Whenever "women’s rights" and "Islam" or "Muslims" are mentioned in the same sentence, one must resist the almost overwhelming desire to run shrieking from the room in a desperate attempt to avoid being caught up in what appears to be some sort of a science fiction-esque time-loop.
It seems that sometime in the 1970s, the question of Muslim women's rights was first raised, causing a fracture in the space-time continuum which has resulted in a continuous replaying of the same old questions, the same old arguments and the same old stereotypes that can never be settled or solved. Rather, as soon as one feels that the issues have been addressed, everything suddenly flicks back to square one with belligerent questions about wife-beating and forced marriages.
There is almost no other debate that is so circular and repetitious; in other situations, debates are linear and things move on whether we like it or not. Consider the issue of homosexuality: a century ago it was illegal; half a century ago there was almost universal agreement that it was an abhorrent and abnormal behaviour pattern. Yet within the space of a few short decades, we have gay clergy, civil partnerships, and homosexual relationships shown on children's television and anyone who has the audacity to criticise it can expect to become persona non grata, perhaps even receiving a visit from the local constabulary on account of "hate speech". Thus it was that the opinion of the minority group was translated into open acceptance by the wider community.
In respect of Muslim women's rights, there has been neither movement of the debate, nor acceptance of the minority group's view by the community at large. Let us examine the effect the debate has on many a Muslim woman.
One starts off with the enthusiastic Muslimah. She is passionate, eloquent and usually fearsomely well colour-coordinated in her choice of hijaab and jilbaab. She delivers heartfelt lectures to packed lecture halls, holds her own with aplomb on interfaith panels and patiently corrects misinformed work colleagues.
One can hear from her about the Islamic legal system, which gave women rights centuries before other systems followed suit, as well as the thousands of female scholars who flourished in the Muslim world. She may then patiently explain the whole Islamic concept of gender equity.
Once she gets warmed up, she may launch into a critique of modern feminism and how it seems to resemble less a philosophical system and more an overly small blanket that inadequately warms the whole person: get women's workplace reform covered but find that children are suffering from a lack of time with their mother in their early lives; hammer out gender equality and find concurrently increasing levels of relationship instability and divorce; bring about the right of women to wear what they want and find that exploitation and objectification pokes out inconveniently.
"There," our perky Muslimah thinks, "job done. Let's move on."
But open a newspaper, turn on the radio or watch the television and one finds that "Groundhog Day" has started once again and it is as if she had never spoken at all. So, off she goes again, with a smile that is slightly forced and shoulders which are beginning to droop until, yet again, at the end of her labours there is no discernible change on the ground.
And so, like Sisyphus, the king punished in Greek mythology to push an immense boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, our Muslimah has once more to set her shoulder to the wheel and start all over again.
This intellectual waterboarding constrains our initially perky Muslimah within an argument that floods her senses with images and arguments that label her as a victim, living within the stifling bonds of a religion that hates her. When she has the temerity to speak up on her own behalf, she is ignored and the sound-track loops back to the beginning. It is little wonder that when the issue of Muslim women's rights is raised, the feeling is more like drowning than discussion.
Against this backdrop, some Muslims have begun to echo the language and arguments of those opposed to Islam, a result of the constant narrative in the media which links all the evils visited upon Muslim women by Muslim men with the religion of Islam. This is a view that has now become enshrined as received wisdom, rather than a view based on prejudice, that doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and has the faint odour of racism at its heart.
One group echoing arguments in this way is an organisation called Inspire. It is run by three Muslim women whose apparent wish is to "inspire women to organise themselves to support families and social circles". As a group, they seem to have bought completely into the idea that without some sort of government-funded, social life-support system, Muslim women will simply crumble into mute, domestically-abused, chappati-making machines, seasoning their curries with their bitter tears of despair, and folding up and putting away their hopes and dreams along with the carefully ironed socks of their domineering husband.
The website makes frequent mention of the sidelining of Muslim women on account of the "misguided emphasis on their private domestic roles" and there are frequent complaints that a woman’s role as a mother is celebrated by Muslims and within Islam, thereby "laying on the guilt" for those who work. Ask most stay-at-home mothers, Muslim or not, and they would tell you that in today's world it is a rare and beautiful thing to find anyone praising the role of the "housewife", rather than making them feel inadequate that they cannot combine the roles of domestic goddess, high-flying career woman and "supernanny".
As for the idea that there is a deliberate desire to guilt-trip working mothers, it would indicate that the author of these articles, one Sara Khan, has some personal baggage that she has not yet unpacked and if she chooses to work when her children are young, then she should deal with any personal guilt she has without blaming Muslims and Islam.
The first step towards "gender inequality" was made by Allaah our Creator when He bestowed upon women the responsibility of bearing children as well as the means by which they are initially fed. The inconvenient reality, whilst it may drive feminists into conniptions of rage, is that there is study after study after study (and I could go on and on) which demonstrates that in their early years, children are best taken care of by their mothers. The comforting reality is that Allah, the Most Merciful, generously repays women for this mammoth task by giving mothers the oft-quoted but little reflected upon gift of "Heaven at their feet" (according to a hadeeth of the Prophet, sallallaahu `alayhi wa-sallam).
But one gets the impression that reality is not a space that the women at Inspire often inhabit. What is clear from their website, and from interviews they have given, is whilst they may reel off a list of problems that affect our community, they don’t offer a solution but rather an agenda.
The agenda is simple: the ills of the Muslim community can be cured if Muslim women are "empowered". This empowerment comes from jettisoning what they term "ultra-conservative" or "patriarchal readings of Islam". They conflate un-Islamic cultural practices, such as forced marriages, with basic tenets of Islamic practice like hijaab. They prop up their aberrant ideas with shaadh (marginal) opinions from a minority of scholars and then use statements like this to muddy the waters:
"Acceptance and reverence was given to the idea of ikhtilaaf (disagreement and diversity). The Prophet Muhammed (sallallaahu `alayhi wa-sallam) himself said the disagreement of the Ummah is a source of mercy. Why do Muslims insist on their [sic] being one opinion when clearly this is a lie?"
Inspire seem to think that opinions are like noses: everyone has one and we can do no better than to follow it. But this type of "follow your nose" Islam, stinks like the effluvium of a month old haddock. Whilst our history is replete with scholastic disagreement (and some say that had it not been for the emergence of the four main schools of thought in Sunni Islam, the faith would have disintegrated into hundreds if not thousands of distinct religions), in Islam there are principles and parameters within which opinions are accepted and rejected. These principles and parameters are the usol upon which the vast majority of the Ummah have agreed. Those who tout the hadeeth paraphrased by Khan above tend to forget other ahaadeeth:
Imaam Haakim (1/116) has related a Saheeh Hadeeth from the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa-sallam) in the following words: "My Ummah shall not agree upon error."
Imaam at-Tirmidhi (4/2167) reported on the authority of Ibn Umar (radhiyallahu anhu) from the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa-sallam), who said: "Verily my Ummah will not agree (or he said the Ummah of Muhammad will not agree) upon error and Allaah's hand is over the group, and whoever dissents from them departs to Hell." (see also al-Mishkaat, 1/173)
Inspire use the arguments and tools of those who would attack Islam in order to push forward their agenda. To this end, we see on the Inspire facebook page a video posted on 18 May 2011 (provided by Memri) showing an interview with an elderly shaykh helpfully entitled "How to beat your Muslim wife". For those not familiar with Memri, the acronym stands for the Middle East Media Research Institute, which is a thinly-veiled propaganda vehicle for none other than The Only Democracy in the Middle East. It is run by one Yigal Carmon, who was a colonel in the IDF for 20 years. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations describes Memri thus:
"Memri's intent is to find the worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible."
Brian Whitaker, writing in the Guardian, also exposes another of Memri's specialisms: mistranslating Arabic in order to show what is being said in the worst possible light. Did the person within the Inspire team who posted such a divisive clip have the whole interview independently translated, or were they simply too busy whining about being misunderstood?
I remain simply astonished that an organisation that wishes to be thought of as being somehow supportive of the Muslim community would stoop so low as to propagate these video clips from such an openly anti-Muslim organisation. I can only assume that Inspire's next stunt would be to invite the EDL's Tommy Robinson or Guramit Singh to address their upcoming conference as they too seem well versed in the ways that Muslims and Islam harm women. An interesting aside is that one of the co-founders of Inspire is Tahmina Saleem who, when she is not forming "strategic networks" and "formulating bespoke services", happens to be Inayat Bunglawala's wife. It is staggering that she would have such a clip up on the Inspire facebook page when Memri has attempted to defame her husband on a number of occasions. Or perhaps this is also a form of Muslim woman's empowerment - promote those who would try to destroy your husband.
Undeterred by its inability to grasp this reality, Inspire has chosen to organise its biggest event yet: a conference in a few days' time called "Speaking in God's Name - Re-examining Gender in Islam".
After much harping on about how women are excluded from mosques, there is some unintentional but entirely delicious irony in organising a conference for women with a complete absence of any childcare facilities and choosing a venue within which no children are allowed. It seems that Sara Khan, Tahmina Saleem and Kalsoom Bashir are only willing to "Inspire" women without children or with such cast iron childcare in place that they can fork out the astronomical £175 ticket price, for which there is now no refund available if cancelled.
Advertising material for the event includes statements such as:
"Why is everyone obsessed with the headscarf. It's only a piece of cloth!"
"It is time that men stop dictating to women what they can and cannot do and allow them to live their lives."
"Why does my mosque refuse to allow me to pray inside just because I am a woman?"
These statements reveal a great deal about Inspire. The hijab is obligatory in Islam (according to the vast majority of scholars - both male and female - since the start of Islam), whereas attending the masjid for women is at best a voluntary act. Yet here is Inspire denigrating hijaab as a nice but entirely unnecessary gesture whilst upgrading masjid attendance to the status of Custer's last stand at Little Bighorn (with the requisite numbers of rather cross Indians in attendance). It obviously hasn't occurred to them that it seems just a tad hypocritical to be causing such a fuss over what is sunnah (optional) whilst completely discrediting what is fardh (obligatory).
As for their declaration regarding men "dictating to" women, I wonder if Mesdames Khan, Saleem and Bashir include our Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa-sallam) in this statement because it is via this blessed man (sallallaahu `alayhi wa-sallam) that we have been dictated to regarding not only what we can wear, what we can and cannot do but also everything up to and including which shoe we should put on first. Instead of engaging in such childish feminist rhetoric, they should instead realise that a person's gender is entirely irrelevant when the guidance is from Allaah.
Other faith groups don't seem to have a problem with living within their religion without a constant commentary enjoining them to reform. Consider also the UK's community of ultra-orthodox or Haredi Jews. With their segregated closed-off communities, sky-rocketing rates of unemployment and housing benefit claims (close to 60%), lack of education, modestly dressed women and high birth rates (averaging 5.9 children per family compared to the UK average of 2.4), one wonders why they don't draw the ire of right wing windbags like Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillips. Instead, they are treated as a quaint community with an old fashioned folksy charm – a bit like a Kosher version of the Amish. For them, any discussion about women's rights is rapidly shut down as being anti-Semitic, as this feminist journalist found out to her peril.
No current discussion of Muslim women's rights can be had without reflecting on the rather ironic situation in which a presidential candidate of a country that has recently banned Muslim women's right to wear the niqaab (owing to much trumpeted concerns about preserving Muslim women's rights and dignity) has been accused of violating a Muslim woman's rights and dignity in the basest way possible. Whilst many pertinent comparisons can be drawn between the alleged behaviour of the head of the IMF towards poor women and the actual behaviour of the IMF towards poor countries, for me the most interesting development of the whole matter is who actually made the allegation. Monsieur Strauss-Kahn has a history of such behaviour and was labelled with the seemingly honorific title of "le grand séducteur" (the Great Seducer) by some elements of the French press. Just days after the news broke of his arrest, another journalist reported that she too had been molested by this man nine years previously. It is pertinent to note who actually had the courage to stand up to this sexual deviant. Was it the liberated French journalist - educated, well-connected and seemingly unfettered by any alliances with "paternalistic interpretations of a medieval religion"? No. Instead it was the poor, uneducated, (reportedly) hijaab-wearing, Muslim woman who valued her dignity sufficiently highly that when it was violated, she refused to allow the perpetrator to go unpunished. Courage, it seems, is not provided by solar photovoltaic cells located in a woman's hair that can only activate when her head is uncovered. Rather, it wells up from a soul firmly connected to its Creator.
Yet, despite this, there seems to be a growing trend among some Muslim women who see their religion not as a lodestone of inner strength that is made more powerful by following the commandments of Allah on issues such as the hijaab, but rather as an obstacle course to be navigated around in order to become successful. What they do not realise is a truly empowered Muslim woman is not some elegantly coiffeured über-feminist but rather a woman who truly submits to the will of Allah.
"O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely [and perfectly] and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy." (2:208)
"Has not the time yet come for those who believe that their hearts should soften with humility and submit (to God to strive in His cause) in the face of God's Remembrance (the Qur'an) and what has come down of the truth (the Divine teachings)? And (has not the time yet come) that they should not be like those who were given the Book before? A long time has passed over them (after they received the Book), and so their hearts have hardened; and many among them (have been) transgressors." (57:16)