The banished voices of Muslim women

The banished voices of Muslim women

Soumaya Ghannoushi

I had intended to continue on the subject of the dangers of certain forms of secularism this week, particularly since it generated a stream of comments, some of which appeared to miss the point of the article entirely. But as I sit at my desk my thoughts seem occupied with a different topic altogether.

Whatever I do these days, I seem unable to shake off the scenes of the women confronting the Israeli army unarmed in the occupied Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun. I do not know what it is about them that intrigues me so much, and keeps their images engraved in my memory. Perhaps it is the thought of women defying the soldiers of the fourth largest army in the world unarmed, perhaps it is the fascinating collective power these women exuded, or the poignant imbalance of their situation. Although the soldiers had the upper hand in material terms, with their sophisticated armour and deadly weaponry, it was the women who won the moral case.

We have grown used to reading of the plight of the wretched Muslim woman living in societies that crush their will, trample over their rights and strip them of their freedom. Every day new voices join themselves to the endless lament, pleading with the West to intervene and liberate Islam’s “caged virgins”. But on the woman crushed beneath tanks in Baghdad, dying at checkpoints in Qalandia, or buried beneath the rubble of a shelter in Qana, these voices remain silent. The woman gunned down by a soldier is of no interest to them, if she happens to find herself in Palestine, Iraq, or Lebanon. She simply is not relevant to the “liberation agenda”.

Perhaps the women of Jenin, Falluja, or Tyre are not photogenic enough for them. Their photos will never adorn the front pages of newspapers and magazines, unlike the girls of the much applauded “cedar revolution” with their tight designer jeans, sunglasses, and expensive hairdos. It was interesting to hear journalists report on the Beit Hanoun protest where two women were murdered in cold blood and many more injured. With all the talk of “robes”, “abayas” and “scarves” one would have thought the reporters were commenting on a fashion show, as though these women had defied the Israeli curfew for the sole purpose of exhibiting their costumes. With all the emphasis on the women’s dress the reporters stressed their difference, dehumanizing them, obscuring their womanhood, reducing them to a piece of cloth. It was as though what these women wore lent a measure of justification to the soldiers’ crimes against them.

“Don’t be a victim if in your reflection we do not see ourselves, but a distant, strange world, we neither understand, nor wish to understand”.

The women liberation warriors are dumbstruck when the oppressor is not the classical culprit: the tyrant of One Thousand and One Nights and old Arab tales, but a whole occupation army with its soldiers, guns, tanks and warplanes. Two cases before us divest the discourse of Muslim women’s emancipation of any credibility. The first is that of my friend, the Turkish MP Merve Kavakci, a university lecturer who was elected to the Turkish parliament in April 18th 1999. On May 2nd when she entered parliament for the oath-taking ceremony, she walked into a storm, facing the taunts of hundreds of men demanding her expulsion. Not only was Kavakci expelled from parliament, she was stripped of her Turkish citizenship, all because she chose to wear a headscarf. She is one of thousands of women: university graduates, doctors, engineers and teachers denied their civil and political rights for simply choosing a type of dress which their governments disapprove of.

The other is Jameela al-Shanti, elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who related her poignant story in the Guardian yesterday, giving us a small glimpse of the tragedy of living under occupation as a woman. Her home was bombed, many of her friends and relatives killed and injured, but as she herself put it, “I have yet to hear western condemnation that I, an elected MP, have had my home demolished and relatives killed by Israel’s bombs. When the bodies of my friends and colleagues were torn apart there was not one word from those who claim to be defenders of women’s rights on Capitol Hill and in 10 Downing Street”.

Kavakci and al-Shanti’s fault is twofold. They fit neither the much-cherished stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, Taliban style, nor the western model conceived as the sole path to women’s liberation. They form part of a simply non-existing category. For if you are a Muslim woman, you can either be the victim of a suffocating oppressive patriarchal society which dictates everything you do, including what you should wear and whom you should marry, or a woman who has turned her back on all that is “Islamic”. If you are the former, then await our benevolent intervention to free you of your bondage and break your chains and shackles. If the latter, expect to be celebrated and to have your photos decorate glossy magazines from London to Paris, Amsterdam to Washington, Hirsi style. You are saying what we need said, fighting our battles for us, without risking the charge of Islamophobia and racism. You are the liberated one worthy of liberating her co-religionists.

What is ironic is that vast numbers of Muslim women today fit neither of these categories. Visit any university in Cairo, Kuala Lampur, Damascus, or Jakarta and you will see the Islamic head cover everywhere, even in states that ban the practice with the text of the law and the force of the police, like Turkey and Tunisia. These very same institutions had until recently stood on the vanguard of the production of the Western feminist model.

My own mother attended one of these universities in the early 1970s. She wore neither my scarf, nor my long skirts. Her mother before her was barely literate and hardly crossed the doors of her home. Today, both my mother and I have moved away from the category of my grandmother and the Parisian woman all educated Arab females aspired to emulate through much of the 20th century. The category which would accommodate us, but remains missing, would have to be complex, neither traditionally Islamic, nor modernised along western lines. In its complexity, it would reflect the multiple forms of modernity and Islamicity at once.

The roads to modernisation, Islamisation, and liberation are not one but many. The world is vaster than London and Paris.

When faced with the rhetoric of Muslim women’s emancipation we would do well to scratch beneath its outer crust in search of what lies underneath. The liberation of Muslim women, just like the democratisation and reform of the “wider Middle East”, is often used as a vehicle of justification and legitimisation of unjustifiable and illegitimate interests and interventions. Muslim women, just like their sisters in the third world, in Africa, or Asia, suffer from manifold problems, under-educated, impoverished, under-represented, and discriminated against. But they can be sure that neither Blair, Bush, nor their many mouthpieces are losing any sleep over their hard lot, or over the tragedies of their sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lebanon.

The burden of liberation rests on the shoulders of the Muslim woman herself. It is she who must define her own direction and chart her own destiny, not those who cry crocodile tears over her.