Islam and feminism

In the third of our series on faith and feminism, Asma Barlas writes about the message of sexual equ

I have been asked to write about how feminism informs my understanding of faith and if and how faith influences my feminist views. I’ve discussed the intersection between Islam and feminism many times before and every time I have clarified that I do not like to call myself a feminist; yet, the label continues to stick!

The truth is that long before I learned about feminism, I had begun to glimpse a message of sexual equality in the Qur’an. Perhaps this is paradoxical given that all the translations and interpretations that I read growing up were by men and given that I was born and raised in Pakistan, a society that can hardly be considered egalitarian. Yet, the Qur’an’s message of equality resonated in the teaching that women and men have been created from a single self and are each other’s guides who have the mutual obligation to enjoin what is right and to forbid what is wrong.

But, then, there are those other verses that Muslims read as saying that men are better than women and their guardians and giving men the right to unfettered polygyny and even to beat a recalcitrant wife. To read the Qur’an in my youth was thus to be caught up in a seemingly irresolvable and agonizing dilemma of how to reconcile these two sets of verses not just with one another but also with a view of God as just, consistent, merciful, and above sexual partisanship.

It has taken the better part of my life to resolve this dilemma and it has involved learning (from the discipline of hermeneutics) that language--hence interpretation—is not fixed or transparent and that the meanings of a text change depending on who interprets it and how. From reading Muslim history, on the other hand, I discovered that Qur’anic exegesis became more hostile to women only gradually and as a result of shifts in religious knowledge and methodology as well as in the political priorities of Muslim states. And, from feminism, I got the language to speak about patriarchy and sexual equality. In other words, it was all these universes of knowledge that enabled me to encounter the Qur’an anew and to give voice to my intuition that a God who is beyond sex/ gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women either.

Most Muslims, however, are unconvinced by this argument and it may be because viewing God’s speech (thus also God) as patriarchal allows the conservatives to justify male privilege and many progressive Muslims to advocate for secularism on the grounds that Islam is oppressive. As for me, I continue to respond to the Qur’an’s call to use my reason and intellect to decipher the signs (ayat) of God. Thus far, such an exercise has only brought me to more liberatory understandings of the text itself.

Asma Barlas is professor of Politics and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, New York.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.