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

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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”

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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 myriamcerrah

August 11, 2013 at 18:02

IWD: To celebrate or to mark?

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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 myriamcerrah

March 9, 2012 at 10:47

Lecture delivered at Kings College London – Topic: “mindless modesty?”

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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 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.

Lecture: Islam and feminism – common ground?

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

Written by myriamcerrah

February 20, 2012 at 13:55

Lecture: Is Islam a religion for Arab Men?

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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 myriamcerrah

February 19, 2012 at 11:37

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

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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?


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.


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’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.


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 myriamcerrah

December 1, 2011 at 14:06


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