G2 carried the above article, and it featured a number of Muslim women who claim they are challenging stereotypes and extremism; they include Tehmina Kazi (who has commented here in the past) from the so-called British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Sara Khan of Inspire, Houriya Ahmed who was with the Centre for Social Cohesion until recently, and one Rabia Mirza who is involved with an outfit called Cheerleaders Against Everything which has “informal links” with both the BMSD and the English Defence League. (Having looked at CAE’s Facebook page, it’s not a Muslim group; she just happens to be involved in it.)
If you saw the print edition, you might have noticed that neither of the two women were wearing hijab, and that’s where their claim to be “challenging stereotypes” starts to come down, because stereotypes about Muslim women usually involve those who do wear hijab. There actually are nowhere near as many barriers to Muslim women who refuse the hijaab, or who come from families where it’s not worn anyway, achieving in mainstream society as there are for those who do wear it. Significantly, of the “record number” of Muslim MPs that were elected at the last general election, none of the females wore hijaab and all of the males were clean-shaven.
Then there’s the problem with the groups they represent. British Muslims for Secular Democracy uses the non-Muslim definition of a Muslim — namely, someone who looks like a Muslim, has a Muslim name and claims (however dishonestly) to be one. Two of their trustees are Taj Hargey and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, whose status I have discussed here in the past. Alibhai-Brown is a particularly poisonous character, notorious for her broad-brush character assassinations of Muslim women in the popular press. Sara Khan’s group “Inspire” (note: the site has sound which plays automatically) is barely less problematic; it is currently organising an event at City Hall in London, entitled “Speaking in God’s name: Re-examining Gender in Islam”, whose publicity reads:
Unfortunately some of those who deny women their rights claim to do so in God’s Name. For too long these ultra-conservative views in the UK have remained unchanged and unchallenged - until now.
The line-up of speakers includes only one person who could be called a scholar in the traditional Islamic sense; the rest are activists of one sort of another, and are expected to present standard secularist, anti-orthodox views laced with generalised attacks on traditional scholarship and a few stereotypes of their own (such as that classical scholars were all or nearly all men, which was not true, particularly in the very early days which is when most of the work of deciding what was or wasn’t the Shari’ah was done). Although there are no speakers known for extreme hostility for genuine Islam or Muslims (like Hargey or Alibhai-Brown), they do have Amina Wadud, who gave one of her “woman-led Friday prayers” at Hargey’s institution in Oxford. It is significant that no scholar and nobody from any major Muslim organisation in the UK has been invited, so it is not a dialogue with conservative Islam, or even Islam as normally practised in the UK, but merely about it, in the court of a mayor with a long history of hostility towards Islam. It’s a case of “about us, without us”.
They also make some specious claims about female “extremism”, such as that there is a “lack of Islamic literature for female followers and provision for women at mosques” which is why people like Roshonara Choudhary, who stabbed the MP Stephen Timms last year, had to learn their faith from the Internet. There is actually no shortage of such literature — you only have to pay a visit to any Islamic bookshop — and it is not just women who learn about Islam from the Internet; there are many cases of male extremists “self-radicalising” by reading material online, but there are also a lot of quite worthy Islamic forums online, as well as Islamic resources such as question-and-answer websites. As for good-quality Islamic teaching, particularly in English, there is a shortage of that for everyone, particularly adults and converts.
However, my biggest criticism of them is that they are not breaking any ground for Muslim women who wish to follow the deen in its fullness, and that includes wearing the hijaab. It has always been possible for someone with brown skin to tell a right-wing, white-dominated think-tank what its leaders want to hear, and get a job, and there have always been men and women of various ethnicities working in the race relations and equality sector. Neither is there any dispute about the right of a Muslim woman to wear hijab and be a housewife or full-time mother or run a sewing business at home. What’s at stake is the right to wear hijaab and do a normal job, and when these women take off their hijabs and talk about stereotypes about extremism and hijab in the same article, it does the women who practise the deen properly no favours.
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