Muslim women have always experienced higher incidences of anti-Muslim violence than men. This is confirmed by Tell Mama, the government-backed helpline which measures anti-Muslim violence, which states that 58% of incidents are experienced by women. Victims have ranged from a five-year-old girl who was run over, to an 89-year-old pensioner. Seventy-five per cent of perpetrators are male and 54% of all cases are linked to supporters of far-right groups, such as the British National party and English Defence League.
Supporters of organisations such as the EDL highlight their hatred of Islam by attacking Muslim women. And yet the EDL’s mission statement asserts its belief in “equal rights for Muslim women” and opposes the denigration and oppression of women. This calculated yet hypocritical effort to focus on “oppressed” Muslim women who need saving has always been a key strategy of the far-right, anti-Islam counter-jihad movement.
From Pamela Geller’s deceptive narrative on honour killings, to the BNP’s distortion of Islamic theology, this focus serves a tactical purpose: recruit members to their cause, and cement the idea that Islam oppresses women – believed by 69% of the British public.
Ironically, the counter-jihad movement sings from the same hymn-sheet as Muslim extremists by promoting a literal, decontextualised and patriarchal interpretation of Islam. Radical Muslims preach the importance of women being confined to the private sphere; the only possible praiseworthy role, we are told, is mother and wife. By persuading them to withdraw from public life, these extremist preachers disempower women by denying them their economic self-determination, and ultimately silence them through their invisibility.
This ideological view has no basis in the Qur’an and is rejected by the majority of British Muslims. While at pains to state their opposition to Muslim extremist preachers, counter-jihad organisations are keen to regurgitate this version of Islam to reinforce the argument that Islam treats women badly.
Unfortunately, there are serious challenges facing many British Muslim women today. Seven in 10 Muslim women are economically inactive; Muslim women have worse health than any other faith group; they can be victims of culturally based crimes, such as forced marriages and honour-based attacks; and there is a lack of female leadership among British Muslim organisations and mosques. None of this is condoned by Islam, but often arises from socioeconomic barriers and unreconstructed cultural practices.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, some vulnerable Muslim women experience victimisation on multiple fronts: they face violent anti-Muslim attacks at the hands of racist bigots, and encounter gender discrimination from within their own communities. Worse still, some women refuse to speak out against gender-based discrimination fearing this would only fuel anti-Muslim hatred – of which they’d be the likely victims.
Having worked with a number of British Muslim organisations over the years, it is disheartening to hear the deafening silence on gender issues. It is imperative that Muslim organisations and mosques do more to tackle gender discrimination experienced by female members of their communities.
Muslim organisations not only need to speak out more, they also need to actively begin to tackle this socioeconomic and cultural discrimination and to challenge Muslim preachers who promote unacceptable and extreme views about the role of women in Islam.
Anti-Muslim hatred and gender discrimination are two sides of the same coin; they are unjust, unBritish and undemocratic. My organisation works on the premise that we cannot speak out against anti-Muslim hatred while remaining silent about Islamist extremism and cultural crimes experienced by Muslim women.
The misplaced notion of “not offending cultural sensitivities” at the expense of Muslim women cannot be defended. As a country that values equalities legislation, this protection must extend to all British women.
Yet in these testing times, we must allow Muslim women to speak for themselves. Their voices need to be heard. We need to recognise Muslim women’s agency and their right to live in dignity, free from being politically exploited in the name of hate.
Extremist views from both sides blight the lives of British women and weaken our country. As a country that stands for equality, justice and women’s rights, we cannot allow extremists of any kind to deny British women their rights.
- The original article can be read here.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/11/muslim-women-bigots-sexism