This month, British charity Maslaha launched the website “Islam and Feminism”– a new project which aims to unite the two belief systems. “Muslim women have the same core concerns as white, secular, British women: the workplace, discrimination [and] childcare” says the charity’s Latifa Akay, yet they have long been excluded from the feminist debate. This is what the project wants to change by promoting the idea that women of all religions can push for gender equality.
Inna Shevchenko, leader of topless protest group Femen, strongly disagrees. “I will never have a discussion about Muslim feminism because it doesn’t exist. It cannot exist. It’s oxymoronic.” Femen’s intolerance has seen them labelled as “white colonials” and “cultural imperialists” but the group’s real fault is the way it forces women into a mould, leaving no space for individualism.
In 2012, Femen protested against the International Olympic Committee’s collaboration with Islamist regimes. As a demonstrator was led away by police, she screamed “I fight for women who are not free. We are not free”. She had elected herself as spokesperson for women around the globe but the way she spoke for Muslims prompted backlash.
It seemed that many Muslim women did not want to be “liberated” by semi-nude activists. They felt Femen were patronizing and had done little research into the culture of Islam. The Facebook page “Muslim Women Against Femen” was founded and a series of selfies, emblazoned with slogans appeared – “hijab is my right”, “nudity does not liberate me” and “I do not need saving”. A feeling of resentment was prominent; these women did not want western ideals imposed on their faith.
Artist Sarah Maple considers this idea in her current exhibition, “God is a feminist”. Her work turns the tables on common perceptions of Muslim women as trapped and victimized. “In the West there is an obsession with being sexually attractive in a very limited and narrow way. I was looking at how this may be seen as a form of oppression and that there may be a freedom in covering up”.
Feminism should never be rooted in the idea of whitewashing society. Surely nothing is more backward than the mind-set; “to be free, you must look like me, think like me and live like me”. Equality is about giving all genders absolute choice, no matter their religion.
Recently it has become a trend for far right groups to hijack feminist rhetoric – alienating Muslims from feminist dialogue. During an anti-Islam rally in Munich, The Freedom Party’s Michael Stürzenberger furiously revealed to the crowd that Sharia instructs men to hit women. “We don’t want that in Bavaria!” he bellowed. Yet he is not concerned with women’s rights, instead he channels his efforts into spreading Islamophobia. He’s already lead over 100 anti-Islam demonstrations.
British groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party also rush to condemn Islam’s lack of feminist values. But their opinions in this area seem entirely self-serving, especially when they are associated with candidates like the BNP’s Nick Eriksen.
Feminism must separate itself from inflammatory politics. Instead, its focus should be on educating women and empowering them to make their own choices – making sure no one is trapped in any lifestyle. However freedom and tolerance should always be on the same side.
Feminism should mean that women can work in any industry, receive the same pay as their male colleagues and demand respect from their husbands, whether they wear the hijab or not. Of course Muslims can be feminist and their views should be welcomed into the debate.