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Archive for January 2015

Jewish victims, Muslim shame

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An amended version of this appeared in The Sunday Times (£) on January 18, 2015

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Throughout the week, we have heard commentators condemning the Paris attacks which left 17 innocent people dead, while simultaneously chastising Charlie Hebdo journalists for “provoking” the wrath of Muslims.

It was almost like telling a woman who was raped that she should not have “provoked” her attacker by wearing a miniskirt.

Even Hamas – that well-known advocate of human rights and free speech – denounced the onslaught on the satirical magazine. Yet notable by its absence was any comment on the Jewish people who died in the supermarket.

I put this question to all those who, in a round about way, are trying to explain away the actions of terrorists they claim had “genuine grievances”: what was the justification for the murder of the innocent Jews? They were murdered simply for existing.

This debate is being framed around free speech but this is about the bigger picture. For Al Qaeda it was about making a statement and carrying out strategic attacks against those who mock them – Charlie Hebdo – and those who are perceived enemies – the Jews.

What the terrorists did last week was to ensure that Muslims around the world would get outraged over the cartoons and push the “Us vs Them” narrative. They want to draw the West into a war with them, but they received no such response. Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish a cartoon of Muhammad again after the attacks was incredibly brave and I admire them for it.

It was no surprise to read that some Muslims in France hold the Jews responsible for what happened at the magazine. While the atrocities in Paris were unfolding I was asked by a fellow Muslim in Manchester: “Are the Jews behind the cartoons?” Antisemitism is a deep-rooted problem within our communities.

Members of my parents’ generation have said they didn’t see any extremism during their youth. But that is because they didn’t live in a globalised world as my generation does.

Disillusioned with their parents’ culture and not feeling as though they belong in Britain, they are drawn more towards religion, the global Muslim ummah that gives them a sense of identity and purpose.

Last week I was asked by a suspicious Muslim gentleman why I was defending Jews. I have previously been labelled a coconut, sell-out and even “Jew lover” for saying such things. There is a conspiracy theory culture mixed with a perceived sense of grievance among some Muslims. Their belief is that Jews are protected and immune from criticism while Muslims are unfairly targeted.

Many people criticising the cartoons have been conflating racism with criticism of religion. The former is abhorrent and we have laws against this. The latter is perfectly legitimate.

Deborah Maccoby, executive of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, wrote a letter to the Guardian last Tuesday, saying that Jewish organisations should denounce the actions of Israel in order to reduce anti-Semitism and deter jihadists. I somehow doubt that chanting “free Palestine” and wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh would have melted the bullets fired by the terrorists.

Lest we forget, anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Even the “moderate Muslims” often come out with reactionary views — that they are being victimised, and that extremism is a result of the West’s foreign policy and a legacy of colonialism.

As the counter terrorism analyst Anas Abbas wrote in Left Foot Forward, the political blog, if these attacks were merely the result of grievances against colonialism, then all Indians living in the UK would be avenging the suffering of their ancestors.

We should remember that European enlightenment was a product of centuries of challenges to religious authority, after which secularism was able to flourish. That is one of the reasons why reactionaries abandon the Muslim world: silenced in their own countries, they seek refuge in the liberal West, only to undermine its principles from within.

What we need is for people to continue to blaspheme, else we will be complicit in the Islamists gaining strength and destroying us all. They are organised, determined and, armed with deadly weapons and the belief that they have a divine power on their side, they will prevail.

Dissenting voices I have come across with Muslim communities  have expressed fear for the future. If we do not defend our rights and freedoms then, to paraphrase Pastor Niemöller, one day there will be no one left to speak for us.

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Written by Iram Ramzan

January 19, 2015 at 6:40 pm

The veil: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown vs. Myriam Francois Cerrah

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Originally published for Harry’s Place on December 14, 2014

Writer and Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is not one for avoiding controversy. Her latest book, ‘Refusing the Veil’, will no doubt be criticised by many Muslims and those on the left – Myriam Cerrah recently wrote a scathing critique for the New Statesman.

While I am broadly with YAB on the niqab, there are some issues that I found troubling in her book, and Cerrah’s subsequent critique.

Whatever the reasons given by women for wearing the face veil, we cannot deny that it was initially prescribed in ancient times by men to women as a sign of their subservience. It is a barrier and physical separation intended to keep women in their place.

YAB has a point when she asks, “Why is market-driven brainwashing scandalous, but brainwashing perpetrated through religious dogma perfectly respectable?”  Quite. We should be able to criticise ideas, regardless of where they are taught. An idea should not be not be off limits simply because it is in a religious book.

I regularly see young girls wearing headscarves, which YAB criticises in her book, but unfortunately this is nothing new. Whether it is in the form of hijabs, not being able to partake in swimming lessons, or unable to wear Western clothes, girls have always been controlled by their families and had many restrictions placed upon them. It is just now, in this climate, we are noticing this more.

Although I broadly agree with YAB’s views on the niqab, my problem is that on the one hand she claims women are veiled because they are seen as sexual objects and their sexuality is dangerous to men, then denounces women for showing flesh as being sexual objects too.

On the BBC Asian Network [23:50], she said she would be upset if she were a Muslim man who was seeing all these girls being covered up as though they are somehow in “danger”.

But then she goes on to contradict herself, when she discusses “half-naked lasses” in a rather patronising manner.

One sees young women in clothes that call out to men. Preteens, younger girls, sometimes toddlers are dressed in flirty, foxy gear… These come-hither styles benefit only men and big business… Why are we allowed to question and criticise women in tarty clothes, but not hijabis.

If a man is turned on by a toddler in “foxy gear” then that is his sick problem. YAB criticises women for showing flesh in the same ways that more orthodox Muslims would denounce her for not covering her hair. She uses the same language that rape apologists use against women. Her words to describe the west as “materialistic, hedonistic, socially anarchic, sex-obsessed and atomised” could have been used by an Islamist.

There is a hierarchy when it comes to clothing with some Muslims. Those who wear niqabs and hijabs are at the top of the food chain, then the likes of YAB are somewhere in the middle and those wear “tarty” clothes are right at the bottom, loathed equally by Islamists and YAB alike.

YAB compares niqab to a micro miniskirt. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I am aware no woman has been whipped or had acid thrown on her face for not wearing a miniskirt, or refusing to wear a bikini. The comparison between the two is false.

Where do we draw the line between what amount of flesh is deemed ‘appropriate’ and ‘tarty’?

Salafisation?

YAB comes from a middle class background where Muslims she knew were very secular and largely unobservant. She discusses at great length the more tolerant versions of Islam that were followed by her and her friends. I am glad that she did not have an austere upbringing like some have had.

But she, and Cerrah, need to come to my part of the UK. Here, Muslims, largely of south Asian origin, have always been more conservative and religious. When I went to school I would see young Pakistani girls take off their headscarves as soon as they came to school and put them back on again before they had to go home. These were the same girls who, as soon as they completed their GCSEs – and subsequently failed because their parents put no emphasis on their education – would be married off to a cousin in Pakistan.

YAB claims Bangladeshi women in East London never covered up. But again, where I live, the only women while I was growing up who did wear the niqab were the older Bangaldeshi women. Yes, we see more niqabs in many communities now, but to argue that women have suddenly gone from being covered to hiding behind niqabs is simply not true.

This romanticisation of history, as though life in the previous generation was better, really needs to stop.  YAB forgets that the earlier immigrants were subjected to overt racism, brown girls were taken out of schools and forcibly married off to older men they did not know, female education was not seen as a priority, and girls were often not allowed to wear western clothes.  Life in the 60s and 70s was not glorious for immigrants or their children.

Many female, Muslim activists I know are worried about the growing trend of what they see as Salafisation of Islam. While I agree with them to an extent, it could be argued that globalisation and not just Saudi funding has made big hijabs and fancy abayas now attractive to wear, as well as sometimes being more practical for Muslim women who do not want to wear a pair of salwar kameez. It may not necessarily be something they deem as more ‘Islamic’ – though many do – but something that is trendy.

Who knows what trends we will see in the next generation? Perhaps a different version of Islam will be seen as the norm, rather than this austere form being propagated by Saudi petro-dollars. My theory is also that Muslims will become more polarised. While some turn to extreme versions of the faith, many more will turn away from it altogether.

The ‘usurpation of liberal feminism’?

Although I do not agree completely with YAB, I do not agree with Myriam Francois Cerrah’s critique of her book. The Oxford University-based writer and academic criticises YAB for not analysing other religious garments, but the book is specifically on the veil.  What part of that did she not understand? In YAB’s defence, she did say on Asian Network that she has a problem with young Sikh boys being made to cover their hair too.

As for vitamin D deficiency in women who wear veils, Cerrah responds in Marie Antoinette style – let them take supplements instead.

If YAB has a middle-class bias, then Cerrah’s voice can be aligned with reactionaries and Islamists who will no doubt use her articles to attack any dissenting voices. She attacks YAB for being monolithic despite the fact that she herself attacks anyone who does not conform to the majority.

The title of Cerrah’s piece is “The feminist case for the veil“, yet I could not spot a single case for it, just a lot of anti-colonial sentiments wrapped up in academic terminology. Meredith Tax wrote a good piece in which she analyses this sinister rhetoric used by the likes of Cerrah.

She then accuses YAB of pandering to the far-right, which is really unfair as they loathe YAB just as much as the Islamists do. This is the same woman who once described ex-Muslims as “native informants”.

As blogger John Sargeant succinctly put it, “Yasmin is accused, in the most scholarly way of avoiding the word, of being a coconut… Myriam Francois-Cerrah has written a masterpiece in how to usurp liberal feminism in the cause of reactionary orthodoxism.”

Cerrah does not like the idea of the state telling women how they must dress but fails to point out the elephant in the room, which is that her faith does. Choice is the key word here. A lot of Muslim women, we are told, choose to wear the hijab or niqab without any pressure from their families. That might be true.

But can it truly be a choice when women are told from day one that they are Islamically required (verse 24:31 in the Qur’an) to cover their entire body in the name of modesty? Women have been taught that a good Muslim woman must cover her hair and though a niqab is not mandatory, you are instantly seen as more pious if you do wear it.

It says it all when more Muslims will defend a woman’s right to wear a niqab or hijab but will not support or defend her right to remove it. It is not a choice if you cannot remove the hijab after you decide to wear it. A hijab is for life after all.

Written by Iram Ramzan

January 17, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Why are we blaming girls for the actions of predatory men?

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Originally published for Left Foot Forward on November 2, 2014

Child sexual abuse is now ‘normal in parts of Greater Manchester’, according to Stockport MP Ann Coffey. Her independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation, released on Thursday, found that it is a ‘real and ongoing problem’ and a change in attitude is needed.

When it was found that police had failed to protect up to 1,400 sexually abused young girls (perhaps even more) in Rotherham, we have all been asking ourselves: why are children being groomed and abused? Why is this being allowed in our country?

But I’ll tell you why. It’s because we don’t care. Sexually abused girls are not seen as actual victims; they are treated as ‘little tarts’ or liars.

When the nine men from Rochdale and Oldham were successfully jailed for sexually grooming young girls, the instant reaction from Muslim and south Asian people was that those men do not represent all the men from that community. Not all Pakistani men are abusers.

Well I’m sorry to break it to you, but those men who viewed the young girls as ‘slags’ and as ‘easy targets’ etc, do share similar values to the other members of their communities. No, not all Muslim or Pakistani men are abusers – there are sick men in every community. But many others do share that mind set.

Don’t believe me? See the comments below (click to zoom in).

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The screenshots are taken from post on the BBC Asian Network’s page on Thursday, when presenter Nihal Arthanayake hosted a discussion show asking ‘Should parents let teenagers dress the way they want?’ Perhaps young girls should start wearing a burqa, as one Saudi cleric suggested – better to be safe than sorry, eh?

Beautician Preeti Vyas said (at 18:30) that there are sick men out there and women (let’s not forget the topic was about teenage girls, not women) should protect themselves as best as they can. But what if a woman is dressed ‘decently’ (whatever that means) – who is to blame for her rape?

Preeti could easily speak out against society; she appears to blame a female for her own abuse. The gang members from Rochdale and some in their communities are singing from the same hymn sheet. These people calling into the show may find rape abhorrent, but they justify it by blaming the victim.

And there is the problem, especially within the south Asian and Muslim communities in particular – it might make me unpopular, but it needs to be said. In fact, I was labelled an ‘Islamophobe’ and ‘sick feminist’ (which I took as a compliment) by one man who believes 15-year-olds should be classed as adults.

I was sitting with a group of Pakistani women who were talking about the Rochdale grooming gangs in 2012. One woman remarked, ‘Why were these girls even out in the first place? Silly tarts.’ Another added, ‘They’re always trying to entrap Asian lads.’ It was these underage girls, these children, who were the predators, not the other way around.

And if you’re a brown girl being abused, people care even less. Not only do you have a lack of confidence in the police because you are raised to believe they are institutionally racist, but your family members try to hush up the crimes once discovered.

This is certainly the view of Shaista Gohir, who believes the communities are allowing the abuse of girls to continue.

The chair of the Muslim Women’s Network, she is making an appeal to victims of sexual abuse by family members to come forward for a new report she is compiling to highlight the extent of the problem.

She said:

“I want to collect case studies within the Muslim community to make them realise that part of the problem is our silence and we’re covering it up. The problem is getting worse and worse. I am hoping the research will get them to be proactive rather than ignoring it.

“I’m finding that women are the barrier to justice – they’re covering it up. Women have been in the know. Isn’t it our fault as a community if we instantly protect the offender and demonise that victim? This happens in all communities but within the Asian culture there’s the shame and honour which results in covering it up.”

I am glad that Ann Coffey highlighted the need to change our attitudes, but I worry that some of her statements could be seen as perpetuating this victim-blaming mentality. She said:

“Sexting, selfies, Instagram and the like have given rise to new social norms in changed expectations of sexual entitlement, and with it a confused understanding of what constitutes consent. I think we have lost the sense of what a child is. Sexual predators out there are having their quite unacceptable views confirmed through messages in the wider media: that children are just sexualised young adults.”

If an older man is sexually attracted to a young girl, that shows there is something wrong with him, not the young child. How is that we are still blaming a child for the actions of predatory men?

A young girl, a child, should not be viewed at in a sexual manner just because she is wearing a crop top, or shoes with a heel higher than an inch, or for wearing lipgloss. I am fairly certain that paedophilia and rape existed long before the invention of the selfie and ‘provocative’ pop videos.

When young boys are raped or molested, no one asks them what they did to deserve it – that question is reserved for those who had the misfortune to be born with a vagina.

And I am sick of the words ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ constantly being used to silence girls for being victims of horrific crimes. The shame lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. Until we stop blaming a girl’s behaviour or clothing for her rape and abuse, we will never end the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

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