I Still Shave My Legs: Why Islam and Liberalism are Not Incompatible

By Lindsay Riddoch

“How can you, a liberal, stand here defending the misogyny of Islam?”

I am a feminist and, I think, a pretty well-rounded one. I am also a historian of the Islamic world. I have studied the development of the Islamic faith from a historical point of view, and inherent in that is an understanding of the theology of the faith. I am not Muslim. This means, I guess, that my viewpoint is different from that of people raised within that culture and faith, but I think it is still a valid one, particularly in the understanding and acceptance of the Islamic faith within the British culture to which I do belong.

In discussions in pubs and arguments in classrooms I have often had the above accusation thrown at me. I have been laughed out of the room whilst upholding the idea of being a feminist and defending the Islamic faith. This has made me so frustrated and disappointed, that I am going to defend it here. I hope that through my explanation I will once and for all answer this accusation and explain how these two standpoints in no way lead to cognitive dissonance.

I am a liberal. Not a neo-liberal. A Liberal. I believe that within freedom – freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of individuality – we can find the answers to most of humanity’s problems. The reason I believe this is because I think it unlikely that any one individual holds all the answers – myself included. Therefore in order to reach the furthest point of ‘development’ or ‘harmony’ or whatever you want to call it, we need to share as many different points of view as possible. Obviously this comes from an inherent belief that when it comes down to it, most people are good, or capable of good, and that reason can triumph. This isn’t an article to defend my liberalism, people can take task with that if they wish, but to justify that it doesn’t clash with my defence of the Islamic faith.

So, to Islam. The times when I am accused of ‘betraying’ my liberal values when it comes to Islam are particularly in relation to female garments – so I will use that to make my point. The hijab, the niqab and the various other forms of female Islamic dress are, in this country, not enforced by law. There is no law whatsoever – thankfully – dictating what I, or anyone else, can or can’t wear as we walk down the street. This is not because there are no cultural norms about what people should wear – the number of times I’ve discussed the suitability of certain necklines for job interviews is a case in point – but because we, as a society, have decided that freedom to dress as one pleases is more important than enforcing any kind of cultural norm. I believe that this freedom should, as it does, extend to the right to wear religious garments and cover up as much, or as little, as one may so choose. On this point many people agree with me, except those of a more aggressive liberal leaning, such as that which has been seen in France. It is the next step of the argument where I lose them.

This is, I believe, due to the fact that many people have a hazy area of ‘things-that-we-shouldn’t-legislate-against-but-are-just-wrong’. I won’t go into this further because, as previously stated, I don’t believe I have the monopoly on right and wrong. This means I will defend Islamic clothing above and beyond the somewhat simpler discussion of whether or not we should make it illegal. My reason for this is simple: I do not believe that Islam is inherently misogynistic. That is not to say that it hasn’t been interpreted and channelled for many years by misogynistic scholars, but merely to say that one does not have to either be a liberated feminist or a Muslim. And I know that there are many empowered Muslim women who still choose to wear the hijab as a sign of their faith.

There are areas in the interpretation of Q’uran which need challenging from a gender point of view, and which many organisations are indeed challenging. In a large part this comes down to a distinction between sharia – the inalienable and eternal laws laid out in the Qu’ran and Sunna – and fiqh the very human interpretation of this into human law, which is questionable and transient. On areas such as violence against women, early marriage and forced marriage there is a lot of room for reform in fiqh, and from female preachers in Morocco to international Islamic women rights organisations, this reform is slowly coming.

Vitally, however, this challenging does not need to come from an outside, non-Islamic force. There is plenty of ammunition within the Islamic tradition for fighting for gender equality. From Aisha’s triumphant leading of soldiers, to Khadija making the decision to marry Mohammed regardless of what her father thought. Furthermore this challenging often does not extend to deciding not to wear the hijab. Obviously for some Muslim girls it does, but for many the free choice to wear the hijab is a statement of their devotion to their faith, and has little to do with the men around them. I have in fact met many girls in the UK whose parents disapproved of their decision to wear it – but for whom it was a vital sign of strength and conviction in a society that often treats them as victims.

Whether or not the hijab is necessary according to the Qu’ran is the source of much debate. But that is not the argument I want to get into in this article. I have two choices when I see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or niqab on the streets of London. One is to say that because it doesn’t fit into my narrow interpretation of ‘liberation’ and ‘womanhood’ she must be being forced into wearing it, and thus she shouldn’t. The other is to look at her as an equally intelligent, free and thinking agent, and thus conclude that her decision to wear that, whether or not informed by her social norms, was a decision nonetheless and thus one I should respect.

At this point during our argument, one of my friends started raising the issue of internalised misogyny – the fact that we should protect women from their own socialised norms. I have many problems with this statement, but the key one is best explained by discussing another (often argued about) facet of western feminism – shaving. I know that there is no health-related or logical reason that I should shave my legs. I am wholly aware that the idea that I should has been implanted in my brain through all manner of subtle and not-so-subtle conditioning of my need to be as ‘child-like’ as possible to be attractive to men. I know all of this – but I still shave my legs. I still shave my legs because regardless of the ‘falseness’ of the fear and self-consciousness that comes from not doing it, that fear and self-consciousness is very real to me. I am not a passive victim of that conditioning, I have experienced it, and taken the active decision that for my own wellbeing within society as it stands I want to shave my legs. If – and it is a big if – the woman you see walking down the street wearing a niqab is doing so as a result of a certain level of social conditioning, it does not follow that she was not an agent in making the decision that on balance, for her own wellbeing, wearing it is the right decision. And no-one, least of all non-Muslims, has the right to tell her that that decision was not hers to make.

As soon as you start to take the first approach to this woman walking down the street you are standing for a sort of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ that I don’t want to be associated with. In Britain we live in a (somewhat-flawed) liberal society. The aim of a liberal society is not to enforce our certain concepts of liberalism on everyone, but to allow everyone to express their own versions. The teachings of Islam form a completely different system for understanding and relating to one’s own world. This is a system that is no more or less perfect than our own. It is a system that is constantly questioning itself, being debated and reformed. It is a system that has been interpreted in as many different ways as the ‘West’ has interpreted the concept of a Christian neoliberal democracy. It is in reacting to and dealing with this large divide that liberalism meets its real test, for liberalism is not just about accepting the voicing of those opinions or ideas that we completely understand: it is about accepting and defending those which on first impression seem to contradict something we hold dear. And maybe then when we listen we can learn a lot more about what it means to truly stand up for these values that we are so quick to preach.

A Conversation with Myself Regarding Gender During Spin Class

By Meredith M.

Where is Claire?
I can’t do this class without her. She’s the only reason I’m here.
“Excuse me? Sorry, I’m new here. Can you help me fix my…this bike?
I need help with like, everything.
Sorry. Thank you.”
“Oh – sorry, I don’t have those spin shoes with the clamps. Could you strap me in…or however this works? Thank you so much. Sorry. Yes, thank you for the welcome.”
Oh wow that’s way too tight on my foot. There goes the circulation.
I don’t want to bother her again. Oh well.
I say sorry way too much. I’m accustomed to it. Still, I have to work on that. Fucking patriarchy –
Uh oh, the class is starting.
I guess Claire will just join later.

Oh wow the music is really loud. And bad.
Really bad.
Who would listen to this on a bike ride?
I bet if Satan were a DJ he’d play this at his raves.
“Sorry?”
Dammit. Stop saying sorry.
“I can’t hear you! Should I increase my…resistance? What? Sorry (dammit). Okay, thanks!”
Where is the knob on this thing? Oh there it is. Oh, nope. Wrong way – ok.
I feel like Claire would know how to do this.
Shit. I wonder if I should text Claire…

The music just got worse. How is that possible?
The girl in front of me is so thin…I’m jealous.
Stop it. That’s a heteronormative socially constructed standard of Westernized beauty fueled by neoliberal notions of the “sufficient self” enabled through Foucauldian peer and self-surveillance in order to drive consumerism.
I still want it.
Fuck the patriarchy.
That girl’s my age – I guess I’d consider myself a girl. No, I’m a woman! That feels so old though…
Why don’t we have a better vocabulary for this?
Fuck the patriarchy.
And fuck these stupid shoe straps.

Dammit, Claire where the hell are you??

Oh thank God. Finally, a good song.
I’m so glad the teacher’s playing oldies.
Wait, this isn’t Marvin Gaye?
Oh, God is this ‘Blurred Lines’? Oh, please no. Oh please, dear God, no.
Wait, is it the feminist remix by those Australian lawyers?
Yes! Oh wait no.
Fuck.
This is a nightmare.
This bike isn’t even real.
This class is a farce.
CLAIIIIIRRREEEEE!!!!!!!!

I’m going to ask her to change it. This is rape culture in song form.
Fuck the patriarchy.
I’m getting up –
Oh my God I’m stuck.
I can’t get my feet out of these fucking straps.
I’m going to have a panic attack.
GODDAMMIT CLAIRE WHY AREN’T YOU HERE TO HELP ME WITH THE STRAPS!!!!

…I’m literally going to have to ride this out.
….
Fuck the patriarchy.

‘Calm down dear, it’s just an article’

By Ali Leyland-Collins

On Monday I had the bad fortune of tuning into Leading Britain’s Conversation — a radio programme on 97.3FM. I say bad fortune because, by and large, I feel as though LBC takes interesting or pressing topics and butchers them by simply being on air. If you’ve never listened to LBC, I strongly suggest that you do because I believe that the presenters actually make you feel better about yourself. Rant aside, the topic of discussion on Monday was rather interesting: ‘Why is it not okay to call a woman “love”?’ Yes, that is another issue I have with LBC — the presenter went from objective to subjective very quickly, acting less as a mediator and more as a cat among the pigeons. The headline wasn’t: ‘Is it okay to call a women “love”?’ but ‘Why is it not okay to call women “love”?’ Oh yes, and LBC is a phone-in channel. (Okay, maybe there was a bit of rant left). The presenter of this phone-in ‘discussion’ persistently repeated that he did not understand why it’s not okay to use the term ‘love’ when addressing a woman. Multiple phone-ins from women and men alike decided that it is okay but is entirely dependent on the context in which the word is used. For example, is someone were to say ‘Can I get you a cup of tea, love?’ that would be fine, but if someone had the audacity to say ‘Alright love, calm down’, that would be very much not okay. (Tangent alert: do you remember that Esure advert from back in the day, “Calm down dear it’s a commercial”? Watch it again now. Let’s just say I’m glad it was beyond me back then). So far, I’m on board with what the radio is saying to me… then the presenter shows himself up again. Addressing the callers who say that ‘love’ can be construed as sexist in certain situations, he says: “Okay so you’ve said that it is sexist but no one is telling me why it’s sexist. I don’t see anything wrong with it!” I should probably say here that this presenter is ‘posh’ and hails from the south of England. He claimed that because his parents were from Lancashire or somewhere (I was too annoyed by this point to really listen to what he had to say) he could use the term just as it’s used in the North, namely as a term of endearment. Now it was time to rub salt in the wound as he decided that he should explain himself; he said ‘love’ and ‘mate’ were the equivalent appellations for men and women (see above example but replace ‘love’ with ‘mate’). Initially, I was on board with the idea as mate can be friendly, but also incredibly provocative when used in certain situations. What does the presenter say next? “But then how come ‘mate’ isn’t seen as sexist? How are they different?!” At this point I’m quite ready to turn off the radio — I’m more annoyed at the presenter’s ignorance than the actual topic of conversation (can you guess?). I am yelling at the radio. “The difference is, is that you wouldn’t catch the men who use these terms, calling other men ‘love’ or women ‘mate’!” Maybe I wasn’t too articulate in my anger but the gist is there: the word ‘love’ is unavoidably gendered in these kinds of scenarios. Eventually the discussion became sensible again — using the term ‘love’ seemed to be generational. The older callers (up to 84 years old, female) agreed that ‘love’ was simply a term of endearment, used to express kindness towards people whose name you don’t know. Younger callers argued that ‘love’ can be patronising, even when used in a friendly context. At this point, the presenter piped up and said something actually quite intelligent: that it can be patronising, and directly so in the most literal sense — you take on the stance of a ‘patron’ or paternalistic figure by calling someone ‘love’; you assume authority over them. This got me thinking again about the generational divide: an elderly man may indeed call another male ‘love’. I’ve heard it time and again, mostly to youngsters, and this is the idea of the paternal at play again. At this point we seem to have some full circle. Elderly people saying ‘love’ in a friendly context is simply that — friendly. If an elderly person said it in a hostile context it would be more likely to come across as patronising than rude. “Show us yer tits, love!” Now there’s another example of where ‘love’ is explicitly gendered. Could you really argue that ‘love’ is directly equivalent to ‘mate’ in that sentence? I don’t think so, somehow. Pause and think who you’re addressing next time you use a term of ‘endearment’ and if you get it wrong, just go with ‘babe’. Nothing could go wrong there, right?

“Rape Culture” and the Postcolonial Lens: A look at India’s Daughter

By Kaammini Chanrai

‘A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good.’

These are the words of Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted of the brutal gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey that occurred on 16th December 2012. A documentary entitled India’s Daughter aired last night on BBC4. It looks at the events that took place that night and the protests that followed in India.

Most are probably familiar with the events that occurred on that day in Delhi. Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in the Indian capital with a male companion. She was gang-raped and beaten by the six other men on board. She suffered from internal injuries to her abdomen, intestines and genitals and much of the damage was suspected to have occurred due to penetration by an iron rod. The bus passed several police checkpoints throughout its journey, but remained undetected due to tinted windows, which masked what was happening inside. The woman and her companion were eventually thrown from the moving bus, which allegedly attempted to run them over. They were initially taken to a hospital in Delhi but she was later transferred to a hospital in Singapore. She died thirteen days later, on 29th December 2012, due to the fatal injuries she received during this attack.

And Mukesh Singh believes that she was to blame.

This makes me sick to my stomach. But unfortunately this narrative of victim-blaming is not uncommon. And whilst Mukesh Singh’s accusations were blatant and conspicuous, an undercurrent of blaming victims for rape is still pervasive. In the documentary, he is not the only one that subscribes to such idiotic beliefs. A.P. Singh, a defence lawyer, states that if his daughter or sister ‘engaged in pre-marital activities’, he would ‘put petrol on her and set her alight’. M.L. Sharma, another defence lawyer, declares ‘We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman’. More broadly in the media, representations of sexual violence often do not explicitly blame the victim, but implicitly suggested that they were at fault, destabilising the certainty of rape. Although Mukesh Singh’s comments were particularly vile and anger inducing, victim-blaming is ubiquitous and should be chastised as such.

The Postcolonial Lens

Rape is a problem in India. But rape is not only India’s problem. Often, depictions solidify the perspective that sexual violence is embedded in Indian culture, which is not the case for other countries with a high prevalence of sexual violence. Kavita Krishnan stipulates films such as India’s Daughter must be careful not to fall into the trap of advocating a ‘civilising mission’. The name itself of the film and consequent campaign is a rather uncomfortable one. In the same article, Krishnan writes: ‘Hailing Indian women as “India’s daughters” is something India’s patriarchs including Indian governments and the most anti-feminist forces in India have always done. Why does a global campaign against gender violence do the same?’

This narrative is an ongoing problem in the British media, for example. In the aftermath of this horrific incident, an aura of Western supremacy was present in a significant number of reports on the case. An article written in The Times declared that the Delhi bus rape ‘should shatter our Bollywood fantasies’ and that ‘a benign cultural earthquake is necessary’ for India to be allowed in a ‘civilised world’. India was often viewed through a postcolonial lens (see this article for another example) and, whether intentionally or not, newspapers successfully ‘Othered’ India. As Uma Narayan wrote in Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism, it propagates the rhetoric that “Third World Women” suffer ‘death by culture’ whilst Western women are ‘immune’ to this phenomenon. A chasm is created between women in India and the West in this way because women in India are seen as victims, as repressed, whilst women in the West are portrayed as having the ability to exercise their freedom.

Rape is a universal problem and deflecting from this is nearly as detrimental as ignoring the issue. According to official statistics, around 85,000 women are raped annually in England and Wales and sexual violence is still a large concern in the UK as well as in India. Although statistics might be high in India, this should not detract from the fact that rape occurs universally at an extremely high rate. To criticise India for the pervasiveness of sexual violence is entirely fair, however to do this as if from a position of privilege is not.

Dismantling “rape culture”

India is regularly accused of fostering an endemic “rape culture”. And though “rape culture” is cited in some capacity for the occurrences of rape that happen in the West, it is not blamed for the frequency of such occurrences. Labelling another country as having a rape problem is not only hypocritical but can be damaging in efforts to eradicate the issue.

More generally, the term “rape culture” is, for me, problematic. Although the occurrence of rape and sexual violence in general is indeed universal, by embedding it into societal norms, we normalise it. It may be more prevalent in some contexts than others, but categorising it in this way dismisses preventative strategies as effective as this might reify sexual violence as somewhat inevitable. If it is spoken about in this language, not only is sexual violence more likely to be dealt with less successfully, but this is also likely to impact on the victim to accept defeat, perpetuating a cycle of acceptance towards rape and sexual violence.

In an article from last year by Caroline Kitchens, it was stated that “rape culture”, as a term, is largely damaging. Kitchens cited a statement from the charity RAINN addressing the term: ‘By blaming so-called rape culture, we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialise the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible’. For the most part, “rape culture” is confusing, unhelpful and irresponsibly used – I would advocate forsaking this term altogether.

***

I’m not advocating a homogenous approach to sexual violence worldwide. I’m not denying the need for a more intersectional approach to sexual violence. I’m not declaring that abandoning the term “rape culture” is dismissing that rape in society is structurally entrenched.

But I am saying this: the rape and consequent murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey was barbaric, backward and uncivilised. Rape and sexual violence more broadly are significantly prevalent in India and this must be a priority for India to deal with. Practices do still exist in India and all over the world that subjugate women and treat them as second-class citizens. This is a story that should be told: not as an exercise to name and shame those responsible but to incentivise action to be taken against rape. For example, by encouraging the government to provide better education on the subject, better security to prevent rape from occurring and services to support those who survive such atrocities. ‘The only way you can change things is education’, Justice Leila Seth states during the documentary.

But categorising India as a homogenised nation is inaccurate. With a population of over 1.3 billion individuals, five major religions and a caste system, India is a country of great variety and to consider it in any other way is vague and arguably harmful. And, more importantly, this finger-pointing needs to stop because if we really want to face these problems in solidarity, we need empathy not a scapegoat.

I support the motives of Leslee Udwin, the British film-maker behind India’s Daughter, of why she decided to make this film. I support the film’s intention to honour and remember Jyoti Singh Pandey. I support its drive to educate the public on the facts of the event and the consequent protests and riots that followed.

But I do not support the “my culture is better than your culture” attitude that seems to often follow mention of the Delhi rape case around. This is not something that I found India’s Daughter guilty of, but I see attitudes of this infiltrate such conversations every day.

Following the incident, protests erupted around India, chastising the government’s failing to provide adequate support and security for women. Thousands took to the streets in a number of different cities. This was monumental. At the end of the day, Mukesh Singh’s comments are the barbaric words of an accessory to rape and murder. Why are we listening to him when we should be listening to those in India who protest against him and what he stands for instead?

Storyville – India’s Daughter can be viewed on BBC iPlayer through this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05534p0/storyville-20142015-19-indias-daughter