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 movements assault on women
and their rights, but restricting the debate in
this way is seriously flawed.
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
importantly, why must womens 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?
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 womens
affairs and continues with business as usual
in wheeling and dealing with repressive Islamic
states. The left, which is the traditional defender
of womens 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 womens rights activists in Manchester
- they are quick to ignore violations of womens
rights. Hand in hand, they excuse and justify
Islam and the political Islamic movement at the
expense of women and their rights.
a rights based discussion cant 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 cant defend
both because they are incompatible with and antithetical
to each other.
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.
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.
say it is a problem of interpretation as some
Islamic feminists do is at best self-justification
of ones beliefs or at worst the justification
of a right wing political Islamic movement, which
targets women first and foremost.
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).
it to say that misogyny cannot be interpreted
to be pro-woman even if it is turned on its head.
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 womens 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.
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
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 Womens affairs are more
concerned about Islam than the woman and her rights.
example of this is their constant attempt at setting
limits for who can and cant discuss Muslim
womens 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!
anyone discusses womens status under Islam,
s/he is labelled Islamophobic and
racist, a white feminist
supporter who ignores European and US imperialisms
battle over Muslim womens bodies,
a supporter of the USAs 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
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.
solidarity amongst people has nothing to do with
their skin colour, place of residence or governments
under which they were born or live under.
saying a defence of womens rights living
under Islamic rules supports the war on terror
or the USAs militarism or colonialism and
imperialism is like saying sex education promotes
promiscuity. Saying so is more an attempt to defend
religion than anything else.
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
womens rights living under the yoke of Islamic
laws and rules?
we tell the environmentalist that childrens
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 womens rights and those whose
rights are deemed culturally relative that such
arguments crop up.
it only seems to come up with Islam and political
Islam. No one says we shouldnt condemn the
Israeli occupation of Palestine or Tony Blair
because US militarism is the main problem of our
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 childrens 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
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?
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.
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.
you know what they do disbelievers when they can
I have said before, take away all the pressure
and intimidation and threats and you will see
how many remain veiled.
my opinion, debating the issue of womens
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 womens
must not allow the political Islamic movement
to shift and redefine the debate on womens
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.
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.
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
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.
above is a speech given at Goodenough College
on November 13, 2006