• An absurd proposal: what if men weren’t allowed to drive?

    This is my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National (UAE).

    With all the recent media coverage of women not being permitted to drive in a certain Middle Eastern country, I got thinking – what would it be like if men weren’t allowed to drive?

    I came to one simple conclusion: we women would be much safer.

    Think about the dangers of male drivers. Men have higher rates of speeding, they are involved in more accidents and cause more deaths on the road. Their high-testosterone brains ignite higher incidences of road rage. They are notorious tailgaters, failing to observe any measure of safe stopping distance. And, they can’t even be bothered to ask directions when lost. The solution is simple: bar them from driving.

    If men start to whine and whinge about their “rights” being infringed, then just to stop their “waagh waagh waagh” moaning, consider this modest proposal.

    Driving lanes could be segregated by gender. Or, better still, we introduce gender-segregated streets, some for men, and some for women. This way, we women would not have to look at the horror of their balding heads, especially those of middle-aged drivers in convertibles, their toupees or comb-overs flapping in the wind.

    By limiting their access to certain streets, we would also be safe from their high-speed antics and reckless driving, which, due to their biological design, they are compelled to engage in. They can’t help it, poor things. Have petrol, will accelerate.

    Where there are roads that men insist they need access to (although what kind of roads these could be, I just don’t know – perhaps ones with football stadiums on them?), a timetable could be devised with restricted hours for men to use them at essential times only. Of course, these hours would exclude the times that the men ought to be at home putting out the rubbish, fixing shelves or cleaning out the drains.

    Segregated lanes, limited access and a timetable could be combined into a new road system based on Gender Prioritisation and Separation (GPS).

    Male drivers are genetically predisposed to road rage, and if we are to permit them to drive, then we must warn them they will only have themselves to blame if they are attacked in any altercation that ensues. Not driving is for their own good, so if they choose to ignore this, they must bear the consequences.

    Of course, we must ensure that these male drivers are not a source of temptation for women. And even more importantly we must take steps to prevent them from driving willy-nilly around on frivolous activities like collecting the children from school, caring for sick relatives or attending places of employment to earn wages to buy food.

    In fact, now that I think about it, these tasks are entirely trivial and the men can manage them quite comfortably by hiring a female chauffeur to drive them around. If they are in the back, then they won’t be able to use their wiles to tempt the poor female driver.

    When it comes down to it, I am of the view that men don’t really want to drive, but they think it’s fashionable to say that they do. I mean, why would they bother with the hassle of parking? Why get hot under the collar trying to navigate traffic?

    In short, men are simply not designed to drive. We tell them and tell them that driving is not good for them, and it’s not good for society. But that’s typical of men isn’t it: they just won’t listen.

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  • British Muslim women tackling stereotypes head on

    This article was published yesterday by Common Ground News Service.

    London – When it comes to discussing British Muslim women, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we lead a one-dimensional lifestyle: the niqab (face veil)-and-nothing-but-the-niqab. The image of long draping black cloaks and sad-looking eyes comes to mind, and it is part of the discourse of defining Muslim women entirely by what they wear.

    On the other hand, there is the danger of painting a “Pollyanna-ish” gloss on the progress that British Muslim women are making by taking the examples of those in the public eye. For example, last month Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and arguably one of the most powerful people in the country, has been out in the press – and not because she’s a Muslim woman, but for defending the government’s spending cuts. She’s joined in the media by two female members of parliament in the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet, and one of the presenters of the globally popular X Factor’s sister programme, The Xtra Factor.

    I created this image about three years ago - since it has been copied and re-used (without my permission, or without crediting Spirit21 I should add!)

    It’s good to see the faces of Muslim women as part of the fabric of the nation, not because of the “Muslim woman” label but because of their talents and contributions. Yet this dichotomy of oppressed and hidden versus liberated and public is simplistic as well as untrue.

    Most Muslim women’s existence in the UK is not defined by their decision to wear a veil or not, nor is it all glamour at the highest echelons of politics and entertainment. Like most other women, their concerns focus on the ordinary issues of day-to-day life such as education, employment, health and family. But, worryingly, they face additional barriers.

    Take the arena of work. According to a 2010 report by the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission, only 24 per cent of Muslim women in the UK are employed, and those who have little knowledge of Islam and Muslims are quick to pretend that this is correlated to Islam’s so-called ”oppression” of women by their families.

    However, a 2008 report by The Young Foundation that looks at second-generation Muslim women concludes that such “common perceptions about attitudes and barriers are misleading – most women are supported by their families in their decisions to work”, adding that “some of the barriers which affect British Muslim women affect all women, such as gender discrimination, inflexibility, and lack of childcare. But British Muslim women also face additional challenges, including discrimination based on clothing and faith.”

    British Muslim women, however, are tackling this head on. We have a generation of Muslim women politicians, community leaders, businesspeople and writers like me. We’re all working hard to change the narrative and create new images, stories and cultures. This will break the gridlock of the too simplistic stereotypes that hold about Muslim women and offer them the freedom and opportunity to define who they are on their own terms.

    We must do this by creating a shared vision of a better future.

    Take my own example: I set up my blog, Spirit 21, five years ago to provide an outlet for the unheard British Muslim woman’s voice. The BBC referred to it as one of the UK’s most influential Muslim blogs. It is quoted across the breadth of press and I am invited to be one of the voices of Muslim women in the national and international media. As a result I was named one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women.

    And my book, Love in a Headscarf, which tells the story of growing up as a British Muslim woman looking for love, is translated globally and sits at the number two spot on the bestseller list in India.

    Or consider Jobeda Ali who organised a Cineforum showcasing films from around the world featuring Muslim women. Or Shaista Gohir’s Big Sister website, providing young Muslim girls with female Muslim role models from across the spectrum of professions.

    Sarah Joseph, a British Muslim convert set up emel, perhaps the world’s first glossy Muslim lifestyle magazine. And Roohi Hasan is a television news editor and part of the team that set up Channel 5 news, one of the UK’s most popular news programmes. Meanwhile, Professor Maleiha Malik, a barrister and professor of law at the prestigious Kings College London, focuses on discrimination law, minority protection and feminist theory.

    With such bright, innovative and motivated Muslim women crossing the frontier of so many disciplines, we must remain optimistic that the simplistic stereotypes will be forgotten and the richness of talent that Muslim women present will be recognised and harnessed.

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  • Saudi women boycott lingerie shops

    If any women amongst you have tried to buy clothing of an intimate nature in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf, you will know how mortifying it is that the shop assistants are almost always male. Lingerie shops are complicated and confusing places (yes, even for women!) and having men to ‘assist’ in the process is enough to make any woman flee in distress.

    That is why one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest contradictions is that in a country where women are given little choice but to cover up from top to toe, and are strictly segregated, it is men they must deal with to choose their underwear. This is because the religious hardline and the religious police don’t like to see men and women mixing and they feel that encouraging women to work in retail will encourage this (but men selling underwear is fine). In addition, reducing the unemployment level of men is seen as an important goal. There is already a 2006 law which says only female staff can be employed in women’s apparel stores, but this is rarely implemented.

    Last year, women held a boycott of shops which employed male staff, and took their money to outlets which had female staff. You can read about it here:

    This year, Saudi women are planning to hold the boycott again, starting from tomorrow February 13th for two weeks. (I guess with Valentine’s Day being banned there is no rush to get out and buy some frillies anyway). If you are in Saudi, you can support the boycott as well.

    As one commenter on this article “Ban men from selling lingerie in KSA” explained: “The more money that women spend in women only lingerie stores the more it demonstrates that women only stores are a financial success and what the consumer wants and is willing to pay for women only service. Interestingly women still purchase a large proportion of lingerie outside of KSA when people take holiday’s as they prefer the service outside of KSA.”

    To me, the contradictory nature of the seediness of men monopolising lingerie sales vs the strict separation of women to the point of exclusion from the public space, highlights a key point: women are told that all the segregation and ‘guardianship’ is to protect them and safeguard them, but clearly this is not the case – it is all about safeguarding men’s interests in employment and in control.

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  • Hopes for a post-veil society (part 2)

    I wrote a follow up on the theme of “we don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it” for The National, aiming at a Muslim and also a Middle Eastern audience.

    You can read the full piece here:

    However, here is an extract which adds to the original piece which was written for EMEL magazine.

    “…Four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament found themselves at the opposite end of another discussion about veiling – an insistence that they should cover in order to be admitted to fulfil their constitutional roles.

    Their election came after Kuwaiti women received full political rights in 2005. Since two of the women choose not to cover, an ultraconservative MP asked the ministry of Islamic affairs and endowments’ Fatwa department if Sharia obliged women to wear the hijab.When the ministry agreed that women were indeed obliged to do so, there was a movement in parliament to impose hijab on the national assembly’s female members, stating that it was incumbent on women in parliament to subscribe to Sharia.

    […] The constitutional court has upheld the right of the women to remain uncovered if they choose. We can hope that this will drive home the importance of what the women have to say, and the value they will bring to the political process, rather than reducing them to their clothing, as though they were vacuous Barbie dolls.
    Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue “problem”, and that issue is the veil.That is the problem with Marnia Lazreg’s recent book Questioning the Veil. Lazreg, an American academic with Algerian roots, lays the problems that Muslim women face at the feet of the veil. She claims to systematically demolish every reason that Muslim women give for wearing the veil. She highlights issues such as sexual harassment, men defining women’s bodies, gender politics in the workplace, the anonymity of women, men wielding full control over women and women as the vessels of male honour.
    She then draws the tenuous conclusion that the veil lies at the heart of all these issues.I disagree. Even if the veil was removed, these underlying problems would still be rampant. The veil is the wrong symptom she is trying to treat. What we should be doing is tackling the underlying causes.She also adds that, if a woman truly believes that wearing a veil is the right thing to do, and she has made an informed choice to do so, then we should accept her decision. Simply put, we do not need to force women to veil, nor do we need to force them not to veil – what we need is education and free choice.

    […] Curiously, it is veiled Muslim women themselves who [are] fed up with seeing themselves portrayed as nothing more than the veil they wear. I feel it too as a Muslim woman, yet I feel compelled to write about it in order to create a movement to get over it. I have to keep writing about it till the Sarkozys of the world stop women gaining citizenship because of it. I am driven to keep highlighting the Marwa Sherbinis of the world – a woman stabbed in full public view in a German court, at the hands of a man who hated her for her headscarf.

    It may shock both liberals who oppose covering of any sort, as well as traditionalists who would enforce mandatory veiling on women, that Muslim women more often than not have other priorities, and also want something other than their clothing discussed. For example, in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where “saving”Muslim women is high on the list of justifications for invasion, the discourse on veiling is low on the list of women’s concerns. Security tops their needs, something that the “liberating” forces have denied them. We need to get past the veil, and into the business of living – education, employment, security, personal law and civic and political participation.

    Aseel al Awadhi, one of the women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament asked: “Why do only women have to comply with Sharia law and not men? This is, by itself, discrimination.” Her subtext: veiling and visible religiosity are used as gatekeepers and excuses to exclude women from public and
    political discourse – that it has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with power.”

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  • Hopes for a post-veil society

    We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

    Earlier this year, the head of of Al-Azhar Islamic university found himself in agreement with Italy’s extreme right-wing Northern League, the BNP’s anti-immigration anti-Islam stance and Turkey’s rampantly secular constitution. The subject was the veiling of Muslim women, a topic that makes for unlikely bed-fellows.

    Al-Tantawi, the senior sheikh at al-Azhar, was visiting a girl’s school when he told an 8th grade student to remove her face-veil saying, “the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and it is only a mere custom”adding bluntly, “I understand the religion better than you and your parents.”

    At his insistence she removed the veil. He said shockingly: “You are actually like this (this ugly). What would you do if you were a little bit beautiful?”

    Whether you agree or disagree with his intervention, it surprises me that a scholar -and role model -feels that he can use public intimidation on a young woman, and that he has a right over a woman’s clothing, defining and commenting on her intelligence, her family and her looks.

    French president Sarkozy used the historic occasion of his first speech in the French parliament to pick out the veil as an issue of primary concern to the French public. It was subsequently reported that only 367 women in France’s population of over 62 million wear the face veil. This raises questions about why the veil is of greater concern than other issues relating to all women, across all social groups. For example, why not raise the serious topic of domestic violence, whose victims numbered a heart-rending 47,000 in France in 2007? Further, I found it spooky that French intelligence could offer such a specific number of niqab-wearers – were these women being monitored?

    Sarkozy’s speech follows a ban on the headscarf in French schools and universities since 2004, not unlike a similar ban in Turkey which labels the headscarf as contrary to the country’s secular principles. Turkey finds itself in the peculiar situation that the out-of-power secular party is advocating against freedom of religious expression, resulting in women who wish to veil being denied high school and university education as well as public sector jobs.
    Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi is a man who is not known for his dignified treatment of women. He too is advancing proposals with the anti’immigration Northern League to ban the veil in Italy, overturning a historic exemption in Italian law that allows the veil on grounds of freedom of religious expression.

    Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Proposals to wear, discard or ban it are put forward for political reasons that vary depending on the country. But this much is certain – Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue ‘problem’, and that issue is the veil. I’m not even going to elaborate on the many variations in veiling – headscarf, niqab, jilbab, burqa – because that is irrelevant to the discussion. This debate is centred around the interchangeability of ‘Muslim women’ with ‘veiling’, as though a Muslim woman and her veil are one and the same thing. To make matters worse, complex issues underlying the inflammatory political positions of people like Sarkozy and Berlusconi – issues like integration, unemployment and identity – are blamed on the veil. This is simplistic single issue politics at its worst – offering a bland and unintelligent analysis of the very real problems Muslim women, as well as society at large, are all facing, grouping them altogether as caused by ‘the veil’ and producing the wrong ignorant solution: ‘ban it.’

    This obsession with the veil as the source of contention is illustrated by the constant stream of news and opinion pieces with titles like “uncovering Islam” “behind the veil” “beneath the veil” and “under the veil”. We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

    If Obama believes that a nation torn apart by race issues can become a post-racial society, then there is legitimate hope for a post-veil society. It is a society where a Muslim woman can get on with the task of living her life – in education, employment, security and safety in the family, private and public spheres. It is a society where who she is, rather than what she wears is her definition and her contribution. In such a society, the veil is no longer her only definition, no longer even her primary definition. This is a society where a woman’s choice to veil or not to veil is her choice and hers alone.

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  • Muslim men, this one’s for you…

    This article has just been published in EMEL Magazine.

    Muslim women are changing the world. Fed up with voices on all sides telling us how we should dress, what is ‘right’ for Muslim women, and how we should be defending Islam or in other cases dismantling it, Muslim women are getting themselves together and initiating change. But what does this mean if you are a Muslim man?

    I should make two statements here: first, that I am an advocate for Muslim women and the changes that they want to make to traditional structures within Muslim communities, from within the faith. I believe Islam has a blueprint that offers liberation for both genders. Second, whilst there are some great changes afoot, an unspeakably huge amount still needs to be done in order to redress the oppression that Muslim women face from all sides.

    With this in mind, I ask again, what if you are a Muslim man? It is a challenge being a Muslim woman, but I imagine that it is also a challenge being a Muslim man. There are plenty of books, talks and articles produced about “Women and Islam” but what about “Men and Islam.” It even sounds strange, doesn’t it?

    Muslim women are constantly torn between the competing tensions of faith and multiple cultures. Men must be as well. For example, there is much talk about the difficulty that Muslim women face in finding marriage partners. Muslim men, what are your thoughts on this experience?

    What notion of fatherhood can a Muslim man shape when battling traditional external notions that it is a ‘woman’s job’, a concept that exists in both western and eastern cultures?

    When it comes to ideas about modesty and Muslim dress, what thought processes and support do Muslim men have in determining what they wear and whether this conforms to any standard of modest dress? And when it comes to the traditional notion that the hijab is there to save men from their uncontrollable cave-man sexual urges, do you have any opinions or more to the point, do you take offence at this? I think you should, and I have argued previously that hijab should not be explained in terms of denigrating men as licentious monsters.

    When it comes to identity and stereotyping, Muslim men are typecast as today’s ‘angry young men’, with a beard and rucksack as labels for ‘terrorist’. What are the challenges that Muslim men are facing? What support do you want to address these?

    If we want to create a change for women, then men need to be engaged. It’s the right thing to do, and it is the inevitable thing. It’s right because if Muslim men truly believe that Islam liberates women, and that it is built on the foundation of both genders being ‘created from one soul’, then they will – they must – stand in support of the changes women are advocating. More significantly, it is inevitable because any change that affects Muslim women must by definition affect Muslim men because the two occupy interconnected spheres of influence. Put another way, if men proactively make changes in conjunction with women, then problems affecting both genders will be solved much more quickly and effectively.

    This is not about detracting from women, or diminishing their cause, nor is it about re-instating men as more important, or going back to patriarchy. It is about helping women, and helping the balance of our society as a whole.

    Actually, this still sounds very Muslim-woman-centric, and there is a reason for framing my outreach to Muslim men in this way. I don’t want Muslim men’s needs to be hijacked by the same unyielding voices of traditional patriarchy that drown out Muslim women’s voices by telling them that they know better than Muslim women what it is exactly that Muslim women need.

    By framing up our need to hear men’s voices from within the paradigm of the changes Muslim women are creating, I’m hoping to give space and freedom to Muslim men to be honest about the challenges they face. Young men can suffer at the hands of tradition, culture and patriarchy too, their needs being overlooked, unheard or dismissed as rebellious immature youth.

    All of us need to make space for men to speak up about their concerns. There are two critical components of this space: that men can speak honestly about their issues; and also, that men and women can talk to each other, openly, sincerely and productively.

    Muslim men, we need to hear from you.

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