Doing it for ourselves

Muslim women are talked about by others in the west as if they are powerless victims, in need of res

For Muslim women, the first decade of the 21st century ended pretty much as it started. Much was done in our name, little of which we had asked for. The century began with one of the poorest countries in the world being subjected to a deadly, multibillion-dollar onslaught from a coalition of the most powerful countries. The liberation of Afghan women was just one of the justifications used for a war that now extends ever further into the future.

Laura Bush characterised the moral pomposity of the cheerleaders for war: "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," she proclaimed. Her call was echoed by Cherie Blair. Ending the oppression of Afghan women, as symbolised by the imposition of restrictive dress codes upon them by men, became a battle cry.

Afghan women most certainly deserved solidarity in their fight for equality and dignity. What they did not deserve, and did not ask for, was an unholy alliance of neoconservatives and Cruise missile liberals who pushed the lie that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was not an imperial adventure, but a feminist mission.

That some western feminists could not grasp that a shroud covering a woman killed by western bombs was as unwelcome and oppressive as a Taliban-imposed burqa is a betrayal of the notion of sisterhood, and displayed a shocking lack of empathy and respect for other women. Equally, those - such as the journalists Joan Smith and Allison Pearson - who have chosen to reinforce the patronising "we know what's best for Muslim women" line maintain their ironic stance.

The UK Independence Party is the latest to join this coalition and nail its emancipatory colours to the mast with a call for a ban on the burqa. Its credibility as an advocate for women's rights, never mind those of Muslim women, is not immediately obvious. The Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom has asserted that "any small businessman or woman who employs a woman of childbearing age needs their head examined".

Debating with me on the BBC's Politics Show, Ukip's Nigel Farage showed what this was really about. Farage sought to present Bloom's statement as part of a battle against an alleged creeping influence of sharia law. He conjured up the spectre of an increasingly segregated Britain in thrall to a sinister Islamic threat. His contribution was an amalgam of stereotypes, caricature and scaremongering.

With a general election in mind, Ukip is consciously pandering to widespread ignorance about the reality of our lives as Muslim women, and to broader negative perceptions about the Muslim community. It is a race to the bottom with the BNP for racist votes.

What not to wear

The debate around Muslim women's attire has had many outings since 2001. It was brought to the fore by Jack Straw during his campaign for Labour's deputy leadership in 2006. Cynically co-opting the force of state apparatus to exploit Muslim women's bodies and clothes is unacceptable - whether it is used by narrow-minded Saudi or Afghan men to control women by forcing them to cover; or whether a French or British politician is seeking to gain popularity by trying to force women to uncover.

The perception of Muslim women in the west is invariably as either silent aggressors or victims. By the mere clothing we wear, we manage simultaneously to pose a threat to the whole of society and to show how oppressed we are, how much in need of rescue.

But my own experience of getting elected as a ward councillor in inner-city Birmingham contradicts such stereotypes. In a small but still significant way, I hope, it is indicative of Muslim women's growing self-confidence. Politics generally remains a male preserve, but particularly so in Muslim British-Pakistani communities. Political candidates and activists are almost always male and the status quo is reinforced by the system of postal voting on demand. Essentially, this has denied many Muslim women their right to a secret ballot, as their votes are filled in by male members of their households. In Birmingham, the largest local authority in Europe, I remain the only Muslim woman in the council chamber nearly four years after I was elected.

When I stood as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, one of the obstacles I had to overcome was the perception that I was a "fundamentalist" interested only in "Muslim issues". In addition, I had to face male hostility: it was not "my place" as a woman to contest politics. Yet I did so, and polled more than 4,300 votes - nearly 50 per cent of all those cast - despite standing as a candidate for a small fringe party. This was possible only because a large number of Muslim women resisted pressure, exerted by their father, husband or uncles, to vote as they were told. Our campaign against the abuse of postal votes helped. Also, for the first time, groups of Muslim women, young and old, were seen openly canvassing on doorsteps.

Live and let live

So, beneath the surface, change is taking place. My ward has lots of vibrant, self-organised women's groups. Our local ward committee and neighbourhood forum groups are well attended by Muslim women. And more are taking a public role. At present I am being shadowed by a young Muslim woman who intends one day to stand as a councillor.

Contrary to popular perception, most British Muslims want to integrate into broader society. I was not surprised by the findings of a study by the Open Society Institute published late last year, showing that British Muslims are the most patriotic in Europe. Whereas 78 per cent of the UK's Muslims felt themselves to be British, only 49 per cent and 23 per cent of Muslims in France and Germany considered themselves French and German, respectively. The British model of multiculturalism makes it easier for immigrant communities to breathe, feel accepted and identify with their new homeland and nationality.

I see the benefits of this every day as I go about my work as a councillor. While prejudice, racism and intolerance have not been eradicated (indeed, the "debates" around Muslim women have left many feeling more isolated and demeaned), the strong current of "live and let live", expressed quietly in a typically British, understated way, is still a strength, enhancing a sense of belonging. Rather than undermine what is working, we should be reinforcing it.

The best way to empower Muslim women, and to safeguard a society where we can choose our lifestyle, dress or partner, is to uphold the basic principle of pluralism: respect for difference. You don't have to like the burqa (I certainly would not choose to wear it myself) to uphold the rights of those who do. The true hallmark of a civilised society is support for the rights of others - not only when we like particular choices, but also when we don't agree with the choices that others may make.

Salma Yaqoob is a Birmingham city councillor and parliamentary candidate for Hall Green.


Raising their voices

The Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist Fatima Mernissi is notable for her work on the status of women in Islam. She seeks to challenge the ideological and political systems that help promote the subordination of Muslim women, in the hope of liberating "silent" women from oppression.

Sayeeda Warsi is the Conservative shadow minister for community cohesion and social action and has a keen interest in community relations and women's empowerment. She is considered one of Britain's most influential Muslims. In December 2009 she had eggs thrown at her by men protesting that she was "not a proper Muslim".

The first woman, and the first convert, to be president of the Islamic Society of North America was the Canadian Ingrid Mattson in 2006. Raised a Catholic, she was inspired to study Islamic theology by the modernist Fazlur Rahman. Mattson is a professor of Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations.

Zahra Rahnavard is the wife of the Iranian reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and a leading figure in Iran's "green movement" in her own right. She was an adviser to the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and chancellor of Tehran's women-only Alzahra University. She supports the veil and criticises western ideas of equality.

Harriet O'Brien

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.