Muslim women, mosques and repression: a call for structural change, not cultural change

Muslim women, mosques and repression: a call for structural change, not cultural change
Comment: Remaining on the surface levels of the discussion around discrimination faced by Muslim women risks jumping all too easily to half-baked Islamophobic conclusions, writes Malia Bouattia.
7 min read
22 Feb, 2018
Welcoming Theresa May in a hijab veils her destructive policies, writes Malia Bouattia [Twitter]
Many have welcomed the news of this year's successful Visit My Mosque weekend, during which the British public was invited into more than 200 mosques across the UK.

Even Prime Minister Theresa May and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan contributed to the campaign.

The event sparked a public conversation on the purpose of mosques in serving local communities and, in particular, whether they are inclusive to Muslim women. A recent report indicated that 28 percent of mosques do not accommodate women, and a further breakdown of statistics highlighted that this is the case for almost half of all South-Asian run mosques in the UK. 

As a Muslim woman - and one who is all too familiar with the Ramadan night wanderings while away from home in search of a mosque with a sisters' side to pray Taraweeh -  the findings resonate strongly with my experiences.

I do, however, find the direction that the conversation is heading in deeply worrying, and to put it bluntly, premised on dangerous liberal assumptions, which make the role of state repression and racism in these processes invisible.

The question of gender-based oppression - whether it relates to mosques, the wider faith community or even our homes - is always a structural one. Patriarchy is deeply entrenched in every institution across the UK, and socialised across every community.

There is nothing innately sexist about Muslims - or South Asian Muslims for that matter - in comparison to any other group. If anything, when reflecting on the "internal" problems that exist, including misogyny, homophobia, abelism and xenophobia - to name but a few - the analysis must always be intersectional, otherwise it is redundant.

Worse, at times - when it reinforces stereotypes and Islamophobic tropes by blaming Muslim men without further structural analysis - it can become incredibly dangerous. 

In this case, the idea that that "Muslim culture" and "Muslim men" are inherently sexist, is never far away and might shed some light on the eagerness of right-wing politicians to jump on the bandwagon.
When a few years ago the Femen phenomenon developed, it rapidly moved from challenging the powerful and the state to targeting Muslims

Let the state, the white establishment, or the acceptable Prevent-funded faces in the community save Muslim Women from oppressive Muslim Men, the argument goes.

In fact, it is precisely these forces which make internal conversations and challenges to patriarchy - or any other form of oppression - incredibly difficult. 

When a few years ago the Femen phenomenon developed, it rapidly moved from challenging the powerful and the state to targeting Muslims. This was part of a long tradition of Western colonial initiatives to "liberate" Muslim Women that have even been used to justify the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan.

These efforts, instead of facilitating liberation, in fact instrumentalise Muslim Women as a tool in repressive, exploitative, and dominating power structures. In doing so, they both oppress and target Muslim women, while also shutting down internal debates and political processes. 

Of course, the growing success of campaigns to redefine the role of faith institutions in order to ensure that they serve the people, is something to be celebrated. The more accountability the better. However, to remain on the surface of that discussion only further silences those suffering because of the barriers in place.

If we are engaging Muslims and non-Muslims across the United Kingdom, we must do so by being honest about the difficulties that Muslims and our mosques are facing. 

It is therefore impossible to ignore how Prevent is rendering mosque spaces ever more hostile to all Muslims, including Muslim women. The tightening of state repression further closes down internal political life within the Muslim community, as well as for Muslims in society more broadly, by criminalising dissent and political activism, and by approaching our political expressions through the prism of so-called radicalisation.

The state's problematic potential indicators of radicalisation include, in their own words, the incredibly vague concepts of a need for identity, meaning, belonging, and a desire for moral or political change. This could relate to those suffering from mental health issues, political activists, students and researchers.

Indeed, this has repeatedly been the case on UK campuses with Muslims students referred to Prevent or arrested because of their study material. 

So many people could easily be implicated under such supposed "tell-tale signs". Most young people will tick one of the boxes, if not all at some point in their life. Especially if they pursue higher education, given that the whole point of seeking knowledge is to deepen one's understanding of the world, challenge our assumptions, and change them.

With the Counter-terrorism and Security Act (2015) and the legal duty on civil servants to implement Prevent, a greater pressure has been put on mosques to comply with the strategy in every way possible, including the rolling out of anti-radicalisation training.

With heightened scrutiny of the content of Friday jummuah sermons, as well as the scholars and speakers that are invited to address the community, and on the events that are held within mosques, the state is attempting to dictate the very purpose and role of mosques to the Muslim community, and closing down the space for internal debate. 

Should it work in opposition to the government's interests, punishment is swiftly served, as was the case for Birmingham Central Mosque chairman Muhammad Afzal who openly criticised the counter-terrorism strategy for targeting Muslims. He was eventually forced to step down from his elected post as lord mayor and dealt with a barrage of criticism and abuse. 

Mr Afzal has since demonstrated "reform" to the state and committed the mosque to supporting the British armed forces by signing a pledge

The very spaces that should serve as shelters from the trauma of racist and imperialist violence inflicted on Muslims in the streets of Britain as well as homelands abroad are becoming accomplices to our further isolation. 

While I can understand the intentions of opening ourselves up and "sending a strong message despite what the headlines say", as the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain stated, I'd argue that the responsibility lies far more on the shoulders of our government than it does on British Muslims. 

Having Theresa May in a hijab as she gives a speech to worshipers in Maidenhead mosque is disrespectful to the victims of the very policies she has peddled, which have left countless Muslims stripped of their civil liberties and freedoms, systematically targeted and profiled, and at times even deported or dead in state custody.
May's whole political career is built on the exploitation and othering of people like us

Worse, it serves to veil the consequences of her racist policies on Muslim women who face physical abuse, discrimination, and violence. 

It doesn't matter how often we invite her to our local mosques, or even our homes. It certainly does not matter how much we prove the levels of our contributions to British society. May's whole political career is built on the exploitation and othering of people like us and she has proven time and time again that her agenda is based on racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

Inviting her into our spaces does not help change her mind, it just offers her a veneer of "multicultural respectability". 

To call for a culture shift without organising to dismantle the structural barriers that sustain and normalise sexist practices and gender-based discrimination is attempting to put a very temporary Band-Aid on a gaping wound. 

We cannot call for women's spaces and not take on the racist policy that leaves the most marginalised and vulnerable of those women too unsafe to go anywhere near a mosque - let alone other public spaces. We cannot claim to champion the liberation of women by demanding access to the physical space, without holding the government accountable for destroying the welfare services that allow them to be physically and psychologically well enough to engage in public life. 

The pressure on, and policing of, Muslim spaces cannot be separated from the question of the space available for Muslims - including Muslim Women - to organise more generally. The Islamophobic logic that sees our public spaces primarily as potential cells of terrorism and radicalisation further targets us when these same spaces are mobilised for state-sanctioned "liberation".

Turning Muslim women into yet another stick for the state to beat the broader community with - and our mosques specifically - does not do us any favours. It shuts down our ability to speak, organise, and act for ourselves, and attempts to break our organic relationships with our public spaces and wider communities - the very source of our collective power.

This isn't a plea "not to air our dirty laundry", quite the contrary, I'm calling for all of it to be aired, and for all of us to be able to do so, free of state harassment and repression.  

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.