Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Radical Feminist’s Palimpsest

I 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!

30 comment(s):

  • yakoub oh yakoub! you get the gold star for double speak my friend. as you are a representative from the Home Office, please note that ms. eltahawy lived on that blessed isle for many years.

    great site though. refuge is always nice.

    hizb ut tahrir: "We were there for [Shabina] in terms of explaining islamic values . . ."

    uh, the school's muslim head mistress?

    uh, the 80% muslim studet body?

    uh, the uniform already in place that allows the headscarf?

    i know the white man's islamic burden is heavy, but gosh . . .

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/16/2005 05:54:00 AM  

  • Love the reference to my colour! Still, at least there's no chance of being an Uncle Tom like you, eh?

    Erm, how many pupils at the Luton school are now requesting to wear jilbab?

    Erm, how does HT's words lead you to believe she was their puppet?

    Erm, do you think its okay that a child's genuine religious belief should see her excluded from school for two years?

    Erm, if Mona knows the UK, she must know the ES was racist and KM a dodgy character, so what does that make her?

    Erm, shame that human rights only matter when its the kind of rights you agree with?

    By Blogger Julaybib, at 3/16/2005 06:31:00 AM  

  • i'm just glad you've found an audience to work through whatever infatuation with you have for the radical brown peoples you seem to enjoy. i guess they are more authentic us "westernized" ones. it's all good.

    it's telling that the girls brother could see to it that wore jilbab but not that she keep up with studies. she has to prove a point after all. no sense in making contingent arrangements or getting a tutor. but of course you know they care what's on her head, not in it.

    but i guess that just their culture.

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/16/2005 07:34:00 AM  

  • Is the jilbab really religious?

    By Blogger praktike, at 3/16/2005 07:46:00 AM  

  • Yakoub

    First, your objections to Mona's story were that she didn't know "gender politics" in Britian.

    Now, you're implying she doesn't understand the politics of the media there.

    It sounds to me that your main gripe is that Mona doesn't agree with you. You conveniently ignore every Muslim who disagrees with Shabina and her case and who don't see it as a victory.

    And praktike, the jilbab is an extreme interpretation of modest dress that is proscribed for Muslim men and women. It is a cultural rather than a religious thing. There are only two verses in the Quran on women's appearance and they have been interpreted differently. Hizb-ut-Tahrir's website makes it clear that the jilbab is the only interpretation.

    You never hear about modest clothes for men - funny huh?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/16/2005 08:05:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    If people want to discuss the issue of women's attire - and that is a valid issue, then fine.

    My objection is that an incident has been taken out of context, and exploited to make a point in a way which seems at odds with fundamental principles of gender justice.

    And of course I'm aware of the contested nature of the religious arguments for wearing jilbab - but that's not the issue.

    The issue is, people who wish to express their Muslim faith in this way should (and indeed in British law, do) have the right to do so.

    And that is the right which needs to be vigrously defended, surely, given that in France and elsewhere, it is a right that is currently being denied to Muslim women.

    Certainly, it is not a right that should be denounced, along with the views of the women who fought for that right, to make a point about an entirely different issue, on a different continent!



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 3/16/2005 08:28:00 AM  

  • I personally think the point that is missed here is that the school was already providing "reasonable accomadation" in reference to this issue. They were not denying this girl the right to dress modestly or cover her hair, indeed it seems as if they were supportive of girls who chose to do this. Whether we want to realize it or not,there has to be some guidelines when it comes to accomodation in public places. Would children of those who are humanist or naturalists be accomodated in expressing themselves by choosing not to wear clothing, or would sikh youth be allowed to bring swords into public schools? Probably not.
    I have a good (hijab wearing) friend who is an R.N. working in labor and delivery at a local hospital. She is allowed to wear a white, close fitting one piece scarf tucked into her scrubs. She considers this "reasonable accomodation" by her employer even though she prefers loose fitting, colored cotton scarves, left hanging over her clothing.
    It seems ironic to me that we are always demanding accomodation (which we are entitled to when reasonable)yet in turn we are often the most unaccomodating in our organizations, schools and countries. The Islamic school that my daughter attends does not allow the non-Muslim teachers to wear anything that symbolizes their faith (ie. cross necklaces, clothing with church logos, etc.), they are also not allowed to mention any holidays or traditions that they celebrate. It wasn't too long ago that we heard about the Muslim owned tech company here in the states that fired non-Muslim employees for eating bacon sandwiches. Not to mention, the lack of tolerance and accomodation in many Mosques and Centers for those who choose not to hijab or who adhere to a more moderate view of Islam.

    By Blogger peace4all, at 3/16/2005 08:36:00 AM  

  • Thank you peace4all

    The school was indeed accomodating. The principal is a Muslim who made sure the uniform policy made room for girls who wanted to wear headscarves, unlike the schools in France that Yakoub refers to.

    Also, if you see Mona's second story there is a disturbing quote from the judge in the first trial that Shabina lost - the judge in effect wonders why Shabina's brother is doing all the talking.

    Nobody has said Shabina can't choose what to wear - if indeed it was a choice - but she wanted to go above and beyond the uniform at school. What's wrong with jilbab outside of school, headscarf at school?

    And furthermore, when if ever are we going to draw the line? We have to speak up - isn't hijab enough?

    Why are we leaving girls and women to be overwhelmed with guilt over clothes and scarves and jilbabs?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/16/2005 09:09:00 AM  

  • thanks peace4all and nadine. my sentiments exactly.

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/16/2005 09:30:00 AM  

  • I'm disturbed by the subtext of the comments here, namely those of Nadine.

    The jilbab isn't an extreme anything, it's an article of clothing.

    I don't care what someone wants to wear, nor do I like Begum being held up by either side as representative of anything other than herself-- sort of like how folks are doing with Dr Wadud at this time as well. Can anyone see the similarities on how each "side" uses rhetoric for or against?

    And to this: "And furthermore, when if ever are we going to draw the line? We have to speak up - isn't hijab enough? "

    enough of what? enough of a problem? No one ruled in that court case that the uniform for Muslim girls was salwar kameez, jilbabs, or hijabs. I believe it was left open as an option. I'd personally call that freedom of personal religious expression, whether one agrees with it's being an actual religious item or not.

    There's so much talk in "progressive" circles about allowing those who don't wear hijab to not wear it. Why isn't it ok to apply the litmus test in the other direction as well, even if one's interpretation of said dress/clothing choice is something "we" don't like.

    I wear jilbab by the way. Not for religious reasons, but because I happen to like it better. It's NOT extreme, it's errrrr clothes I like to wear. Am I more "enlightened" because I take that viewpoint, making it "OK" for me to wear it then?

    Or... are so many now reacting by adopting the same rhetoric of those "we" disagree with--

    By Blogger Leila M., at 3/16/2005 10:38:00 AM  

  • I forgot to add: those with their little anti-Yakoub ad hominems: the fault tool doesn't work.

    being a white convert myself, it doesn't mean I should "shut up" or that I am "obsessed with radical brown people" That's seriously over the line, highly f'ed up-- especially when it's used only to "discredit" those one disagrees with

    By Blogger Leila M., at 3/16/2005 10:42:00 AM  

  • Mona's logic in her first article against jilbab was that she personally thought the jilbab was extreme form of dressing that went beyond what's required. Who decides what's required didn't matter to her.

    The logic in her second article would make Patriot Act woefully inadequate. Her premise was that Shabina was wrong and should not have been allowed to wear a jilbab because her brother belongs to hizb-ul-tahrir, a not too well known but allegedly conservative organization. That's guilt by association to her brother's guilt by association to Hizb-ul-Tahrir. I don't know what else is this org guilty of besides irking Mona.

    Guess under Mona's logic, a woman's choice is limited to become hijab-free. Any woman dare not choose to do anything more than what Mona thinks is required.

    Besides many commenters may not have any compunctions in dictating what and how much another person could/should wear, individual choice be damned.

    Peace4all, Technically the school didn't have a uniform unless it specified the dress, the fabric, the color, and the style. I don't know if this was the case.

    The school had no compelling reason to ban the jilbab. That's why they lost to a 16 year old!

    By Blogger Jafar, at 3/16/2005 10:49:00 AM  

  • Leila,

    Perhaps you may not know it but someone you know may know someone who belongs to hizbul-tahrir. ;)

    btw, in another MWU article, a non-muslim woman was fired for eating pork at a muslim-owned business. Its interesting to hear the same voices that condemn jilbab support the choice of this woman.


    By Blogger Jafar, at 3/16/2005 10:56:00 AM  

  • "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. "

    Yup, yup, yup. For me this is the point and it is something that I have noticed and several of my friends in progressive Muslim circles have noticed as well. Not just amongst some radical feminist, but specifically amongst many feminists in the progressive Muslim movement. Let me also note that I most unabashadley consider myself a feminist, but this is a strange kind of feminism indeed.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 3/16/2005 11:24:00 AM  

  • ...and lest I be accused of being a white person obsessed with the issues of the brown (and here I was thinking human being should care about other humans, silly me, I missed the Ayat Al Tribalism in Qur'an is that one in Surah Al Jahiliyya?) I'm a deeply brown person.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 3/16/2005 11:25:00 AM  

  • wow. comments galore. part of the freedom of being a white convert is that you can choose how to express your islam. the problem is many people born into the faith find certain practices that many white converts flock to as being stifling.

    these are basically two types muslims passing each other. one group think the house is on fire and is trying to run out, the other thinks the house is salvation and is moving in. both may be true.

    the white convert is then picked up by the conservative comunity and held up as an example of a true muslim while the person looking for change is held up as dangerous, bad muslim. of course neither one is true.

    unfortunately much of this is lost on the convert, white or otherwise, and so people are in effect talking past each other.

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/16/2005 11:43:00 AM  

  • Wow Crossfader72 your comments are something to read. Your comments do demonstrate some insight, but these are very broad generalizations (indeed they are stereotypes that are quickly moving into the realm of caricature with the rapid changes occuring in Muslim communities worldwide).

    If you take a look at Br. Yakoub's articles on MWU, especially in Sex and the Ummah you will see that he is know conservative puppet. I think that instead of hurling insulting and prejudiced stereotypes, you'd do better to simply confront the issue. If you have an argument present it, but if it's based on your own prejudice against converts then save it.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 3/16/2005 12:43:00 PM  

  • i presented my argument. converts are attracted to islam for its perceived rigidity (not talking about sufis). persons born into the faith often want to change the very things converts wish to embrace.

    it's like living in a collapsing house. you want to fix it, but your flatmate moves in and says this house is perfect what's wrong with you? that's in a nutshell.

    also i am not impressed by any person's ability/desire to "go native" in islamic dress. expecially since they don't need to to be a muslim. what do they want from me a cookie? i'm too busy trying to fix the house that they tell me is perfect.

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/16/2005 05:30:00 PM  

  • That's not an argument Crossfader72, it's a statement, a racist one at that.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 3/16/2005 05:42:00 PM  

  • It is being assumed that girls who want to wear hijab or jibab are exercising their free will.Isnt the behavioural momentum dictated by religion and tradition more restrictive than laws? Customs are always more powerful than laws.So, to counter a custom, there is nothing wrong in principle if a law is passed against it.Individuals may be not less, but more free in such a case to exercise their option.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/16/2005 08:38:00 PM  

  • Salam to Garfield and Praktike and others who have asked if the girls are really exercising free will or not. I think that any true proponent of free speech and free will has to oppose any restrictions on that apart from where the speech or expression becomes an actual crime against others. We are talking here about dress. It is not something that anyone who is any sort of civil libertarian should be restricting. You can't assume the girls are being somehow forced or brainwashed, this infantilizes them. Lots of girls choose to make choices you may think are stupid - you don't take their stupid music or stupid boy posters or stupid stickers away from them - you let them have differences in taste from you. All young people are generally pretty conformist - so? If you think conformism per se should somehow be avoided then ban ties in working men. You all treat the girls as objects, not subjects, and that's just as bad as the countries where conservative dress is legislated and therefore not a choice. You may not approve of this girl wearing jilbab. I myself don't think Islam mandates any specific dress code and particularly not for kids. But I can't legislate against a girl wearing a long dress any more than you could legislate against mullets even if you think they are stupid or wrong.

    By Blogger Anna in PDX, at 3/16/2005 10:41:00 PM  

  • just discovered that this crossfader character posts under pseudonym of abu fatoush on MWU.

    In the MWU comments at http://www.muslimwakeup.com/movabletype3/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=2314

    he posted

    >>> "progressive" - - a person who favors a political philosophy of progress and reform and the protection of civil liberties.
    ---- Posted by abu fatoush at August 21, 2004 09:08 AM

    Here he quotes,

    >>>> also i am not impressed by any person's ability/desire to "go native" in islamic dress. also i am not impressed by any person's ability/desire to "go native" in islamic dress. expecially since they don't need to to be a muslim

    And another MWU article, which abu fatoush considers gospel, begins with

    >>>> As progressive Muslims, we are all about respecting people’s choices, and the issue of hijab is no exception. As we’ve indicated repeatedly, women must have the choice to wear or not wear the head covering without the fear of intimidation. from - http://www.muslimwakeup.com/blog/archives/2004/07/the_dishonesty.php

    So in a gist what this guy wants is to dictate his "version" on islam on everyone else. And the freedom of choice that he purpotedly supports doesn't extend to others. I say ignore this SOB.

    By Blogger Jafar, at 3/17/2005 01:52:00 PM  

  • People keep suggesting that those who don't believe that the school in this case was violating Shabina's rights, are somehow anti-hijab.
    I have negotiated and mediated agreements between young women who either wanted to wear hijab or were required by their families to do so, in every case we were able to get the dress code or in some cases the uniform policy, amended to include modest clothing and a head covering. There is no such Islamic mandate from Allah (swa) or the Prophet that defines "modest dress" as a jilab. Every school that I know of has a dress code policy, many include a prohibition on tank tops, shorts, slippers, extreme hairstyles, etc.
    Would those who support allowing jilbab/niqab etc. also support non-Muslim students wishing to wear shorts, or an extreme hairstyle in a Muslim school or in any school for that matter? There are some that believe that these policies infringe on their right to express themselves.
    Do you believe that non-Muslim students wishing to deviate from a uniform policy in a predominantly Muslim country would be allowed to do so? I doubt it.
    You can't have your cake and eat it too. Muslim women should be supported in their desire to dress modestly, however they must also be reasonable in their requests to do so if it has an impact on those around them.
    We all know there is huge pressure to "hijabat" in most communities. Many arab women I know have put it on after they came here just to be accepted. Almost every khutba in my mosque contains a reference to this issue and reminds both women and men of their responsibility in mandating this Islamic requirement in their homes and community.
    Muslim women, convert or not, are evaluated as to their level of piety by the layers of clothing they have on.
    Forget about prayer, charity, justice, mercy and compassion, just cover yourself, bolt your chain to the stove, make sure it's long enough to reach the bedroom and everyone will be happy.

    By Blogger peace4all, at 3/17/2005 03:41:00 PM  

  • > however they must also be >reasonable in their requests to >do so if it has an impact on >those around them.

    exactly how does wearing a jilab have an impact on those "around us?" I don't understand.

    The article by Yakoub is a very good one, because he discusses the context of the issue - that is what Mona E. failed to address. And that really is the issue that seems to be left out from many of the comments here.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/17/2005 03:55:00 PM  

  • thanks jafar. uh i don't think that me being abu fatoush was a secret. thank's for calling men an SOB also. a first, i must say.

    but my question is where oh where is yakoub?

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/17/2005 04:15:00 PM  

  • also with respect to mona eltahawy vs. yakoub. ms. eltahway is well respected journalist from the Saudi paper Asharq Al-Awsat with pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post. while yakoub is a one trick pony whose every other thought is to scream "post-colonialism."

    By Blogger crossfader72, at 3/17/2005 04:19:00 PM  

  • abu fatoush, Respect is subjective. Many people respect Hannity, Safire and Pipes. That hardly make their diatribes credible! If any of these crazies wrote about Shabina, their message would be no different than mona's.

    By Blogger Jafar, at 3/17/2005 07:22:00 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Jafar, at 3/17/2005 07:22:00 PM  

  • Salaams

    It's odd that some people here have actually assumed I am a conservative. Indeed, when I posted this on conservative forums, I was 'welcomed back' - ROFLOL.

    I'm actually a strong supporter of the Esack declaration, but at the same time, I have immense respect for much of 'trad' Islam.

    IMHO, MWU is not progressive -it's liberal.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 3/18/2005 11:48:00 AM  

  • "MWU is not progressive -it's liberal."

    Well, it took damn long for that realisation. And there is a BIG difference between peogressive and being liberal.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/18/2005 03:27:00 PM  

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