Speaking to the right audience
Today’s blog is a not about conversations with my niece as per, I wanted to highlight a campaign by the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre focusing on violence against women in Muslim Communities. It’s a big and difficult campaign, but I’m glad someone is doing it. I was asked to speak at their regional launches and below is what I said.
Note: A few things about this speech: Usually I don’t advocate using the line “what about your sister or daughter?” when talking about feminism. I believe women should live free from violence against them and in a just society regardless of how they are related to a man. They should be equal as simply women in their own right. But I am also a campaigner, and I know that for a campaign to be successful it needs to talk to the audience in a way in which an audience would hear and relate to. For that reason, this campaign, and I, have talked in terms of relationships and family, because at the heart of the muslim community and indeed, islamic scripture, is the notion of family and belonging. We’ve talked in the same terms, as we, as muslim women are often talked AT or ABOUT.
“I was asked to come along today and speak to you not only in my professional capacity but also as a Muslim women, who understands not only the religious but, perhaps more importantly the cultural implications of being a women in an Islamic community.
In my professional capacity I work in the anti violence against women sector and my work involves tackling violence against women by working with men and boys. Why do we work with men and boys? Because last year in 82% of the cases of domestic abuse a women was abused by her male partner, because young boys are brought up to believe that they needs to be strong, aggressive and dominating and because we live in a society that gives disproportionately more power to men and boys. As such, we need to talk to them, engage them in conversation and change their minds and behaviours. By talking to men and boys we can develop a society where no woman is considered inferior and no man raises his hand at her.
But I’d like to talk to you more as a woman from a Muslim family and feminist.
I’ve been asked, far too often, whether I can be a Muslim and a feminist. I’m often asked this question by people who have misunderstood the religion and have only got their information from the media. If you searched a little deeper, you would realise that Islam is a religion that teaches us about respect and equality, in particular the respect of a woman, a mother, a daughter and a sister. It is not Islam to blame for this perceived attitude, but there is some responsibility in the culture we have fostered within the Muslim community.
In this culture I have often felt less important and less valuable than a man.
In this culture, you are pitied for only having daughters.
In this culture a woman is given identity through her father or husband.
That’s not in Islam, that’s in a culture we have created.
Let’s be honest, this exists across the world and across societies, including western cultures or non-religious cultures. The sad truth is that there is no society where women do not experience violence and discrimination simply for being born women. However over recent decades, many of these societies have become more open and able to question themselves and their practices. Many of these societies have women speaking out and leading change. Progress is slower than it should be, but at least we can say it is moving. But our Muslim culture still feels closed off to conversation about challenging men’s behaviours and supporting women experiencing violence. There is a reluctance to engage or offend and there is a worry that it will create uncertainty or will lead to unislamic practices. But changing to create a safer and better world for women can never be unislamic. It is time for this culture to change, and for this culture to actually reflect the true religion it stems from and the needs of the women it should represent.
Take the example of a woman, newly married, has been welcomed into a new family, but over the months, her friends stop hearing from her, her family don’t get to see her. She has been confined to her husband’s home, is no longer allowed to work and rumour has it, is being abused by her husband. How many of us have heard a story similar to this? How many of us have actually seen this story within our extended families?
What do we do about this? From what I’ve seen, we shake our heads and continue with our lives. But shaking our heads won’t stop this woman from suffering abuse. It won’t stop this woman from experiencing fear, but it will allow her husband to continue abusing and it will give him the power to continue doing wrong. What’s worse, is that if this woman comes forward for support or finds the courage to even consider leaving the abuser, is it our culture’s natural instinct to open or close doors for her? I ‘m sad to say it’s the latter.
There is a Pakistani saying, one that my Dad says often:
“Betian, Maa Baap kehliye Allah ki saab say barhe rehmath hoti hein”
Loosely this translates into, “Daughters are a mother and father’s greatest blessing”. If that is the case, should we not be creating a world in which they are respected, are equal and are free to live from fear? Should we not be teaching our brothers and our sons to treat them as the blessings they are, and in turn get them to consider their own behaviour and think about how have the privilege of living their lives free from judgement and prejudice simply because of their gender?
Respect, or Izzat, is something very central to Muslim culture, but Izzat does not come from a woman being forced to remain silent about abuse, Izzat does not come from seeing domestic abuse as a private issue and Izzat certainly does not come from a man believing he has the right to abuse or own a woman. Izzat, respect and community exist, when every individual in a society is treated with dignity and equality.
I would like to congratulate AMINA and the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre for launching this overdue campaign, I would like to thank everyone in this room for coming, listening and participating and I would like to express my gratitude at being given the opportunity to speak to you today.
All I ask is that you listen to what this campaign is asking of you and never remain silent about violence against women, never allow anyone to hide behind their misinterpretation of Islam or Muslim culture, and finally I would ask that you speak to the women and girls in your family about their right to equality, life and aspiration and you speak to the men and boys about their attitude towards women, privilege and power.
Thank you again, and I hope you leave with the inspiration to create change and the strength to challenge.”