Western feminists and Muslim women in new dialogue
How should modern western feminism relate to Islam?
This was the central question posed by Maleiha Malik upon opening her lecture “Islam, Feminism and Muslim Women” held on 23 November in Copenhagen. Professor of law at King’s College London and practising lawyer specialising in discrimination law, Maleiha Malik was in Copenhagen as a guest of the Center for European Islamic Thought.
The question posed by Maleiha Malik is a complex one and at her lecture she herself was the first to admit that there is no simple answer. Nevertheless, she did open the way for an intense debate as her question fundamentally addresses how we talk about ourselves and how we talk about those who we define as ‘the others’. What demands do we make upon each other’s cultures? With what expectations do we meet each other? And how do we get the deadlocked feminist dialogue back on track?
This last issue is not merely the most central issue, stresses Maleiha Malik on meeting WoMen Dialogue after her lecture, but it is, in her view, a matter of utmost urgency. A look at the western world right now shows that the place where the dialogue between western and Muslim women should be going on has been filled by right-wing nationalist rhetoric. This is what Maleiha Malik calls ‘the deadlock’ – a dialogue that has ground to a halt.
Is rhetoric a true defence for feminist values?
“A good example from the Nordic region and Denmark is the existence of groups of people in the right-wing nationalist spectrum who have never previously concerned themselves with women’s rights or women’s liberation. Suddenly, these people are coming forward as advocates of immigrant women’s rights and Muslim women’s rights. We’ve got to look at their intentions and ask ourselves whether or not their rhetoric is in reality a true defence of feminist values”, explains Maleiha Malik.
"They’re not interested in feminism or the rights of Muslim women. They use feminism as an instrument – for them, it’s a stick with which they can beat down upon less powerful minorities. (...)"
Maleiha Malik does not hide the fact that she finds this sudden commitment to feminist issues by the nationalist right wing in Europe questionable.
“Their commitment is not based upon principles of equality. They’re not interested in feminism or the rights of Muslim women. They use feminism as an instrument – for them, it’s a stick with which they can beat down upon less powerful minorities. As I see it, this is a fairly widespread phenomenon in Europe at the moment”, she explains.
The feminist aspect of the deadlock
It is not only in the UK that feminist researchers and commentators have had problems dealing with the new political situation. Feminists in other European countries, including Denmark, have also found it difficult to establish a foothold in a debate landscape where any criticism of Muslim women’s living conditions – both in and outside the home – can be defined as a right-wing national alliance.
“This is the feminist aspect of the deadlock. Feminists are keeping quiet because respectable feminists don’t want to pour fuel onto a racist debate that victimises minorities. This is an honest and honourable reason for keeping quiet. We haven’t been sufficiently adept at developing a language where we can do two things at the same time: firstly, criticising right-wing nationalists for using gender equality as a stick with which to beat Islam and Muslims; whilst at the same time, secondly, defending feminism as a valid and important intellectual and political movement”, explains Maleiha Malik
"(...)Feminists are keeping quiet because respectable feminists don’t want to pour fuel onto a racist debate that victimises minorities. This is an honest and honourable reason for keeping quiet.(...)"
The rights of Muslim women as a pawn in the larger political game
Since its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the western NATO coalition war with a Muslim nation has made the situation more complex. In the context of this war, too, the image of the repressed Muslim woman has come to play a symbolic legitimising role: justifying a specific political agenda of war and occupation of a majority Muslim country. George W. Bush (USA) did it. Tony Blair (UK) did it. Anders Fogh Rasmussen (DK) did it.
When the leaders of the western world had to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, they pulled out the image of the Burqa-clad woman. According to Maleiha Malik, the war in Afghanistan had, and still has, almost nothing to do with freedom for Afghan women. There were other interests at play, yet the Burqa-clad women became a symbol for justifying the western war action.
“This was one of the most extreme recent examples of the instrumentalisation of equality and feminism. In the past, ‘freeing non-Western women’ was used to justify colonialism. It was said that non-Western cultures were ‘barbarians’ because they treated their women badly as compared with European cultures. This rhetoric was used despite the fact that during the nineteenth century, European women back at home in Europe, were themselves subordinated and excluded from political, social and economic power.
When the leaders of the western world had to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, they pulled out the image of the Burqa-clad woman. According to Maleiha Malik, the war in Afghanistan had, and still has, almost nothing to do with freedom for Afghan women. There were other interests at play(...)
We’re now seeing this discourse re-emerging in the debate about Muslim women. These arguments about Muslim women are now being used as war propaganda to demonise Muslim culture and to justify violence against innocent Muslims. Strategic military objectives are being concealed behind arguments that NATO is there [in Afghanistan] to defend the rights of the Muslim women,” says Maleiha Malik.
Through her work as a lawyer specialising in discrimination law, Malik has followed how the constructed enemy-image of Islam and Muslim culture has affected how British Muslims are portrayed in the media at home and abroad. She has examined the mainstreaming of the image of Islam and Muslims as the enemy.
“Not all media sources are aware how their coverage has created stereotypes which merely serve as a form of war time propaganda to cement this image of Islam and Muslims”, she explains.
When the British burqa debate was at its most intense, a small study of media coverage in the mainstream media demonstrated that Muslim women dressed in burqas whose pictures were used were never mentioned by name. These Muslim women were not given the opportunity of stepping forward as individuals to speak in their own voice. Instead, they were represented by many in the mainstream media as a voiceless symbol of something foreign and unfamiliar.
“Not all media sources are aware how their coverage has created stereotypes which merely serve as a form of war time propaganda to cement this image of Islam and Muslims”
“They were literally portrayed as mute creatures, even though the role of responsible media should have been to provide them with a voice and to open up a dialogue about why they chose to wear a burqa”, states Maleiha Malik.
Burqas and headscarves as hot topics
Some of the most central elements in the debate have in fact been burqas, Niqab and Muslim headscarves. The same is true in Denmark, where in 2009 the Conservative People’s Party proposed a total burqa ban, which was not passed. Nevertheless, in 2008 a law was passed prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols (including headscarves) by judges in Danish courtrooms. Even though the ban covered all types of religious symbols, the bill was seen as a ‘headscarf ban’.
The Danish headscarf ban had a precedent in France, where in 2004, surrounded by violent debate, religious symbols, i.e. Muslim girls’ headscarves, were banned from French schools.
"(...)Gender equality is an important value to many people especially in Northern Europe. It’s also difficult for Muslims to enter into a dialogue by allowing their own values and practices to be opened up for discussion and criticism.”
According to Maleiha Malik, these heated debates about religious clothing reflect the absence of a nuanced intercultural debate. There has been a lack of open feminist decision making and a lack of understanding of the viewpoints of Muslim women in the debate.
But how can this dialogue regain momentum and become a form of a meaningful exchange?
According to Maleiha Malik, this is possible if both sides are prepared to take some risks.
“It’s a difficult thing to throw yourself into this debate because both sides are putting the deepest sources of their own identity on the line. Gender equality is an important value to many people especially in Northern Europe. It’s also difficult for Muslims to enter into a dialogue by allowing their own values and practices to be opened up for discussion and criticism.”
Western feminists can remain critical of women’s position within Islam
“At the moment, many western feminists remain silent about core feminist values that they worry may be incompatible with Muslim practices. In relation to the burqa, feminists need to make a ‘double movement’ within this debate.
"(...)They [the feminists] could, for example, ask whether Muslim women have considered the high costs that they will pay if they voluntarily make the burqa such an important symbol of their religious faith. They could also ask whether there are forms of oppression or patriarchy in the Muslim community that can be challenged through alliances between Muslim women and [other] feminists(...)”
Crucially, first and foremost, they need to defend all Muslims against indiscriminate attacks by far right nationalists, racists and xenophobes who are dishonestly trying to pass themselves off as well meaning feminists. Secondly, once they have done this, and distinguished themselves from those who want to misuse gender equality to attack minorities, feminists can start to gently open up a debate with Muslims and Muslim women about practices such as the burqa. They could, for example, ask whether Muslim women have considered the high costs that they will pay if they voluntarily make the burqa such an important symbol of their religious faith. They could also ask whether there are forms of oppression or patriarchy in the Muslim community that can be challenged through alliances between Muslim women and feminists,” suggestions sound.
"(...)Feminists can speak up and say that that Muslim women are making a mistake when they adopt the burqa.(...)"
Maleiha Malik emphasises that the debate must always remain flexible and open to avoid turning into colonial or right-wing nationalistic rhetoric.
“Firstly, you need to start by accepting that the Muslim woman has made a personal choice to wear the burqa. At the same time, one of the western feminists’ greatest contributions is that it has made us aware of the fact that women often have a much wider range of choices than they may realise at first. Sometimes it may be necessary to make women aware that the choice they have made can be reconsidered, revised or that it may not be in their best interests. This is an important part of the debate. Feminists can speak up and say that that Muslim women are making a mistake when they adopt the burqa. At the same time, it’s important for feminists to listen to what Muslim women say in reply about their self-understanding of their choices. This can only be done in an atmosphere of trust and persuasion. This type of conversation cannot take place if either side adopts an air of cultural superiority and arrogance. Nor can a long term just and stable solution be imposed through the use of law and coercion.”
"(...)Each side will make mistakes. This means that each side also has to exercise patience and tolerance.(...)"
Here, Maleiha Malik connects back to the question with which she started her lecture.
“We have a responsibility to raise the quality of this debate for the sake of the next generation of young Europeans (non-Muslims as well as Muslims) who have to live together in one community as citizens. We need an honest and respectful dialogue about the critical issues which concern us such as the place of Muslim communities in Europe. To do this requires us, on both sides, to dare to take some cultural risks. Each side will make mistakes. This means that each side also has to exercise patience and tolerance. Achieving a deeper cultural knowledge of the ‘other’ sometimes requires us to take cultural chances about what we are willing to say about the ‘other’ and what we are willing to hear about our ‘selves’. Yet, this is the challenge we face if we want to get to know each other better,” concludes Maleiha Malik.
Well aware that there are no simple solutions, she ends:
“ You have to approach dialogue with a sense of humility about your own culture as well as a willingness to learn and be transformed through an encounter with the ‘other’. You can never control where the debate will end, but at least you’ve set the right boundaries for a mutual conversation.”