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Women like Qandeel Baloch must not die in vain

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Qandeel Baloch. Source: Facebook
Qandeel Baloch. Source: Facebook
 

Originally published for Sedaa on July 18, 2016

Yet another woman’s life has prematurely been taken in an ‘honour killing’.

Pakistani internet sensation Qandeel Baloch was strangled by her brother on Friday night while at her family home in Multan, Punjab.

After going on the run, her brother Waseem was later arrested. In his confession video, he expressed no regret. “I am proud of what I did. I drugged her first, then I killed her,” said Waseem.”She was bringing dishonor to our family.”

Qandeel’s posts were considered to be controversial in Pakistan. She rose to fame due to the sassy, and increasingly political, videos she posted on Facebook.

Her brother Waseem claims that having his friends share her pictures and video clips was “too much” for him and killing his sister was a better alternative than killing himself.

Qandeel’s brother Waseem, who has now been arrested.

Both adored and reviled, Qandeel, who was buried on Sunday, referred to herself as a “modern day feminist” and had nearly 750,000 followers on Facebook.

Funny how the media is now fawning over her, the same media that provided outrage porn for its Pakistani citizens, inviting them to get worked up over her ‘lewd’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

It has brought out all the hypocrites. Mourning the loss of a woman they had probably thought of as a whore or disgrace to her family hours before her murder.

“They could have disowned her”, wrote one person under an article about her death. But even that is a problem. Don’t murder a women, for goodness sake. Just disown her and ostracise her for life. Much better, eh?

As for those telling me not to call it an ‘honour killing’. Yes I know there is no honour in killing. But this type of murder is carried out in the name of honour.

On the list of 145 countries featured in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Gender Gap Report, Pakistan is second to last with regards to gender disparity.  According to the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, violence against women is rampant, with as many as 212 women being killed in the name of ‘honour’ in the first five months of 2016.

When I heard the news I wept all day long, because I am all too familiar with this concept of ‘honour’ that robbed Qandeel of her life.

Just read some of the comments on this piece. There’s no justification for murder, they start by saying. BUT. There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there?

I remember worrying for her safety after hearing the news that she had posted a video with Mufti Abdul Qavi in a hotel room. I wondered, how is this woman still alive in Pakistan doing what she does?

Where is that mufti now? He claimed that Qandeel’s death is a sobering lesson for those who mock clerics. Yet it is perfectly fine for these clerics to meet women alone in a hotel room and offer to marry them. Qandeel also claimed that he tried to hug and kiss her. Police have announced that Mufti Qavi would be included in her murder investigation. But I don’t see any women rounding up to kill him in the name of honour.

Whatever you think of Qandeel, at least she didn’t pretend to be someone she was not. Our societies have raised us to be liars and hypocrites. We can’t do what we want openly so we do it secretly. The worst culprits are religious men such as Mufti Qavi.

Pakistani men (and indeed men from many societies around the world) constantly police women’s minds and bodies. They are terrified of what might happen if women start thinking for themselves and behaving how they want to.

For Qandeel was not just murdered by her brother. She was murdered by them all; her society and nation.

And unfortunately there are women who propagate these beliefs and practices, defending Qandeel’s murder.

Qandeel tweet reactions

 

 

This woman clearly does not realise the irony of her words. She is against honour killings but against ‘bey-ghairat’ (shameless), yet ghairat (shame) is the name in which this type of brutality occurs. Shaming Qandeel’s lifestyle choices are exactly what led to her murder.

They say she deserved it because she was provocative. But let us not forget that women can be killed for things that we would deem almost trivial here in the West — going out at night with friends, having a boyfriend, marrying someone whom you love, wearing what you want.

We are constantly watched, monitored and regulated. If we step out of the line we pay the price.

We can’t dress a certain way because it’s ‘disrespectful’ or ‘unIslamic’.

We can’t go out late because that’s not what ‘good girls’ do. We’re not like those  gori (white) women who have no honour. We have to say where we’re going, with whom, why we’re going out and what time we’ll return.

Our male counterparts get to do whatever the hell they want with barely any repercussions. When was the last time you heard of a man being killed by his sister, mother or wife in the name of honour?

And this problem is not just restricted to the east. Even here in the west, though we are free in theory the reality is different.

Very few people understand just what it’s like to live a life where, every time you step out of the house, you are worried that someone, somewhere, will see you. And they will, believe me. Your family has eyes and ears everywhere.

Even women who seem free on the surface are suffering. They might have careers and they could even be financially well off, but they’re controlled in other ways.

I’m sick of this. Yet we accept it or tolerate it quietly because, well, that’s what women have to do. For how much longer? For how long must we continue to suffer mentally, emotionally and physically, simply because we’re women and it’s seen as ok?

How do you stand your ground when the odds are stacked against you. You’re standing up to your parents, extended family, the ‘community’ and wider society. Then there’s us. On our own.

We have one life and it’s being wasted away. Be good, they tell us, and we’ll get our reward in the afterlife. A clever way of ensuring we stay in line because, let’s face it, crossing your family is one thing but crossing the Almighty? No thanks. So we continue to suffer in silence.

It’s always women like Qandeel who apparently are a disgrace to their families or their country, but never the men who leer at them or murder them.

We’re labelled whores, goris, beghairat (shameless), coconuts. A man is not a whore — he’s just a man, exercising his rights.

“Men can go out and have shit on their faces but still sit at the dinner table,” one Pakistani woman told me. “But you’re a girl, it’s different.”

Our family honour rests on our bodies; it is a terrible burden to bear.

Despite reports that she was scared for her life, Qandeel wrote that she was a fighter.

“I will bounce back,” she said, adding that she wanted to inspire women who have been “treated badly and dominated by society.”

Sadly she did not and paid with her life. But all over social media, people are speaking up, condemning this murder.

I implore everyone out there, both men and women, please don’t let Qandeel Baloch die in vain.

Because one day the ‘honour brigade’ might come for you too. And there will be no one left to speak up.

Written by Iram Ramzan

July 25, 2016 at 11:58 am

Allegations of CSE cover up and misogyny within the Labour Party

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Shaista Gohir Source: Facebook

Shaista Gohir
Source: Facebook

 

Shaista Gohir is pulling no punches. The chair of the charity Muslim Women’s Network (MWN) UK is continuing to deal blows to the Labour party, accusing it of covering up misogyny and intimidation of Muslim women from the men in their own communnities.

Gohir has been gathering evidence from Muslim women across the country in order to get the party to address the allegations and make some serious changes.

But more revealing is the allegation made by a former Labour councillor, who  claims that abuse is being covered up within the Labour party. The Muslim woman told Newsnight that Pakistani councillors on the council where she served are regularly protecting men who may be exploiting white girls, simply because they are important business allies.

Zahara – not her real name – claims that the police presented councillors with a sexually explicit video as they ruled on whether to shut down a club where these alleged offences were taking place.

She said: “The decision ultimately should have been to close the establishment down because of inappropriate behaviours going on of a sexual nature between young white girls and Asian males that was being shown on the video.

“I was clearly told to stop questioning by a hand gesture and nudge by senior male councillors that were Asian who were sitting next to me… I was told: ‘Do you know who it is? It’s a very prominent Asian businessman that supports us’.”

This woman claims that, on this occasion and many others, she was deselected because she refused to do as these powerful councillors of Pakistani heritage demanded. When she arrived at the selection meeting, it was full of Asian people she had never seen before. “They’re in the pocket of influential male councillors,” she added.

This, in my opinion, is the angle on which Newsnight should have led. Instead, it was almost buried within the report. It is almost as though allegations of covering up CSE were an afterthought of this report.

It seems evident to me that Labour is doing anything to keep  the ‘minority’ vote, at the expense of leaving those groups effectively to be ruled by ‘their’ men.

 

“Systematic Misogyny”

Councillor Arooj Shah Source: Oldham Council

Councillor Arooj Shah
Source: Oldham Council

 

From about 2:50 in the Newsnight video, Oldham councillor Arooj Shah is seen leafleting in her neighbourhood, along with fellow councillor Shadab Qumer. Councillor Shah is doing the talking yet the Muslim man they visit only shakes hands, and speaks directly, only with the male councillor, instead of Councillor Shah.

She told the BBC: “There’s Labour Party members who will accept my two colleagues, Asian men, but support anyone but me. They’re members of the local Labour party. They are shameless about it… It’s because I’m a woman and anyone who sugar-coats it is lying.”

Councillor Shah also said that she has received disgusting letters where her head has been attached to images of Page 3 models, in an effort to silence and intimidate her.

MWN has been heard from many Muslim women across the country on the “blocking” of vocal, independent Muslim women by male members of the Labour Party who are of Pakistani heritage – or ‘biraderi’ (clan) politics. The charity has called for an inquiry by party leader Jeremy Corbyn into the “systematic misogyny” within Labour. If this is happening in the Labour party then I wonder – is this also happening in other parties?

Unfortunately this is no surprise to many women of Muslim heritage. We are all aware of the fact that most of the hostility faced is by those from within our own communities. We receive support when we toe a certain line, but as soon as we go beyond that we are quickly silenced.

Well done to the brave women who are continuing to speak out against the misogyny and campaigns of harassment they have faced. It takes a lot of courage to speak out.

Wearing the hijab doesn’t mean you’re no longer objectified

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Last week I had an article published about a video on the Guardian that went viral, in which a British woman named Hanna Yusuf describes her hijab as a “feminist statement”.

Since then Hanna decided to follow up with an article, which does not really address some of the points that I, or others, raised. I won’t repeat everything I wrote earlier – for that you can read my piece here and here.

Hanna begins the piece by writing:

It seems that the only time a hijabi’s voice is valued is when she gives a testimony describing her struggle for emancipation from Islam. Otherwise, she is either lying or in denial. I found this out the hard way in the past 10 days.

First of all, Hanna herself chose to make a video to talk about the hijab. She wasted an opportunity to make a video about any subject to show that women in hijabs do – shock horror – have opinions about other things.

And I’m sorry but I have very little patience with this, oh woe is me attitude, when there are two women in Morocco who are being prosecuted for indecency for wearing summer dresses in a souq. As far as I am aware, no one is arresting Hanna for wearing her hijab nor is she being forced to remove it.

By implying that women who don’t wear the hijab are slaves to glossy magazines and consumer pressures, Hanna makes the same patronising generalisations that she claims people make about hijabi women.

You cannot criticise or shame a woman for her decision to wear a mini-skirt, bikini or any dress deemed as “sexually alluring”, but play the victim card when questioned on your decision to wear a hijab. The respect and acceptance of the other’s choice goes both ways.

She says she is standing against sexual exploitation, but why must women make up for the shortcomings of others? Is she implying that women are responsible for their exploitation and abuse?

“The control hijabi women have over their bodies,” Hanna continues, “Challenges existing structures”.

Where do I begin with this? Firstly, this idea that hijabi women have control over their bodies is not only simplistic but also ludicrous. Women are told to cover so that they do not provoke men’s desires – where is the control in that? If anything, the hijab maintains existing patriarchal structures.

As for this idea that wearing hijab means you’re no longer objectified and no longer focusing on your appearance is nonsense. We’re humans at the end of the day and always concerned with our appearance. Women in headscarves are no exceptions to this.

Many women who wear hijabs embrace the Western, fashion industry, matching their hijab with the latest trends. It is hypocritical of Hanna to denigrate other women as somehow being sexually exploited because they choose not to wear a hijab, when she herself is wearing full make-up and stylish clothes that are bang on trend.

If capitalism controls our bodies, as she claims then so, too, do religions. From the way we walk, talk, behave and dress, religious clerics still continue to police and regulate our bodies and minds.

If it were just about covering the hair then there would be little issue. But the concept of the hijab is much more than just about covering the hair and Hanna knows it. As other Muslims wrote under my initial piece, it is an entire way of dressing, behaving and believing. Hence why she needed to research for three years before she decided to wear it, because once you put it on there is no going back. Women are free to wear one, just not free to remove it. And as soon as you wear the headscarf you are judged more harshly for your actions because of your perceived piety. If women without hijabs are “exploited” and “objectified”, then so too are those with hijabs, being upheld as models of good Muslim women.

The strange thing in both Hanna’s video and article is that there is very little mention of Islam and the Qur’an. All the traditional schools of Islamic thought agree that women should cover everything but their face and hands so that they are not harassed by men – which, by the way, is insulting to both men and women. Some progressive and liberal Muslims do not believe there is a requirement for women to cover the hair, but unfortunately they are a vilified minority.

Why the omission of this fact on Hanna’s part? I suspect it is too embarrassing for women to simply say that God commands us to cover our hair, so the goalposts are shifted in order to justify its requirement.  At the end of the day, isn’t covering your body from head to toe an admission that you are a sexual being that needs to be covered?

I am glad that Hanna can make a free choice, and is able to have her free choice accepted by a tolerant society – despite insisting that is she faced by a wave of hostility. It is a pity that some of the societies where the headscarf is either compulsory or desired are not so tolerant.

An amended version of this article was published on The Nation

Written by Iram Ramzan

July 10, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Posted in feminism, islam, Muslims, women

Tagged with , , ,

Is the hijab a feminist statement?

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I don’t know about you all, but I’m getting rather bored of the I-love-my-hijab sentiments now. It means, unfortunately, you have to put up with my lengthy rants.

The Guardian (who else) recently posted a video in which Hanna Yusuf asks, in a tone usually reserved for naughty schoolchildren, “why a simple piece of clothing is seen as the very epitome of oppression.”

She goes on to say that “many women find empowerment in rejecting the idea that women can be reduced to their sexual allure – and we should not assume that every women who wears the hijab has been forced into it.”

I was not aware there was so much outrage against the hijab. In this country, where the (visible) Muslim population has grown, the headscarf is not really that controversial, as opposed to the full face veil – niqab – which is seen even by many Muslims as extreme.

Let us tackle the first point about oppression. By contrast, why is the hijab seen as liberating, or a symbol of feminism? In fact, Muslims themselves – whether that’s imams or scholars – are the ones who make such grand claims about the hijab in the first place. If they didn’t then I doubt anyone else would care.

Hanna goes on to say that the hijab “resists commercial imperatives that support consumer culture”. It is true that in the world we live in, capitalism has made consumers of us all – including Muslim women.

In fact, Muslims comprise one of the fastest growing consumer markets in the world! The ‘halal’ industry is huge. Everywhere you go there will be an Islamic store selling you all sorts of ‘Islamic’ goods including hijabs and hijab accessories for women. Far from sticking two fingers up to Western consumerism, Muslim women are embracing it, matching their hijab with the latest trendy garments on offer in British high street stores and offering tutorials for other Muslimahs to follow.

Hanna wants us to respect her choice to wear hijab while denigrating women who don’t wear it, suggesting they’re slaves of the western fashion industry. So what does your decision to wear hijab make you, Hanna?

Then there is “false dichotomy” (as Kate Maltby puts it in the Spectator) between the hijab and bikini, which is “one of the oldest anti-feminist tropes in the book, a mild reframing of the old Madonna-whore complex, for which my own Christianity has been rightly pilloried.”

And, correct me if I am wrong, there are no countries in the world that make the wearing of a bikini mandatory unlike the hijab, which is compulsory in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Women in those countries are flogged if they disobey the strict dress code. What happened to their choice? It is easy for Hanna, a privileged Western woman, to insist it’s her choice, but about the rights of her sisters in Muslim countries? They do not have that luxury.

If wearing the hijab is a feminist symbol of rejection of western objectification of women as sex objects then does that mean wearing the full Afghan style burqa or Saudi style niqab is a stronger feminist statement, as both garments remove all identifiers of the woman as a sexualised individual?

As for the argument that women aren’t objectified with a hijab on, that is simply not true. Those who don’t wear a headscarf are likened to uncovered lollipop which have flies buzzing around them (great metaphor and not at all demeaning towards men by the way). Covered women, however, are like precious pearls or diamonds. Is that not objectification?

When I was nine years old, I was taught in mosque that if I did not cover my hair, Satan would urinate on it. No wonder it looks great, I hear you say. Jokes aside, imagine hearing that as a young child. Not only was it terrifying but the concept of shame was instilled in me at a young age, something which is the case for many young girls around the world. Many Muslim women who do not wear the hijab are constantly made to feel guilty about it. In fact, some women over compensate by defending the right for women to wear hijab (and rightly so) but are not so vocal about their own right not to wear it.

For ‘just a piece of cloth’ it seems to do so much. It’s a feminist statement, it’s a two-finger salute to capitalism, it’s an anti-rape shield, etc.

There is no consistency with the headscarf argument. On the one hand women are told to wear because it has been instructed by God and it has nothing whatsoever to do with men, but on the other hand, they are then told actually yes, wear it for the sake of it men too, because they can’t control themselves and you don’t want to invite attention on yourself now do you? If you must reveal yourself, do so to your close male relatives, e.g. your husband. Why is dressing for one man more empowering? Either way, you’re still factoring a man’s opinion into what you decide to wear.

For years, many Muslims would insist that we don’t need feminism because Islam is more equal and superior. Now, however, feminism is compatible with Islam. I can’t keep up.

Few people will approach a man and inquire about the way in which he is dressed. Yes, yes, men must “lower their gaze”, but a man won’t be denounced as a ‘bad Muslim’ nor will his dress code be used as an excuse to prevent him from attending the mosque or other Islamic functions. There aren’t dozens of books dedicated to telling men what they must and must not wear as there are for women and the dozens of guidelines they are given, exclusively by men.

Hanna, like many women who wear the hijab, wants to be judged for her mind,not the way she is dressed. But the only reason non Muslims have focused on hijab is because, as mentioned before, Muslims themselves have put too much emphasis on the headscarf. If you don’t like people focusing on your hijab then don’t make it the centre of attention in the first place.

It is also slightly ironic that she says this while wearing a trendy lace black dress (what was that about consumerism?) and bright blue hijab with a face full of make up.

Many of these women claim, “I’m more than my hijab”, but then have stupid events like world hijab day where you can experience what it means to be a Muslim woman by covering your hair, thereby reducing a Muslim woman’s experience to a piece of cloth.

Rather than promote modesty, the hijab does reduce a woman to her sexual allure. Islamically, any girl who has reached sexual maturity must start covering, which then tells the world – specifically men – that she is is sexually available for him and ready for marriage.

Hanna constantly talks about choice, but here is a question for her and for women who wear the hijab: would they ‘ choose’ to wear it if they didn’t believe it was a religious requirement, or if they weren’t told on a regular basis that good women are supposed to cover?

In fact, whenever women put on the headscarf and post a picture on Facebook for all to see (how very modest) the response is usually greeted with “Mashaallah!” or, “you look so much more beautiful with hijab on.” I thought the whole point was to see the woman for who she was? Sounds contradictory, don’t you think?

Also, if the hijab really is about obedience to God  then why is it not obligatory for post-menopausal women? Qur’an 24:60 states, “Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest; and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.”

That is a great feminist statement.

Unfortunately, women who do wear a headscarf are judged twofold. When they are seen doing things they are not “supposed to do” (smoking, talking to strange men) they are told that they are hypocrites because, like it or not, they are seen as walking, talking, breathing examples of Islam. Anything they do is reflected on the religion.

One point I wish to end on is that if a woman is not free to remove her headscarf without the fear of scorn or ridicule, then it is not a choice. I am glad Hanna can wear what she wants but far too many women do not have choice.

Published for The Nation on 26/6/2015

Written by Iram Ramzan

June 25, 2015 at 11:25 pm

Nirbhaya – fearless women break the silence

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IMG_20150602_083149A shorter, amended version of this review was first published in the Oldham Chronicle on June 2

When a young woman was brutally gang-raped in the Indian capital Delhi on December 16, 2012, and subsequently died 13 days later, there was a  worldwide outcry.

What followed was even more harrowing, that being the countless women who broke the silence to tell us that this was not the exception, but the norm.

Nirbhaya marries real-life testimonies with a dramatised recreation of what happened to Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old student whom the media dubbed “Nirbhaya”, or fearless.

Internationally acclaimed playwright and director Yael Farber brings a blistering evocation of that terrible night and the ripples of change it set in motion. Presented by the Southbank Centre, the play came to Oldham’s Grange Theatre as part of the Alchemy Festival 2015.

Priyanka Bose, Poorna Jagannathan, Sneha Jawale and Pamela Sinha describe their bodies as no longer being their own, as we witness the daily harassment and groping in the bustling streets of a city littered with the relics of lost empires, a city now described as “hell on earth for women”.

                                                      Poorna Jaggannathan

The play uses the rape and death of Jyoti as a catalyst to break the silence around sexual violence. The women, too, are fearless, as each tells her account of being sexually violated one by one. In a culture where the fear of shame can be overpowering, breaking the silence is a courageous act.

Ankur Vikal darts in and out of every male role, a bystander, an abuser, a father, brother, and even Pandey’s friend, Awindra Pandey.

Farber’s language, interwoven with the real stories, is violent, angry and poetic. “I want to pull my tongue from my mouth like a tree. I want to pull out its roots,” Bose says.

Jyoti herself does not speak but sings eerily throughout the play, a ghost who cannot tell her own story but has it told for her. She is now forever mythologised, a symbol of everything that is wrong in Indian society.

A woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. According to the country’s National Crime Record Bureau, crimes against women have increased by 7.1 percent since 2010. The number of rapes reported has also risen.Nearly a third of rape victims in India are under the age of 18. One in 10 are under 14.

Too often women are told that they should stay at home, where they would be much safer. What was she doing out of the house in the first place, is a question directed at these women. What, then, would they say to Sinha, a Canadian actress of Indian heritage, who was raped in Toronto 20 years ago by a stranger who broke into her apartment? Or to Bose who was raped by several men working in her family home?

Nirbhaya is not an easy watch, and nor should it be. Prepare to be shocked, horrified, and bring plenty of tissues with you. The silence of the audience  was punctuated by sniffs and sobs. One young woman sitting nearby was wiping away tears as she listened to the story of Jawale, a dowry-bride whose family tried to kill her by setting her on fire. Her heavily scarred face streamed with tears as she mourned the loss of a son was snatched away from her by her husband.

While the men who raped and killed Jyoti Pandey were charged and convicted, the men who abused the women in the play have gotten away with their crimes, which emphasises how deep-rooted the problem is.

Nirbhaya ends with each woman standing up, saying her name and slowly raising a fist in the air. They are no longer broken women, ashamed of their bodies or what has happened to them (nor should they be). They are no longer victims, but survivors.

“Bring it the fuck on,” Jagannathan roars. They are fearless. They are Nirbhaya.

Naz Shah – great story, but what about her politics?

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If you have not yet heard of Naz Shah, you must have been living in a cave for the last two weeks. Naz is Labour’s candidate for Bradford West, who will stand against Respect MP George Galloway in the general election in May.

Naz, the chair of mental health charity Sharing Voices Bradford and mother-of-three, was forced into marrying her cousin when she just aged 15. Her biological father ran away with their 16-year-old neighbour.  She spent 12 years campaigning, with the support of Southall Black Sisters, for the release of her mother – a woman imprisoned for murdering the man who beat, raped and pimped her for over ten years.

No doubt her inspiring story could not be further from the Westminster elite of professional politicians. But none of the interviews have revealed much about her political views. As interesting as her background story is, what does she want for Bradford? What can she do that George Galloway has not done for the city?

The word ‘biraderi’ (patrilineage) has become synonymous with Bradford politics. I worry that Naz may not be so dismissive of identity politics as her background might have initially suggested, judging by some of the comments she made in The Times this weekend (£) about the headscarf (“To a Muslim man you’re more respectable, it’s not because you’re a victim”) and integration (“People can live amongst each other with different identities and different languages because that’s the way the world is.”)

I guess we will have to wait until after the election to find out.

Do British Muslims have a problem with apostates

Nothing riles Muslims more than the presence of ex-Muslims.

On the Big Questions Abdullah al Andalusi, who describes himself as a ‘thinker’ (no, me neither) was very aggressive towards Amal Farah, an ex-Muslim of Somali origin, and constantly interrupted her while she was making her point. He claimed that Islam has no apostasy laws – try telling that to the Muslim countries who have blasphemy laws and punish those who speak out against Islam. He translates “irtida” as “sedition” or “treason”. Misinterpretation – that old chestnut eh? So then I ask, what is the punishment for treason?

Andalusi then took to writing a post-show blog, denouncing the entire thing as an “anti-Islam fest”. Of course it was. That is the problem with people like Andalusi. They want a debate, but on their own terms. They claim they will not compromise on their Islam but in certain public forums they will twist and turn so much so as to hide their real views.

The BBC also wheeled out Mohammed Shafiq who spoke about the importance of religious freedom. This is the same man who once described Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz as ‘gustaakh-e rasool” (defamer of the prophet) when Nawaz tweeted a Jesus and Mo cartoon. Thankfully, he has now apologised though I am not sure if it is much of an apology if he still stands by his reasons for saying what he did.

Shafiq also said we cannot have a rational debate with ex Muslims – in other words, don’t bother talking about Islam unless you are a Muslim. Some Muslims do, however, discuss and and even denigrate other religions but get defensive when their own religion is attacked. Why the double standards?

I have met many ex Muslims and they are not anti Muslim at all. All they want is the right to leave Islam without being persecuted or disowned by their families.

If, as Muslims, we preach that Islam is peaceful and tolerant, and “there is no compulsion in Islam” then we need to accept people like Amal Farah and other ex Muslims who do not wish to follow Islam. We happily wave the Islam-is-the fastest-growing-religion” banner and talk with such pride when someone converts to Islam but silence those who are no longer Muslims. Some will say, leave Islam, fine, but why do you need to talk about it?

My response would be, why shouldn’t they talk about it? Do other Muslims ever consider the possibility that the reason why ex Muslims continue to talk about Islam once they have left is precisely because it is still such a taboo? Perhaps if they weren’t met with such hostility they would not need to do so. Let us not forget the fact that many ex Muslims are still “in the closet” – they still cannot openly talk about the fact that they no longer believe in Islam because they now the consequences.

Well done to Amal who stood her ground despite being shouted down by some Muslims on the panel and in the audience, and to Dr Usama Hasan, imam and a senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, for preaching the message of peace and tolerance.

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

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