The Ordeal of Muslim Women: No More Excuses
Those who try to halt FGM and other violence or abuse must expect to be accused of Islamophobia — but the tide is turning
During the past decade, something insidious has happened to global feminism. White Western women are being punished, insulted and demonised for speaking out against the atrocities heaped on our sisters from Muslim cultures. Despite the fact that the international women’s liberation movement has helped bring about worldwide recognition of and action against the many forms of male violence and abuse of women and children, the new “cultural sensitivity” towards Islamic practices has resulted in a two-tiered system. It is fine, for example, to be appalled at widespread child sexual abuse by the likes of Jimmy Savile, but “racist” to respond in the same way to forced marriage, gender segregation, or the requirement that girls and women are veiled from head to toe.
I am a deeply committed radical feminist who, for more than three decades has fought against sexual and gender-based violence, but am I within my rights to speak of a universal war against women? Not according to the appeasers of Islam. I am, it would appear, allowed to speak about the abuse of women by men, so long as they are within my demographic. But if I stray from my own turf and begin to speak of such abuse within Muslim communities, I am sticking my nose in where it is not wanted. Worse, I am imposing my white, Western imperialism on what is described by my critics as a much misunderstood, maligned community. Or so goes the logic of the cultural relativists such as Ken Livingstone, the former Respect party leader Salma Yaqoob and countless scared and misguided individuals who believe that to highlight specific acts of violence that disproportionately affect Muslim women is to imply that they only occur in communities of “others”. The oppression of women, for those defenders of Islam, is not a major concern if it is done in the name of religious and cultural freedom. But whose freedom? Not the women who escape Islamic regimes and come to the UK hoping to live under equality, or those feminists born into a Muslim faith who campaign passionately for the right not to wear the full-face veil, enter into an arranged or forced marriage or have their daughters undergo genital mutilation (FGM). These women and their freedoms matter less to the cultural relativists than the freedom of Islamist men to practise such discrimination under the guise of freedom of religious expression. This magazine has led the way in exposing both the atrocities faced by women living under Muslim laws in the UK and the hypocrisy of those on the Left who defend such practices. From Pakistani grooming gangs, forced marriage and the gross homophobia of young Muslim men in the East End of London, it has refused to go the way of some publications by blaming the “Islamophobia” of those speaking out about such human rights abuses. Over the last decade, those feminists who seek to condemn violence and abuse towards women in the name of culture or religion have often been accused of condemning an entire community or faith. Muslim women who publicly support harmful cultural practices by arguing that polygamy, FGM and the wearing of the full-face veil are merely expressions of a Muslim identity are held up as evidence that such practices are nothing to do with male dominance and patriarchal power. As efforts to expose the reality for women living under sharia have gained momentum, so has the mantra that for non-Muslim individuals to critique such issues is “Islamophobic”. It is only very recently that the issue of FGM has entered popular discourse in the UK. After decades of being fed the guff — from politicians, prosecutors and, ironically, some campaigners fighting to eradicate FGM — that it is a cultural rather than criminal practice, the message has finally started to sink in that it is nothing more or less than child abuse. Even the Guardian, an outlet that has continually defended radical Islam, is supporting a campaign to eradicate it. This is a far cry from a few years ago, when I was told by a senior section editor that the paper could not run my story on private doctors in Harley Street performing hymen reconstruction operations for Muslim women before marriage because “these operations can save women’s lives”. Female genital mutilation — which involves the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons — is recognised as a violation of human rights. The World Health Organisation describes the practice as reflecting “a deep-rooted inequality between the sexes” and constituting “an extreme form of discrimination against women”. Almost always carried out on girls below the age of 16, FGM has numerous short- and long-term consequences and complications, including severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, bacterial infection and infertility. Women who suffer FGM often forfeit the possibility of any sexual pleasure and may face serious complications — even death — in childbirth. They are mainly from communities with links to sub-Saharan or north-east Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Faduma Ali offered this vivid account of the suffering she endured when she underwent the procedure in her native Somalia: “My grandmother and mother had it done, so it seemed natural. There were four of us, but because I was the bravest, I was told to go first. My grandmother and the other girls’ mothers held me down and the woman cut me with a knife. It’s like someone is cutting your finger off without pain relief. My blood was shooting into her face and eyes.” FGM was first criminalised in the UK in 1985, and the law extended to cover cases where girls are taken out of the UK to be cut. Since then, hundreds of thousands of British girls — ranging from babies to young women — have had large parts of their vaginas sliced away with knives, scalpels or razor blades, sometimes with anaesthetic, often without. It is now estimated there are around 170,000 women and girls in the UK living with FGM. Despite this, there has not been one successful prosecution under the Female Genital Mutilation Act.Furthermore, my recent report for the New Culture Forum, which investigated this inaction, found evidence that women and girls were being brought to the UK to be mutilated. Such “FGM tourism” occurred precisely because it can be perpetrated with impunity. I wanted to find out why we had failed to punish those who carry out FGM, by interviewing professionals in health, social care, and the justice system. (I do not oppose male circumcision because it is not mutilation, and very few health problems arise from the procedure. Also, it is healthier for men and their sexual partners.) Underlying many professional responses was a confusion about the criminality of FGM, and a tendency to see it as a traditional practice, rather than a form of child abuse. There was a reluctance to refer possible victims for medical examination: nurses and doctors avoid performing routine medical examinations on girls for fear of being “too invasive”. This reluctance would seem completely unjustified if applied to other forms of child abuse.This misguided and ultimately dangerous cultural sensitivity is not limited to health and social care professionals. In a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website by the columnist Laurie Penny entitled “This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia: I am Infuriated by White Men Stirring up Anti-Muslim Prejudice to Derail Debate on Western Sexism”, Penny claims that “from the Rochdale grooming case to interminable debates over whether traditional Islamic dress is ‘empowering’ or otherwise, the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.” Penny, who regularly posts on Twitter wringing her hands about how she, as a white, middle-class woman, has failed adequately to “check her privilege”, pegs her argument on the campaign against gender apartheid in universities. In one of the most unashamed examples of cultural relativism I have ever read, Penny argues:
Structural sexism does take place every day in our universities, as it does in our offices, shops and homes — and we should oppose it everywhere. But demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against “radical Islam” sounds more and more like white patriarchy trying to make excuses for itself: “If you think we’re bad, just look at these guys.” Horror stories about Muslim misogyny have long been used by western patriarchs to justify imperialism abroad and sexism at home.
Really? So FGM, forced marriage, gender segregation, and imprisonment within the confines of the home do not exist? White patriarchs have made it all up to suit their “Islamaphobic” agendas? A correction was appended to the piece after complaints that Penny had ignored the fact that several women of Muslim origin had been centrally involved in the anti-segregation campaign. What an effective and insidious way to remove all agency from Muslim-born feminists fighting for liberation. This issue has only exploded because these women began coming forward in increasing numbers and drowned out the cultural relativists. They refused to comply with the likes of Laurie Penny offering them “protection” from “Islamophobia”. They made it clear they would rather we stopped the mutilation. Many of the women fled to the UK to avoid the misery of living under sharia. The shameful truth is that many so-called feminists and others on the Left stepped in and created a shadow sharia on their behalf.
Two recently published books illustrate a polarity in the way misogyny and violence against women in Islam has been framed. The First Muslim (Atlantic, £8.99) is a rather glowing and uncritical portrayal of the life of Muhammad by a secular Jewish American feminist, Lesley Hazelton. Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuse of Power in Libya (Grove Press, £16.99), by French author Annick Cojean, is based on an extended interview with one of the many young women that Muammar Gaddafi raped and humiliated while in power.
Is there a direct connection between Muhammad’s treatment of women, especially his wives and concubines (some of whom were young children or captives, who had no choice but to submit to his whims), and that of Gaddafi, who by any standards was a monster? In both cases, a man assumes absolute power and a mystical title (Muhammad was and is “The Messenger” or “The Prophet”, Gaddafi was “the Guide”), which entitles him to take any girl or woman he wants and treat her as his property — with Allah (in the Koran) granting Muhammad the privilege of having as many wives as he wished, including taking his adopted son’s wife and then changing the divine law to make this legal. One harrowing story in Cojean’s book on Gaddafi focuses on a girl we know as Soraya. In April 2004, Gaddafi was visiting a school in his home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast 350 miles east of Tripoli. A 15-year-old girl was selected to present gifts and flowers to Gaddafi but what followed was almost beyond belief. Soraya was taken away and undressed. Her measurements and a blood sample were taken, then her entire body was shaved except for her pubic hair. She was made to wear a G-string and a low-cut dress, and make-up was plastered on her face. She was then shoved into Gaddafi’s room. Gaddafi was lying naked on his bed. The girl tried to escape, but one of the female helpers grabbed her and held her down. What followed was an ordeal involving rape, humiliation and torture, the first terrifying episode in what would become seven years of hell for Soraya. Gaddafi had a number of ways to abduct his victims, such as abducting brides from their wedding ceremonies, and from schools. He even kept a secret flat at the University of Tripoli, where he abducted and raped students. In direct contrast to Cojean, Hazeldon does not condemn Muhammad’s treatment of women. She does not question the morality of his marrying the six-year-old Aisha and consummating the union when she was nine. Instead, she suggests that Aisha was really about 12, in other words past puberty, and must have exaggerated her youth to make herself seem special. This seems a strange attitude in the light of modern experience of child abuse. Gaddafi’s predatory behaviour has been rightly condemned by reviewers of Cojean’s book, and it is sickening that visiting Westerners (including Tony Blair) seem to have assumed that the women who surrounded Gaddafi were there voluntarily. But wasn’t his behaviour more or less sanctioned by Muhammad’s example and the sharia law he bequeathed? By the time he came to power in 1969, Gaddafi probably thought he was entitled to treat women as he did, because the Koran exempted Muhammad from even the restriction to four wives that is supposed to apply to all Muslim men. These two individuals, though separated by 1,400 years, throw light on why Islam has such a problem, in theory and practice, with women. How ironic that, in 1981, Gaddafi said he had decided “to wholly liberate the women of Libya in order to rescue them from a world of oppression and subjugation”. I have often been accused of being racist for speaking out against the full-face veil and other harmful cultural practices, such as forced marriage. One well-known feminist who is opposed to the criminalisation of forced marriage because, in her own words, it “stigmatises an entire community” said to me during a debate that she did not want the see the same thing happening to Muslims as happened to the Jews under Nazi Germany.
In recent years there has even been a move towards legalising polygamy in countries such as Russia and Indonesia, and the arguments about why that might be a good idea are filtering into British debate. In the UK we have a semi-legal system of polygamy, where a blind eye is turned to men of Pakistan origin bringing more than one wife into the UK and claiming state benefits for them. Caroline Humphrey, a Cambridge University anthropologist, argues that the critical issue is demography, rather than exploitation. In her article “Sex in the City: the new polygamy” (Cambridge Anthropology, Vol 29, 2009), Professor Humphrey states that polygamy was a way to overcome the reality of a population where women outnumbered men. The women she interviewed told her that the legalisation of polygamy would be a blessing as it would give them rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children and rights to state benefits. The same arguments used here to justify polygamy are those that are often used by liberals arguing in favour of prostitution. It is misguided cultural relativism. I have interviewed women in polygamous marriages and, unlike the relatively privileged, alternative folk in the West who chose to have multiple partners, these women enter such arrangements out of a fear of social exclusion and economic deprivation. Patriarchy and poverty are the drivers, not sexual liberation. Feminists from a non-Muslim background commenting on the abuse of women under Islam are, according to the cultural relativists, no longer human rights defenders but bigots and racists. Last summer I was asked to speak at the New Turn conference on women’s rights hosted by Queen Mary University of London, When the programme was published a protest followed, led by QMEquality, the university’s student feminist society, supported by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT) and its supporters, on the grounds that they believed me to be “transphobic”, following an article I wrote in the Guardian Magazine ten years ago about whether it was appropriate for a male to female transsexual to counsel female rape survivors. The issue of my “Islamophobia” was dragged into the mix: “We would like to express our anger at New Turn’s deplorable decision to invite Julie Bindel to speak at their ‘Women in the 21st Century’ event. Her remarks on the niqab also reveal her Islamophobia, presupposing a lack of agency on the part of Muslim women. ”From a standpoint of solidarity with our trans, bisexual and Muslim colleagues on campus, we condemn not only Bindel’s bigotry, but also New Turn’s willingness to legitimate it.” QMEquality appealed for a boycott ifthe organisers refused to cancel my appearance. Three days before the conference I was told I was being dropped from the programme. Those who had called for my ban classed themselves as feminists and believed they were supporting their Muslim sisters. British-born Jewish feminist blogger Rebecca Schischa experienced similar aggression from fellow feminists while trying to address specific forms of female oppression affecting women who live within different cultures. Following a post she wrote in support of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and feminist campaigner who has been vocal about the tyranny of cultural relativism, a “well-informed friend” questioned her wisdom in citing Ali in the first place: “She [Hirsi Ali] is, I guess, the most well-known face of the common cause formed by (absolutely well-meaning but ignorant) western feminists and Islamophobes. I can’t really see her as brave. Megalomaniac and self-promoting and full of righteous zeal, yes. But don’t forget she has an awful lot of adoration and support from the right wing (and the pretty far right wing in Holland).” So, do Muslim women need defending? Certainly not from the cultural relativists; they need our solidarity. In the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “When Muslim women face not just oppression but violent death, why aren’t the feminists out protesting these abuses? Where are the great European and American campaigners who powered the contemporary movement for women’s equality in the West? Where, to take just one example, is Germaine Greer, author of such classics of Western feminism as The Female Eunuch? Greer believes the genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context. Trying to stop it, she has written, would be ‘an attack on cultural identity’. It is unconscionable for her to refrain from speaking out against honour killings because it would be ‘tricky’ to challenge the culture that condones it.” A great deal has been achieved in exposing the abuse of women living under Islamic law and custom, but there is still a great reluctance to deal with issues such as forced marriage, polygamy and FGM within the criminal justice system. We can no longer pretend it is the odd few families that practise FGM, and surely now we will cease being complacent about the total lack of intervention from our criminal justice system. Enablers such as Laurie Penny — who are at best misguided, but I tend to think are more cowardly than ignorant — are appeasing the Islamists who wish to keep Muslim women in a state of subjugation. Such people so fear being labelled “racist” that they appear to be prepared to sell Muslim women down the river in order to feel smugly multicultural. They also seek to silence the many activists from the Islamic community — like Ayaan Hirsi Ali — who are trying to bring these human rights abuses to light. It is a tough ordeal being a Muslim woman in the UK. Not only are they required to articulate the abuse they suffer as a choice, and part of their culture, but Muslim women have the likes of Laurie Penny writing their efforts to overcome such abuse out of the picture. We are at a watershed moment in thUK. In order to further the progress made so far by the survivors of FGM and other campaigners against it and other forms of abuse affecting Muslim women, a number of people are going to have to be very brave and dare to speak out against double standards and blatant hypocrisy. The real racism is ignoring or renaming such atrocities because they happen to Muslim women and girls.