The Radical Feminist’s PalimpsestI am writing this comment in response to the publication of two articles written by Mona Eltahawy on Muslim Wake Up. Both focus on Shabina Begum, the 16 year old school girl who recently secured a legal victory against Denbigh High School in Luton, UK, which had denied her the right to wear jilbab as an expression of her Muslim faith. Both stories distort the issues surrounding the case, by subsuming them under concerns specific to the Muslim communities in the United States. Indeed, so keen was Mona to make her own case that - in the second article - she resorted to presenting malicious rumour as fact. I believe this has implications for the reputation of Muslim Wake Up.
The first story focused on the issue of Muslim women being excessively judged by what they wear. While this might be a valid issue, Mona Eltahawy failed to balance her concerns against the context in which this court case took place. In 2004, the French government passed a law banning overt religious symbols in schools, but few were in any doubt that the principle aim of this legislation was to ban Muslim schoolgirls from wearing hijab. Indeed, laws specifically targeting hijab were soon being proposed in Belgium and Germany.
The origins of the European hijab controversy are complex, and take place on a bleak intersection where colonial history and post-9/11 Islamophobia collide. Most French Muslims have their origins in the Maghrib, with the first migrants coming mainly from Algeria, a French colony until 1962. French colonialism was unique in its drive to completely assimilate host cultures, and a comparable demand on migrants to conform to secular French cultural standards was the driving force behind the hijab law. In fact, even before the law was passed, wearing hijab had seen French Muslim women denied employment and even hospital treatment.
In this context, Muslim women in Britain launched the Assembly for the Protection of Hijab – an organisation that was instantly attacked on Muslim Wake Up, where it was misrepresented as a male inspired Salafi puppet show. In fact, the Prohijab group was founded entirely by Muslim women, and though it was probably closely backed by the Qaradawi loving Muslim Association of Britain, it was immediately supported by the majority of Muslims here, who were outraged at events in Europe and a growing tide of Islamophobic prejudice pouring out of the pages of the British media.
In Britain, what Muslim women choose to wear does matter – to Muslim women. The events in France and elsewhere marked out hijab in particular as a symbol of religious identity and pride, with even progressive middle class Muslims like Fareena Alam of Q-News sporting one. This is not to deny, of course, that British Muslim women are not the victims of the same prejudice that sees them labelled as irreligious if they dress in Western clothes. But in Britain, the kind of confrontational gender politics which is evident in the USA simply does not exist. Britain is a country notorious for its gradualist politics. The last time we had a popular revolution here was in 1381!
Sadly, Mona Eltahawy not only sought to ignore this context, but presented a distorted picture of how British Muslims have responded to Shabina Begum’s victory, by citing the views of the Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of Muslim Parliament in support of her case. Despite its grandiose name, the Muslim Parliament does not represent the vast majority of British Muslims or their views. The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group which represents the majority of British Muslim organisations, welcomed Shabina Begum’s victory. So did the popular MPACUK. Those who did express concerns – such as Fareena Alam of Q-News – maintained a moderate, discursive tone which was simply absent from Mona Eltahawy’s angry diatribes.
Sadly, what was completely absent from Mona’s quasi-feminist rhetoric was the voice of Shabina Begum herself. "I don't regret wearing the jilbab at all.” Shabina told the Guardian in an exclusive interview. “I'm happy that I did this. I feel that I have given hope and strength to other Muslim women.” Muslim women posting on the MPACUK forums agreed. They know that young Bangladeshi women like Shabina are becoming increasingly visible and vocal in Britain – and indeed, Bangladeshi women are now the fasting growing social group entering higher education. But simply ignoring Shabina wasn’t enough for Mona. She had to be silenced.
And so, in her second story, Mona claimed that Shabina was not speaking or acting for herself at all. Instead, she was a puppet, a political football being manipulated by Cherie Blair (her barrister and the Prime Minister’s wife) and the extremist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Sadly, Mona – who I understand lives in New York – had made the silly mistake of basing her story of what looked like a convincing source – the Member of Parliament (that’s the real one at Westminster) Khaled Mahmood.
Unfortunately for Mona, Khaled Mahmood – who gave this story to the rabidly xenophobic right wing rag, the London Evening Standard - is something of a pariah among British Muslim activists. Not only did he vote for the war in Afghanistan, and abstain on Iraq, but is widely regarded as an oily opportunist who is more in touch with crooked subcontinent politics than anything going on Britain. Indeed, one Guardian journalist described him as ‘the most stupid MP in Britain.’ Such is his sullied reputation that most of the British media, despite its Islamophobic tendencies, ignored the story completely.
Mona Eltahawy’s vitriolic nonsense raises two issues. One is the way in which some radical feminists attempt to present women as victims, rather than as active, cogent individuals trying to cope with the oppressive forces of patriarchy. Has Shabina Begum internalised patriarchal values? Perhaps she has – but simply using her as a palimpsest for espousing the genuine angst of American Muslimah denies her the right that so many Muslim women, and so many women around the world, are denied on a daily basis – the right to be heard.
The second is Elthaway’s abject failure to take on board one of the key findings of postcolonial feminism – women’s diversity. This is a crucial insight for Muslims fighting for gender justice within our communities, who are often accused of parodying a monolithic, universalist Western feminism and of thus being complicit in a cultural imperialism which seeks to deride Muslim culture as misogynistic. In this instance, Mona's lack of consideration for diversity led her to assume Britain is the USA, and the concerns of British and European Muslim women are the same as those in America. They are not.
Wake up, Mona!