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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.