Guide to Islam puts women’s rights front and centre

// 28 February 2008

Turkish scholars are putting together a modern guide to Islam, which will “make it much more difficult to justify extreme, misogynistic and violent interpretations of Islam”, the Times reports.

Although there are few details, this looks like another interesting project. The newspaper quotes professor Mehmet Gormez, vice-president of religious affairs and senior Hadith lecturer at Ankara University:

“We want to bring out the positive side of Islam — that promotes personal honour, human rights, justice, morality, women’s rights, respect for the other,” he said. He added that nobody should expect revolutionary new thinking on the issue of women covering their hair in the Muslim manner, for instance. “This is an academic study — one thing you will not see is an attempt to make Islam look cute for the Western world.”

Gormez puts this into context by added that “reinterpretation is actually part of the basic fabric of Islam”. The Times doesn’t include many examples, but there is one regarding women:

While many sections — including some on women — have yet to be finalised, the more than 10,000 Hadith selected are expected to include sayings showing that religious conversion was tolerated and that its punishment was an irrelevant political sanction. Another Hadith prohibiting women from travelling for more than three days without their husbands, for instance, would be included but with the context that this referred to travelling in caravans of camels or donkeys and was more of a security issue for the time. “Clearly that would not apply to modern travel,” Dr Unal said.

Photo by Ingsoc, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Yunus Yakoub Islam // Posted 28 February 2008 at 7:48 pm

“This is an academic study — one thing you will not see is an attempt to make Islam look cute for the Western world.”

Modern Turkey is the one Muslim nation to wholeheartedly embrace Eurocentric notions of development, with its founder Attaturk describing Islam as “poison” and “backward”. So excuse me if I view the above comment with suspicion. The idea of a group of reform scholars being tied to one nation seems odd in the light of the global concepts of Muslim scholarship (ulema) and community (ummah).

There have been plenty of debates surrounding ahadith in the Western academic literature for years, with Muslims at various levels increasingly engaged with that. Muslim scholarship itself is far from moribund. There is also an implication here that Muslims are passive recipients of dogmatic sacred texts – a tired, Orientalist notion.

I am not holding my breath to see the outcome of this ‘reform’. The real problems with misogyny in the Muslim world is with culture, not Islam, which has its own vibrant feminist movement, of whom we have heard oddly little with regards to this or any other debate concerning women in the British media.

Further reading: http://www.bayyinat.org.uk/genderbiblio.htm

M. // Posted 10 February 2009 at 2:09 am

“Vibrant feminist movement”. Is this your excuse to do nothing about the terrible injustices that are committed upon women every day? Women are being shot in the head or hanged for being raped, undergoing religiously sanctioned beatings by their husbands, forced into arranged marriages as children, forced to wear hijab. This “vibrant movement” is a whimper no-one will hear. If an Islamic suffragette threw herself in front of a horse it would not spark healthy debate on human rights but more likely be adopted as a means of getting rid of unwanted wives. The real problems with mysogeny in the muslim world are caused by culture CREATED by a particular Wahabi interpretation of Islam that is gathering more and more force in this country every day. Wake up! if you are willing to publish long tirades about being wolf-whistled at by white European men, we should be taking to the streets about this! What happened to the fight for freedom? There is a conflict of interests, and people are afraid to be labelled xenophobic by their sub-culturally feminist sisters or just plain afraid of the violence that is at the heart of Islam when women are concerned. We are all just pathetic hypocrites and should be so, so ashamed.

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 February 2009 at 2:31 pm

@M. Wow, not sure where that came from, or why that would be your reaction to me posting a simple story about feminist interpretations of Islam.

Cara // Posted 12 February 2009 at 2:58 pm

I was thinking the same point as Yunus Yakoub Islam; the issue isn’t religion per se, but *interpretation* of it.

And M, yes, bizarre comment. I don’t think anyone was justifying misogyny simply by posting about Islam. In fact, isn’t this guide a positive sign of progress?

(And by the way, Islam isn’t a monolith. Saudi Wahabbism is as different to the Islam found in say SE Asia, as ‘trendy modern Christians’ who accept women bishops and think being gay is fine are from some fundamentalist crazy redneck who thinks women shouldn’t wear trousers!)

I mean, I’m not saying that any criticism of a misogynist who happens to be a Muslim is racist.

Just that, well, every culture is (to a greater or lesser extent) misogynist. It’s not simply religion, but culture – well, religion is part of culture, but what I am saying is, religion is just one aspect of the problem – patriarchy. Patriarchy is global. There’s not a culture in the world that is not misogynist.

Victims being blamed for being raped, domestic violence, etc. happen in every culture, whether the perpetrator Muslim, atheist, whatever.

And feminism addresses a wide range of issues. No, catcalling in the street isn’t wife-beating, but it is a legitimate feminist issue. (And who said only white men catcall? Certainly not anyone on this site. I think you’ll find, again, that some men of all races/ cultures do this. You’re imagining poor white men being victimised.)

Beckih // Posted 12 February 2009 at 10:17 pm

We are born to be oppressed it seems because we are women; because man is attracted to the ‘weaker sex’ we suffer – dominated but in a weird way. It’s weird on different levels in different cultures.

I concentrate on the feminist issues I have experienced and that are close to home. Is this not allowed? It’s hard to believe what happens to some women just for being women across cultures, it angers me. It also worries me because it’s part of the pandemic of misogyny.

Feminists struggle to get anywhere because there is little room for them in male culture. They haven’t the power to change things how they would like to. Otherwise efforts would be expanded to women who need it most. But after all we are only voices. It’s the people who want to listen who have an impact.

Victoria // Posted 12 February 2009 at 11:30 pm

“This “vibrant movement” [of Muslim feminists] is a whimper no-one will hear.”

This reminds me of a line from a piece by Sara Umm Zaid, an American woman who converted to Islam several years ago. She titled her article ‘Unveiled Frustrations: Notes to Non-Muslims from a Muslim Woman’, and in it she wrote, “Because it is assumed that Muslim men long ago robbed of us a voice, the feminists, preachers, and politicians don’t bother to trouble themselves by listening for one.”

YOU might not have heard Muslim feminists speaking up, but that says more about the selectiveness of your hearing than the power of their voices. If I mentioned Wajeha Huwaider or Suad Al-Shumari to you, for example, would you know who I was talking about? Probably not. Would you assume that because YOU have never heard of them, this means that their feminist activism hasn’t achieved anything? Going by your previous comment, yes. Bear in mind that not everything that’s worth reading about even finds its way into the English-language media.

Giuseppe // Posted 13 February 2009 at 12:54 am

Islam is the most repressive in the world.

I find it infuriating that people are either completely blind to the obvious or are just scared of being seen to criticise isalm.

Women are killed because they do not cover their hair.

The head of the sharia court in leyton said women who live by themselves are whores, WHORES!

People who say the whole world is misogynist are morally blind.

Equating the behaviour of a man in the street to the actions of a community that is based on religious belief, such as honour killings or god forbid going out with a man who isn’t your father or brother is disgusting.

Anne Onne // Posted 13 February 2009 at 1:26 am

I second what Victoria and Cara are saying.

It’s important to listen to Muslim women and feminists/womanists, about what they want to achieve, what they need, and how best to make it a reality. Ignoring the problems faced doesn’t help the situation of women globally, but neither does the ‘but you’re just being all PC about it!’. I hope this may be a step in the right direction, because it seems to arise from within rather than without. But the point about various Islams is a very good one: a religion spanning so many countries, many of them more religious/culturally stricter than Turkey may not be that affected by this. However, every step is a small step.

Muslim women don’t want to be forced to choose between feminism or their religion. They don’t want to be told by the sisters that are supposed to support them that they’re wrong to hold their beliefs, or live their lives, or that their culture is evil. Looking at it from an entirely Western perspective is incredibly insulting, especially since every culture is messed up. Assuming you’re better than someone else and that your culture is more civilised is very insulting, especially when in the big scheme of misogyny, we’re not that much better off here in many ways. Western society certainly isn’t a perfect (or even decent) model to pass on to others as an example, and the way peopel so often assume it as default subconsiously is incredibly arrogant. It makes people feel that rather than trying to improve their lives, you want to step in to prove your society is better than theirs, and that you know how to run their lives better than they do, a rather paternalistic mesage to send to people.

And M, nobody here denies the wrongs done in the name of Islam. Just like we don’t deny those done in the name of Christianity or any other religion. We have so much wrong with our society: think rape and murder and sex slavery and forced marriage and domestic abuse and sexualisation and victim blaming and pressure to look after kids are unique to Islam? Because they’re very much part of life in the West. Just the part that nobody wants to acknowledge.

And I won’t speak for everyone, but I don’t see wanting to listen to the voices of you know, ACTUAL Muslim women as a bad thing. And also, they don’t all think the same thing. They need help, but they also need to shape their culture and society and work with their men in steps they can manage, and in ways they feel important to them at a particular time. Let’s not forget that barging into the Middle East has caused a lot of complications so far, and that the ways of making progress are slow and painstaking, not something to charge in about.

Oh, and if someone is accused of being xenophobic, they probably are. Because plenty of people (like Bush, for example) use women’s rights as an excuse to feel superior to people from another culture. And if someone’s more concerned about going on about Islam being inherently terrible and women over there have it so bad etc. than listening to what the women over there say, what they want, and how to achieve that, then they’re co-opting these women’s experiences for their own agenda. It may be well-intentioned, or not, but it’s certainly not the way to prove to these Muslim women that you see them as more than a victim.

Western privilege is believing that our viewpoint is not messed up and that we have to run in and fix things for the poor savage coloured heathens, regardless of what they say about it. It’s assuming our culture is so darn perfect, that everyone else is funny or exotic or tragic, and that they all need us to show them what’s right. They don’t. Feminism is everywhere, and we need to give their voices strength, not pretend they don’t exist and talk over them, all the while bemoaning that they don’t stand up for themselves.

The way to actually help people? Help them achieve the change they want. Listen to them. But of course, that doesn’t fit well with the ‘West is the civilised knight in shining armour’ myth.

Deborah // Posted 13 February 2009 at 3:14 pm

Anne Onne is right, every culture is messed up. But some are more messed up than others, especially when it comes to how women are treated. If I can choose which kind of culture to live in, here and now, it will not be an Islamic one.

Jess McCabe // Posted 15 February 2009 at 11:13 pm

Guiseppe – all religions have their extremists. But, as the people who’ve put together this guide demonstrate, it’s wrong to just shove them all together as though every Muslim thinks or feels the same.

You’ll find similar extremism and misogyny in all the major religion. You should check out what some of the far right rabbis and bishops say. Look at the bloody Pope! The important thing, I think, is to keep some understanding that religion is a spectrum. And we do have to consider the wider cultural context of Islamophobia into consideration, too.

Just like we consider anti-Semitism when we look at how we criticise those rabbis. I’ve written about a rabbi who thinks it’s wrong for women to wear PJs, on their own, in the dark!

Without excusing the wrongs that are carried out in the name of religions, worldwide, we’ve also got to consider whether it’s really a good idea to say Islam is the most repressive religion in the world!

If you really do think that, why wouldn’t you welcome an attempt to reconfigure and refocus on feminist interpretations?

Victoria // Posted 16 February 2009 at 12:01 am

“If I can choose which kind of culture to live in, here and now, it will not be an Islamic one.”

Different cultures aren’t like pick-and-mix sweet stalls. It’s not possible to be a shopper who wanders up and down in front of them, selecting the ones that look the nicest. When you make statements about which cultures you would prefer to live in, you are basing your judgement on your own personal ideas, perceptions, and preconceptions – which you hold because of the culture you already belong to.

I am a Saudi woman, and I appreciate and value Saudi culture. I wouldn’t want to be European or American. When I say this, people tend to assume that I must be brainwashed. That I just don’t understand the freedoms that are on offer to European and American women. That I’m blind to the inequalities that are present in Saudi society.

This isn’t the case. I can and do challenge the injustices and inequalities that I and others experience on a daily basis within Saudi Arabia. But unlike a lot of Westerners who are so eager to ‘help’ us, I don’t interpret ‘challenging injustice’ to mean ‘adopting the values and customs of a nice civilised Western society’. I work to improve Saudi society because I’m glad to be a Saudi, and I don’t want my culture to be demeaned by misogyny or by any other kind of prejudice.

I’m always surprised to learn that I could be killed for going outside with uncovered hair, by the way. I know a lot of women in KSA who don’t wear headscarves for whatever reason, and guess what? They’re still alive! They go out without scarves and they’re still alive! Yes, even in the ultra-conservative Land of Doom! A handy hint: if you want to be of assistance to women in a Muslim country, please take the trouble to ask them what life is like for them in that country, to identify what their priorities are, and to give the help that they ask for rather than the help you assume they need. Too many Westerners seem to think that I’m just desperate to be ‘liberated’ from the clothes that I’m ‘forced’ to wear, thanks to their bizarre obsession with veils. If they actually bothered to listen they would realise that this particular revolution doesn’t begin in the wardrobe.

“Equating the behaviour of a man in the street to the actions of a community that is based on religious belief, such as honour killings or god forbid going out with a man who isn’t your father or brother is disgusting.”

I lose count of the number of murder stories that I’ve read in which a woman has been killed by a jealous husband. When such crimes are committed by Muslims, it’s an honour killing. When the same scenario arises in a non-Muslim community, it’s just plain murder (and therefore somehow less abhorrent).

There have also been innumerable cases of women being raped and subjected to extreme physical violence because they were wearing short skirts. Their provocative dress is then held up as justification for the crime by the tabloid press. Alcohol consumption is another popular excuse. “She was drinking, so…” I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard this argument since I moved to England. Yes, England. And I hear it from reasonable, educated people who would be shocked to hear themselves described as misogynist. They call it ‘common sense’. (Of course, if it were a Muslim man with a big beard saying these things, it would be disgusting and abhorrent and all the rest of it.)

Kath // Posted 16 February 2009 at 10:13 am

“When you make statements about which cultures you would prefer to live in, you are basing your judgement on your own personal ideas, perceptions, and preconceptions – which you hold because of the culture you already belong to.”

This applies to you too Victoria.

In fact, many people do choose to leave Islamic countries to escape from the oppression of living in a religious state. All religions are oppressive and whilst secular societies are certainly full of misogyny and racism, they are at least free from that particular yoke of oppression.

Victoria // Posted 16 February 2009 at 2:33 pm

I’m aware that it applies to me as well. I didn’t claim that it didn’t.

The response to my statement that I’m glad to be a Saudi is very often greeted with, “But many people do choose to leave Islamic countries to escape from oppression…” I shouldn’t have to qualify any statement that I make about my identity as a Saudi woman with a remark about women who want to leave Saudi Arabia, just as a way of making my (Western) listeners feel good about themselves and their societies.

This idea of ‘escaping from oppression’ is part of the old orientalist narrative. We can’t rescue ourselves; we must be rescued. We can’t fight; we must flee, flee to better places and cultures. That isn’t empowerment as I understand it. Empowerment means being able to live the life that you choose on your own terms, with other people respecting your choices. This is where the orientalist fantasy of Muslim damsels in distress finding sanctuary in Western havens starts to fall apart. I’ve met a lot of refugees from several different countries, and I know only a handful who wouldn’t go home if the conditions in their country changed to make that possible. And by ‘change’, I don’t mean ‘becoming just like a country in the West’.

“All religions are oppressive and whilst secular societies are certainly full of misogyny and racism, they are at least free from that particular yoke of oppression.”

Instead, religious Muslim women who do arrive as refugees in a secular country are told explicitly or implicitly that their religion is oppressive and harmful and that they would be much better off without it – the implication being, of course, that these women have been brainwashed into belief and have yet to sample the secularist delights that are available to them. They need to be taught what freedom means! This is an assault on a person’s identity, something that is particularly painful if the woman in question has already had to lose her home, family, friends, and language. What is needed in that circumstance is for people to accept her as she is, not for people to try and reshape her into what they think she ought to be.

If you said to a refugee woman who is also a devout Muslim, “Your religion is oppressive,” you would in fact be contributing to her oppression – because you haven’t taken the trouble to find out what her religion means for her. You’re just telling her what you see and expecting her to go along with it, as if your pronouncement is infallible. Last night, at a party I attended to celebrate the appointment of the first Saudi woman to a position of government, one woman got to her feet and recited Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an and a common Muslim prayer. A respectful silence fell while she did it. I am not a practising Muslim, and neither were many others in the room, but we recognised that spirituality forms a big part of this woman’s life, and we wanted to create a space for her to celebrate this occasion in her own way. If you are serious about equality, you have to make room for people to exist and express themselves as they choose. If you can’t do this, you’re part of what you condemn.

Maia // Posted 16 February 2009 at 3:06 pm

So a lot of women in KSA go out without headscarves and don’t get killed? Well, that is some standard to have! I am well and truly impressed. And Victoria, when you use the phrase “provocative dress”, wouldn’t you want to slip that between inverted commas?! Oops.

I personally don’t give a toss about Christianity or Islam or any other religion. I don’t have the slightest interest in these faiths/cultures, or anyone who professes them, and I do not want them in my face dictating to me how I can or can’t live my life, or going on about their great “culture”.

Revolution actually often does begin in the wardrobe. What about the freedom of dress movement of the 19th century, in which women fought for the right to wear clothes which would allow them to ride bicycles and do sports? That’s what I think about every time I hear someone obsessed with a veil going on about their right to wear it.

Kath // Posted 16 February 2009 at 3:22 pm

“The response to my statement that I’m glad to be a Saudi is very often greeted with, “But many people do choose to leave Islamic countries to escape from oppression…” I shouldn’t have to qualify any statement that I make about my identity as a Saudi woman with a remark about women who want to leave Saudi Arabia, just as a way of making my (Western) listeners feel good about themselves and their societies.”

Shouldn’t you? Why not? (not to make us feel good but to address the fact that people do wish to leave).

“This idea of ‘escaping from oppression’ is part of the old orientalist narrative. We can’t rescue ourselves; we must be rescued. We can’t fight; we must flee, flee to better places and cultures. That isn’t empowerment as I understand it. Empowerment means being able to live the life that you choose on your own terms, with other people respecting your choices. This is where the orientalist fantasy of Muslim damsels in distress finding sanctuary in Western havens starts to fall apart. I’ve met a lot of refugees from several different countries, and I know only a handful who wouldn’t go home if the conditions in their country changed to make that possible. And by ‘change’, I don’t mean ‘becoming just like a country in the West’.”

I couldn’t agree more. But the fact remains that the conditions must change.

All religion is oppressive. We must agree to disagree on that one. But there is nothing wrong with feminists pointing out the ways that all women are oppressed by and invest in patriarchal structures, be they religious or secular. This is not an assault on someone’s identity, it is telling it as we see it. I am happy for people to worship and express themselves as they choose but I will not hold back from critiquing those forms of expression. I wouldn’t have raised any criticism during the situation you describe, where a woman stood up to recite a prayer, that would not be the right place to do so. I have no desire to silence Muslim women but ultimately I do not believe that ‘moderate religion’ is the answer. I believe that no religion is the answer.

Anne Onne // Posted 16 February 2009 at 9:24 pm

Kath, I won’t presume to speak for women from various countries and societies, but the way people feel about religion and the cultural/religious elements of their oppression are complicated. Some women reject their religion or culture because they feel they can’t take any more or it doesn’t fit who they are. Some want to engage in most of their culture, but feel oppressed by the oppressive elements. Many women (or minorities of any sort) have a complex relationship with their religion or culture, and that includes not wanting to lose it all, or have some privileged Westerner dictate what is and isn’t oppressive, whilst they want elements to change and have more rights. It’s certainly not as simple as ‘women want to be oppressed cos they’re used to it’, or ‘women want to escape it all’, because each and every woman is different, as is each culture, and the way we personally try to make peace with some elements of the patriarchy, pick our battles, and try to deal with what we’ve internalised and how we can never be truly free is ours alone to do.

The problem is that criticism of cultures or religions often crosses the line from examining and critiquing choices and beliefs to making value judgements of people’s choices and believing we come out superior.

Thank you for your contribution, Victoria. I don’t mean to single you out, but to enforce the fact that us Western feminists (I’m not native to the UK, but my not having experienced life in an Islamic country makes it all the same) would spend a lot of time talking about Muslim women, never actually listening to them. Thank you for giving us your perspective, and a chance to see it from your side.

Here’s your chance, people. Read Muslimah Media Watch or pick up some other Muslim feminist/womanist blogs and see what they have to say for themselves.

The muslim women I know in real life are all different. They are smart, articulate, unashamed of their heritage, even as they (to varying degrees, from explicitly feminist to average) recognise the problematic aspects of their culture and religion. They don’t want to be told by someone with a vague idea based on the odd Daily Mail article how everything in their very lives is so terrible because they’re not like the West. Especially since we do NOT have much to crow about.

I know how offensive this must be for them, because much as I have problems with my own culture, when some privileged Westerners spout gibberish about my own heritage, I want to tell them to shut up and listen, and stop thinking themselves so superior. The same elements that make mine or Victoria’s cultures problematic are also present here, in the West, just manifested differently and taken a little less literally. We have no right to be smug, because had our holy book written the same thing, we’d believe it just as much and literally (and there are plenty US Christians that do take the Bible’s misogyny VERY literally. We still have all the victim-blaming, slut-shaming, baby-makng-obsessing, women-as-objects stuff going on, we just present it differently. People here have the same thought processes as people everywhere else when it comes to discrimination.

Maybe you wouldn’t pick living in their country or culture, but going by this analogy, you’d pick being a white, male, heterosexual, rich, cic-gendered able-bodied adonis, because these people would have it the easiest. The very idea of picking and choosing is a very problematic thing to bring up, because in real life, people don’t get to pick to be in the privileged group. It does nothing to address why some groups have it hard, and it again shows our privilege: we have the choice to not be in their position, an the privilege to know nothing about their reality, but it is their very existence we are insulting. Tell most people their life is crap and you wouldn’t want to live it, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they are insulted.

And by the way, we don’t have a secular society in the UK. Not when people crow about how atheism is causing a breakdown in society. We have society where religion has less power, but it’s very much there still adding to oppression. If we really were secular, we wouldn’t have people trying to get creationism into science lessons.

As Jess said: we have to constantly examine ourselves for bias and privilege: the more privileged we are, the more removed from the experiences of those we discuss, the more careful we must be to not jump in ignorantly and fling around our privilege.

Jess McCabe // Posted 17 February 2009 at 11:30 pm

Once again, I really have to question why people are piling in, and having this strong a reaction, to reports of women working for gender equality within Muslim communities.

No one has denied that conditions need to change in many, many parts of the world, including the UK – that’s what this blog records every day! – and in other places. Usually the women best placed to see what needs to change in any patriarchal culture and how are the women living with those conditions. Because we all know our own cultures, the ones we’re immersed in, the best.

I’m not religious, I wasn’t brought up religious, and I personally see religions as a part of culture. Just like any part of culture, they can and do change, and while I don’t necessarily think it’s going to bring along the feminist revolution I fully support efforts to change those cultures from the inside. An awful lot of the gains women have made worldwide have been won through battles both inside and outside the system. That’s all this is.

Also, I’m disconcerted by the vehemence of comments directed at Victoria; I hope she’s not put off commenting here in future by this.

Victoria // Posted 18 February 2009 at 2:16 am

“So a lot of women in KSA go out without headscarves and don’t get killed? Well, that is some standard to have! I am well and truly impressed.”

I don’t hold this up as a ‘standard’. I hold it up as a simple fact. I’m not trying to say, “Saudi society is terrific because women can go outside without headscarves and not get killed!” I am trying to say, “I’m tired of reading inaccurate statements about how it’s illegal for women to go out unchaperoned or unveiled in Saudi Arabia.” If people truly cared about the rights of women in different Middle Eastern countries, they would take the trouble to inform themselves about what the laws in those countries actually are. Then perhaps they would be able to do something useful, instead of attacking niqaab-clad straw-women. We do not need liberating from laws that do not exist.

“And Victoria, when you use the phrase “provocative dress”, wouldn’t you want to slip that between inverted commas?! Oops.”

Given that I made it quite plain that I don’t think how somebody is dressed is ever a justification for rape, and was using the tabloid obsession with female dress as an example of misogyny, I think inverted commas are redundant there. I also think that there are more important aspects of my post to home in on than my punctuation.

“I personally don’t give a toss about Christianity or Islam or any other religion. I don’t have the slightest interest in these faiths/cultures, or anyone who professes them, and I do not want them in my face dictating to me how I can or can’t live my life, or going on about their great “culture”.”

If you don’t take the slightest interest in the people who profess these faiths or live in these cultures, then you aren’t interested in the vast majority of Middle Eastern women full stop. A strange position for a feminist to take. As a Saudi woman, I do not want to dictate to you how to live your life. I do want to live my own life without seeing my heritage being disparaged, so I may occasionally offend you with talk about how much I appreciate my ‘culture’. And the more you disparage other people’s ‘cultures’, the more you will provoke a defensive reaction from said people. If you don’t want to hear about it, stop making pronouncements about it.

“Revolution actually often does begin in the wardrobe. What about the freedom of dress movement of the 19th century, in which women fought for the right to wear clothes which would allow them to ride bicycles and do sports? That’s what I think about every time I hear someone obsessed with a veil going on about their right to wear it.”

I was talking about the fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, not activism in Edwardian England, which is why I referred to it as ‘this particular revolution’. At all the Saudi feminist meetings that I’ve attended, and I’ve attended many, the principal issues have not been what we wear, but quality of education and access to employment. There are numerous other issues as well, but these are the ones that come up first and most frequently. And as we’re working to improve our lives, it’s our priorities that matter. We are not you. More importantly, we don’t want to be you.

As for obsession, I’m no more obsessed with my headscarves than I’m obsessed with my socks. They are a standard part of my dress on special occasions. However, I frequently have to defend my right to wear them because other people (most of them Westerners) won’t stop talking about ‘the veil’ and how oppressive it is. Then they claim to be our allies in the fight for emancipation. If somebody doesn’t trust me to dress myself, I don’t trust them to be of much help.

As for the right to ride bicycles and do sports, there is no reason why Islamic or traditional Middle Eastern clothing should get in the way of those activities…unless, of course, you have the bad luck of Manal Omar:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/apr/20/fashion.religion

Somehow I doubt that Omar’s determination to go swimming will inspire the same sympathy in you as the Edwardian cyclists. She wants to wear the wrong kind of clothes, after all.

Feminism should mean empowerment and respect for all women. Not just the ones whose dress, beliefs, and cultural mores are in accordance with your own.

Victoria // Posted 18 February 2009 at 2:25 am

To Kath: I address the fact that people wish to leave Saudi Arabia by addressing the misogyny and other forms of discrimination that exist in Saudi society. I campaign for equal rights.

This doesn’t mean that I should have to counter any admission of pride in my Saudi heritage with a statement about all the people who choose to leave KSA. That makes it sound as though emigration is the default option, and that anybody who lives here by choice needs to justify themselves. I am a Saudi woman, and I’m glad to be. I shouldn’t have to justify myself for saying that.

Fran // Posted 18 February 2009 at 8:34 am

The comments directed at Victoria really demonstrate the unacknowledged privilege still bubbling away in white, Western feminist circles. It’s not like she said anything anti-feminist — she acknowledged that there is injustice in KSA that needs to be challenged. The only explanation I can offer for the reaction to her comments is that people are offended that anyone would dare reject ‘superior’ Western culture.

Come on, we’re always asking men to shut up and listen. It is the height of hypocrisy for feminists to try to shout down a Saudi woman when she tries to talk about her own experiences, simply because they challenge our own Western view of the world.

Qubit // Posted 18 February 2009 at 10:10 am

The reactions of people described in the story you linked to Victoria trouble me a lot. Why as a society we feel we are liberating Muslim women by restricting what they choose to wear is something I can’t understand.

I also find it hard to understand why those who will defend strongly a woman’s right to have photos of them displayed wearing very little in public places and tell those who object to being forced to see the images they are restricting women’s rights, find it so difficult to accept a woman choosing not to wear a lot in a place where wearing little is common but not essential. Should we chuck women out of clubs for wearing jeans because they aren’t wearing a mini-skirt?

I find it shocking how unashamedly racist people are, claiming it is to protect women’s rights while trying to restrict women’s behaviour themselves. This post is pointless but it just really annoys me.

Ayesha // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:07 pm

“the vehemence of comments directed against Victoria?” “unacknowledged privilege still bubbling away in white, Western feminist circles”.

I think this is somewhat extreme! And how do you know all these ‘vehement’ people were white anyway? I don’t think anyone was having a strong reaction against reports of women working for gender equality in Muslim countries. That is ridiculous.

I don’t think anyone who’s commented here has tried to ‘shout Victoria down’ or tried to disparage her ‘culture’. Seemed to me it’s the other way round.

I’m sure Victoria won’t be put off commenting. But I’m equally sure a lot of people who resent being deliberately misunderstood or having insulting labels slapped on them will.

Danny // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:17 pm

The F-Word was a positive, friendly, all-inclusive space. Then one day Jess McCabe became editor……

Fran // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:32 pm

“And how do you know all these ‘vehement’ people were white anyway?”

I don’t, but this comments thread seems to me to exemplify the kind of ignorance of/refusal to examine one’s own privilege that I’ve noticed mostly comes from privileged white feminists. Yes, I’m a privileged white feminist myself.

“I don’t think anyone who’s commented here has tried to ‘shout Victoria down’ or tried to disparage her ‘culture’. Seemed to me it’s the other way round.”

I don’t really see how — where has anyone disparaged British/Western culture? Unless I’m misunderstanding you.

Emily // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:35 pm

Muslim women wearing headscarves/veils or non-Muslim women wearing mini skirts are opposite ends of the same spectrum, i.e. patriarchal societies trying to dictate and control women’s appearance. Can’t anyone who likes to call themselves a feminist just purely and simply oppose that instead of sniping at each other?! The posts here are SO depressing.

Louise Livesey // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:51 pm

Dear Danny,

Sorry but this comment is out of order – the discussion here has nothing to do with Jess being editor and such a personal attack serves no purpose whatsoever. I’ve been blogging at The F Word since the blog began and it strives to be a positive, friendly and inclusive space – sometimes we get that right and sometimes get it wrong, que sera but your personal attack misses the point – all the bloggers do their best to manage the competing feminist viewpoints and to keep discussions as open as possible but also moderated for courtesy, some threads are easier than others to achieve this on.

Dear Victoria,

Thank you for your insightful and interesting comments and my apologies for the way they’ve been responded to by some people.

Dear all readers,

I’ve taken over modding this discussion so let me just reiterate the comments guidelines:

The F-Word welcomes and embraces diversity and inclusiveness both in terms of the vibrancy and diversity of feminist views and the diversity of people reading the site.

There may be times when these come into conflict but The F-Word remains committed to inclusion, transparency and openness wherever possible.

This goes beyond simply avoiding –isms (racism, ageism, sexism, heteronormativity, cissexism, transmisogyny, dis/ablism, classism, sizism, lookism etc) and –phobias (biphobia, lesbophobia, transphobia, homophobia etc) but means working to create an open, inclusive and transparent basis for the blog and on positively and actively welcoming contributions from as many different perspectives, histories and identities as possible within a broad interpretation of feminisms.

As such The F-Word is and will remain committed to finding ways to engage with a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, ideas and identities, histories and beliefs and accepts that not everyone will agree with the posts that arise from that engagement. We will try to engage with those disagreements too and include them, wherever possible, in comments and response threads.

Can we please keep that in mind in all future comments?

Thanks

zohra // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:53 pm

Hi Danny

Don’t think you finished your thought, did you mean:

‘Then one day Jess McCabe became editor, and the site grew even more committed to these principles, seeking out new feminist voices that had not yet been reached’?

Louise Livesey // Posted 18 February 2009 at 12:57 pm

Dear Z, Not sure how we could have become “more committed” as committed to these principles was there under Catherine’s editorship too! I know you didn’t mean it to suggest they weren’t but just wanted to clarify!

Louise Livesey // Posted 18 February 2009 at 1:01 pm

Dear Emily, I don’t think it’s that simple – in my feminism I want to acknowledge that some women draw strength, support and empowerment from their religious observances and therefore may choose the hijabi in the same way other women may choose to wear a cross or cover their hair etc. For me, as a feminist, I can’t just oppose hijabi or miniskirts because they don’t always mean the same thing in different settings and for different people. I’ve proudly worn miniskirts not as an oppressed woman but to celebrate my own body and a look I have liked. We can’t essentialise what these things mean so our commitment should be to eradicating patriarchal control of meaning making for these objects rather than eradicating the objects themselves – after all the symbolic meaning is just that, symbolic rather than intrinsic.

Anne Onne // Posted 18 February 2009 at 1:02 pm

Ayesha, it doesn’t matter if they’re white, since someone doesn’t have to be white to be racist, and it’s evident from what people are writing that most of them are coming from a position of Western privilege. The relevant point is that there are a bunch of people who have probably never been to a Muslim country telling someone who lives there that they know more about that reality than she does.

And do you really believe victoria’s been disparaging Western culture? she hasn’t mentioned it, even. It’s very telling that people here interpret someone not being apologetic about EVERY aspect about their culture, (even if they are perfectly willing to critique the problematic aspects) as attacking Western culture. You are all proud of your culture, even though you rail at its limitations and problems, because it’s part of how you grew up, and you can’t separate yourselves from it entirely. You don’t want to choose between that which has been you, and feminism. Neither do Saudi feminists. Everybody has a right to not be ashamed of where they grew up, their people or their identity.

I respect the commenters on this site, and everybody has a lot of meaningful things to say about a lot of issues. That doesn’t mean that it should not be pointed out when someone is letting their privilege get the better of them or is using their feminist voice to silence another feminist. There is such a thing as the kyriarchy, and not all women have the same experience or privilege.

Danny, if you think you can do better, go ahead. Get your own blog and do what you wish. If the tone of the blog doesn’t suit you, you’re fee to find one which does.

I don’t know any of the commenters or contributors personally, but they work hard to try and maintain a balance where views can be expressed without minority groups being marginalised, something that is a REAL problem in Western feminism. Creating a safe space for people with many different kinds of opinion is not an easy task, and certainly not one most people seem to be grateful for. Bloggers don’t owe you or me or anyone else anything, they choose what the tone of the site will be, and ultimately, as people, they choose what ‘side’ to take, or how far to take an issue. They’re not perfect.

Also, being concerned when Western feminists start lecturing Muslim women about Muslim culture is being inclusive. Or is it only inclusive when privileged Western feminists talk about the oppressions of other people whilst ignoring the people in question’s views?

Because if this is another one of those ‘Why don’t I get free speech to insult minorities’ questions, then I think most people are running out of patience with that. No particular view is entitled to be aired on a blog, because this is not the only place on the internet. I don’t demand the BNP blog run my views, and if the views on this site don’t appeal, I suggest either contributing and starting your own discussion, or finding somewhere that does. This site makes clear that they are against discrimination, and that it’s their discretion as to what they think is offensive. The one doing the offending doesn’t get to say if they’re offensive, because nobody thinks they are.

Talking about someone’s own culture and experience, as if we know more about it than them is quite insulting. And then insist they qualify everything they say with ‘well, my culture IS oppressive, OK? ‘, so we don’t attack them for supporting misogyny, even though they live every day with this reality and we don’t is patronising. We’re doing to them what everyone else does to feminists. We’re talking to women who have an understanding of feminist discourse as if they’re completely ignorant of how religion can maintain the patriarchy.

You know, it’s not surprising we have the womanist/feminist issue when things like this occur. I’m sorry, but much as I respect commenters, as an ally I’m not going to sit by and watch a bunch of Westerners tell a Saudi woman who clearly understands about the patriarchy, all about her reality.

Being all in means listening to someone belonging to a minority about their experiences, being considerate of their experiences, and considering, when we disagree, whether we have a point, or whether we are acting out of privilege or ignorance.

Check your privilege.

R. // Posted 18 February 2009 at 5:49 pm

I think Victoria is making an awful lot of sense. Keep on talking, sister!

Anna // Posted 18 February 2009 at 6:30 pm

‘I lose count of the number of murder stories that I’ve read in which a woman has been killed by a jealous husband. When such crimes are committed by Muslims, it’s an honour killing. When the same scenario arises in a non-Muslim community, it’s just plain murder (and therefore somehow less abhorrent).’

Sometimes I read things on this blog that really open my eyes and force me to check my privilege and how sometimes despite my trying to appreciate different cultures equally I fail miserably to do so. This is one of those times. Thank you, Victoria.

Legible Susan // Posted 18 February 2009 at 6:36 pm

There was a programme on BBC2 recently “Explore: Turkey on the Edge” (available on iPlayer) which covered several aspects of Turkey’s Islamic culture / secular state dichotomy. The secular state part isn’t all good by any means – they too try to police women’s appearance, banning the headscarf from many places including university, so there are devout women who organise their own study groups, and others who wear a wig over a headscarf to simultaneously evade and mock the rule (if I’m understanding correctly). Many young people in Turkey seem to have a relaxed attitude in contrast to the media hype we usually get over here. This won’t be news to Victoria, but some of the people posting here need to remember that Islamic countries are not all the same.

Further off topic, last week’s “Why Reading Matters” season on BBC4 included a programme called “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu”. It’s about to expire from iPlayer and will be repeated tonight. Aminatta Forna tells us about where the libraries came from (the Islamic tradition of scholarship), how they came to be lost, and a lot of West African history that we didn’t learn in school (in my day, in York, at least). It reminded me why we need the BBC, in spite of some of the d*mn silly things they’ve done recently.

Juliet // Posted 19 February 2009 at 12:42 pm

I agree with what Anna says, I too often read things here that make me check my privilege, and sometimes fail to understand, or am not even aware of how women in cultures/societies different to the one I live in perceive their lives. I do want to listen to “other” (!) feminist voices, as varied as possible (Jess is doing a lot to bring those voices to our attention). Telling someone they are oppressed or you wouldn’t want to be them is incandescently insulting, not to mention beyond useless.

I think it would be great and really useful (not to say bloody necessary) if Victoria could write a feature for the F-Word from a Saudi woman’s perspective. If she’d want to, of course.

Zarina // Posted 24 February 2009 at 2:35 pm

Where did this obsession (both among Westerners and non-Westerners) with the veil/hijab/chador whatever, come from actually? In the Koran it says nothing about women having to wear headscarves or veils or cover themselves completely, it simply states that both men and women should “dress modestly”.

I think it is the most terrible shame that some fringe fanatics have given Islam such a bad name (they continue to cause trouble and undo a lot of great work). Hundreds of years ago Muslim women had rights that Christian women could only dream about. And there was fantastic Muslim culture and learning while Europe was still living in the Dark Ages.

Sabre // Posted 25 February 2009 at 11:51 am

Zarina, this is slightly off topic but I’m currently reading a book by Irshad Manji called ‘The trouble with Islam today: a wake-up call for honesty and change’ and it’s amazing!

Irshad is a muslim, gay, feminist and the book is about many things, but she mainly questions why Islam is practised the way it is today, compared with the times when Islam was a progressive force in so many ways. It’s written in a journalistic style with humour (she is a journalist) rather than an academic style and although she admits some of her experiences are anecdotal the book really is a breath of fresh air for muslims and non-muslims.

I really would recommend everyone to read it.

Kath // Posted 25 February 2009 at 12:59 pm

Hi Anne Onne, I have only just read your response to me. I am not sure if your whole comment is addressed to me or not. I as said to Victoria, I believe that all religions are oppressive. I am happy to agree to disagree with you on that. I agree with you that the UK is not a completely secular society but it is a generally secular culture and that is a good thing. I think it is appalling that we, or any country, has a state religion, that representatives of that religion are allowed to take part, unelected, in our parliament and that the state gives funding to religious schools. I spend a lot more of my time criticising Christianity than Islam. I never mentioned ‘picking’ a culture to live in, that was someone else on this thread.

Kath // Posted 25 February 2009 at 1:22 pm

Hi Victoria, thanks for your response. If you are proud and glad to be Saudi, that’s fine, I shouldn’t have attacked you over it. I myself am neither proud nor glad to be British. I actually literally don’t understand the concept of pride in one’s country/heritage/culture because it’s not something one has chosen or contributed to, just an accident of birth. And glad.. no, there are more egalitarian societies than Britain I would enjoy being a citizen of (though I live in one that is less so) but as I and others have said, we don’t get to pick.

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