The hounding of Yassmin Abdel-Magied is one of the more shameful incidents in the catalogue of Australian media misbehaviour. Abdel-Magied is a young Sudanese/Australian woman who is proudly Islamic, wearing flamboyant bright-coloured headgear and speaking her mind. Her crimes, if such they be, are twofold. During an episode of the ABC's Q&A program Senator Jacqui Lambie expressed her well-aired fears about sharia law, and Abdel Magied interrupted to explain forcefully that Lambie knew nothing about sharia and that Islam is 'the most feminist religion'. A few months later she drew further ire by briefly posting a critical comment on Anzac Day.
Now it's probably fair to say that she was a little rude in interrupting Senator Lambie, although I doubt the senator would be much phased given that we see worse behaviour every day in parliament. Indeed, later in the same episode the pair joined forces to critique the Coalition Government's changes to early childhood education. And I'm really not sure when it became verboten to use Anzac Day to draw attention to the downside of war. Yet the two events launched a systematic character assassination in the News Ltd papers of the kind that organisation has honed to a fine art, and a tirade of social media abuse which included threats of rape and murder and urgings to leave the country.
Of course to some extent she is just caught up in forces that have little to do with her. She is the latest victim of the long-running News Ltd campaign against the ABC, of which she happened to be an employee. There are also a lot of people who have a stake in keeping us afraid of Muslims, and she is telling us we don't need to be. Still, you can't help feeling that the reason she was a such an easy target is that she ticks so many boxes on the 'people to target' list. Muslim? Tick. Female? Tick. Young? Tick. Brown skin? Tick. It's so predictable its sickening.
Amidst all the trash it's easy to lose the substance of her argument with Lambie - that Islam, far from being oppressive to women, is more feminist than any other faith.
Islam to me is the most feminist religion. We got equal rights well before the Europeans. We don't take our husbands' last names because we ain't their property.
For those of us who are fed a diet of images from Saudi Arabia and the Taliban this statement seems counter-intuitive. Surely this is not a faith that liberates women? Yet here in front of us is a well-educated, articulate Islamic woman who is living evidence of her own claim. How can we untangle this conundrum?
Susan Carland helps us with this task. She is an Anglo-Australian woman who converted to Islam in her teens and is on the staff of the Monash University National Centre for Australian Studies. She also has a high public profile but while she has been targeted to some extent, she has so far managed to escape the type of full-throttle persecution her younger compatriot received. She has just published a book called Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism which throws a lot of light on the question. What Abdel-Magied tried to compress into a few short sentences Carland explores in 150 pages.
Fighting Hislam is a 'lay' version of Carland's PhD thesis on Islamic feminism. The heart of her research was a set of interviews with 23 prominent Islamic anti-sexism advocates from Canada, the USA and Australia. Rather than talk to critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who have left the faith and critique it from the outside, she sought out women who are 'faith-positive' - who remain practicing Muslims while working to overcome sexism within the faith. Some were happy to speak openly, others chose to be represented pseudonymously for various reasons.
Her first point is that the fight against sexism is not a purely Western phenomenon, and Muslim women did not learn it from the West.
The fight against sexism in the Muslim world is indigenous and is an endeavour that sprang from the soil of Mecca and Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and has now grown and spread throughout countless communities around the globe. It's also a fight that Muslim women have been carrying out for themselves, by themselves, against the very real injustices they experience in their varied communities, since the beginning of Islam more than 1400 years ago.
There are such women throughout the Islamic world but Carland focused on those in countries like Australia. The 23 women she interviewed were of various ages and had varying life experiences. Some were migrants or refugees from Muslim-majority countries, some were born in the West into Muslim families, some were converts. They were all active within Muslim communities, some as academics, some as writers and publishers, some as leaders of women's organisations and founders child care centres or women's support services. All of them were highly educated and articulate, many like Carland with doctorates and university careers.
Her interviews, and her own experience, don't lead her into a magical or rosy view of what it means to fight sexism in the Muslim community. Indeed, many of the woman were driven into activism by the experience of very real sexism in the Muslim community. For instance, Ify Oyoke became active when she went to pray at her local mosque in Washington DC and was shocked at what she found. Not only were women required to pray in a separate room in the mosque:
When Ify went to pray there she found they had chained the door to the women's section shut from the inside. If a fire broke out, there would be no way for the women to escape. She contacted the mosque board to raise her concerns, but they ignored her, Frustrated at the way this mosque shunted women into a secluded space for prayer, Ify and her female friends decided to pray in the men's section, still behind the men, as a form of peaceful protest. She called them 'pray-ins'. The mosque committee was so enraged they called the police on the group for trespassing. Calling her a 'troublemaker' and a 'rebellious woman', they banned Ify from the mosque.
Not all the women experienced this level of resistance, but all of them had to struggle for what they believed was right against male resistance. So why persist? 'Waajida' (a pseudonym), the head of an Islamic women's organisation in Australia, puts it as follows.
...the first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is: because we exist. We have a right. We are human beings. Allah created us, we worship Allah and our love for the deen (way, religion) just makes us come out and serve.
Thus the women serve in various ways - by making a place for women in the mosque, by educating women, by working in their communities to combat domestic violence, by publishing magazines and websites that give a voice to Islamic women. Along with all of this, many of them are active in the work of developing feminist Islamic theology, building a solid, Qur'anic alternative to the male-centred interpretations that are common in the faith. For instance, Laleh Baktair, an American/Iranian writer, produced a widely-read English translation of the Qur'an called The Sublime Quran which uses inclusive language, and which translates the controversial verse 4:34, widely read as authorising a man to beat his wife, as meaning 'to go away from' not 'to beat' - based not on her whim, but on solid although contested Arabic scholarship. Other women have written widely on Islamic theology, contesting 'patriarchal' interpretations of the Qur'an.
While these women experience a lot of resistance in their communities, they also gain a lot of support, not only from other women but from Islamic men. Many of the women cite their fathers, husbands and imams as their greatest sources of encouragement, and many also see the resistance as generational - older men may resist, but the coming generation are much more open to women's equality. This means many are hopeful about the future, even if the older women may not live to see their dreams realised.
One of their dilemmas as Muslim women is what Carland refers to as the 'double bind'. As expressed by 'Karima' (another pseudonym), an Australian professor of anthropology:
I don't want to give ammunition to Islamophobes, but I can't remain silent if something needs to be corrected. But we need to be tactful and work quietly and persistently rather than being too outspoken and noisy about it.
The dilemma for these women is that they see that the Islamic community as a whole is under attack, and they necessarily stand in solidarity with other Muslims against these attacks, while still needing to address sexism within their ranks. Their task is made more complex by the fact that 'feminism' is seen in many parts of the Islamic community as a western import, a colonial imposition on Islamic society. Hence, many of the women reject the feminist label, using Islamic language and frameworks rather than secular feminist ones.
The women choose their words carefully, all the more as they recognise that whatever they say could wind up on the internet, read and heard by people far beyond the intended audience. For instance Amina Wadud, a highly respected African American Islamic theologian, says this.
I must locate my discussion, that is, give my definitions of Islam, I have to recognise the presence of Islamophobia, I have to recognise the presence of Wahabi-salafism, I have to recognise those things, locate my work relative to those things, and then make my comments. So by that time 45 minutes is up and I've got 15 minutes to actually make my point...
Addressing sexism among men who feel insecure and under siege themselves means the women have to manage both sets of sensitivities. In discussing a conference organised to address the way imams limit women's roles and keep them housebound, Adelaide woman 'Latifa' chose to focus on the stories of women who had successfully overcome these restrictions and then invite various imams to comment and be part of discussing solutions. Carland comments:
Instead of loudly condemning the imams - which, no doubt, would have garnered the attention of the media - Latifa was tactful and gentle in her approach, giving the imams a stage but carefully orchestrating the scenario in which they spoke in order to get her desired outcome.
Carland herself admits to having started her research project tired and frustrated but she came away inspired by the stories of the women she interviewed. It's worth quoting part of her conclusion.
Negative, condescending attitudes towards Muslim women abound in Western discussions, as does disbelief that fighting sexism within Muslim communities exists. Muslim women have been fighting sexism within their own communities from a faith-based perspective for a long time - as long as Islam has been around - and for nearly as long, have faced criticism from others for doing so. What these women are doing is the very definition of jihad. Far from the gross caricaturisation of 'war against the unbelievers', as it is so lazily mis-defined, jihad is struggle, or exertion of effort, to change oneself and society for the better, and to stand up against oppression. The Muslim women I spoke with, and so many before and around them, were and are engaged in an important daily jihad - the struggle against sexism....When sexism destroys and limits, this responsive jihad builds, heals and protects. These women, and this jihad, is changing the world.
This, then, is what Yassmin Abdel-Magied was trying to communicate in the few sentences which are all you have time for on Q&A, and for which she was vilified. Interestingly, after this incident but before the Anzac Day sequel Carland wrote a strongly worded article in support of Abdel-Magied. Her point was that this young woman is precisely the kind of Muslim conservative Australians say they want - a modern, educated woman who loves Australia, is committed to following its laws and who promotes a liberating, enlightened view of Islam. Yet the vilification makes it seem as if the Australian Right actually prefers Islamic fundamentalism.
So what is the take-home message from all of this?
First of all, I think it serves as a reminder to us non-Muslims that Islam is not one thing. It is a complex, diverse faith, influenced differently by the different cultures in which it is followed, with its own internal divisions, tensions and debates. In fact, it is a lot like Christianity. After all, as Christians we have a long history of debate and conflict over the role of women which still goes on today - what in some church circles is called the 'complementarian/egalitarian' issue. The Anglican Movement for the Ordination of Women struggled for decades to achieve equality in church structures and the struggle continues in many places. To this day there are still pastors who advise women to stay with abusive husbands, believing this is what the Bible says they should do. Before we try to take the speck from the collective Islamic eye, we should attend to the log in our own.
Secondly, a lot of our external commentary on Islam is unhelpful and counterproductive. Islam will not be changed from without. The more the Ayaan Hirsi Alis and Jacqui Lambies of the world criticise Islam as a whole, the more Islamic leaders will be driven to bunker down and close ranks, and the harder it will be for change agents like Susan Carland and her interviewees to do their work. If we really want to neutralise the threat of violent extremism within the Islamic community, we need to give them room to breathe and do their work without uninformed attacks from without. The demonisation of Yassmin Abdel-Magied plays into the hands of the extremists who tell their potential followers that the West is at war with Islam as a whole. Apparently, we really are.
And this leads straight to the the third thing. There are powerful elements in our society who actually want us to see Muslims as our enemy. This demonisation serves a number of purposes. It bolsters support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which are driven by not-so-explicit economic and geopolitical concerns which would never garner majority support. It distracts us from important issues like increasing inequality, climate change and global hunger, the solution of which would require powerful vested interests to lose some of their wealth. It leaves progressive forces divided and uncertain, unsure whether we should be pro- or anti-Islamic (the issue, for instance, means I wouldn't vote for Jacqui Lambie despite her strongly expressed support for a more generous welfare state). In short, the more we fear an external enemy the more we unite behind nationalistic policies, the strong suit of the Right.
We shouldn't fall for the trick. We certainly have Islamic enemies but we also have Islamic friends. We should welcome them, make them comfortable in our culture, applaud them when they succeed and mourn with them when they fail. We should be willing for them to learn what they can from us, and we should also learn what we can from them. This is how diverse, democratic societies work. Every time we demonise an innocent outsider we diminish our own democracy and take a step towards totalitarianism.