Not the ‘ally’ Muslims need

In today’s Guardian, there’s an article by Laurie Penny attacking those who have been campaigning against the supposed gender segregation on British university campuses (meaning, the separate seating arrangements at some Islamic society gatherings), claiming that they are mostly white men who disguise their Islamophobia under a guise of feminism while saying nothing about sexism in mainstream culture, including on campus (the guest speaker and the three who staged the protest at UCL by invading the women’s area were all men). She edited the piece to mention that there were “Asian women’s groups and individual Muslim feminists” protesting as well, “sometimes taking personal risks to do so”, and it includes an aside supporting those protests:

I have spent weary weeks being asked to condemn this “policy of gender segregation” by “Islamic extremists”, despite the fact that no such policy exists. Of course, I condemn all sexism within the academy. I condemn segregated drinking societies and the under-representation of women at the top levels of academia. I condemn rape culture on campus, traditions like “seal clubbing” and “slut dropping” where male students are encouraged to sexually humiliate their female classmates. If I’ve enough breath left, I’ll condemn the suggestion that guest lecturers be allowed a segregated audience for religious reasons.

The claim that segregation happens at the behest of visiting speakers is, as I have said in previous articles on this subject, entirely spurious — it is the practice of some Islamic societies and it has been happening for decades without protest. The reasons people have noticed this time are that the event was a public debate in which a prominent Muslim activist (Hamza Tzortzis) was debating on atheism with an atheist guest speaker, and also that people with strong media connections have made a fuss over it. The supposed Asian and Muslim feminists are also mostly not students but, in fact, anti-Islamic agitators of one sort or another (one of those offered in the Observer the Sunday before last as an example of the types of Muslim women society should be listening to is, in fact, an Iranian communist exile who is an atheist and openly hostile to Islam). However, the biggest reason this campaign has gained traction is simply that it is Muslims doing it, and not another religious group. The fact that the story about M&S staff beign allowed to refuse to sell pork or alcohol to customers on the grounds that it is against their religion has been reported as a Muslim story, when in fact the same allowance applied to Jews, is a challenge to anyone who denies that the campaign is motivated by Islamophobia rather than feminism.

When the piece appeared on CiF last night, many feminists (Muslim and otherwise) tweeted that, yet again, a mainstream media outlet had sourced an opinion piece on an issue affecting Muslim women from a white feminist rather than from an actual Muslim woman. As someone who has read the Guardian since childhood, including all the time I have been Muslim, I have noticed that they rarely commission articles about these issues from actual Muslim women; it is always secularised ones who do not wear hijaab, even when the matter at hand is an attack on the niqaab — the opinions of wearers tend to be relegated to vox pops and articles have a somewhat airy, detached feel, less likely to challenge the views of the white liberal reader. The volley of opinions on the segregation issue, nearly all of them condemnatory, have come from everyone except those presumed to be degraded by the practice, namely the practising Muslim women who regularly attend ISoc meetings, most of whom wear the hijaab. The people put up to defend it have been Muslim men (principally, Saleem Chagtai of IERA and Omar Ali of FOSIS).

There is a whole history of this kind of behaviour whenever there is a debate about an issue concerning Muslim women. Much the same happened in the debates surrounding banning the hijaab in French schools; Muslim women’s voices were rarely sought and when they spoke, they were shouted down. The dominant white opinion was that no woman in her right mind would choose to wear it; it must be either the product of parental or peer pressure, or a bit of youthful rebellion by someone who does not know what is good for her. In this case as well, nobody has been allowed to challenge the dominant white opinion, and feminists seem to get a pass on imperialistic attitudes and behaviours that are no longer acceptable for men — openly displaying an assumption that they know what is good for other women and what is appropriate female behaviour and aspiration, and openly displaying resentment and hostility for women from other cultures who reject their leadership. In this case, there was an opportunity for a piece to be sought from a woman affected by the segregation issue and instead they ran an article by someone with an opinion but no actual interest in the matter, a white feminist who slipped in the obligatory condemnation of “segregated audiences”, as if we were talking about Sun City in the 1970s. The Muslims, men and women, who could counter this nonsense are out there and available; they are the people who know about us, our lives and our values. Laurie Penny, like most other white media feminists, knows and cares little about these things.

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