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