Beyond the Veil: Perspectives on Muslim Women in a Western Secular Context
23 November, 2006
It is crucial to speak about the rights of 'Muslim' women, go beyond the issue of the veil, and talk about secularism, particularly in light of the political Islamic movement's assault on women and their rights, but restricting the debate in this way is seriously flawed.
Firstly, the so-called grouping of Muslim women is a constructed one. Out of the innumerable characteristics women have, why focus on their beliefs? Doing so, implies that religion informs the rights of all those labelled as Muslim (including very often people like myself - an atheist). This is not usually the case.
More importantly, why must women's rights issues be discussed within the framework of religion or for that matter, with regard to the beliefs – real or imputed - of the woman whose rights are being discussed? Generally, this is not how rights are examined. For example, do we discuss domestic violence vis-à-vis Christian women or in the context of Christianity?
This seems to happen especially when it comes to Islam because of cultural relativism and a policy of minoritism. The British state prefers it to be so as it can ensure that these so-called Muslim women are forever alien to British society, ghettoized in regressive fragmented "minority" communities where they continue to face sexual apartheid and Islamic laws and customs. Their rights are not the highest standards available in society as one would expect but the most regressive and reactionary. To help ensure that it remains so, the state leaves the running of these Bantustans on the cheap to self-appointed 'Muslim community' leaders and 'consultants on Muslim women's affairs' and continues with business as usual in wheeling and dealing with repressive Islamic states. The left, which is the traditional defender of women's rights, shamelessly endorses the situation as it sees Islam and political Islam as 'anti-imperialist'. As a result, no matter what happens - stonings and hangings in city squares in Iran or segregated Stop the War Coalition meetings in Birmingham and the manhandling of Iranian women's rights activists in Manchester - they are quick to ignore violations of women's rights. Hand in hand, they excuse and justify Islam and the political Islamic movement at the expense of women and their rights.
Clearly, a rights based discussion can't begin with Islam but has to begin with the woman and her rights. In my opinion, you can either defend women or you must defend Islam. You can't defend both because they are incompatible with and antithetical to each other.
In Islam a woman is sub-human, subservient, vilified and the property of men. To say that women have an elevated position under Islam is an insult to our intellect. Islam has wreaked more havoc, slaughtered more women, and committed more misogyny than can be denied, excused, re-interpreted, or covered up with such feeble defences.
According to the Koran, for example, those who are guilty of an 'indecency' must be 'confined until death takes them away or Allah opens some way for them.' (The Women, 4.15). 'Men are the maintainers of women' and 'good' women are obedient. Those that men fear 'desertion', can be admonished, confined and beaten' (The Women, 4.34). Wives are a 'tilth' for men, which they can go into their 'tilth' when they like (The Cow, 2.223) and on and on.
To say it is a problem of interpretation as some 'Islamic feminists' do is at best self-justification of one's beliefs or at worst the justification of a right wing political Islamic movement, which targets women first and foremost.
Let me give you an example of the absurdity of re-interpretations. On the verse that allows women to be beaten, so-called Islamic feminists say 'Islam only permits violence after admonishment and confinement and as a last resort. They say, since men would beat their wives mercilessly at that time, this is a restriction on men to beat women more mercifully' (Women Living Under Muslim Laws, For Ourselves Women Reading the Koran, 1997). Or another says 'In extreme cases, and whenever greater harm, such as divorce, is a likely option, it allows for a husband to administer a gentle pat to his wife that causes no physical harm to the body nor leaves any sort of mark. It may serve, in some cases, to bring to the wife's attention the seriousness of her continued unreasonable behaviour' (Gender Equity in Islam Web Site).
Suffice it to say that misogyny cannot be interpreted to be pro-woman even if it is turned on its head.
Of course everyone has the right to believe anything they choose – however medieval and reactionary. Moreover, tolerance of the right to hold such beliefs is part and parcel of a civil society but that is very different to allowing beliefs to inform women's rights or even tolerating the belief itself. Moreover, the question of choice is a questionable one when it comes to this situation. Of course an adult woman has the right to believe she must be veiled; must be beaten by her husband if she disobeys him; must be given the permission of her male guardian before she can travel or work; is not eligible for certain areas of study or work because of her 'emotions'; should be stoned if she has sex outside of marriage and so on and so forth.
But if you remove all forms of intimidation and threats by Islamists, Islamic laws, racism, cultural relativism and ghetto-isation, the recruiting grounds for the political Islamic movement, etc., I can assure you that there will be very few women who will want to discuss their rights within the framework of Islam.
That rights are discussed in this way is more of an indication of the strength of the political Islamic movement in this country than anything else. Which is why 'Islamic feminists' or 'consultants on Muslim Women's affairs' are more concerned about Islam than the woman and her rights.
Another example of this is their constant attempt at setting limits for who can and can't discuss 'Muslim women's rights'. I thought the whole point of defending rights was to mobilise as much support as you can rather than establishing an exclusive club of the few who are allowed to say anything on the subject!
Anytime anyone discusses women's status under Islam, s/he is labelled 'Islamophobic' and 'racist', a 'white feminist' supporter who ignores European and US imperialism's battle over 'Muslim women's bodies', a supporter of the USA's threats and militarism, a 'supporter of the war on terror', and so on and so forth. Not to forget that s/he will be told that there are more important things in the world today – like poverty or US imperialism (this one crops up all the time), and of course that the crimes of the US government is much worse and must be the main and only focus…
What utter nonsense!
Criticising Islam (a belief) and political Islam (a right wing reactionary movement that has raised Islam as its banner) has nothing to do with racism no matter how many deceptively claim it to be so. Criticising the belief in and practice of Female Genital Mutilation does not mean you are vilifying or inciting hatred against girls and women who believe they should be or are mutilated.
Moreover, solidarity amongst people has nothing to do with their skin colour, place of residence or governments under which they were born or live under.
Also, saying a defence of women's rights living under Islamic rules supports the war on terror or the USA's militarism or colonialism and imperialism is like saying sex education promotes promiscuity. Saying so is more an attempt to defend religion than anything else.
And, why must a comparison be made with other outrages in the world. Yes the US government is one pole of international terrorism in the world today but what does that have to do with a defence of women's rights living under the yoke of Islamic laws and rules?
Do we tell the environmentalist that children's rights are more important because children are so vulnerable? Do we tell the anti-racist activist that poverty is more important than racism because you have to be fed to be alive? It is only when discussing women's rights and those whose rights are deemed culturally relative that such arguments crop up.
And it only seems to come up with Islam and political Islam. No one says we shouldn't condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestine or Tony Blair because US militarism is the main problem of our times.
And of course we keep hearing about how Jack Straw or the French government have mentioned the veil and our doing so puts us in the same boat as them. How so? I want a ban on the burka, neqab and child veiling. I think child veiling is a violation of children's rights. I want the veil banned in all public institutions and the educational system. I will criticise the hejab as a tool for the repression of women even if some have the 'right' to 'choose' veiling. And I want much more done to religion, including an end to faith schools and the taxation of all these religious 'charities' and mosques…
Are we really supposed to stop speaking against the death penalty – for example - because Tony Blair is also against the death penalty in some way shape or form?
In this context, I think the defence of the veil as 'a form of clothing', 'expression of faith', 'matter of choice' and so on and so forth is more of the same. Saying we need to go beyond the veil implies that it is a superficial matter and that there are more important issues at stake. This is not the case.
The veil is a symbol like no other of what it means to be a woman under Islam - hidden from view, bound, and gagged. It is a tool for restricting and suppressing women. Of course there are some who choose to be veiled, but you cannot say it is a matter of choice because - socially speaking - the veil is anything but. There is no 'choice' for most women. In countries under Islamic rule, it is compulsory. Even here, in Britain, according to a joint statement about the veil from 'Muslim groups, scholars and leaders', including the Muslim Council of Britain, Hizb ut Tahrir and Islamic 'Human Rights' Commission, it is stated that the veil 'is not open to debate'. The statement goes so far as to 'advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution in this issue since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief.'
And you know what they do disbelievers when they can – kill them.
As I have said before, take away all the pressure and intimidation and threats and you will see how many remain veiled.
In my opinion, debating the issue of women's rights within an Islamic context is a prescription for inaction and passivity in the face of the oppression of millions of women struggling and resisting in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere. Stripped bare it is a dishonest defence of Islam pure and simple and has nothing to do with women's rights.
We must not allow the political Islamic movement to shift and redefine the debate on women's rights. Anywhere they have power, to be a woman is a crime. In places like Britain, however, where they are vying for political power, they aim to control women relegated to their constructed regressive community via a deceptive discourse on 'rights' and 'choice' whilst defending Islamic law and repressive groups and states in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are an extension of the same movement that stones women to death and throws acid in their faces if they are improperly veiled. The stronger they become, the more repressed are women in the so-called Muslim community.
In the face of this onslaught, secularism, universalism and values worthy of 21st century humanity have to be defended and promoted unequivocally. We must hold the human being sacred. We must start first and foremost with the human being. We must stop sub-dividing people into a million categories beginning with religion and not even ending in Human. We must not allow concessions to religion at the expense of women; we must not allow the respect for and toleration of misogynist beliefs and practices. We have a duty to criticise and challenge Islam and its movement especially given what it is doing to women today.
At a minimum, we must demand the complete separation of religion from the state and educational system. Secularism is an important vehicle to protect society from religion's intervention in people's lives. A person's religion has to be a private affair.
Only an unequivocal defence of universal rights, secularism and the de-religionisation of rights and values will begin to defend women and their rights and challenge head on the outrage of this century.
The above is a speech given at Goodenough College on November 13, 2006.