The government’s latest announcement about funding for Muslim women to help curb terrorism confuses social cohesion with extremism, and it also forgets that women cannot single-handedly solve our social ills.
Apparently, we’re not very assertive. And apparently, we need the government’s help. And apparently, some training courses are going to solve the problem. Thus spake the government when announcing that they would help us Muslim women to stop extremism. By going on some courses. Once we’ve been suitably trained, we’ll go on to spy on our kids, create community cohesion, and curb terror. We’ll then stop for afternoon tea. After dunking our digestives in our chai, we’ll reverse global warming and achieve world peace. Muslim women will save the day! (I know we’re good, really really good, but I’m not sure we’re superhuman!)
Please don’t misunderstand me – the initiatives announced by the government, in and of themselves, are good projects. Women do need more support, they are a fundamental building block of the community, they do need more attention. So bring on the training, bring on the resources, bring on the focus.
The projects proposed by the Department of Communities and Local Government are much needed. The communities in question, and the women that form part of them very much need this support. But why is investment in Muslim communities and in Muslim women about terror rather than social improvement? The very distinct line between extremism and social cohesion has become dangerously blurred – and the government must be called to account on this distortion.
Muslim voices are denigrated when they complain about ‘spying’, ‘interference’ and state-sanitised and approved religion. The wailing chorus is because ‘Moozlim problems’ are categorised as problems of extremism and terror and are dealt with as such, rather than being addressed as the social and economic problems of unemployment, access, education and opportunity that they are. Government resources are required to get to grips with deep social issues, as a problem to solve in themselves. Extremism and terror need to be tackled in and of themselves as well. But solving terrorism can’t masquerade under the guise of social reform. The two must not be conflated.
When it comes to the specific question of investing in women, yes women – just like men – need to be involved in facing down the criminals that bring extremism and death to our streets. But we’re falling into the usual trap of gender play-offs. If it doesn’t work with the men, go onto the women? Try one, then the other? The government is beginning to sound like a deeply traditional mosque, or the feminist movement, by dealing with people (in this case Muslims) as two distinct species – male or female – who apparently have little or no overlap. Women can’t do it alone, so don’t set us up to fail.
Women are not, and should not be a separate project, an afterthought, a curiosity. This is an obstacle to creating a socially cohesive and balanced society. Muslim societies (just like European ones) are very guilty of this problem of falling foul to treating men and women as two separate mutually exclusive entities. But the government seems to be equally guilty. Building projects and goals on such shaky gender foundations may yield short term benefits, but it is predicated on a model of social interaction that is flawed. Men and women are not separate, independent, unrelated. It takes two halves to build a whole.
In the Muslim world, the longstanding focus of the debate on social relations between the genders has been on establishing the limits and boundaries of Islamic law. By focusing this debate simply on the specifics of the boundaries of Islamic law it reinforces the exclusion and separation of women from society in general. By talking about “women’s rights”, the whole area becomes a sub topic. In the same way, talking about women bearing the brunt of the responsibility to curb terror detracts from the responsibilities of the social whole.
To put it simply, it is a mistake to consider men on the one hand, and women on the other hand, in isolation from each other, because at every step we are connected to each other. The Islamic model of gender relations describes the equality of men and women as “created from one soul” as well as their interconnectedness and balance “you may find peace and tranquillity in each other”.
The Quran explains, “It is He who brought you into being from a single soul”. From the very source of the human being, both men and women have the same value, being created from the same beginning. In the Quranic model, women and men are linked right from the beginning and their source is of the same value, they share the same unity.
The whole area of gender rights and gender relations is very sensitive, and one of the areas of particular sensitivity is around the concept of ‘equality.’ By referring to a society of two equal and balanced halves, the reference is to being equal in value and participation, with no other connotation. And this meaning is quite clear in the verse of the Quran that locates men and women as created from one soul.
The issue is that women are not being given the opportunity to contribute their value. The government funding should help in a small way to address this – but only if it is aimed at improving the status quo, not as a means to the totally separate goal of dealing with extremism.
The Islamic model of the two genders as two halves of a whole, is a reflection of the fundamental Islamic concept of Tawheed. This central doctrine can be further explored by looking at the attributes of the Creator, who has names which represent His Jalaal – majesty, and other names which represent His Jamaal – His beauty. For every Muslim, these are both an undeniable part of Tawheed. Then if man and woman are created from a single soul, then are they not simply a reflection of the attributes of Jalaal and Jamaal, of the masculine and feminine attributes of Allah? In which case, how can the two ever be separated? And further, are not both together required to complete the unity?
The discussion should then not be on “men’s rights” or “women’s rights” but on the rights of the human being, and the respect for each other as human beings. Perhaps the problem is that we do not see the potential of each other as fulfilling the divine in everyday life.
The Quran is explicit in saying that Allah has created pairs for us that we may find peace and tranquillity in each other. This verse is usually quoted the context of two individuals getting married. But instead of simply looking at this at an individual level of one man and one woman, we can extrapolate it and create a model of social harmony – that women and men are a pair and need to work together in order that society is peaceful and tranquil.
What will be the key factors in shaping an environment which will be successful in creating a balanced whole with productive participation from both genders? We shouldn’t be drawn into playing the genders off against each other. It is totally appropriate to identify the unique needs of each gender and to address them as part of a holistic approach to solving problems and improving society. It is not appropriate to favour one gender, and punish the other for seeming failure. That would be like holding your hand over one eye to try to see the whole world in three-dimensional glory. Unfortunately, by confusing extremism with social cohesion, and by holding women alone up as social saviours, the government is in grave danger of creating a one-eyed bumbling monster.
This article was published recently in The Muslim News