A wise and compassionate lecturer once told me that anthropologists should not judge the unfamiliar and the strange. But in our cosy South African classroom he made an exception for female genital mutilation (FGM). I have not forgotten how fervently he decried this horrific cultural misogyny. This man was not afraid of being called a racist while speaking the truth. I learnt from him that it was permissible, if not vital, to criticise transgressions against another person, even if our words and ideas bypass trendy moral and cultural relativism.
Last week the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) launched their London manifesto, which reads as a paean to feminism. At the same time Radio Four had a documentary on the Deobandis, a dominant movement within British Islam. Deobandis practice medieval seclusion and veiling of women and forbid integration on the grounds that it is ‘decadent’. The glaring omissions in the WEP manifesto, so typical of today’s feminists, were made obvious by the findings of this documentary.
We are so afraid of being marked as racist or imperialistic that we do not take a stand against what is truly wrong. The WEP manifesto, among other feminist principles, advocates a 50-50 gender split in British boardrooms and workspaces which celebrate ‘diversity’. All of which are useless to secluded, veiled and oppressed Muslim women.
Feminists cannot busy themselves with obsessing about STEM and pay gaps while ignoring the real repression of women taking place right next to them. We can ‘celebrate diversity’ as much as we want but if the diverse women themselves are not allowed to join in, then it is a redundant principle. The word ‘diversity’ irritates me as it is used as a smug and twisted moral measurement – very reminiscent of the cultural Marxism which flourished during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. We should deviate from ‘diversity’ and make a judgement call on the misogynistic and medieval niqab, burka, FGM, honour killings and forced marriages which afflict so many Muslim women and girls.
I was horrified to learn from the documentary that there are some Muslim women in the UK who are not allowed to leave their homes without a male escort or are unable to remove their veils without their husband’s permission. These cultural practices have no place in a progressive society. I was equally annoyed this past weekend to find that the ICM poll, on what British Muslims think, showed that almost 40 per cent believe that wives should obey their husbands. Is this 21st century Britain or archaic Saudi Arabia?
Why has there been no outcry from feminists on these findings? Running WEP workshops is not going to work if men do not allow their wives and daughters to attend. Feminists need to stand up and fight for the voiceless and faceless women in our country and not for relatively prosperous and powerful Western women. Rights for Western women have been fought for and won already. They are enshrined in law. Fighting the oppression of Muslim women in the UK has to be the new and only feminist cause if feminism is to adhere to its founding principle – a woman’s right to make her own free choices. I would rather be wolf whistled at by a crass man in the street than be forced to veil my face. Today’s feminists blindly worship at the altar of corrupted multiculturalism and betray their roots. By doing so they are allowing womens’ rights to disintegrate in front of their eyes.
If these feminists want to enforce cultural changes they should start by calling for a ban on the burka, niqab and vile FGM. A cursory mention of FGM in a feminist manifesto is not enough. Face veiling and FGM in the UK are imported cultural practices and must be outlawed. All three Abrahamic faiths have female followers who cover their hair and dress modestly. I have no issue with that or with the hijab, because a woman’s face is still visible. Our distinct facial features are what makes us human. Cover those and we remove a woman’s individualism and she becomes a faceless and invisible body. If those Deobandi men are so horrified by the possibility of being corrupted by a woman, I suggest that they veil themselves instead.
All of us, including feminists, must judge and protest these medieval cultural travesties against women. Religious beliefs are often deeply personal and unmodifiable. But cultural practices are shaped by broader political, social and economic forces and are enforced and sanctioned by law. They are more fluid and interchangeable than religious customs. We can therefore ethically and morally seek to change oppressive cultural customs rather than religious ones. Oppressors like to pretend that cultural practices are religious ones as a means to deflect criticism and maintain their hierarchy. We must be brave and speak out against this without being afraid of being called racist or bigots.
We cannot let stagnant feminism dictate how we manage the plight of repressed Muslim women in our country. We have to protest against the oppression of these women. Otherwise we risk living in an increasingly parallel society where there are women who have even fewer rights than our Victorian ancestors. The Suffragettes did not fight for female freedom only for us to see it snatched away by the jaws of political correctness.