Wednesday, November 22, 2006

‘Beyond the Veil: Perspectives on Muslim Women in a Western Secular Context’

Speech given by by blog team member Maryam Namazie at Goodenough College, on November 13, 2006.

It is crucial to speak about the rights of ‘Muslim’ women, go beyond the issue of the veil, and talk about secularism, particularly in light of the political Islamic movement’s assault on women and their rights, but restricting the debate in this way is seriously flawed.

Firstly, the so-called grouping of Muslim women is a constructed one. Out of the innumerable characteristics women have, why focus on their beliefs? Doing so, implies that religion informs the rights of all those labelled as Muslim (including very often people like myself - an atheist). This is not usually the case.

More importantly, why must women’s rights issues be discussed within the framework of religion or for that matter, with regard to the beliefs – real or imputed - of the woman whose rights are being discussed? Generally, this is not how rights are examined. For example, do we discuss domestic violence vis-à-vis Christian women or in the context of Christianity?

This seems to happen especially when it comes to Islam because of cultural relativism and a policy of minoritism. The British state prefers it to be so as it can ensure that these so-called Muslim women are forever alien to British society, ghettoized in regressive fragmented "minority" communities where they continue to face sexual apartheid and Islamic laws and customs. Their rights are not the highest standards available in society as one would expect but the most regressive and reactionary. To help ensure that it remains so, the state leaves the running of these Bantustans on the cheap to self-appointed ‘Muslim community’ leaders and ‘consultants on Muslim women’s affairs’ and continues with business as usual in wheeling and dealing with repressive Islamic states. The left, which is the traditional defender of women’s rights, shamelessly endorses the situation as it sees Islam and political Islam as ‘anti-imperialist’. As a result, no matter what happens - stonings and hangings in city squares in Iran or segregated Stop the War Coalition meetings in Birmingham and the manhandling of Iranian women’s rights activists in Manchester - they are quick to ignore violations of women’s rights. Hand in hand, they excuse and justify Islam and the political Islamic movement at the expense of women and their rights.

Clearly, a rights based discussion can’t begin with Islam but has to begin with the woman and her rights. In my opinion, you can either defend women or you must defend Islam. You can’t defend both because they are incompatible with and antithetical to each other.

In Islam a woman is sub-human, subservient, vilified and the property of men. To say that women have an elevated position under Islam is an insult to our intellect. Islam has wreaked more havoc, slaughtered more women, and committed more misogyny than can be denied, excused, re-interpreted, or covered up with such feeble defences.

According to the Koran, for example, those who are guilty of an 'indecency' must be 'confined until death takes them away or Allah opens some way for them.' (The Women, 4.15). 'Men are the maintainers of women' and 'good' women are obedient. Those that men fear 'desertion', can be admonished, confined and beaten' (The Women, 4.34). Wives are a 'tilth' for men, which they can go into their 'tilth' when they like (The Cow, 2.223) and on and on.

To say it is a problem of interpretation as some ‘Islamic feminists’ do is at best self-justification of one’s beliefs or at worst the justification of a right wing political Islamic movement, which targets women first and foremost.

Let me give you an example of the absurdity of re-interpretations. On the verse that allows women to be beaten, so-called Islamic feminists say ‘Islam only permits violence after admonishment and confinement and as a last resort. They say, since men would beat their wives mercilessly at that time, this is a restriction on men to beat women more mercifully’ (Women Living Under Muslim Laws, For Ourselves Women Reading the Koran, 1997). Or another says 'In extreme cases, and whenever greater harm, such as divorce, is a likely option, it allows for a husband to administer a gentle pat to his wife that causes no physical harm to the body nor leaves any sort of mark. It may serve, in some cases, to bring to the wife's attention the seriousness of her continued unreasonable behaviour' (Gender Equity in Islam Web Site).

Suffice it to say that misogyny cannot be interpreted to be pro-woman even if it is turned on its head.

Of course everyone has the right to believe anything they choose – however medieval and reactionary. Moreover, tolerance of the right to hold such beliefs is part and parcel of a civil society but that is very different to allowing beliefs to inform women’s rights or even tolerating the belief itself. Moreover, the question of choice is a questionable one when it comes to this situation. Of course an adult woman has the right to believe she must be veiled; must be beaten by her husband if she disobeys him; must be given the permission of her male guardian before she can travel or work; is not eligible for certain areas of study or work because of her ‘emotions’; should be stoned if she has sex outside of marriage and so on and so forth.

But if you remove all forms of intimidation and threats by Islamists, Islamic laws, racism, cultural relativism and ghetto-isation, the recruiting grounds for the political Islamic movement, etc., I can assure you that there will be very few women who will want to discuss their rights within the framework of Islam.

That rights are discussed in this way is more of an indication of the strength of the political Islamic movement in this country than anything else. Which is why ‘Islamic feminists’ or ‘consultants on Muslim Women’s affairs’ are more concerned about Islam than the woman and her rights.

Another example of this is their constant attempt at setting limits for who can and can’t discuss ‘Muslim women’s rights’. I thought the whole point of defending rights was to mobilise as much support as you can rather than establishing an exclusive club of the few who are allowed to say anything on the subject!
Anytime anyone discusses women’s status under Islam, s/he is labelled ‘Islamophobic’ and ‘racist’, a ‘white feminist’ supporter who ignores European and US imperialism’s battle over ‘Muslim women’s bodies’, a supporter of the USA’s threats and militarism, a ‘supporter of the war on terror’, and so on and so forth. Not to forget that s/he will be told that there are more important things in the world today – like poverty or US imperialism (this one crops up all the time), and of course that the crimes of the US government is much worse and must be the main and only focus…

What utter nonsense!

Criticising Islam (a belief) and political Islam (a right wing reactionary movement that has raised Islam as its banner) has nothing to do with racism no matter how many deceptively claim it to be so. Criticising the belief in and practice of Female Genital Mutilation does not mean you are vilifying or inciting hatred against girls and women who believe they should be or are mutilated.

Moreover, solidarity amongst people has nothing to do with their skin colour, place of residence or governments under which they were born or live under.

Also, saying a defence of women’s rights living under Islamic rules supports the war on terror or the USA’s militarism or colonialism and imperialism is like saying sex education promotes promiscuity. Saying so is more an attempt to defend religion than anything else.

And, why must a comparison be made with other outrages in the world. Yes the US government is one pole of international terrorism in the world today but what does that have to do with a defence of women’s rights living under the yoke of Islamic laws and rules?

Do we tell the environmentalist that children’s rights are more important because children are so vulnerable? Do we tell the anti-racist activist that poverty is more important than racism because you have to be fed to be alive? It is only when discussing women’s rights and those whose rights are deemed culturally relative that such arguments crop up.

And it only seems to come up with Islam and political Islam. No one says we shouldn’t condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestine or Tony Blair because US militarism is the main problem of our times.

And of course we keep hearing about how Jack Straw or the French government have mentioned the veil and our doing so puts us in the same boat as them. How so? I want a ban on the burka, neqab and child veiling. I think child veiling is a violation of children’s rights. I want the veil banned in all public institutions and the educational system. I will criticise the hejab as a tool for the repression of women even if some have the ‘right’ to ‘choose’ veiling. And I want much more done to religion, including an end to faith schools and the taxation of all these religious ‘charities’ and mosques…

Are we really supposed to stop speaking against the death penalty – for example - because Tony Blair is also against the death penalty in some way shape or form?

In this context, I think the defence of the veil as ‘a form of clothing’, ‘expression of faith’, ‘matter of choice’ and so on and so forth is more of the same. Saying we need to go beyond the veil implies that it is a superficial matter and that there are more important issues at stake. This is not the case.

The veil is a symbol like no other of what it means to be a woman under Islam - hidden from view, bound, and gagged. It is a tool for restricting and suppressing women. Of course there are some who choose to be veiled, but you cannot say it is a matter of choice because - socially speaking - the veil is anything but. There is no ‘choice’ for most women. In countries under Islamic rule, it is compulsory. Even here, in Britain, according to a joint statement about the veil from ‘Muslim groups, scholars and leaders’, including the Muslim Council of Britain, Hizb ut Tahrir and Islamic ‘Human Rights’ Commission, it is stated that the veil ‘is not open to debate’. The statement goes so far as to ‘advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution in this issue since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief.’

And you know what they do disbelievers when they can – kill them.

As I have said before, take away all the pressure and intimidation and threats and you will see how many remain veiled.

In my opinion, debating the issue of women’s rights within an Islamic context is a prescription for inaction and passivity in the face of the oppression of millions of women struggling and resisting in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere. Stripped bare it is a dishonest defence of Islam pure and simple and has nothing to do with women’s rights.

We must not allow the political Islamic movement to shift and redefine the debate on women’s rights. Anywhere they have power, to be a woman is a crime. In places like Britain, however, where they are vying for political power, they aim to control women relegated to their constructed regressive community via a deceptive discourse on ‘rights’ and ‘choice’ whilst defending Islamic law and repressive groups and states in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are an extension of the same movement that stones women to death and throws acid in their faces if they are improperly veiled. The stronger they become, the more repressed are women in the so-called Muslim community.

In the face of this onslaught, secularism, universalism and values worthy of 21st century humanity have to be defended and promoted unequivocally. We must hold the human being sacred. We must start first and foremost with the human being. We must stop sub-dividing people into a million categories beginning with religion and not even ending in Human. We must not allow concessions to religion at the expense of women; we must not allow the respect for and toleration of misogynist beliefs and practices. We have a duty to criticise and challenge Islam and its movement especially given what it is doing to women today.

At a minimum, we must demand the complete separation of religion from the state and educational system. Secularism is an important vehicle to protect society from religion's intervention in people's lives. A person's religion has to be a private affair.

Only an unequivocal defence of universal rights, secularism and the de-religionisation of rights and values will begin to defend women and their rights and challenge head on the outrage of this century.Maryam Namazie


celticfire said...

What a profound post. It really touched on the complexities of the identity of a "Muslim woman". I really enjoyed reading this.

Dahlia said...

Renegade Eye – Thanks for this
Maryam - I find your argument very moving. Yet, I must suggest that you take a moment to analyze in a more holistic sense and with a greater historical genealogy. I am not arguing with you about the role of women in Islam because I agree that it provides ample ammunition. However, I suggest that you also take a look at the genealogy of Islam. It arose in a part of the world where women were lower than cattle and where men had scores of harem in their tents – a situation which was not much unlike what was also the reality in Europe at the time. Islam was an attempt to move society along an upward trajectory or continuum closer to a societal embrace of equity. Islam in its essence was fashioned as a progressive movement. Somewhere along the line it lost its progressiveness perhaps when it started coming up against more deeply engrained male chauvinism in the Arab region, but more likely as a function of a struggle over domination over economic resources and political power.
I also suggest that a closer look be given to the role of men in Islamic theology, as opposed to tradition. We can point to the fact that inheritance, for example, under Islamic law gives the female half that of the male. On the other hand, we should also look at what that buys both the woman and the cost of it to the man. Ac to theology, the male is responsible for every woman in his life (unmarried sister, orphaned niece, widowed mother, etc.) and must provide for all her material and emotional needs. In other words, he must ensure that she wants for naught, including emotional happiness. That is a high bar. It is also a formula for the continuation of a paternalistic society in which the male is the provider and the female is the child-like receiver. However, because it is such a heavy burden, Islamic tradition has failed to live up to the theological demand. At the same time, the theological demands of Islam have succeeded in migrating over to tradition probably because women were never able to secure position of strength in society to oppose it. The result is the complete and utter injustice females face.
In short, as a social movement, Islam was highly progressive. Unfortunately, it seems to be failing in its inception mission.

This is a very interesting debate and I hope continues. Thanks RE


beatroot said...

Out of the innumerable characteristics women have, why focus on their beliefs?

In the west, that’s because of multiculturalism. It focuses on ‘identity’ issues. And one of the ways to do that these days is through ‘cultural’ characteristics, such as religion.

In other places it’s because of the decline of the left and national liberation movements and the rise of what’s left – religion.

In Muslim countries the veil is a sign of growing female oppression. The veil, in the west, has become a symbol, strangely, of assertiveness! ‘Look at me, I’m different in country that celebrates ‘diversity’! Blah…

As usual, the veil is more about the mess the west’s in, as much as the ‘Muslim threat’.

LeftyHenry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
LeftyHenry said...

Very good post about an issue not brought up often in the west.

patrick said...


When will people realize that Muslim women have no rights? In Taliban Afghanistan, women were SHOT if they were outside without a male escort. They could not go to school or have jobs. They were only sexual objects.

troutsky said...

I struggled for awhile with the idea of tolerance for others religious beliefs,traditions, etc but now think the only consistent position is to criticize all religions as equally reactionary and destructive to the project of a radically democratic emancipation of all people.Saying that, I also realize how entrenched the belief systems are and how few prescriptions exist for reversing their power.What agency can enforce these rights?

Frank Partisan said...

celticfire: It's great you're back.

dahlia: I sent an email to Maryam, to reply to your post. She just had a baby, so she rarely answers comments. At times she answers on her TV show.

beetroot: Do you think post-modern thought, is related to the decline of the Soviet Union?

left henry: Thank you for the comment.

el patro: I feel sorry, when I see a little girl wearing a veil.

troutsky: I'm sure Maryam agrees with you. She has to focus on Islam at this time, for obvious reasons.

beatroot said...

El Patro
When will people realize that Muslim women have no rights?

For sure women are oppressed in places like Saudi or Iran. But it’s different in places like the UK. Some middle class Muslim girls (unlike their mothers) are choosing to wear the veil. Not because someone told them to. In fact their parents are pretty horrified by it. In a survey I saw recently, 40% of British Muslim women wanted to be their own boss. Only 15% of white British women are as ambitious. So these are very assertive women with ambition. The veil is part of that weird assertiveness.

Do I think the collapse of the Soviet Union is connected to the rise and rise of ‘identity politics’? Oh yeah. The world before and after 1989 changed completely. And it certainly helped take the ‘class’ out of left wing politics (in all senses of the term ‘class’).

But essentially I agree with Maryam’s point that Muslim identity is a constuct and we need to find wider and more universal identities that unite us across faiths, etc.

Puppeteer said...

Wahabite Islam. Yes, Renegade, blame it on the Wahabites, but how many of the Muslims in the West are Levantines? You'll find the Levantines, or more likely you're not finding them for reasns of blinding in the societies. The paradox of all this is that Levantines embraced the "Persian" Islam. Thus explaining all the cultural legacy. Now Persia is struggling itself, althugh of the things I saw and read, they're way better than women here, in Syria, a semi-socialist "secular" country.

But nevermind. I want to say once a friend of mine told me that nikabed women are sexier, him being Christian and all. He said that seeing all that subtly suggested forms make him want to rip the girls clothes and love her on the spot. On the principle we have here that "kul mahjuben marghub". All that is vieled (hidden) is more atractive. So belief my arse!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Maryam has a good point with child veiling; if X. or Y leaves his/her country for a reason, it is not very pleasant to find that reason well and alive in the neighbourhood. \
However the situation is not unique: immigrants can be more traditional and nationalists than they were at home. Also, while 50 years ago immigrants chose to assimilate, many reject that now. It is a radicalizing world, and the radicalization takes unexpected forms, something Europe was not prepared for.

Frank Partisan said...

I didn't think H.E.A.R.T was a denier site. If it is, it is quite subtle.

I took the link down.

mullet said...

The Beatroot is right, a veil wearing muslim in Britain is different to that of the Middle east, Two cultures have maybe this is not about 'religion'.
Redwine - Europe certainly was not prepared for any of this.

Anonymous said...

A comparison between the hijab in London and Tehran by Iran Press Watch

beatroot said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
beatroot said...

Good photos but you are missing the point. In London those two women are wearing full veils from choice and are being vilified for doing so. In Iran if those women didn’t wear anything they would be arrested.

That's the contrast. One is about oppression the other is about ‘identity politics’.

And by the way, I read that about 4,000 women wear that kind of veil in London, out of a population of over 3 million Muslims. Hardly a massive 'problem'.

jams o donnell said...

An escellent post. What Maryam Namazie has to say is always well worth reading.

figurepornography said...

Firstly, want to thank Renegade Eye for posting the lovely comment on my Hallowe'en pic that you did back in late October. Just sorry I've not got around to responding to it 'til now.

Secondly, about Ms. Namazie's post, I can see her points, but I can't say I entirely agree with it, mainly for these reasons:

One, the American and British governments, and their respective supporters, have used a kind of pseudo-feminist argument that they were "liberating" Afghan and Iraqi women in justifying their wars in those countries.

Two, as for those Americans, Britons, and other Europeans who are somehow offended or taken aback by the presence of a veiled or hair-scarved Muslim woman in their midst, all I can say is that what you may or mayn't think of a chador, hijab, burqa, etc, is really of no importance at all, save to yourselves. You are entitled to your opinions, and to express them in a reasonably civilised manner, and the chador-,or other garment-clad, woman, is entirely free to ignore your opinion, because that is all that is it. An opinion, not the Will of God, Allah, nor any other deity, nor is it Gospel Truth.

You may express it, but that doesn't mean that anyone has to like it, or pay attention to it.

Three: In many regards, this thesis, whether intentionally or not, infantilises Muslim women in impling that they somehow "need" the "protection" of Western secularists or conservatives from their lewd-minded, rapacious, all-controlling husbands, brothers and other male members of their respective societies.

I don't deny for a second that many women in the Muslim world ARE genuinely oppressed, especially in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Pashtun male governing classes have confused Pashtun tribal customs with the word of Allah as set down in the Qu'ran and Al-Sunnah.

Those men, and their supporters, are essentially power-hungry, backwards-looking, moral idiots, and yes, we've the same here in Europe, the UK, and the US, from where I'm writing.

The Western brand of moral idiot may differ in language, culture and religion, but, in the basic attitudes of "My Word Is The Word Of God's", and "My Way Or The Highway", they are identical, right down to the ways in which they treat the poorer members of their societies, racial and ethnic minorities, and, especially, women.

If anything, those groups, wherever they are, need to stand up for themselves against such moral idiocy, especially when inflicted upon them by their so-called "betters", whomever they may be.

Does that mean we shouldn't support Muslim women, whether in the West or the Muslim world, who are struggling against the kind of moral idiocy I've just written about??? You damn betcha, we should.

But, it also means understanding that some Muslim women, whether in the West or in the Muslim world, can and do choose to wear a veil when going abroad in public, and to support some of the most deeply reactionary causes propogated by militant fundamentalist Muslims.

Do we have to like it, or approve of it???


But, unless they use violence to further their cause, they have the right to self-expression in dress and speech, and we don't have the right to say, "That's it!!! Off to the nick for you!!!".

Actions like that, at best, make us only marginally better than the fundamentalist Muslim foes whose policies and actions we loathe.

You can dismiss all this as "political correctness", "multiculturalism", "identity politics", etc, all you like.

But, I would ask you to please remember that many of those Europeans and Americans who are hostile to the sight of veiled Muslim women in any context, have never been particularly welcoming to anyone in their countries who wasn't a white European, middle- or upper-class person who saw the world in more or less the same exact way as they do.

It's not just the BNP, Front Nationale, Allianza Nazionale or White Aryan Resistance types, I'm talking about either, nor the sort of Enoch Powell-Pat Buchanan-etc, sort of stupid nativist conservative politicians, either.

There are also plenty of so-called "mainstream" politicians, in Europe, the UK and the US, like Mr. Straw, or the late Pym Fortuna, who, whether out of some sincere desire to address what they see as social problems in their societies, or as a cheap and easy means of gaining attention and votes from voters who are deeply prejudiced, but who consider themselves too "respectable' to put on a swastika brassard, or a Klansman's hood, and go a-march, march, marchin' in the streets, Bold As Brass, For All The World To See.

These "respectable" bigots, and those who pander to them, are, and have always been, the real danger to any reasonably functioning democracy, or any society with pretensions to being one, because of the deep-seated hatreds that they carry, and the even more deep-seated denials of those hatreds that immediately spring off of their tongues and lips whenever confronted about them.

The Racist Right, to be sure, has its share of denial, especially when its members talk about "White Pride" NOT being about hating Jews and non-whites, but about "love" and "pride in" the white race and its culture.

But, at least one can always tell right quick from where the latter are coming, while the former all too hastily and easily deny, deny, deny it.

Ethnocentrism, religious and other forms of bigotry are found in just about every culture, and especially in those that either dominate or have a history of dominating other peoples for their own economic and political gain.

Women, whether in the Judeao-Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist worlds, among others, have often been the victims of people, mainly, but not exclusively men, who have those qualities, and the lust to dominate and control everyone and everything else around them, at all costs.

These people see other people as chattels or dolls, to be moulded, pushed, poked, prodded, spun, folded, mutilated, and, if need be, tortured and killed, either singly or en masse, and it's they, and the attitudes and actions that they represent, that need to be fought, especially by the Left world-wide.

But, this also means that we need to fight these attitudes and actions within ourselves, too.

One of the lesser known facts about the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-79, was that many Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Chams and other non-Khmer minorities resident in then-Democratic Kampuchea were targeted for death by the Khmer Rouge, precisely because they weren't Khmer, and, at least in the case of the ethnic Vietnamese, were seen as potential political and military threats to the new order the KR was constructing in Cambodia.

Too extreme an example, perhaps??? Try Jack London's infamous quote about being a white man first, and a Socialist second, or the 1920's South African Communist Party's slogan, "Workers of the World! Unite and Fight For A White South Africa!!!", made back in the days when the SACP hoped to make big gains among English and Afrikaner workers.

Stalin's forced Russification of many national minorities in the former USSR, as well as his anti-Semitism, and the often condescending form of ethnocentrism taken by the Chinese Communists towards many of their own national minority groups are others still.

The Left has often, if it hasn't been careful to look out for it, fallen into the same traps as the Right and Centre.

Considering that we regard ourselves as the "good guys', who oppose all such forms of ethnocentrism and bigotry, shouldn't we make damn well sure that we don't fall into those traps again, only this time in the name of libertating Muslim women from their over-lords???

I leave to you all out there to ponder that question, and whatever possible answers to it, that there may be, for yourselves.

As for me, I say, you damn betcha we should.

Sorry for the very long response to this post, and, in parting, another thanks to Renegade Eye for the kind comment you left on my blog.

You are always welcome back, should you care to return someday.

Maryam Namazie said...

Thanks for your comments. I will address them in my upcoming TV International Programme.

Anonymous said...

Hey renegade you must be blind to be so easily fooled by that Internet Wacko Sergey Romanov. He was kicked out of the HEART group or it's former incarnation and since then has been on a major smear campaign against them. You saw the HEART site at and you saw NO SUCH DENIAL signs there. You also will find no negativity there. But you will find all sorts of crap in Sergey Romanovs blog.

I am surprised at you.

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