Can you be a Muslim and a feminist?

It is astonishing that “Muslims”, and Muslim women, are so frequently spoken about as a monolithic block. If you actually listen to what Muslim women have to say on the subject, you find that many of them have no difficulty reconciling their faith with th

Islam and feminism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Of course you can’t be a Muslim and a feminist. That’s like saying you can be a Ku Klux Klan member and an anti-fascist.

That’s just a small sample of the responses I got on Twitter last week when I said I was taking part in a panel discussion about Islam and feminism. It is a knee-jerk response that shows at best ignorance and at worst bigotry; at the very least, a lack of desire to look outside a pre-existing, blinkered set of assumptions. Those assumptions are perhaps unsurprising given that the media almost universally portrays Muslim women as victims. There they are in Afghanistan or Pakistan, being oppressed; there they are in France, being legislatively protected from men forcing them to wear a face veil (or, in another reading, criminalised for choosing to wear one). Amongst all this hand-wringing about the oppression of Muslim women, there are remarkably few attempts to solicit the views of Muslim women themselves. During the recent resurgence of the niqab debate in the UK, veiled – or even headscarf-wearing – women were initially absent from the discussion, until a few days into the furore when a few broadcasters and newspapers made an effort to redress the balance.

At home and abroad, the most common depiction of “the Muslim woman” is as a victim. This ranges from news coverage to characters on TV shows (who tend to be surviving arranged marriage). Perhaps this is the root of the idea that it is absurd to mention Islam and feminism in a single breath.

So, let me answer my own question: is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist? Well, of course. As in any other large group of humans (there are 1 billion Muslims in the world, around half of whom are women), a huge range of views exist. Some of these half a billion women are not feminists; some are. There is a distinction to be drawn here between Islamic feminists who explicitly draw their feminism from their faith, and Muslim women who also happen to be feminists.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, Fatemah Fakhraie, founder of Muslimah Media Watch, summarised the former position: “I see the justification [for feminism] in my faith. In the Qur’an it says that we’re all equal in the eyes of God. It means that the dignity of every person is important.” Some Muslim women (just like non-Muslim women) take issue with the term “feminism”. One of the participants at the panel discussion I took part in last week felt that the term carried with it a whole history – predicated on western ideals – that made it inappropriate for her own beliefs. Yet that did not stop her from expressing support for gender parity, which she expressly draws from her faith.

When it comes to Islam, the question of scripture is thorny. Much of what is followed today is the interpretation of a group of scholars dating back hundreds of years, rather than the literal teachings of God. The Qur’an is a complex and dense book, meaning that even the act of translation involves interpretation. Reinterpretation of the text is a controversial issue, but there are some interesting and brave attempts by female scholars to challenge accepted wisdoms not by deviating from the Qur’an, but by returning to it. (One example is academic Asma Barlas, who has researched patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an.)

There is a particular breed of internet troll whose favoured technique is to take selective quotes from the Qur’an or to answer any article on Islam with “The Prophet married Aisha when she was a child!!!”. Yet this cherry-picking proves nothing. The Prophet lived in the 6th Century, and the advent of Islam vastly improved the situation for women in pre-Islamic Arabia. Moreover, most religious texts contain misogynistic elements. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively originated 3,000, 2,000, and 1,450 years ago, and elements of the scripture and lore of all three reflect the times they were written in. The Torah, Bible, and Qur’an all agree that women are unclean during menstruation. The Bible says that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission”. This is not to play tit-for-tat, but to point out that it is intensely reductive to claim that any single religion is inherently woman-hating. The Bible and the Torah are comparable to the Qur’an in their statements on women; yet one does not commonly hear that “Judaism and feminism are a contradiction in terms” or that “you cannot be a Christian and a feminist”.

It is astonishing that “Muslims” are so frequently spoken about as a monolithic block. Think of the range of Christian experience – from Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the Amish, to secularised, modern-day Church of England – and you have a reasonable point of comparison. In addition to those women who draw their feminism from their faith in Islam, there are many who simply believe in both. I personally view the equality of men and women as a basic, common sense position and struggle to see why anyone – male or female – would think otherwise. I’m not particularly religious and never have been, but that perspective was given to me by my mother and grandmother, both strong Muslim women who see no contradiction between the two value systems. At the discussion I took part in last week, everyone on the panel – and many in the audience – agreed that the problem reconciling Islam and feminism rarely comes from within, but from those outside. Those views that I opened with – “isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” – are profoundly destabilising. You are not who you are. You cannot be who you are. It is impossible for you to be who you are and think what you think.

Working in Pakistan over the last year, I encountered a lot of women facing horrendous situations, and a lot of vile gender-based violence. I also encountered a lot of inspirational women who were strong, vocal, and fighting for their rights. None of them felt that their faith was at odds with their conviction that they, as women, should be equal citizens.

In writing this article, my intention is not to detract from the very real problems suffered by many Muslim women, or to argue that sexism in Islam does not exist. It does exist, as threats against women activists in Asia and the Middle East demonstrate. As is often the case, the conservative minority shouts the loudest and essentially drowns out the liberal voices. But by saying that “Islam and feminism cannot co-exist”, you are handing a victory to that conservative faction. My intention – and this may be too nuanced for the trolls who I can already hear queuing up – is to point out that Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive. To claim that they are is – far from “saving” these victims – to deny women their voices all over again.

 

Protestors outside the French embassy in London when France banned the veil in 2011. Photo: Getty

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.