"Islamophobes," we're told, "could not care less about women of any creed or colour." They only criticize the Sharia mistreatment of Muslim women because of their bigotry and hatred. According to Laurie Penny, "misogyny only matters when it isn't being done by white men." The intent and effect of all this, of course, is quite insidious: those who do dare speak out against Islam's institutionalized, codified oppression of women will be branded as "Islamophobes," and the only misogny that doesn't matter will be that which is done by Muslim men. The victims will be, as ever, Muslim women.
"This isn't 'feminism'. It's Islamophobia," by Laurie Penny in The Guardian, December 22:
As a person who writes about women's issues, I am constantly being told that Islam is the greatest threat to gender equality in this or any other country – mostly by white men, who always know best. This has been an extraordinary year for feminism, but from the Rochdale grooming case to interminable debates over whether traditional Islamic dress is "empowering" or otherwise, the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.How does Laurie Penny know that those whom she tars as "Islamophobes" really don't care about women? Because, as you'll see below, some baddies from the BNP and EDL allegedly said some rude things. And that means that any critic of Islamic gender oppression must be using feminism as a cover for his "hatred," doncha know.
The recent blanket coverage of the "gender segregation on campus" story was a textbook case. This month Student Rights, a pressure group not run by students, released a report vastly exaggerating a suggestion by Universities UK that male and female students might be asked to sit separately in some lectures led by Islamic guest speakers. Many Asian women's groups and individual Muslim feminists joined the subsequent protests, sometimes taking personal risks to do so. Unfortunately, rightwing commentators and tabloids seized upon the issue to imply that Islamic extremists are taking over the British academy....Whether or not "Islamic extremists" are "taking over the British academy" or not, there was talk about some Muslim gatherings separating male and female students. If some conservative group had done this, Laurie Penny would have been loudly outraged; but now she has branded those who are concerned about Muslim gender apartheid as bigots and hatemongers. If it is not permitted to speak out against this relatively small matter, will there be anyone left to speak out against female genital mutilation, honor killing, etc.?
It's the dishonesty that angers me most. It's the hypocrisy of men claiming to stand for women's rights while appropriating our language of liberation to serve their own small-minded agenda. Far-right groups like the English Defence League and the British National party rush to condemn crimes against women committed by Muslim men, while fielding candidates who make claims like "women are like gongs – they need to be struck regularly". Some of their members tell me that since they are standing against the sexism of Muslim barbarians, as a feminist I should be on their side. When I disagree, I am invariably informed I deserve be shipped to Afghanistan and stoned to death.I don't think Laurie Penny should be shipped to Afghanistan and stoned to death. I'm just sorry that she doesn't have more concern about women who are already in Afghanistan, or Iran, or Sudan, and in danger of being stoned to death -- concern enough, at least, to avoid demonizing their defenders.
Horror stories about Muslim misogyny have long been used by western patriarchs to justify imperialism abroad and sexism at home. The Guardian's Katharine Viner reminds us about Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt from 1883. Cromer believed the Egyptians were morally and culturally inferior in their treatment of women and that they should be "persuaded or forced" to become "civilised" by disposing of the veil.I think women should have the right to vote. I do not, however, think denying women the right to vote is equivalent to stoning them to death, making them property of men, denying them inheritance rights and giving divine sanction to beating them.
"And what did this forward-thinking, feminist-sounding veil-burner do when he got home to Britain?" asks Viner. "He founded and presided over the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage, which tried, by any means possible, to stop women getting the vote. Colonial patriarchs like Cromer … wanted merely to replace eastern misogyny with western misogyny." More than a century later, the same logic is used to imply that misogyny only matters when it isn't being done by white men.
I am not writing here on behalf of Muslim women, who can and do speak for themselves, and not all in one voice. I am writing this as a white feminist infuriated by white men using dog-whistle Islamophobia to derail any discussion of structural sexism; as someone who has heard too many reactionaries tell me to shut up about rape culture and the pay gap and just be grateful I'm not in Saudi Arabia; as someone angered that so many Muslim feminists fighting for gender justice are forced to watch their truth, to paraphrase that fusty old racist Rudyard Kipling, "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools".If we care about Muslim women, we can't let the Guardian or Laurie Penny set the agenda.
We are the fools, if we believe that accepting aggressive distinctions between nice, safe western sexism and scary, heathen Muslim sexism is going to serve the interests of women. The people making these arguments don't care about women. They care about stoking controversy, attacking Muslims and shouting down feminists of all stripes.
For decades, western men have hijacked the language of women's liberation to justify their Islamophobia. If we care about the future of feminism, we cannot let them set the agenda.