Islam,  Women's Rights

Inferior but Equal: Response to Vicky Beeching’s interview with Mo Ansar

This is a guest post by Lejla Kurić

I would like to start by congratulating Vicky Beeching on her new website, and commending her for instigating debate about an important subject. However, as a feminist woman who is also Muslim, I was very disappointed by the site’s first post, an interview with Mohammed Ansar addressing the subject of feminism and Islam. In failing to challenge Ansar’s  views, the interview does a disservice to both feminism and to Muslim women. Ansar’s assertions require refutation.

When asked about the perception that Islam is anti-woman, Ansar invites us to overlook the terrible conditions many Muslim women live in across the world. Instead, we should gaze at how “rivers or confidence, empowerment, education, peace and prosperity flow together.” But he fails to tell us where these rivers can be found. Instead we are told that the abuse of women’s rights is part of unspecified “geo-political machinations” – presumably he means colonialism and Western intervention.

As I will go on to show, the way religion is understood and practiced impacts the lives of women, especially in countries where religious laws and Sharia are enforced. Even here in Britain Muslim women are coerced into acceding to marital arbitration in Sharia councils that are often misogynist and oppressive in practice. Are they also casualties of mysterious “geo-political machinations”? But Ansar’s theory points to a problem – the damaging levels of denial and apologetics amongst our faithful.

When faced with uncomfortable truths about the state of women rights within Muslim societies, Ansar obfuscates with historic examples from an idealised distant past.

Ansar arguably exaggerates the importance of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, and claims that she has been smeared as a “child bride” by those hostile to Islam. He omits to mention that this is also what Islamic scripture, the Hadith, states and that, consequently, it is what many Muslims believe to be true. Ansar’s opinion may or may not have a historical basis but it goes completely against Islamic orthodoxy, which elsewhere he tries to persuade us is the way forward.

His denial of the harsh realities faced by many Muslim women is sharply illustrated when Ansar goes on to claim that Sharia Law is good for women’s equality.

He does not provide a single contemporary example to support this thesis. Instead he harks back to the Ottoman Empire. According to his version of events, Muslim women preferred Sharia (religious law) to Qanun (secular law). This is highly misleading. Qanun was not ‘secular law’ in a modern sense; it was complementary to Sharia, not an alternative.

In the Ottoman Empire, Sharia Law governed uniquely Muslim affairs, and any disputes involving a Muslim party were therefore under the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts. Christians and Jews had similar autonomy in their communities. Qanun was legislation enacted by the Sultan, addressing matters not covered by Sharia, mainly relating to the functioning of state institutions. Furthermore, it was drafted by the Sultan’s private secretary, an Islamic scholar, to ensure there would be no conflict between Qanun & Sharia.

Today, many Muslim majority countries still enforce Sharia Law. Not one of them can boast a great record on women’s rights and gender equality, as exemplified in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). It was drafted by The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) as an alternative to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). While gender equality is enshrined in the UDHR, the CDHRI equivocates that women have their “own rights to enjoy”.

In practice, Sharia Law is not codified and rulings can vary, but in most cases the following applies:

A woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man. She is entitled to half the inheritance of her male siblings. A man can have up to four wives and he can divorce his wife easily whereas a woman must go through a long and difficult process. Child custody reverts to the father at a pre-set age (usually 7 years old for boys and 9 years for girls) without consideration for the child’s welfare. Women who remarry may lose custody of their children before that age. Minimum age for marriage is not set and it is left to families to decide when they want to marry off their daughters or it is set at 9 years of age. Marital rape is not recognised. Women accused of adultery can be publicly flogged, even stoned. Sometimes rape victims who fail to provide enough evidence to prove rape meet this fate.

If Ansar can point me to consensus documents and books of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) that repudiate the rules mentioned above, I’d be fascinated to see them. Unfortunately, the kind of Sharia Law that protects gender equality is a figment of his imagination – it does not yet exist in theory, never mind in practice. On the dangers of theocracy, Dr Zuhdi Jasser correctly states:

“Even if these laws were modernized globally by some heretofore unseen movement of imams, that again would not abrogate the slippery slope of Islamic supremacy which is present when Shariah involves itself in governmental and public rulings which apply to an entire citizenry.” [sic]

This is why I believe the feminist struggle in an Islamic context is a struggle for secularism. Within secular societies, Muslims are free and safe to interpret and practice faith in a manner compatible with human rights and equality. Consider the data in The Pew Research Project’s publication The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society. Muslims living under secular law (for example Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey) have remarkably better attitudes to gender equality than Muslims living under Sharia Law.

The interview’s short introduction describes Mohammed Ansar as a man committed to feminism. In truth, Ansar promotes many views that are anathema to the rights that Muslim feminists struggle for. He is, for example, an outspoken defender of gender segregation, a discriminatory practice that forces women into a separate, subordinate existence.

He also expresses his displeasure with Muslim women who do not wear the hijab. The enforcing of religious dress codes is one of many manifestations of a misogynistic culture that regulates and polices the freedoms of women. In this exchange Ansar  appears to associate the issues of crime and abuse with a lack of female modesty, a move which could be said to transfer some of the responsibility for an assault from rapist to victim.

Additionally, Ansar represents himself as a marriage counsellor. To the best of my knowledge he is completely unqualified to do so. On one occasion, it has been alleged, he advised a woman, who came to him for Islamic advice, to stay with an extremely violent and abusive husband.

The interview fails to address any of the above. Instead, Ansar is permitted to voice bland, evasive platitudes that dodge the serious issues facing Muslim women today.

In the final paragraph of the interview, however, Ansar’s mask slips:

“Arguments can be posited about the failure of the sexual revolution where women were sold the myth that they could be everything to everyone, or that modern reductionism and equality has driven a horse and cart through traditional models of male-female interplay.”

Feminism is a progressive movement of solidarity and ideas, which fights for the rights and opportunities women are denied for no other reason than that they are women. Ansar, meanwhile, is a religious traditionalist, and religious traditionalists are by their very nature reactionary. He denigrates the struggle for female emancipation and equality and yearns instead for a return to what he pretentiously calls “traditional models of male-female interplay”. That of course is his right in a democracy. But his views have no place in feminism and there is no reason why they should excite any attention whatsoever.

There are far more worthy voices struggling on the dangerous frontline of Muslim feminism. In 2011, Egyptian riot police beat Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, breaking her left arm and right hand, then sexually assaulted her while she was detained. Her powerful essay Why Do They Hate Us? is an unflinching look at misogyny in the Arab world and the political correctness that excuses it. Malala Yousafzai is Pakistani schoolgirl who started campaigning for girl’s education when she was only 11 years old. Last year the Pakistani Taliban shot her in the head and neck in an assassination attempt on her school bus. Following her recovery, she gave an inspirational speech at the UN passionately arguing that education was a universal human right. Manal al-Sharif is Saudi women’s rights activist who helped start a women’s right to drive campaign. As a result of her activism, she has faced arrest and lost her job. Nahla Mahmoud campaigns for one secular law for all in the UK. Because of her principled stance against Sharia arbitration tribunals, she faces threats here in the UK and her family are threatened and attacked in Sudan.

Organisations such as Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Quilliam Foundation in the UK, Muslims for Progressive Values and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in the US are representative of a genuinely progressive strain within Islam fighting for a secular and egalitarian society, and campaigns like The Inclusive Mosque initiative seek to open the door to women-led prayers and to welcome traditionally stigmatised gay Muslims.

These are the voices of brave Muslims and ex-Muslims who, often at great personal risk, are confronting the issues that plague Muslim and ex-Muslim women across the globe. It is these voices that should be heard and amplified, not the half-hearted apologetics of religious conservatives who want a return to  “traditional models of male-female interplay”. Preserving patriarchal structures rooted in religious orthodoxy is never going to lead to the benefits of emancipation and modernity to which all women – Muslim and non-Muslim – are equally entitled.