More Questions than Ansars

You may already have read John Sargeant’s response to Vicky Beeching’s interview with Mo Ansar.  I agree with John that she gives him a ridiculously easy time, and I think this does a disservice not just to feminism, but perhaps also to Muslims/Islam.

He deflects the first question, giving a feel-good fluffy answer which doesn’t really engage with feminism at all.

VB: Mo, do you believe that a person can hold the Muslim faith and a passion for women’s equality easily in harmony, or are they a difficult combination?

MA: There is a silent revolution taking place. It is one where religion is returning to the fore but more than that – it is that its return is being pioneered by women around the world. This revival of an enlightened spiritual narrative which combines orthodoxy with real cutting edge work on social justice and the welfare of others, could perhaps, only be pioneered by women and in our time.

Ansar goes on to explain that he doesn’t approve of the Taliban.  This sets the bar quite low, from a feminist perspective, although he does end this reply on a note of conveniently vague positivity:

… a modern, enlightened Islam has much to offer a West which today, still struggles to find the right settlement for those balancing influences of sexuality, equality and feminism.

This would have been worth teasing out further.  I actually have no idea what he means.  Just picking out one of the tweets John highlights, there seems to be an awkward yoking together of certain feminist/mainstream positions and his own religious views:

We have rampant pornography and the sexualisation of women and children today; is a return to modesty not well overdue?

Some feminists do have concerns about pornography, and a culture which encourages women and girls to be preoccupied with their appearance.  But modesty can also reflect an obsession with female sexuality even if it manifests itself in the opposite way.  I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about these issues from a feminist perspective. Raquel Saraswati wears hijab, seems to have a specialist expertise in beauty products – and is a feminist.

I actually have no problem with his comments about Aisha, whose age at marriage/consummation is of course a contested issue.  As a pragmatic atheist, I am much less interested in the life of Muhammad than in how perceptions of his life shape people’s choices today.  If parents cite the example of Aisha to encourage their daughters to take MBAs rather than get married before they reach double figures, that’s fine by me.

Ansar particularly notes Aisha’s reputation as a jurist.

[S]he was the greatest jurist of her era,  with the Prophet and his companions consulting her regularly due to her superior knowledge, intellectual acumen and understanding of the faith; her work lead directly to the development and methodology of jurisprudence and scholarly interpretation.

There is a rather obvious opportunity for a follow up question here, which Beeching neglects.  Now – I wholeheartedly agree with John that the way this interview was conducted was ‘an insult to the feminism part of the “Faith in Feminism” site.’ But I don’t think the main problem was that she didn’t quiz him about honour killings and acid attacks on women. I think he could have dealt with these pretty easily, as I assume he would genuinely condemn these as unislamic. More problematic are views within orthodox Islam which contradict even the most cautious feminist perspective. As a faitheist, accommodationist type, I acknowledge and welcome Muslim feminists who contextualise the Islamic ruling on the worth of a woman’s testimony – and assert that it is obsolete.  I would have liked Beeching to ask Ansar whether he agrees with them.

As John says:

Women are being held back by islamic theocracy. It is being challenged by secular, politically astute Muslim women and non Muslim women – at considerable risk from Islamists. The rights of women are not derived by religious scribes – these rights are theirs if only they are not hindered, threatened or cajoled to be less than they truly are.