Back to the Future: Revisiting Ideas of Islam, Women’s Liberation and Equality

Arzu Merali looks back at her work on women’s rights and asks whether the movements for justice, whether Muslim or not, have lost their way.*

I decided one day I was a feminist. I think I was 12 years old.  I was born and grew up in white working-class North London, and that combined with a thrice annual dose of South Asian heritage events, and weekly Saturday ‘Islamic’ classes, was enough to convince me that a woman’s lot was not great, and something needed to be done.  It was another five years before I found myself one day swapping a mini skirt and mega hair (it was the 1980s) for everything covered up, scarf included, not a strand of hair showing.  The journey I went on was to my mind then and now, one of a seamless resolution of the feminist dilemma.  The dilemma of the 1980s, the particularities of North London / North Europe, the North, simply (very simply put) was how to be free of the objectification of women, the sexualisation of our existence as defined by men, the male gaze of culture enacted in law and absorbed into every fibre of the political, economic and cultural organisation of society.

It worked.  Freedom.

Yet, less than 200 words into this essay, I can hear the screams, from men, women, secularists, Muslims, “You can’t say that.”  Well, I have to respond, in all earnestness, “Why not?”  Why is it that an Islamic solution to the immediate problems of an individual, and then maybe a society cannot be expressed.  Don’t agree with it if you don’t want to, but why deny someone’s claim to freedom if freedom is what we claim is the most important good of the societies we (want to) live in? We did and still do in our Northern mindsets, live in an age of ascendant liberalism, where freedom (more so than justice) is the goal of movements – national, sexual, you name it, we crave it.  When it comes to defining or even just mooting the possibility of a way that could lead to just resolution of societal issues, it turns out that freedom does not actually apply.  The much-hailed marketplace of ideas is not open to Muslims as practising Muslims.  And with that, Muslim women like me, were not to be considered feminists.

Somewhere along the journey I describe above (and subsequently) I have written about various aspects of what at different times have been subsumed as conversations about gender, sexuality, feminism, Islamic feminism, human rights, grammars of dignity.  One of those papers, ‘Other Voices in the Garden: Why Muslim Women Don’t Have Human Rights’, is one, written when I was pregnant with my daughter, that I find myself revisiting twenty something years later.  Other papers have had discrete audiences: outward facing to hostile and friendly liberal / feminist / progressive audiences; Muslim facing in general; ‘progressive’ and ‘critical’ Muslim voices in particular and so on.

‘Other Voices’ however, written whilst young(ish) still and full of raging pregnancy hormones is one I want to revisit.  It speaks (in still youngish naiveté) to various of those audiences, its central claim being that Muslim women can’t have human rights simply for no other reason that the discourse of human rights itself excludes them.  It is not Muslim conservatism or traditionalism or essentialism that prevents (Muslim) women from the free and unfettered enjoyment of the good life, but the intransigence of human rights speak (whether law, treaty, policy or now common sense norm) to infer agency and full humanity to Muslims per se and Muslims (and other non-European) women in particular.

The universal is in fact very parochial when it comes to this issue.  That’s what I argued then.  I was hoping that by the time my daughter was a young woman we would be somewhere past the impasse of the ‘Can Muslims / Islam be Modern / Enlightened / Compatible with Human Rights’ narrative; it would have been breached.  Yet, despite all sorts of movements meantime – critical race, Islamic and post-colonial feminism, the nascent decolonial movements in theory and praxes – we still seem to be stuck at this border.  Insofar as this is an outward facing impasse – Muslims versus the Western / Northern non-Muslim – then this stand-off is less important, consequential even, than before.  That West / North is in decline, lashing out in ever desperate cycles of brutality and violence (Afghanistan, Iraq, even Ukraine) to cling on to the remnants of its empire(s).  However, our internalisations of this debate is something more advanced, engineered and accomplished than two, three, four, five decades ago.  And so I am looking to see what went wrong, where I went wrong, and where we can maybe, regroup.


23 years ago and counting

So, I proudly proclaimed, first at a talk at the University of Leicester and then as the paper ‘Other Voices’:

“But what does this contention actually mean? There are three perspectives that we can take to explain this. The first is the Western view of Islam as a civilisation as opposed to western civilisation. With this approach we can measure women’s progress according to Western criteria, with particular reference to Huntington and women’s progress to equality. The second view is the Western view of Islam as a culture in the 20th century as opposed to Western, capitalist, liberal culture. This involves the categorisation of political and secular Muslims. In this approach we can look at the anomalies of UN literature and statistics, as well as the statistics of human rights discourse. The third view requires critical thinking and interpretation, it is the challenge of comparing human rights against Islam as ethical discourses. For this we need to look at the genesis of critical thinking in the West, and question its basic assumptions – how free is it? – how equal? But we also need to look at our own history and our contemporary situation through a critical lens – have we ever delivered anything near a Qur’anic society?”

What now then of these three ways of seeing (with due deference to John Berger, whose analysis of ways of seeing has become more important to me as I age)?  Well, the civilisational, Huntington et al, has risen and fallen and maybe rises anew but with different emphases.  Samuel Huntington argued that the West and its values (of which human rights and Christianity were crowning secular and religious glories resulting in liberalism / liberal democracy) were not universal but unique – no-one else outside the Western (read white, Western European as American (and begrudgingly the outliers of Australia and white South Africa)) world can develop to the level of this pinnacle of humanity.  They may ‘ape’ it, argues Huntington, but it will never be real and true.  At the meta level, there were responses from all sorts of movements, but two in particular then gave succour to an Islamic alternative: the ‘reforming’ movement of President Khatami of Iran and the rising Islamic political movement that culminated in the victory of the AK Party in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Ergodan.  In short, we are as we are, you are right, and we have a right to be different.  We do not have your ways of seeing and being, and we should be left alone to be.

This is of course simplistic, and any number of initiatives by both, including the now infamous Khatami CNN interview (‘pilgrim fathers’ anyone?) with Christiane Amanpour circa 1999, sought to actually make common cause between aspects of Western civilisation and Islamic civilisations of past and present.

And now?

The abrupt disruptions of everything from the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad that turned the Islamic political gaze back towards a Muslim-Muslim and Muslim-South aspect, to the no-conflict foreign policy of Turkey opened a possibility of alternative spaces (not necessarily civilisations) that saw the West as something to be dealt with but not a primary focus in the development of societal norms, progress and development.  Muslims and the ‘others’ of the Huntington headspace, didn’t need either validation or direction from a West in turmoil and decline.  Huntington and his ilk were irrelevant.

Those were halcyon days.  Then came Syria.  I, and many better others, have written about and vehemently disagreed about this elsewhere.  Suffice to say here that the West resurged through this conflict in ways that exposed that its ideas were so deeply embedded in the Muslim / other psyche, we were prepared to destroy each other to no-one’s benefit except that of the old colonialists, their settler outpost and above all the US.

What does / did any of this mean for (Muslim) women?  In the Huntington civilisational discourse, Muslim women, as part of that alternative ‘hands off us’, arguably had a space within which they could create, advocate and participate on their own terms.  And those terms included Islamic imaginings of the good for women, for children, for families for society as a whole.  Dare I say it, that space could have created the underpinnings for ummah-wide change.  That is the least that could have, should have, to some extent did happen.  You can see the remnants of that in the world today.  In 1999, newly elected Fazilat Party (a precursor to AKP) member of Parliament, Merve Kavakci, was booed by fellow politicians as she took her place in parliament.  Why? She wore a hijab.  So intense was the backlash that she was ejected from the chamber, and prevented from being sworn in.  Today she is an ambassador for her country, as are many other behijabed women from Iran and elsewhere around the world.  More power to them all. We are proud.

But that takes us to the second aspect of where things have gone wrong, and where even our successes fail us.


More representation, same system.

There was always a positivist get out clause when it came to feminism. Here are the markers of equality (the UN has had conferences to keep setting them endlessly, the appendices of ‘Other Voices’ looked at the 1995 Beijing conference literature) – you meet them, we will accept you into the club of the progressive.  Except it was never as simple as that.  If it had been so, then back in Beijing in 1995, and today in the multi-representational diplomatic lists world-wide, so many of the world’s countries would be included who simply aren’t.  Positivism isn’t as scientific or objective as it claims.  It has never really been just a numbers game.  If it had been like that in Beijing the Iranian delegation would not have been endlessly hassled, and they themselves would not have been so bemused as to why they were harangued.  On healthcare provision for women, numbers of women in education, in academia, as chancellors of universities and so forth, even on issues like maternity pay, they were ahead of the US and the UK.  Those markers have only since improved more in Iran, and yet we hear the scream again and again that Iran oppresses women – nay it is one of the worst oppressors of women world-wide.  At best this narrative is cynical and at worst it is deeply ideological, and that ideology clearly sees women as something to be instrumentalised not liberated.

It is not enough for there to be more practising, hijab clad Muslim women or any type of Muslim women in places of power and prominence in a world, where every attempt to change it in a way that doesn’t conform to narrow political understandings of the good is demonised, delegitimised and even criminalised.


Ways of Seeing Liberation

Lila Abu Lughod explains this perfectly in her seminal essay, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’  Decrying e.g. the Taliban (at the time of writing its first iteration) without taking into account what Muslim women who (a) (happily) wore the burqa, (b) supported the Taliban, believed and felt, simply denied them agency, similar to what the Taliban were accused of doing.  If, as many ethnographic and anthropological studies found, many women adopted the burqa (as quoted in Lughod) to navigate the sexist and often sexually harassing society they lived in, to the extent that this was in their own opinion, a way of immediate liberation for them, then how can this be ignored or discounted.  Yes, we can argue that the burden of breaking the sexual aggression of wider society should not be on women.  However, waiting around for men to effectively reverse their gaze isn’t such an appealing option.

That ‘male gaze’ expounded by Laura Mulvey but meticulously detailed by John Berger in his TV series and book of the 1970s ‘Ways of Seeing’, is one that hasn’t gone away.  Art, literature, popular culture all portray women as sexualised subjects, to be consumed by a male consumer – the viewer.  It doesn’t matter that in the literal marketplace women are also consumers, that in the cultural realm they are also viewers.  Both these activities for them remain passive, they buy into their subjugation (hence the aggressive fashion and cosmetics industries of yesteryear and today, the selfie and surgery culture of now and the foreseeable future).  Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria, elsewhere on these pages looks at how sex and sexualisation of women still reigns today.  Whilst US First Ladies may proclaim that wars have been fought to liberate Muslim women, it is in fact the market of the male gaze that arrives with the US army and or economy.  As the Soviet Union collapsed (and with it, life expectancies in general and support and opportunities for women in particular), Germaine Greer notes that before a Soviet woman could see a banana in her grocery store, she was able to find Dior lipsticks[1].  Worse still Greer charts her own journey as leading feminist – or perhaps women’s liberationist is a better term – to find the ‘Whole Woman’:

“In The Female Eunuch I argued that every girl child is conceived as a whole woman, from the time of her birth to her death she is progressively disabled. A woman’s duty to herself is to survive this process, then to recognise it, then to take measures to defend herself against it. For years after… I travelled the earth to see if I could glimpse a surviving whole woman. She would be a woman who did not exist to embody male sexual fantasies or rely upon a man to endow her with identity and social status,.. I gazed at women in segregated societies and found them in many ways stronger than women who would not go into a theatre or a restaurant without a man. I learnt the limitlessness of women’s work from labourers, beggerwomen, tribeswomen. I learnt about sexual pleasure from women who had been infibulated…

“No sooner had I caught sight of the whole woman than western marketing came blaring down upon her with its vast panoply of spectacular effects, strutting and trumpeting the highly seductive gospel of salvation… My strong women thrust their muscular feet into high heels and learned to totter; … and instead of mothers’ milk fed commercial formulae made up with dirty water to their children; they spent their tiny store of cash on lipstick and nail varnish, and were made modern. Even the hard-working women of China began curling their hair to prove that they too were real (i.e. phony) women.  While western feminists were valiantly contending for a key to the executive washroom, the feminine stereotype was completing her conquest of the world.”

It is hard to see how any of this does not apply now.  Except now, the fait accompli is so vast that in minoritized settings, we daren’t say that maybe there is an Islamic alternative.  We daren’t even suggest, as Abu Lughod does, that maybe we should look at why after the Islamic Revolution in Iran there have been ‘great increases in literacy, decreases in birth rates, presence of women in the professions and government, and a feminist flourishing in fields like writing and film-making…’. Could it be down to, well to put it bluntly, the effect of mandatory hijab?

There, I said it.

It’s not that we daren’t even say it anymore, it’s that we too believe we shouldn’t believe it.  Because it involves mandating dress, as if dress isn’t mandated everywhere else, just differently, but usually with male / female difference.

Elsewhere, I have asked feminists particularly of the standpoint and post-colonial variety to accept that there can exist both a universalising Muslim female view of the good for women and society, and a way that such views can exist within a multitude of ideas of imagining and developing the greater good.  One of those ideas might be what we understand to be human rights as per the last less than one hundred years of developing the term.  It can also and crucially equally, be the 1400- year understanding of dignity, rights, equity and justice that Muslims (women and men both, and yes that was deliberate) aspire to and argue over.  Above all, I have a right to choose the latter and believe it is better.  At this point we may begin to be able to have a conversation about women, rights and justice.

As it happens, I don’t actually believe that mandating women to wear some form of hijab is a be all cure to the ills of the Westernised world we all live in to a greater or lesser extent.  I also don’t believe women whether Muslim or not all deciding to wear more clothing, modest clothing or what we might describe as ‘hijab’ is a cure all either (additionally, I don’t believe this is even a primary aim of hijab in itself).  To fix the gender inequity and injustice we face in the world today requires many more revolutions: of how men think; of how women understand the processes which deny them dignity work as the norms of societies that claim to value gender equality.   In order to get to a world where we can move beyond the tyranny of the ‘female stereotype’ (on display in some parts of the world, undercover of ‘modest’ garments in other parts) I argue that Muslim societies do have the right to mandate dress norms as the way of getting there, or even just as a meantime event to help us get there.  In any event, they have the right to mandate thus, because, well everyone else does, just not, as we can see so well, with such good intentions.  Just because we do not decry it the way we decry it elsewhere, does not mean that the tyranny of Western dress mandates – by law and culture – don’t exist.

Back in 1999, I challenged a Muslim audience to take a moment away from the very proper critique of how oppressive Westernised society actually is, of how poor its track record on women’s rights really is (in addition to the effects of the male gaze, remember the Married Women’s Property Act of 1888 allowing women to own property in England, a right conferred by Islam at the outset of the Prophetic mission?)  How far have we come to actually realising a Quranic society, which we claim is the epitome of liberation here on earth?  It cannot be right that decades later, to even ask this question is anathema not to those who oppose the Quran, but to those who believe in it.

Adding (Muslim) women to the pot and stirring is not enough.  Decolonising our thinking and delinking it from ideas about women’s ‘progress’ in the West, is not enough.  Having alternatives that do not rely on either of the foregoing is not enough either, but it is a (re)start.  Beginning again on this road is a benefit not just for Muslims, and Muslim women, but all marginalised people.  Oh, and by the way, I am not a feminist.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK.  She is one of the editors of The Long View and was a founder of Islamic Human Rights Commission.  Follow her on Twitter @arzumerali.

[1] The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer, 1999

* This essay was originally published in volume5, Issue 3 of The Long View here.

** The cover image is a crop of one of Sara Russell’s images from her exhibition Another Day.  The copyright is hers.  Buy a limited edition full print here.