Intersectioned Femislam

burqa-as-prisonWhat is it about Islam that sends otherwise intelligent, articulate and devoted activists for atheism, equality and feminism into a mental spin?

In some cases we know that it’s fear. Islamic people haven’t exactly been shy when it comes to death threats, murders, protests, property damage and so on. There’s also the more concerning fear of being incorrectly labelled a racist for going after a religion, mostly because – ironically – people associate it with brown people and thus confuse it with race.

There’s another reason though. An uneasiness about criticising awful behaviour and beliefs simply because someone is a member of a group that is perceived to be oppressed in some way. This is how groups like the New Black Panther Party get their racism excused – because it is directed at whites and they’re considered to be part of an oppressed demographic. It’s more egalitarian feminists rarely dare to speak up against the less egalitarian cohort, even when they do execrable things.

All well and good when fighting with idiots on the internet but when it turns up in an article in a major newspaper it’s harder to ignore.

So, going through the article…

As a person who writes about women’s issues, I am constantly being told that Islam is the greatest threat to gender equality in this or any other country – mostly by white men, who always know best.

When you’re writing an article about sexism and racism it’s generally not a good idea – in my humble opinion – to open with a racist and sexist statement. This, however, calls back to what was mentioned earlier. Because whites and men are seen as ‘oppressor classes’ it is apparently perfectly excusable to express prejudice towards them. The fallacy here is obvious. Just because a person is white, or a man, or in a ‘privileged position’ of any kind, doesn’t mean that they are wrong.

The recent blanket coverage of the “gender segregation on campus” story was a textbook case. This month Student Rights, a pressure group not run by students, released a report vastly exaggerating a suggestion by Universities UK that male and female students might be asked to sit separately in some lectures led by Islamic guest speakers.

And this did happen, and further, was allowed to happen. Then guidelines came out excusing and allowing for it before the public and media fuss caused a reversal. Surely this should be taken as a victory for equality and a coming together of the popular will in support of feminist ideals.

Apparently not.

Even the prime minister stepped into the debate, saying the proposed guidelines, which have since been withdrawn, were “not the right approach”. The elite all-male Oxford club of which both he and the chancellor were members was presumably the perfect approach.

And now we all have a stick to beat him with over that, don’t we? In this instance he leant his support to this cause and helped it get carried through. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems still or that he isn’t a hypocrite, but he’s been a useful hypocrite and exposed a flank for further change. What about the ‘women only spaces’ or the ‘women born women’ only spaces? Since we’re mentioning hypocrisy.

I have spent weary weeks being asked to condemn this “policy of gender segregation” by “Islamic extremists”, despite the fact that no such policy exists. Of course, I condemn all sexism within the academy. I condemn segregated drinking societies and the under-representation of women at the top levels of academia. I condemn rape culture on campus, traditions like “seal clubbing” and “slut dropping” where male students are encouraged to sexually humiliate their female classmates. If I’ve enough breath left, I’ll condemn the suggestion that guest lecturers be allowed a segregated audience for religious reasons.

So why the grudging reticence to condemn an actual, out and out, self-admitted patriarchal culture and genuine rape culture? Why does that come after the much more complicated and nuanced issues of generational social change, what amounts to – at best – as ‘rape subcultures’? Why is it only after these things that you have the breath left to condemn Islam which is an open and overt oppressor of women? Does that make sense? It’s not to say that these other things aren’t also bad, but surely there must be some kind of rationale behind prioritisation, no?

It’s the dishonesty that angers me most. It’s the hypocrisy of men claiming to stand for women’s rights while appropriating our language of liberation to serve their own small-minded agenda. Far-right groups like the English Defence League and the British National party rush to condemn crimes against women committed by Muslim men, while fielding candidates who make claims like “women are like gongs – they need to be struck regularly“.

If they’re on the equality bandwagon then they’re ‘useful idiots’, as Dawkins called them. If they’re wrong on race that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong on Islam and equally, just because they’re right about Islam doesn’t mean they’re right about race. If they’re condemning misogynistic acts then good. All the more impetus behind opposing it. People don’t need to agree on everything (or indeed anything past the common issue) to work together.

Cromer believed the Egyptians were morally and culturally inferior in their treatment of women and that they should be “persuaded or forced” to become “civilised” by disposing of the veil.

And what argument is there to preserve it? To carry on with the idea that covering up women can somehow be empowering? If it’s a choice it could, perhaps, be argued but if ever there were a genuine case of false consciousness, as proposed by Marxists and Feminists, indoctrination since childhood would be it. Does this not go 180 degrees opposite to the points of slut walks and ‘teach him not to rape’, putting the onus back on the woman to hide herself because men are uncontrollable lust-beasts? It smacks of more hypocrisy to the observer.

Colonial patriarchs like Cromer … wanted merely to replace eastern misogyny with western misogyny.” More than a century later, the same logic is used to imply that misogyny only matters when it isn’t being done by white men.

Again I think there’s the matter of degree to take into consideration here. Is the western gender difference even of Victorian times worse than the misogyny of Islamic nations at the time, or even today? Absolutely not. Even stepping outside the Islamic bubble for a moment, consider the improvement to the plight of Indian women during British rule of India by bringing an end to the barbaric cultural practice of suttee.

We are the fools, if we believe that accepting aggressive distinctions between nice, safe western sexism and scary, heathen Muslim sexism is going to serve the interests of women. The people making these arguments don’t care about women. They care about stoking controversy, attacking Muslims and shouting down feminists of all stripes.

What confuses critics is the willingnesss of people who otherwise seem to fight very hard indeed over pointless frippery like the ten bob note, page 3 and lads mags showing such reluctance to tackle Islamic cultural and structural gender issues. They’re overt, they’re over here, they’re not arguable in the way claims of western ‘rape culture’ are, nor as difficult and nuanced to untangle from other social issues as the pay gap etc are. Here is a clear and obvious target, an unalloyed evil with no excuse, no confusion, a professed and even proud misogyny of growing social influence and yet because its a religion, because its wrongly associated with racism, you seem unwilling – or at least reticent – to touch it.

For decades, western men have hijacked the language of women’s liberation to justify their Islamophobia. If we care about the future of feminism, we cannot let them set the agenda.

Alternatively, they see a clear and unambiguous case of misogyny that they genuinely find disgusting and want to oppose – and you’re trying to push them away and minimise it. I don’t think that’s helpful.

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