to tackle the danger of violent extremism; rather, it is exacerbating the threat of domestic ‎terrorism. These officials attribute the failure to a “fundamentally flawed” approach to counter-‎terrorism strategy inspired by a UK anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.”‎

On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest QF’s work is not merely flawed but negatively ‎impacting our ability to actually tackle terrorism. ‎

To realise just how flawed, take the example of STREET, a south London organisation engaging ‎alienated young Muslims which was listed as ‘extremist’ by the QF in 2010. One counter ‎radicalization expert has said that if STREET had been operational today “the Woolwich incident ‎could have been averted.”‎

A recent Demos report shows that although many Muslims share similar concerns over the plight ‎of occupied or war-stricken peoples, they do not condone the tactics used by terrorists. Placing ‎such individuals on the same risk list as those who believe in the use of violence is frankly a gross ‎mischaracterisation of people’s outlook and a huge waste of government time and energy on ‎individuals who do not actually pose a threat. But don’t take my word for it. One former senior ‎OSCT director responsible for Prevent has gone on record saying. “I and other counter-terrorism ‎experts were telling the coalition cabinet that non-violent extremism is not a factor in the real ‎threat.”‎

People’s antagonism towards Maajid isn’t actually about him being the alleged beacon of liberal ‎tolerance, in an ocean of hate-filled bigotry, as he and his minions like to claim. Muslims don’t ‎dislike Maajid because he supports gay rights or free speech. They might disagree with him on ‎issues, but the visceral reaction he engenders has little to do with his personal outlook and ‎everything to do with his think tank’s extremely poor engagement with the community it ought to ‎be supporting in eradicating violent elements which, Gallup polls indicate, worry Muslims even ‎more than they worry the broader public.‎

And the list of grievances wouldn’t be complete if I failed to mention Maajid’s new BFF, Tommy ‎‎(not really ex-EDL) Robinson – having tried his hand at reforming Islamic extremists, Maajid ‎extended his skills to the far-right, establishing a working relationship with the most extreme face ‎of islamophobic rhetoric in the UK. Having smugly announced that Tommy was reformed (wow, ‎that was quick!), Tommy almost immediately slipped back into his old habits, joining the murky ‎network of islamophobes the “SION Presidents Council” (that’s the catchy “Stop Islamization of ‎Nations” to you and me) alongside the anti-Muslim propagandists Robert Spencer and Pamela ‎Geller who just this summer, the home secretary had banned from entering the UK.‎

If this wasn’t enough to ruffle a few feathers, in Monday’s film, his linking of Muslim feminists to ‎ex-Muslims as different examples of “progressive” voices within the community has done a huge ‎disservice to Muslim feminists who struggle as it is to be recognised as speaking from within. Now ‎we’re being put in the same boat as those who campaign against the faith! How helpful is that to ‎our efforts at working for gender equality within our community.‎

In the film, Namazie from the Council of ex-Muslims, claimed that emphasising Islam as one’s main ‎or only identity was “part and parcel of the effort to hand them over to the islamists” which sounds ‎like a conspiracy if I ever heard one. And why would it be problematic for people to define ‎themselves first and foremost as “Muslim”? A poll of Muslim Londoners by Gallup found that while ‎most (69%) strongly identified with their faith, a majority (57%) also strongly identified with their ‎country and that Muslim Londoners are just as likely as the British public overall to condemn ‎terrorist attacks on civilians. Why are islamophobes like Namazie being given a platform to espouse ‎erroneous and stigmatising nonsense under the guise of, according to Maajid’s introduction, giving ‎a voice to an “increasing number of Muslims using their faith identity to advance a progressive ‎agenda.” What is progressive exactly about stigmatising those who identify first and foremost with ‎their religious identity as somehow ‘extreme’? By that token surely the Pope, Dalai Lama and Chief ‎Rabbi are all ‘extremists’!‎

Are there issues of intolerance within the Muslim community? Certainly there are. Do I think the ‎Council of ex-Muslims are part of the solution. I should hope it is fairly obvious that they can’t be. ‎Unless your proposed solution, which presumably is theirs, is a mass exodus from the faith.‎
Far more insulting than any tweet is the inclusion of the ex-council of Muslims as part of a package ‎on progressive Muslims.

The Muslim community is far from perfect, but our misrepresentation as ‎squabbling men who need reforming through those who have themselves rejected the faith is ‎palpably absurd. Who speaks for Muslims? How about the myriad Muslims doing the hard graft on ‎the ground.‎

The Independent: “Lady Gaga’s burqa is good for Muslim women”

with 4 comments

Is Gaga’s recent choice to wear various “Islamic” items of clothing, a shameless exploitation of orientalist fetishes to promote herself as a pseudo-edgy ‘artiste’? Indeed it is. And yet, I find myself strangely satisfied at the uproar caused by her neon pink burqa, because it challenges the discursive monopoly on the meaning of Muslim women’s clothing. Muslim women’s clothing, apparently, can be oppressive or it can be nothing at all.

In 2009, Lady Gaga held a press conference to which she turned up wearing a bizarre full face covering. Unfazed by her typically outrageous fashion choices, the journalists proceeded to quiz her on her music, none storming out in protest that it was “impossible to read her facial features” or concerned about the “true identity” of who sat before them – no, not one even complained that it was “hampering communication”. Why? Because she’s Lady Gaga and not a Muslim woman.

Because so much of the public narrative – from justifications for war to bans on Muslim women’s attire, depends on the perception of veils as inherently misogynistic, any suggestion they could be empowering is met not merely with consternation, but faux indignation at the poor brown women presumably insulted by this. Of course, Gaga chooses to wear a ‘burqa’ (is a transparent burqa still a burqa?) when women in Afghanistan and elsewhere don’t always have the luxury of choice – but they also don’t have the luxury of themselves defining the significance ascribed to articles of Muslim dress.

The accusations of white privilege levelled at Gaga do hold some sway – after all, it is absolutely and unequivocally because she is white/wealthy/famous that she goes unchallenged in her choice to cover her head, hair or body. But the inherent double standard in the treatment of white/powerful women who cover their faces versus the treatment of poor/disenfranchised/ brown women who do, is far more interesting to me than the problematic regurgitation of orientalist clichés which frankly, I’m virtually inured to.

Now I could be wrong here, but I don’t recall a huge debate about whether her choice to wear a meat dress to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards was her take on a post-modern critique of the meat industry – perhaps I just happened to miss that, but it is telling that it’s Muslim women’s clothing (I use “Muslim” in the broadest sense) which seems, yet again, to be causing such a stir. And that’s because the discourse on Muslim women’s clothing, and its invariably oppressive significance, is so narrowly policed, so rigidly defined, that any deviation from that script inevitably leads to accusations of sympathising with misogynistic loons who employ some of the items in question as part of their anti-women arsenal.

Now it’s unfortunate for Muslim women who choose to wear some sort of veil that there are sadly a number of oppressive countries who like to dictate to women what they consider to be Islamic clothing and that the easy assumption often follows that wearing one implies support/sympathy/approbation of the latter. It does not.

The contention levelled at Gaga on this occasion is that by wearing an overtly glamorous face veil, or a neon pink transparent burka or using lyrics which appear to ‘glamorise’ (God forbid!) aspects of some Muslim women’s clothing, she is unwittingly supporting the patriarchy and insulting those women who are forced to wear the garb in question.

I’m not only not offended by her choice, I’m also somewhat perturbed by the criticism she’s received over it – no one has a monopoly on the significance of symbols. There is no a priori meaning hidden behind the face veil – even different Muslim cultures offer different views and meanings to it. To some women, it is the pinnacle of piety, to others, a modern accretion, for others still, a neo-feminist choice. So if Lady Gaga wants to don a face veil and, in so doing, add yet another, American pop culture layer of significance to it, I say bring it!

I relish the fact her act subverts the monopoly on meaning typically associated with the face veil as the evil imposition of male domination. Perhaps now there’ll be a little more room for different Muslim women to contribute their understanding of these symbols and in so doing, move from object, to subject in that discussion.

In the Atlantic, Allie Jones argues that Gaga donning the burqa represents a “sexualisation of Muslim women”, fetishizing “the women of another culture in order to sell records”. In her latest tune ‘Burqa’ she raps “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?” Although this clearly does play into orientalist depictions, it has one significant difference and that’s the idea of active, versus the typically passive sexuality associated with Muslim women. It’s also true that Lady Gaga sexualises everything – even lobsters. So Muslim women can at least rest easy that we are not the sole targets of her sexualising crusade.

Gaga is appropriating Islamic symbols and in so doing, associating her confident sexual identity and power with women typically assumed to be passive and voiceless victims. Partly, this is why people are so shocked. How dare a burqa-clad woman also be a confident sexual being? How outrageous that the niqab be linked to one of the biggest American cultural icons of the 21st century.

Let’s be honest – Gaga isn’t changing the game for Muslim women – she’s far more concerned with selling records than with taking a political stance – but rather than be offended by her latest outlandishness I find myself smiling at the thought of her being stopped by French officials while shopping in Galeries Lafayette or harangued at JFK airport as she returns to the US. Of course she probably won’t be. But the exceptionalism she’s afforded reveals a double standard far more concerning than the absurdity of a transparent burka.

Read the original piece here

Written by Myriam Francois

August 11, 2013 at 18:02

IWD: To celebrate or to mark?

with 4 comments

This is a speech I delivered at Southampton university feminist society IWD celebration

It was re-printed as on article on the Huffington Post, here and on the State of formation site, here

On the 101st International Women’s Day – like many women, I’m faced with a mixed bag of emotions. I want to celebrate our achievements, our gains, our pioneers – but I’ve also just returned from a trip to Bangladesh which was a timely reminder of why we ought to be marking, rather than celebrating, international women’s day. In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on a busy road in a downtrodden suburb, I met Moshina, aged nine, living on the streets. Her mother, who’d been forced into prostitution due to poverty, could no longer care for her and so little Moshina sleeps where she can, on a pavement, on some palm leaves, exposed to the elements and to the worst of human depravity. Just a week ago, a man snatched her from the street she calls home, dragged her to a derelict building and attempted to rape her. She escaped only because her screams drew the attention of some locals. A volunteer from the street school where she comes to gain a semblance of education, and some human warmth, tells me girls disappear all the time – many never to be seen again.

Bangladesh has a lot of problems, child poverty being just one. But the advances of women in the West are concomitant to the advancement of women worldwide – our gains can’t be at their expense – our indulgence in cheap clothes to keep up with the never ending fads, has a price – women in the west may think ‘fashion is freedom’, but to those making our jumpsuits in Bangladesh and elsewhere, our freedom is their slavery. Earlier this year, around 150 Chinese workers at an Apple manufacturer Foxconn factory threatened to commit suicide by leaping from their factory roof in protest at their working conditions. When the real cost of our freedom to consume is other people’s welfare and dignity, that’s not progress, that’s exploitation.

Of course I want to celebrate the three women recipients of the Nobel peace prize this year – three women from developing nations struggling for, in the words of Norwegian Nobel Committee president Thorbjoern Jagland “human rights in general and the struggle of women for equality and peace in particular.” As a Muslim woman, I was particularly pleased to see Yemeni “Arab Spring” activist Tawakkol Karman, who draws inspiration from her faith in her activism, being recognised for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. I see significant and positive advances in the collaboration between feminists globally and a greater recognition of the different manifestations of the ideal of female emancipation in diverse contexts.

The Arab spring has seen Arab women come to the fore in the struggle for their social and political rights. Who doesn’t recall the bravery of Iman al-Obeidi, the young women repeatedly raped by Gaddafi’s forces and who dared to speak out. Or the now infamous ‘blue bra woman’ in Egypt, being dragged and beaten by the Egyptian security forces. These women have become symbols of the revolution and one can only hope that the savagery they experienced will be engraved as a testimony to their full and equal participation in the national liberation struggles.

But it is worth caveating my optimism with concerns over the nature of the post-revolutionary regimes and the place they will afford the women who fought so valiantly for them. Stories are already emerging of the horrific and profoundly unislamic practise of honour killings of women and girls raped by Gadhafi loyalists in Libya. In Egypt, sexual harassment is one of the issues being raised in a march on parliament today, alongside fair representation and the issues of women’s equality in the writing of the new constitution. Despite their activism, women won just 2 percent of Parliament’s elected seats, down from 12 percent. That said, the number of women actively involved in politics is growing and it’s a tide which can’t be stopped.

In some countries where the authorities have succeeded in stifling protests, like Saudi Arabia, women are still struggling for basic autonomy, despite the brave efforts of activists flouting the regime’s bizarre and infantilising laws. In other countries, like Afghanistan, a woman is at least 200 times more likely to die during childbirth than from bombs or bullets. In India and China, female infanticide and sex-selective abortion remains all too common. (In one city in China, the ratio of males to females has gone from the natural average of 105-106 to 163 boys per 100 girls under the age of 5.) Sexual slavery is now prevalent in many countries. In Europe alone, officials estimate that more than 200,000 women and girls are smuggled out of Central and Eastern Europe each year, the bulk of whom end up working as enslaved prostitutes.

In the UK, women are hardest hit by austerity measures which often impact on their freedom to make choices about themselves and their family, against a backdrop of unequal pay whereby women are still paid 16.4 per cent less for full time work and 35 per cent less for part time work than men. In the words of Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian yesterday, “women earn less, own less, have less secure jobs, with three times more men than women earning in the top 10%”. The loss of legal aid will affect women suffering from domestic violence and make divorce harder for women, setting us back decades. On the issue of female political representation, 2011 data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on female parliamentary representation indicated that Britain ranks 49, above Uzbekistan at 50 and below Eritrea and 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.

Much has been written about the appointment of Christine Laguarde to the head of the IMF (independently of the merits of the IMF itself!) – the woman who famously said things might have been different had it been Lehman sisters – which is arguably a significant, if a somewhat symbolic appointment. It certainly makes a change from the all male line up usually seen at Davos. The 17% female turnout this year was the highest so far and may well reflect the quotas imposed on big companies to encourage female presence. Those cynical about quotas might note that various studies suggest greater involvement by women could help the global economy. The World Food Programme found that girls and women reinvest 90% of each dollar in their families by buying food, books and medicine, while the figure for men was more like 30% to 40%.

Women are still poorly represented in boardrooms and on our screens and when they do appear there, they must be youthful and beautiful over and above their skills, experience and expertise. There is still too much tokenism, too few older women on our screens and too much importance attributed to women based on their physical attributes rather than their professional ones. That said, this year has seen many articles discussing these very issues, raising the awareness of them in public consciousness – BBC Question Time even alluded to a critique made of the show’s largely white, male panellists, suggesting the media is listening and to some extent responding. Whether an all female panel discussing breast augmentation surgery or the merits of clown porn was what feminists had in mind, is perhaps another question – but slowly, slowly, things are moving.

Many of us will experience some form of sex related discrimination or violence in our lives. It ranges from the cultural acceptability of misogynistic jokes, such as the writer Helen Lewis-Hasteley being told in response to an article she’d written “nice article love, now make me a sandwich”, through to struggles women face over maternity leave, either in the pressure to return to work faster than we might wish, through to being overlooked for promotion due to pregnancy or the need for flexible working hours – through to actual physical violence, so that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence over their lifetimes. The normalization of violence against women, through popular culture – film, music, etc – should concern us – when many teens blame Rihanna, not Chris Brown for the attack which left the singer battered, we have a problem. When rape is trivialised through jokes, such as Russell Brand joking at the MTV awards about raping Meghan Fox, or when Unilad prints t-shirts which read “85 of rape cases go unresolved” going on to say “we like those odds”, we should be deeply concerned.

When billions of dollars are spent on cosmetic surgery—up to 90% of it by women—when millions of women around the world lack basic health care – when over half of young women say they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat whilst in developing nations almost thirty percent of all children are estimated to be underweight or stunted – I’m uneasy in speaking of a celebration.

I’ll sum up by saying that although the struggles ahead remain, it seems to me the issue of gender has found its place in our national dialogue – it is increasingly taken seriously as a factor in improving company performance, in the knowledge that women bring their own reservoir of potential to the table, is taken into account by broadcasters who, despite resisting change, are aware of feminist critiques, and feminist arguments are gaining visibility in the mainstream. Caitlin Moran, Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf are regular fixtures on our screens and in our publications. Arguably not in all – comedy and political shows tend to be more resistant, but the progress in the visibility of strong female figures is undeniable. There are also a growing number of men happy to define themselves as feminist and undoubtedly, that is a sign of progress!

The struggle as I see it now is to not allow ourselves to be satisfied with tokenism, to be open to the diversity of shapes feminist struggles take and to support women’s struggle for self-determination globally without losing sight of the broader struggles for peace, and for political and economic justice from which this struggle cannot be disentangled. In the Middle East and North Africa, these struggles must be understood within the context of authoritarianism and often of war, in which this issue is mired. Finally, we mustn’t allow our progress as women in the west to come at the expense of others worldwide. International women’s day is about all women – and many have sadly, very little to celebrate.

Written by Myriam Francois

March 9, 2012 at 10:47

Lecture: Islam and feminism – common ground?

with 2 comments

This is a lecture I delivered at the university of Southampton, a join Islamic society and Feminist society event in January 2012.

Written by Myriam Francois

February 20, 2012 at 13:55

Lecture: Is Islam a religion for Arab Men?

with one comment

This was a lecture I delivered at UWE university in Bristol in February 2012, on the topic: “Is Islam a religion for Arab Men?”

Written by Myriam Francois

February 19, 2012 at 11:37

Muslimah LTD conference: Muslim youth, Muslim students: The reality, the responsibility

with one comment

A short speech I delivered at the Muslimah Ltd conference in London on November 30th 2011.

Muslim Youth, Muslim Students – The Reality, The Responsibility

I’m here to talk to you about my experience of working with students on campuses across the UK. There are over 100 000 muslim students going through university at the moment – I’ve been in what I consider the privileged position of both being part of an active isoc for the first three years of my PhD at Oxford, but also a ‘public speaker’ who gets to visit campuses up and down the country speaking to students about the issues of concern to them. In my short time, I’ll aim to convey a snapshot of some of the issues, positive and negative which I’ve encountered on British university campuses.

Student Islamic societies have been getting a fairly bad rep in the press lately. From allegations of fostering extremism, to hotbeds of radicalisation, through to controversial speakers – many Muslim students are actually wary of joining their Islamic society (isoc) due to some of the fear mongering which we’ve heard. And in my view, that is a real shame. Over the last 5 years, which is in effect a very short amount of time, I’ve seen pretty significant improvements in British isocs – or certainly those I’ve visited. And it is worth making the point that those who know me and my views may not choose to invite me to the isocs where such perspectives are not welcome – i’m aware such places do exist.
I love working with students and I say working because public speaking for me is at its best an interactive process in which I can hope to convey the tiny knowledge I have to impart, and the students can share concerns and queries which we seek to tackle together. Young people are great – they’re vibrant, enthusiastic, energetic and brimming with ideas – they’re also young, inexperienced, and often naïve. As goes with youth – and mine being not that long ago I do still recall – they can also be intransigent, overly self-assured and convinced they know it all. With a decade on most of them, they greet my predication that the reality they currently often perceive in black in white, will with time morph into varying shades of grey – with raised eyebrows. So I hope in their assessment we can bear in mind that isocs are, like all student organisations, run by tired, stressed teenagers on essay deadlines, and their errors are more often than not the product of shambolic organisation rather than malevolent intent.

Today we’re looking at “integration, identity, social unrest and division” – those who know me know I’m allergic to the word integration as applied to individuals born and raised in this country, so let’s talk about civic responsibility instead – how do isocs fare in terms of inculcating a sense of citizenship and its attendant responsibility?

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

The topic of voting and whether it is permissible from an Islamic perspective was a fairly hotly debated topic not that long ago in the Muslim community and yet this to me is one example of significant progress, whereby many isocs host MPs or media figures who encourage political participation in all guises. This isn’t to say the issue is resolved – but it seems a far more marginal view nowadays that voting is proscribed and enthusiasm, interest and participating in politics, from the NUS through to campus political associations seems to be much more significant. This is partly fuelled by a feeling that Muslims must address what they view as unjust wars or occupations through the means available to them and in this, I see broad coalitions across campuses with isocs joining forces with anti war groups and human rights organisations to raise awareness of such issues. But it is also the product of efforts by isocs and fosis and various speakers to encourage political participation and it is working! Osman Ali is now the first Muslim vice-president of the NUS and he started in his isoc. Furqan Naeem, a pharmacy student from Bradford university, is now the chair of Manchester Young labour. Rehana ali is the Vice president of Student Education and Welfare at LSE Student union.
Most isocs also run a charity week in which they raise funds throughout the week for charitable causes, in some cases, running in the 10 000s of pounds, a huge achievement for a student organisation! Many run soup trains for the homeless and mentoring schemes and the focus is on giving back to the community and fostering a sense of service.
They also all run Islam awareness weeks in which they seek to inform fellow students about their religion, dispel misconceptions and provide a forum for discussion. One university had a stand entitled “ask us anything” which encouraged fellow students to share their views and concerns. Another had a try a hijab stall – and during Ramadan many host joint fasting events with other students who wish to try fasting or are doing so alongside Muslim students to raise money for charity.
I’ve also seen positive developments in the realm of interfaith at Oxford , a Muslim-Jewish organisation “MuJew” was created as a shared platform for cooperation. Nottingham isoc is currently looking in talks with the Jewish-Israeli society.
Some have had such a positive impact on their university campus, like Manchester uni isoc, that they’ve been awarded the best society across the whole university – a prize which recognises the immense dedication and contribution of Muslim students to their campus.

CONTROVERSIAL SPEAKERS

Are there conservative Muslim speakers espousing views that many of us may find distasteful – sure – there are – but as Muslim students broaden their horizons, they tend to come to that same conclusion. The other issue to bear in mind is that students are often contrarian by nature – they are rebelling, against society, against norms, against boundaries and my experience here again is that by their third year they’ve mellowed out a bit. They’re less drawn to the controversy, most desirous of forging links, cooperating, building.
Some of the issues are undeniably due to budget. Which speakers can afford to work for free? Typically those working for organisations which fund their public speaking – and where the funding comes from is usually indicative of the outlook they’ll be propagating… and the main issue is the outlook they disseminate is not always inclusive, can be discriminatory and exclusivist, perhaps even supremacist and often misogynistic. So much so, that I sometimes get asked if I mind addressing a mixed crowd during my lectures…
There have also been significant efforts by Fosis in particular to address the radicalisation issue, specifically through hosting an event which encouraged policy makers, the police and students to come together to discuss issues of concern. They also encourage communication with university authorities, such as regular meetings with the Chancellors.
This will not eliminate the presence of radical students on campuses – but to some extent, universities are places where radical thoughts are explored and as long as the law is not infringed, one would hope to see freedom of speech upheld. This of course runs counter to what was outlined in the Prevent agenda, namely the government’s position that there are certain religious or theological beliefs which are incompatible with the values on which this country depends; and this is true even if they are compatible with the law. But it seems to me absurd to suggest that everyone in Britain apart from the “non-integrated” Muslim Radical are committed to women’s rights or democracy – as far as I’m aware the Daily Mail is still running and anarchists have yet to be deported!
And my experience again tells me that students are keen to explore sensitive issues and get answers – many talks are intended for a mixed muslim, non-muslim audience and seek to appease fears over islam’s relationship to violence or its stance on women’s rights. In this, they seek reassurance from speakers who can help alleviate both theirs and other people’s concerns.

WOMEN

Women’s participation in isocs have been a delicate issue but is another area where I see vast improvements. Most isocs have two vice-presidents, one of whom is a woman. Salford university’s isoc president was a woman. UE isoc also had a female isoc president. Which of course is not to say there aren’t problems. Some isocs don’t offer an atmosphere conducive to female participation – a strict stance on keeping men and women separate at all times can make communication difficult. The best isocs strike a balance between cooperation on isoc related themes and doing their best to avoid becoming a dating agency. Remember, it is hormonal teenagers away from home, most for the first time, we are talking about here. The reality is that efforts to avoid young people developing too close bonds can lead to the isolation of female muslim students in these isocs, and this should be addressed.
There is still to my mind, a significant lack of female speakers – some isocs only invite female speakers to speak on “women’s issues” – but in my experience, once I point this out – they tend to ask for referrals of other female speakers (a rare breed) who could speak on a diversity of topics. So I do think openness to this issue has significantly improved in a fairly short space of time. There are still significant issues, particularly as concerns a narrow vision of women’s role and place in society, the idea that a woman is either a mother or a wife and a sense her place is ideally within the home. Young women themselves sometimes seem confused about whether they should be vocal or active, confusing the notion of “haya”, modesty, with a mandatory shyness which impedes them from speaking up. I’ve been asked by a young woman studying law whether she would be allowed to work after she was married…another asked if she could leave the house without her husband’s permission. And there is a sense of entitlement amongst many young men as regards what they think women owe them (their laundry, 3 square meals, cleaning, not to mention ‘obedience’) which certainly needs to be talked head on. There is a real thirst for female role models and reassurances that women in the public sphere are not an exotic aberration but a real reflection of Islamic principles.

ARTS

A recent development has been a greater interest in the arts, which I think shows a significant interest in contributing to our national tapestry – I’m aware that our Isoc at Oxford is for example planning a play which was written by the muslim students featuring both male and female muslim students. Fosis held an art competition last year which received over 200 entries! And I can’t recall how many muslim students have mentioned an interest in film… to me this is another very positive development, opening onto different mediums and a desire to express a positive aspect of their person rather than defensive posturing which it seems a lot of politics can be about. These students want to highlight the beauty of their religion and religious outlook and focus on the positive and to me this is very heartening.
I think you’ve gathered by now that overall I’m very positive about what I see on British campuses – is it perfect? Certainly not. Do I get frustrated when I hear about some of the antics – of course, but I’m reassured by the knowledge that broadly speaking, most people mellow out with age ( which is actually a variable in criminology). A recent report by Demos found that “Overall British Muslims are more likely to be both patriotic and optimistic about Britain than are the white British community,” and this is born out by my experience and time on British campuses.

Thanks for listening!

Written by Myriam Francois

December 1, 2011 at 14:06

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 876 other followers