Haredis and FGM: like a newly caught fish

I was alerted to an article by one Christina Patterson (former director of the Poetry Society and literary programmer at the South Bank Centre in London) setting out what she considers the “limits of multi-culturalism”, which ends before you get to what she sees as the insulting stand-offishness of the Orthodox Jewish population of North London and the supposed 500 to 2,000 “British schoolgirls” sent abroad to undergo genital mutilation every year, not to mention all the 3-year-old girls in hijaab she sees. The Harry’s Place article where I found the link was, of course, more concerned with the four initial paragraphs on the Orthodox Jews, but she finds space for a broadside against Muslim women and squeezes in an attack on faith schools at the end too.

Not having lived in that part of London (mostly Stamford Hill), I haven’t had a lot of experience of dealing with the Haredim but most of what I have known is brief, business-like but not unpleasant. If there is a significant problem with Jewish men driving down roads the wrong way while holding mobile phones, surely the police should be doing something about it as this is something the rest of us had to get used to not doing some years ago. But even though some of this behaviour may be unpleasant, it’s not against the law and is not actually harmful. There are some comments on the Harry’s Place entry from one Terry Fitz, a builder who used to work in the area, which gives a counterweight to Patterson’s claims (however, I have heard people calling Vanessa Feltz’s show complaining about rude Haredis, so Fitz’s claim that Patterson’s accusations are “fiction” probably doesn’t altogether stand up either).

When she turns to the Muslim community, she comes out with one wild accusation after another:

It also makes me sad to see the three-year-olds in hijab, who want, of course, to look like Mummy (all three-year-olds want to look like Mummy) but who, in any case, soon won’t have much choice, and who are being taught that their tiny bodies, and their lovely hair, are things to be protected from the male gaze.

I’ve been a Muslim twelve years and I have never heard this said about the hair of a 3-year-old or indeed of any pre-pubescent girl. The vast majority of Muslim parents don’t expect girls to wear hijab from that kind of age — some try and get them used to it from fairly early on and yes, some girls do ask to wear hijab because their mothers or aunts do it. Some have even been known to take up the hijab when their mothers don’t do it.

It makes me sad to see young women in the niqab. I accept that some of them choose to wear it because they, too, have absorbed the message that they are a walking sexual provocation, and that this way they can shield themselves, and preserve themselves “as a precious jewel” for their husband, and maybe reclaim an identity that they don’t want to lose, and maybe even stick two fingers up at a country which is, according to new leaks this week, bombing quite a lot of their innocent brothers and sisters, and maybe even, get some (secretly enjoyable) attention. I accept all this, but it still makes me sad.

This is all wild speculation. The “two fingers” bit may be about that picture of a woman in niqaab with two fingers raised (a stock picture which appeared on the front of one edition of Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan and at various times in tabloid newspapers) — but it was likely to have been aimed at the paparazzi who pointed the cameras, not at “the country” or anyone else. Women wear niqaab for many different reasons, not just those mentioned.

(The young women, by the way, who were asked to leave that bus last week, might remember that Russell Square isn’t a place that has great associations for any bus driver, and that they’re living in a country in which covering your face has traditionally been a practice undertaken by criminals and terrorists and people who have something to hide, and that if they choose to dress this way, they might expect to be treated with some suspicion, just as women wearing shorts in a Middle Eastern country might expect to be treated like prostitutes.)

The bombing in 2005 happened in Tavistock Square, not Russell Square, but in any case, Russell Square is a well-known terminal point for many bus routes in London, so I expect what most drivers associate Russell Square with is a much-needed break. It’s also right next to several of the University of London colleges, including SOAS, so I can’t imagine that women in niqaab are an unfamiliar sight around there. Her argument is that Muslims should somehow accept that there is suspicion against them because of a handful of past incidents of terrorism — much the same argument cited for why an Islamic centre should not be allowed to be build a couple of blocks away from the former World Trade Center in New York. The fact that a Muslim prayer centre was situated inside one of the former WTC towers and was, needless to say, destroyed with the rest of it does not seem to matter; the whole argument boils down to “Muslims did 9/11, therefore Muslims shouldn’t show their face, much less expect to put up a building, near the location”.

While it’s true that it is normally criminals that cover their face in this country, they do so with balaclavas and not niqaabs and they certainly don’t wear floor-length dresses. Everyone knows the difference between a niqaab and a balaclava; niqaabs have been a familiar sight in London for decades. Any suspicion is a recent media invention.

All this, she concedes, is within the limits of multiculturalism, but apparently FGM isn’t, and neither is taking girls abroad to do it, and it’s “a total and utter disgrace” that girls are having this done in the UK when it’s been illegal since 1985, and being taken abroad for it when that’s been illegal since 2003, and “the institutions in this country are doing sweet FA” (f**k all). The statistic is routinely bandied around, that scores or hundreds of girls are having this done every year, but why on earth does nobody get prosecuted? One would have thought that, in the two decades that Somalis have been living in the UK, in however long it is since we have had people from other parts of the world where FGM is carried out have been living in the UK, that at least one person would come forward and make an accusation that this has happened to them, and name the perpetrator. But it doesn’t seem to have done (I recall a woman being prosected in France for carrying out FGM a few years ago).

Why is this? Could it be that nobody wants to rock the boat? In my experience, some (although by no means all) young Muslims (and this is who we’re talking about) are more than willing to upset age-old traditions on the grounds that they are against Islam, be they ridiculous marriage customs, taboos against inter-caste or inter-racial marriages, or touching an elder’s feet on entering their house, so I can’t imagine that not one woman wouldn’t be willing to come forward if so many had been subjected to FGM. It’s true that it’s not all that usual for Muslim women (or even men) to talk about intimate matters with strangers, let alone in public, but FGM is one of three things pretty much everyone knows about Somalia (famine and war being the other two). To learn that a Somali woman has undergone FGM would not surprise anyone; to learn the opposite would surprise a lot of people more. A complicating factor might be that not all those affected want the offenders prosecuted; they are often close family and the operation is carried out with the best of intentions; it’s not exploitative or malicious. There has been a lot of progress made in eliminating the practice among Somalis and others from places where FGM is common, and the spread of literacy and access to Muslim scholarly authorities from out of area have a lot to do with it, from what I have observed.

Lastly, she attacks faith schools on the basis that “while lovely little C of E schools were once an excellent place for children to learn about the religion that shaped their culture, art and laws, you can’t have them without having the madrassa run by the mad mullah next door, and therefore, sadly, you can’t have either”. No Muslim state school is a “madrassa” (in the sense of a school where teaching religion takes preference over all else); they teach the national curriculum with the religious and artistic parts primarily Islamic in focus and a uniform or dress code in line with Islamic standards, and having met the imam at one well-known such school, I can say he is the furthest thing from a “mad mullah”, and that he did not actually run the school.

Patterson is simply thrashing around from one topic to another breathlessly, like a fish recently removed from water. Her article consists of one of the worst stereotypes about the UK’s religious minorities after another, comparing “nice little C of E schools” to “madrassas run by mad mullahs” as if they were what typified both types of school, for example. All her judgements are based on prejudice and presumption based on what she’s heard, and as is often the case with attacks on religion and particularly religious dress, she does not seem to have asked anyone why they do the things she dislikes. While the Independent has long had its share of highly unreasonable and bigoted anti-religious columnists (Johann Hari, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, for example), it’s always shocking to see in a supposed “quality” newspaper an article which would only look out of place in the Daily Express by virtue of its long-windedness.

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