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  • British Muslim women don’t need the West’s version of feminism, OK?

    This article was published today in The Telegraph.

    As a charity bids to boost feminism among Muslim women, Shelina Janmohamed asks why British female Muslims would want to join a feminist movement born in the West, which asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door

    Malala Yousafzai fights for gender equality - but would she describe herself as a feminist?

    Everyone loves Malala Yousufzai, right? Fearless, inspiring and courageous, she is the kind of female icon that asserts the need for women to have justice and rights – arguably a ‘feminist’ viewpoint – and which has won the admiration of western feminists.

    Whatever your opinions of Yousufzai, one part of her core identity rarely discussed in feminist circles is that: she’s a proud Muslim and sees her faith as a driver for the change she preaches. Yet the feminist movement as we know it today, born in the West, asks women of faith to leave their religion at the door. Want to join the feminist club? Then you’re asked to leave the world view that inspires you, makes you want to be a better person, and abandon the very principles that drive you to fight for justice and rights for women.

    I understand why many feminists in the West might have this knee-jerk reaction: religion has often been co-opted by the powerful to hang on to their privilege and oppress women, and the European religious context where feminism was born was part of the movement’s formation.

    This rejection of women of faith is a symptom of a core problem the feminist movement faces today: that it has come to embody only the concerns of white, middle-class women from the West. Everyone loved Sheryl Sandberg when she told us to ‘Lean In’, but some say her self-help guide was aimed at a handful of already highly-privileged women. Working class feminists rarely get a look-in.

    And the same applies to women of faith and colour. And for those at the intersection of multiple oppressions being a feminist means a struggle to fight all forms of oppression.

    The idea of Muslim feminism or Islamic feminism isn’t just contentious for secular feminists and the historic feminist movement. It’s equally contentious among Muslims, some of whom argue that it focuses on individuality, diminishes men and the family and works to eliminate God-consciousness from society.

    Stuck in the middle of this furore are Muslim women themselves – who may or may not label themselves as Muslim feminists – but who nonetheless are working tirelessly to improve the conditions for (Muslim) women.

    To this backdrop, a new project has been announced by Maslaha, a UK based social enterprise that is part of the Young Foundation that aims to improve social conditions within Muslim and minority communities. TheIslamandfeminism.org project sets out to introduce ideas of feminism to Muslim women. It is being described as ‘new’ and ‘pioneering’.

    Simply put, this is to deny the long and ongoing history of activism to improve the social conditions and justice afforded to Muslim women. My great grandfather would never have called himself a feminist, but he was in some ways. In a society where male babies were consistently privileged over female babies, who some considered a disappointment of birth, he only ever gave celebratory gifts when girls were born. My grandfather sent his daughters to school on bicycles to ensure they were safe, but for a girl to be on a bike was considered shameful. He rejected that.

    Some Muslim women make it into our headlines like Yousufzai, or Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman who also clearly stated Islam as a core driver of her work, and who proudly wears her headscarf. The vast majority remain unheard of, working on the ground, inspired by their faith.

    I’m pleased that there is an additional resource to talk about Muslim women’s work in the global justice movement. But its impact is less about engaging Muslim women in an internal community discourse that can fuel the discussion around the realities of Muslim women’s lives, in a way that is meaningfully rooted in the faith that they wish to uphold. It is more an opportunity for the wider feminist movement to push its own priorities and in-built biases.

    Muslim women don’t need to or even want to be accepted on sufferance, a kind of ‘we’ll let you into the club even though you’re wrong’. Rather, women’s rights movements need to accept input as a two-way street.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a commentator on British Islam and Muslim women and is the author of Love in a Headscarf. She can be found blogging at spirit21.co.uk and tweeting @loveinheadscarf

    Note from author: unfortunately due to word count issues the following paragraph could not be included:

    Others have argued that feminism is simply the women’s wing of the western imperialist movement. Current examples  cited to support this argument are how improving women’s rights was shoe-horned post-facto into the reasons for the war in Afghanistan; there are questions asked why Yousufzai’s shooting by the Taliban gained such worldwide coverage, whilst the women killed by drone strikes in the same region do not; and why a group of white women like Femen gains more coverage than the millions of Muslim activists around the world who are day to day pushing back the appropriation of women’s rights

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  • Manly myths and women temptresses: Our histories are filled with heroes, but why are so few of them female?

    This article was published on March 8th on the occasion of International Women’s Day, in The National newspaper.

    The heroes that fill the stories of our cultures and histories have thousands of faces, but why are so few of them female?

    In a land far in the future, it is women who walk the streets freely and without fear, and men who are locked up at home. Welcome to Ladyland, a sci-fi utopia contained in the story Sultana’s Dream, written by an Indian Muslim woman, Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, and published in a 1905 edition of the Indian Ladies Magazine

    In the mythic Ladyland of Sultana’s Dream, men failed to defend the kingdom from invasion, so the women stepped in to do so. The condition was that men had to be confined to their homes for honour and liberty. Thinking there was no hope of the women’s success, the men did so without protest. The women approached the battlefield with mirrors and concentrated sun-rays on the enemy, who found the heat unbearable and fled. And since then, the men remained indoors.

    A hundred years later, as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, the story of Ladyland continues to unsettle us. Its heroes are female, women form the standard of acceptability and success, and men are simply adjuncts to salvation and safety.

    We’re not used to female heroes. Our grand myths – the ones whose narratives shape our societies and cultures – are in general framed by the male archetype. Myths help us to make sense of the world, and more importantly of our place in it. Hidden within the often supernatural events are the values on which we have constructed our social order. The heroic characters that inhabit the mythical worlds help to reconcile us to our realities, and establish the patterns for our lives.

    In 1949, Joseph Campbell argued in a seminal work that hero stories across cultures and histories are essentially the same story with the hero passing through the same 17 stages. His theory of the “monomyth” was titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

    The theory of the archetypal hero’s journey has gained huge traction among modern-day story writers and literary analysts. George Lucas is the most famous proponent, using it as the basis for Star Wars.

    However, Campbell’s monomyth of the male hero has come in for criticism, with complaints that it whitewashes the female hero from its description of our grand archetypes. But supporters of the male monomyth claim that since the great myths stem from history when men were dominant, it is natural that the stories will focus on men. Women only exist in the 17-stage hero’s journey as temptresses or goddesses.

    When a rare female hero occurs, she is overshadowed by the grand male narrative. Occasionally, female heroes are allowed to exist, but only within limited spheres. They can be mothers, they can be concerned about homes and children. Their stories can be about marriage, love, romance and fashion. The heroines must be svelte, beautiful, softly spoken and kind. Think of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Even as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, a seeming exception to the rule about heroes being male and that women seek husbands and love, and in their failure to achieve this turn into tragic figures. Their “superpowers” are beauty, romance and chastity.

    Even when a rare female hero arises, she is often sidelined as an example only for women, not for men. Female stories gain traction as fairy tales, trivialised and dismissed as stories for children, not grand enough to be part of the canon.

    Why should we care about whether abstract myths are centred on male or female heroes?

    We need to care because myths shape what we see as “normal”. They tell us who is significant – men – and who is dispensable – women. They give us guides to navigate our world, and a map drawn without women makes them invisible. They show us the received wisdom on which our society is built, and the received wisdom of myths is that men matter, and women are obstacles. They give licence to men to challenge society, and for women to be hidden. Most importantly, they filter down into our day-to-day policies and behaviours, establishing the male as the norm.

    Hollywood reflects the idea instilled in us by myths that male ­heroes are for everyone, and female heroes are just for women. Women are not given grand heroic roles that can be embedded into our social psyche. On the rare occasion that they are, and they become successful, there is shock. Thelma and Louise is one of the rare – and successful – examples of the female journey, both metaphoric and real.

    Overturning myths can unsettle our ideas of what is normally accepted as “right”. Sultana’s Dream challenges notions of where intelligence lies, or who should own the public space and why.

    Gloria Steinem’s notorious piece on “If men could menstruate” subverts the prevailing norm that the standard body is male and women’s bodies are an aberration. At the same time as tackling the stigma of periods, her subversion addresses the stereotype of women’s complaining nature, and makes an important point about who gets to allocate resources and how day-to-day policy is set. Men, she quips, would brag about their periods. Periods wouldn’t be considered unnatural and dirty. Sanitary supplies would be free. Women would be excluded from complicated fields of study such as philosophy and maths unable to comprehend them without the innate sense of rhythm men would have from their menstrual cycles.

    Funny, of course, but consider a more real and fatal example of this. Heart disease is seen as a man’s problem. But the biggest threat to women in a country such as the United States is also heart disease, but gender bias means aggressive treatment is pushed for men more than women. Diagnosing symptoms is biased in favour of men. Men usually experience crushing chest pain during a heart attack. Women may have a tendency for pain just under the breastbone, or complain of abdominal pain, indigestion, difficulty breathing, nausea and unexplained fatigue. Misinterpretation of women’s symptoms means women remain undiagnosed, meaning their first heart attack is often fatal.

    We need to normalise the female journey by having more female ­heroes. We need to equip young men and women with an understanding that authority, knowledge, quest, bravery and wayfaring can be learnt and practised by both men and women. Our heroic archetypes must encompass women so that the daily struggles of women can be considered ‘normal’, and treated with respect, and the challenges can be addressed in an equal way to those of men.

    There is frantic activity all around the world attempting to backfill the missing female heroes from our collective histories. Recovering the lost stories of powerful, inspiring and iconic women is a crucial first step. In recognition of International Women’s Day in particular, there will be lists of powerful and influential women published to highlight women’s achievements and to inspire upcoming women to take their place on the platform of heroes.

    Our modern-day stories told to us in books and films must be braver in casting female protagonists. Writers and producers must take responsibility for stories aimed at both men and women about the heroic female and her journey.

    Our myths tell the story of who we are, and we are not a world that can tolerate any longer the invisibility of women. Our grand myths need to stop eradicating and start celebrating women.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

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  • Feminism must include men, and discussions of masculinity [“Men and women are partners, not rivals”]

    This is my weekly newspaper column from The National

    The trouble with women’s events about women’s rights is that all too often it can feel like women talking to other women about women’s problems. And, generally, there are almost never any men present.

    This seems to be an absurd position, as women’s lives are intertwined with those of men. Don’t men care? If you’re a man and you’re upset by my question, then I’m pleased: it shows you care. If men do care about their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters – and womankind as a whole – then they need to be involved in social improvements for women.

    This will mean changes for men, too. So men need to be ready to explore, understand and embrace the changes that affect them. Yet the discussion around what it means to be a man today is muted. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that the meaning and role of masculinity is now on the table for discussion.

    Before I get accused of overlooking women’s oppression in favour of the already privileged male elite, let’s be clear: a sensitive and future-facing women’s movement must be sensitive and future-facing when it comes to men, too. Men and women are social partners, not rivals.

    We need to understand what it means to be a man. In the same way we challenge female stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, we must challenge outdated notions such as that of the domineering Neanderthal.

    Research from advertising agency JWT London starts to explore the nuances of male stereotypes, and understand what masculinity today really means. For British men, for example, being emotional – something that has traditionally been a sign of weakness in men – is now a source of pride (62 per cent). Men are just as much at home in the kitchen as with doing traditional DIY. And, nearly half of men (43 per cent) feel that men are better rounded today due to the shift in gender roles.

    At the beginning of this month, the inaugural Being a Man festival was held at the Southbank Centre, one of the UK’s leading arts venues. It follows the success of the Women of the World Festival, which first took place in 2012. Its commissioning was in recognition that men too need to talk about their anxieties, challenges and place in the world.

    Studies like one by students at Zayed University are looking at generational changes and can give young men an insight into how masculinity has changed through the family line. And a recent groundbreaking book published in the United States finally gives an outlet to Muslim men to create some new options outside of the usual stereotypes of either being oppressive monsters or terrorist villains. “Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex and Intimacy” gives a first-person peek into the kind of preoccupations that men have and would like to discuss, but which prevailing narratives prevent them from sharing.

    As a women’s activist, I know how important it is for women to talk about womanhood, its challenges and how the system is currently rigged against women. The system’s consequences are violence, oppression, abuse and death. But the system is also rigged against men who are stifled by outdated expectations of masculinity, men who are expected to bottle up their feelings and struggle on in emotional isolation.

    Creating space for discussions of both womanhood and manhood is not mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s vital to a healthy functioning society.

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  • We need a new way to talk about motherhood: the old dichotomy of working mums and stay at home mums is dead

    This is my weekly newspaper column from The National

    Mothers never win. If we go out to work, we’re neglecting our children, and inviting doom on family and society. If we stay at home, we’re not contributing to society, wasting our talents and slowly atrophying our brains.

    I'm neither. Or possibly both. But probably actually something totally different

    Behind the heady mix of guilt at never being good enough at being mother and the priceless feeling of raising small people are piles of laundry, meals to be prepared and served and a trail of toys. This is modern motherhood.

    Mothers who express the challenges of being a mum today, especially if they are working, are often accused of suffering from the failure to “have it all”. The Twentieth century women’s idealism that we can be superwomen has – supposedly – left us bereft.

    Today’s mums are over that. We don’t expect to have it all, so put away your outdated criticisms. We understand that motherhood brings incalculable joy, and is the most important job. That doesn’t mean we can’t point out that it’s very hard work, and by the way we still also do most of the world’s housework. Looking after children, especially infants, is draining. Sleepless nights, little adult company and a never-ending circle of chores can make it hard to keep our fingers clinging on to the cliff edge of sanity.

    Today’s women know that we don’t need to put a brave face on the hard work of motherhood in the way that generations before us did, a cause of depression in many women. We know that being a parent is an awesome status, but being a mother does not have to be our only or primary defining label.

    Yet when women have children, motherhood is still only offered to them in two flavours: the stay-at-home mum and the working mum.

    I’m neither of these and both at once: a work-at-home mum, part of a growing phenomenon but only rarely discussed.

    I chose this path because I love the work I do. It makes up who I am, and gives me a sense of fulfilment. I feel it contributes positively to the communities of which I’m part. I’m also conscious that in years to come once the children are at school I’d like to work, and that means I need to “keep my hand in”. I’m very fortunate to have a flexible and understanding employer. And of course, the money helps too. But I’m happy to take on the enormous challenge because I want to spend time with my child in her early years. Cuddles from mummy are on tap, fun is squeezed fulsomely in between meals and mayhem. We navigate the tears, tantrums and trials of toddlerhood hand in hand.

    It sounds idyllic, but the reality of working in the same place as your children is tough. While friends complained of the pain of non-intellectual stimulation looking after their infants, I was trying to feed the baby then work during naps. While others felt the confusing guilt of leaving their children in day care while simultaneously enjoying a few hours of me-time at the office and the chance for an uninterrupted cup of coffee, I was eking out every minute to meet my deadlines. I’m not a saint. I want to do this. I’m not alone in trying to construct motherhood differently from the two rigid caricatures offered to women, neither of which reflect reality.

    Limiting motherhood to two mutually exclusive choices is a form of oppression against women. We need to talk about motherhood in a different way, one that continues to honour the importance of mothers, but doesn’t forget we are women too.

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  • Make love not bidah wars: Muslims and Valentine’s Day

    This is my weekly newspaper column from The National

    The Mufti’s office in the province of Rize in Turkey is asking imams to talk about Valentine’s Day during the Friday sermon this week, as it coincides with the annual celebration of love. Imams will convey to the congregation this message: “In our religious ideology, there is no Valentine’s Day, because you cannot assign a day for love.”

    It’s the polite side of a growing anti-Valentine’s movement across Muslim communities who are arguing that any actions conducted on this day with regards to expressing love and romance are against Islam. Some even use the stronger word “bid’ah”, which means to bring innovation into Islam. Yet celebrations of graduations, life achievements and national days are commonplace and are not pronounced forbidden.

    I say: make love, not bid’ah wars.

    If you celebrate or don’t celebrate, it’s up to you. But whatever you decide, there’s no denying the event offers us an opportunity to think about the role of love in our lives, and the people we love. I’ll be making a point to express those feelings about which we rarely speak openly to my parents, as well as to all the female friends in my life, and of course to my husband.

    To argue that love shouldn’t be reserved for one day, and that it should be celebrated all year round is to miss the point. Of course it should be expressed all year round, and if we were perfect creatures we would constantly be spoiling our other halves and appreciating their virtues. But life’s not like that. Sometimes we just need to pause and make a point of highlighting things that are easily forgotten in the daily grind.

    Yet I’m also very much on the side of those who argue that Valentine’s has commercialised love, reducing it to red cards and cuddly hearts.

    If you’re spending hundreds of dollars on presents, booking restaurants months in advance, sitting uncomfortably with the dozens of couples also pretending to have a good time eating their heart-shaped three-course meal, and when you secretly think your partner’s gift is less impressive than yours, then yes, you’ve gone too far. Expressions of your love aren’t being judged by the Arabs Got Talent panel, and this is not about totting up the score for who spent the most.

    If you want to oppose Valentine’s then argue against it on the front that it puts pressure on people to turn love into something to buy and parade. But to criticise the fact of its public and focused expression, and that expressing love is somehow un-Islamic because it coincides with lots of other human beings expressing love, condemns the aspirations of young Muslims for relationships, and turns love into something forbidden. Worse, it suggests that love and the enjoyment of love is not for Muslims, only for others.

    Traditional processes around finding a partner, having a relationship and being married are unravelling. Young people are grappling with their emotions and desires where the controlling factors of keeping face for family are slowly eroding. The strident anti-love messaging intentionally or inadvertently shuts down discussions of their hopes, fears and aspirations. When an opportunity like Valentine’s comes along to talk openly about love, it is better to allow space for young people to air their genuine emotions.

    A new mantra that is gaining currency is: “Sorry Valentine, I’m a Muslim.” I’d prefer to say: “Hello Valentine, I’m a Muslim, let me teach you about love.” Muslims who understand the deepest meanings of love really can make the best lovers.

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  • Time to unleash your inner superhero (and yes, Muslim women have one too)

    My weekly newspaper column from The National

    I’m feeling a bit superhero-ish. Don’t worry, I’m not about to morph into a green, muscled monster, or scale up a wall to save the good guys. But I am definitely inspired by the latest creation by Marvel Comics: Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen superhero who takes on the name Ms Marvel.

    With a complicated family, the ability to grow giant fists and a complex story of identity, cultures and religions, Kamala Khan is a potent idea: she has introduced the notion to the mainstream that Muslim women can be superheroes.

    I believe there’s a little bit of superhero inside all of us. I believe that is the human (not a warped-in-freak-DNA-swap) condition. We just have it ground out of us by the ordinariness of life. Cynicism squeezes out of us the belief that things can be a different, “super” way. The closest we ever get to it as women is joking about being SuperMummy in the face of tasks that appear to be incapable of being solved by ordinary human effort in the ordinary human understanding of time. But the fact that so many of us achieve it shows that what appears to be superhuman is entirely within our reach.

    We just need a glimpse that it’s possible to make us realise that we have the power. We need a leader by example; someone a bit like us. We want to see our angst writ large, even if it is in the fictional realm. In fact, sometimes fiction allows us to explore beyond what our realities allow us to imagine.

    For Muslim women, all too often the supposed reality of our lives is depicted as deeply miserable and passive. Certainly, injustice is a feature of life for women in many societies, including Muslim women. But to see the rise of fictional fighters, opponents and, yes, superheroes who themselves are Muslim women sows the seeds of the fight against those injustices. They paint a richer canvas for our stories to be told and to experiment with new stories and narratives.

    I love Qahera, created by Egyptian blogger Deena Mohammed. With her supersonic hearing, she says: “I can hear the sound of misogynistic trash!” She swoops in to sort out oppressive husbands in typical superhero comeuppance. She then tackles Femen, an anti-Muslim-women “feminist” organisation and finally takes street harassers to task.

    In Pakistan, the cartoon Burka Avenger tells the tale of an ordinary unassuming teacher by day, who takes on Taliban-type baddies by night when she dons a black mask and cloak that look like an abaya.

    These women are powerful. They contravene social expectations about them. And they say and do things that “nice” (Muslim) women are not supposed to do. The superhero worlds they inhabit give them permission to step outside the boundaries of what Muslim women are permitted to do, and take us on flights of fancy that we would like to follow. In turn they give us permission to assert power in the face of our own angst. These are examples of fiction that can be both commercially successful and socially impactful.

    The very existence of these superheroes writes a new story about the right of Muslim women to be powerful. We might be struggling with the laundry, extended family gatherings and putting up shelves at home. But whether it be in our personal domain or in the public space, it is encouraging to see reflections of the superheroes we know we can be. The force is with us, and the force is strong.

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  • The Muslim world needs to put women at the heart of its growth strategy, but that needs to mean more than economics

    Last week’s newspaper column for The National

    At the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum held in London this week, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak was unequivocal: giving women a central role is vital for a nation’s economic future. “This is neither contrary to our faith nor to our traditions; instead, it honours the founding principles of Islam.”

    Malaysia Najib Razak

    Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses the World Islamic Economic Forum in London (Reuters)

    Women didn’t get merely a passing mention; the entire focus of his keynote address was women’s empowerment. He highlighted Khadijah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, as a business icon, and their marriage as an example to the Muslim world of the power of both men and women working side by side. And he laid out a road map of how to achieve that engagement.

    I was moved that a leader of the Muslim world took a historic moment to “put women at the heart of growth”. The mere fact of him doing so at such a high profile event is significant and other Muslim leaders should take note. Undoubtedly, his thesis that more women in work results in higher GDP makes financial sense.

    I want to push the prime minister further, to challenge him to develop his vision beyond today’s economic paradigm. He has provided an opportunity to raise wider societal questions about whether women’s participation and empowerment should have as its metric economic development, or if we need to start measuring “success” in different ways.

    I believe we must expand our horizon in championing women’s engagement beyond only monetary terms. It’s no wonder that it is in economic terms that goals are set, decisions are made and social upheaval is undertaken.

    As Mr Najib pointed out, the countries closest to gender equality are also among those with the highest GDP. So it’s a no-brainer that women should be engaged and empowered. But should the status, value and rights of a woman – or any person – be predicated on their economic value?

    I put to any leader that any social structure is one-dimensional if people’s rights and participation are permitted solely on the premise that it is good for GDP.

    Of course economic engagement is important at a societal level. Economic independence is crucial for women to be self-determining and free from oppressive structures.

    Already though, we see that economics as the single metric for women’s participation is throwing up real problems: how should the model engage with a variety of issues including pregnancy, motherhood, unwaged carers, disability, and single mother headed households?

    Visionary leaders need to paint us a picture of a society not simply dedicated to the dollar. It is not utopian and unattainable to talk about establishing universal human dignity, protection of rights and fulfilment of human potential. But to turn these from ideals into realities we need to define metrics which will allow us to set targets and then measure our progress and achievements.

    Economics is effective in setting goals for change, making it a powerful motivator for women’s empowerment. However, we must be cautious not to define emancipation only in financial terms, otherwise women will only ever be as free as economic market forces allow. The challenge is bigger: to redefine wider terms for women’s social, economic and political engagement, and to define new measures of what this success looks like.

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  • Are faith and feminism compatible? A better question is how women of faith and none can work together more effectively

    My weekly column published today in The National about the BBC 100 Women project

    What happens when you take five women of faith and a female atheist and put them in front of a global audience to discuss the future of feminism?

    If that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, then you’d be wrong. There were no laughs to be had during this debate. Instead, a panel discussion that could have built solidarity among women was laden with vitriol against the world’s women who identify themselves as faith adherents while at the same time struggling to radically improve life conditions, opportunities and rights for the women in their societies. It’s a story of lost opportunity, but one that is repeated with disheartening regularity, pitting faith and feminism against each other instead of combining forces.

    The debate asked: are faith and feminism compatible? It was the final session of a pioneering experiment called 100 Women, convened in London by the BBC and broadcast to the world.

    The 100 Women project was a radical bid to bring more female voices to news coverage and raise the profile of the work and issues that women are tackling around the world. These 100 women were selected to illustrate the varied subjects facing women globally. The usual suspects were there, such as politicians. But the 100 also included some who would never ordinarily be heard in global reportage, women working at the grassroots on microfinance, investment, water quality, in convents, as teachers in ghettoes and in many other settings.

    The panel at BBC 100 Women's "Faith and Feminism" debate

    I was fortunate to be chosen as one of the 100. The day was a platform to interrogate what feminism means, to pitch “big ideas” for change, to understand how motherhood affects women’s struggles, how glass ceilings still exist, and whether faith and feminism can be reconciled.

    This last topic was the day’s most heated debate, underscoring the fact that women’s rights movements around the world are rooted in different perspectives, with varying visions of what society should look like to best nurture, protect and give justice to women.

    During the debate, religion was called a “deep mistake” and “fundamentally incompatible” with feminism. And yet, in front of our eyes were women who were living proof that faith inspires and drives forward movements to improve women’s status.

    Western feminism has undoubtedly made huge, positive impacts that have benefitted women as a whole. But we must also admit that it hasn’t got everything right, and women elsewhere are looking at how not to make the same errors. What western and atheist feminists need to get their heads around is that women of faith make up the majority of the world’s women, and women’s movements globally are taking different paths.

    For western feminists to argue that their vision and strategies – even with all the unanticipated problems it has thrown up – are the only path and everyone else’s is “incompatible” or engaged in a “deep mistake” smacks of an arrogance rooted in privilege. It carries a whiff of “four legs good, two legs better” in its superior relationship to women’s movements rooted in other traditions and religion.

    By agreeing on non-negotiables such as the right to be free from violence, to access education and healthcare, to speak freely in public, to have access to employment and to ensure it is for an equal wage, and so many other issues that we can all agree on, we can achieve greater results. It is pragmatism, not polemics, that will achieve a better future for women.

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  • The cultural heist of hijabs, niqabs and burqas, and why we won’t let you void our veils of meaning

    My most recent weekly column for The National newspaper.

    Covered from head to toe in a black Catwoman-style outfit, bad girl Rihanna struck a sulky pose for photos last weekend outside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

    Fitting in: The singer paid heed to the dress requirements in the Middle Eastern city, where local women tend to cover up their bodiesShe won some praise for wearing a hijab, supposedly showing respect for the sacred space. Nonsense. She wasn’t there for the mosque. She left without visiting it. She had come prepared with a couture outfit and a team of crack photographers, and refused to enter through the proper visitors’ gate. She simply wasn’t walking in another culture’s shoes.

    Then, showing a total lack of class, she posted a photo of another woman in a black abaya, with the caption “(expletive) stole my look.” I have news for RiRi: she didn’t steal your look, you stole ours.

    Fashion and art are fluid creatures, and their lifeblood is borrowing style and artistry from across cultures. So I have no problem with artists crossing boundaries to explore meaning and symbolism. But this celebrity statement was less about cultural insight and more about profitable controversy.

    Worse, Rihanna isn’t even being innovative: she’s following recent celebrity obsession with what Muslim women wear.

    In July, Madonna posted a picture of herself in a chain mail niqab, captioned “The Revolution of Love is on … Inshallah”.

    Baffling. Instead of a substantive intervention in the heated niqab debates now going on around the world, she seemed to aim only at creating a striking image, for a world where visuals are everything, and layers of meaning are nothing.

    I’m optimistic enough to hope that in borrowing our look, celebrities might be able to offer nuance in the feminist debate, while Muslim women’s voices remain largely unheard. But I feel my hope is no more realistic than the gauzy neon-pink burqa Lady Gaga wears in a recent video. You can argue that she has altered the portrayal of the burqa from an oppressive garment that prevents communication to one that – literally – reveals that Muslim women too think about sexuality.

    Gaga used a cheap image to turn a garment with deep meaning into an advertising stunt. “Buy me!”, it cries. “I’m an edgy woman.” But all this image does is to edge Muslim women out of the conversation.

    I don’t care what Gaga, Madonna or Rihanna thinks about veiling. But I care about Muslim women owning their own meaning in the world.

    This is not just about a look. Many Muslim women say veiling gives them a multi-dimensionality, and these pop stars are deliberately flattening that into a simplistic visual image.

    Rihanna and her celebrity ilk are sucking the plurality out of womanhood, and turning us into merely set-piece sexualised images for visual consumption. The centuries-old idea that veiling is just a sexual fetish is given a hearty endorsement by pop’s bad girls.

    Just in case the co-option of modest clothing for the purpose of controversy and profit without insight was not sufficiently blatant, the fashion brand Diesel has been running an advert of a tattooed woman, covered only with a denim burqa over her head and chest, with the phrase: “I am not what I appear to be.”

    These images are culture heists of the worst kind. Take our clothes and our art and our look, and layer on meanings and perspectives. But don’t suck them dry and flatten them for your profit.

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  • Breaking news: Muslim women like sex too. Who’d have thought it?!

    My thought piece published yesterday on The Telegraph’s Wonder Women site.

    After the launch of a Halal sex shop, one which is proving popular with women, Shelina Janmohamed implores society to stop just seeing female Muslims through the prism of a veil.

    An online Halal sex shop has just opened its digital doors out of Turkey. Over its first weekend it received more than 30,000 visitors.

    Wait, what? A sex shop for Muslims? And one that is popular with Muslim women?

    As a society, our discussions about Muslim women only go as far as whether they should wear hijabs, niqabs and burqas. Sometimes we think veiling is oppressive. Bizarrely, sometimes it’s seen as a bit saucy. But mostly we are just not sure if Muslim women should be allowed to decide for themselves.

    And then along comes a story of aphrodisiacs, orgasm creams and Halal lubes that Muslim women (perhaps literally) are sucking up. Whilst this is exciting news for Turkey (will there be a baby boom in July 2014?), it’s not a world first. We’ve already seen plenty of coverage in the Netherlands, Bahrain and even Atlanta, USA. So why is a Muslim sex shop that women love, such big news?

    Let’s pan out, and take a look at the landscape of ideas and news coverage when it comes to Muslim women. This week alone, Channel 4 news is running a series on “Britain’s niqab”. Barely weeks ago, Britain had its burqas in a twist at the thought of meeting a doctor who covers her face. (helpful tip: there aren’t any in the UK.) And it’s not just the UK that’s in a tizzy. Belgium passed a law banning the face veil, despite there being only thirty women who the country who wear it. Couldn’t the PM just call them round for a cup of tea and a chat instead to discuss their niqabs?

    It’s a bit, erm, kinky, that what captures our imagination about Muslim women is either veiling or sex. Are Muslim women exotic and oriental, an ongoing titillation and sexual fetish for our consumption?

    I think the answer is much simpler: Muslim women are depicted simply as bodies, covered or uncovered. Any deviation from this script is heavily policed. Ask Google images about Muslim women and you’ll get pages of black cloaks, with the odd nude women wearing nothing but a face veil. You’ll also find Lady Gaga in a gauzy neon pink burqa, Madonna with a bizarre niqab made of chain mail, and a Diesel Ad of a naked tattooed woman and denim burqa. No, I’m not making this up.

    Women as a general rule face the challenge of being seen as nothing but bodies, but the problem is heightened for Muslim women where the entire debate focuses on what we do or don’t wear and whether we are brainwashed into our choices. Surprisingly even self-identified feminists will reduce Muslim women to what they wear, rather than hearing what Muslim women have to say.

    Yet the female Muslim experience – including in Halal sex shops – has something experimental to offer women in general. There are women-only spaces created by Muslim women where a celebration of womanhood takes place outside the male gaze.

    When so much of the feminist debate is dedicated to understanding what beauty, body and femininity mean when freed from the male gaze, these spaces already exist. These are finally places where ubiquitous sexualisation of the female form is banished. Weddings and parties are the most popular where Muslim women can explore what it means to be beautiful and sexy for themselves, and even do so across generations, without worrying about men.

    Online Halal sex shops like this latest one in Turkey extend that courtesy to their customers, taking away the almost pornographic images. The owner of El Asira in the Netherlands, says that many of his customers are women who are not Muslim, because they find the imagery and tone less off-putting than traditional blue imagery. Halal sex shops give the chance to women to explore their sexuality without imposing pornographic norms.

    Talking openly about sex and pleasure has only recently lost its taboo status in the West. It’s true that its public discussion in Muslim cultures is still difficult. However, in private among Muslim women, it’s as of much interest as anywhere in the world.

    Muslims have form on the subject too, with love, sex and erotic manuals dating as far back to the eighth and ninth century Abbasid Muslim period. Rumi is perhaps the most famous of Muslim poets globally, he wasn’t shy about sexual references. And even the Prophet Muhammad pronounced that to deny women foreplay was a form of oppression.

    A popular American Muslim scholar even has this to say: “There is certainly a case for producing an advanced manual in English drawing on Islam’s rich legacy in this field.”

    So a sex shop that appeals to Muslim women is fun, important, and just as natural as everyone else’s lust. Stop the presses! Muslim women like sex too. Who’d have thought it?

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