Islamic prescriptions for women are increasingly becoming the emblem of the supposed divide between the West’s ‘exaltation of freedom’, and Islam’s ‘repressive nature’. However, what seems to be missing from this controversial debate, other than a dash of historical context, is the voices of those closest to the issue, Muslim women.
The rhetoric surrounding the far right in the West paints Muslim women as hopeless victims who desperately need the West’s intervention to ‘liberate’ them from the confines of their repressive religion. With the EU imposing laws criminalising a women’s decision to wear religious dress, and a 300% increase in Islamophobic hate crimes, one interviewee, Meryem, explained to me how freedom of choice, heralded as the hallmark of Western liberty, seemed to be better enshrined in the Qur’an than in Western society.
“There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) she said, quoting her Holy text.
Nowhere was striking the perfect balance when it came to creating an environment supportive of female autonomy:
“In the West, it is becoming more difficult for women to have a free choice over her religious expression, and in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, women have no freedom of faith. Where does it say in the Qur’an it is improper for women to enter Starbucks?”
“Be it in Saudi, or the West, the freedom to choose if you do or do not follow Islamic guidelines is under threat. This undermines both Islamic teachings and Western ideals of liberty.”
Dictating the dress code for Muslim women denies their autonomy as human beings, and does nothing to provide them with ‘liberty’. However, dismissing as pure fantasy that societal structures, religious and secular, continue to limit the freedom of women, is just as dangerous a viewpoint.
In North Africa, the public space is still very much dominated by men. 63% of Moroccan women have experienced sexual violence in public spaces. In Egypt, figures are as high as 99%.
The female share of the labour force in the MENA region was around 28% in 2006, compared to a world average of 40%. North African figures are among the lowest in the MENA region, suggesting there are pervasive institutional and cultural barriers to women gaining economic independence.
Moreover, unemployment rates for women in North Africa increase with additional years of education, showing low female participation rates are not due to lack of ability.
However, a veteran feminist activist, Fatima, explained to me that this exclusion of women from the workforce was very far from the traditional values of North Africa.
Submerged into Morocco’s infinite well of hospitality, I began to see just how nonsensical it is assumed that what Muslim women need is further intervention from Western nations. In fact, an indigenous feminism exists in North Africa, but is being strangled by the West’s bottomless demand for oil, and their short-sighted complicity with Saudi Arabia.
“Women are at the heart of the indigenous culture of these lands. They have reaped and ruled these lands long before the Arabs or the French arrived.”
The ‘Amazigh’ (pronounced A-ma-zeer), are the indigenous peoples of North Africa, who are referred to as ‘Berbers’ (meaning barbaric) by the Arab settlers. Ruled by Queens before being conquered, they are essentially a matriarchal society, where women are referred to as ‘Tamghart’, translating to ‘President’ in English.
“The Amazigh women are always active and play a huge role in the upkeep of society. They manage the home, the farms, and even fought in battle- their productivity provides them huge respect within society.
Amazigh literally means ‘the free people’, and our ancient culture prizes universalism and freedom above all. In fact, Western ideals of equality and feminism came thousands of years after our culture was at its peak.”
Until recently it was an imprisonable offence to speak Amazigh on the streets of Morocco, and these indigenous bedouins are denied political representation and sidelined when it comes to infrastructure spending.
Increasingly, this leaves them vulnerable to the influence of Wahhabi Islamic doctrine, eroding their traditional concepts of gender equality.
Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), of Saudi Arabia, believed true dedication to Islam necessitated a return to the books’ traditions. Emphasising the Qur’an’s stance of religious pluralism being Allah’s will, al- Wahhab denounced violence towards non-Muslims, and the self-aggrandisement of martyrdom. However, the practice of takfir, denouncing other Muslims as non-Muslims, became widespread after his death, and the hallmark of Wahhabism, a radically conservative school of Islamic thought.
As an interviewee, Meryem, pointed out to me, this obsession with monitoring everyone else's compliance to Islam, is completely un-Islamic.
“He maketh none to share in His government” (18:26)
When the oil prices surged in the 1970’s, petrodollars provided power. Combined with the support of the West for Saudi to bulwark Shia extremism with Wahhabism, the tentacles of this interpretation reached far across the Muslim world.
Wahhabi Islamic schools were established from the Western Europe all the way to Western China. With short supply of European-born Islamic clerics, European mosques rely on recruitment and funding from radically conservative Wahhabi schools.
In the Amazigh territories in Morocco, they offer free education to poor villagers, preaching a Wahhabi curriculum in return.
A small orphanage for illegitimate children in a mountain village near Azrou was closed down as a consequence. Providing care for these children was deemed tantamount to legitimising their concepti outside of marriage, and so the children were abandoned without care. Fatima and her network of activists worked tirelessly to have them rehoused.
“Decades ago, few Amazigh women could be seen wearing the veil, but growing influence of Wahhabi doctrine, financed from Saudi’s oilfields, has changed the fate of our people”.
The spread of Wahhabism, or to be more precise, Saudi state-sponsored Wahhabism, is a phenomena that can be seen all across the world. It has led to an erosion of Islamic diversity, replacing nuanced interpretations with a monoculture nicknamed ‘PetroIslam'.
Yasmin Amin, Islamic scholar and specialist on humour in the Hadiths, emphasised to me how each culture that adopted Islam did so in their own unique way, mixing it with their own traditions.
Yasmin highlighted how this uniformity can be seen in the change of female dress codes. Before the spike in petrodollars, the variety of Muslim women’s traditional clothing across the world exemplified this diversity, each place having their own colourful interpretation of modest dress. She showed me pictures from over twelve different countries, then and now.
It was obvious where the older photos were taken, with women proudly presenting their ancestor’s dress. In the recent photos, you would be unable to identify their location, with all the women dressed in variations of the black burqa.
She said her wish, was for Muslim dress simply to be “the clothes that Muslims wear”.
What was becoming apparent as I delved deeper, was that an increase in a fundamental Islam was in fact being fed by the West’s hunger for oil. With Western budgets reliant on arms deals with Saudi Arabia, it seemed to be in everyone’s interest to keep those petrodollars flowing.
There is no shortage in history of myopia when it comes to the West’s foreign policy in the Middle East. In apparent willful ignorance, Theresa May has worked hard to defend her recently renewed arms contract with Saudi Arabia.
A bulk of these bombs which we sell end up killing civilians in Yemen, which is facing a famine on an unprecedented scale, as part of the Western backed Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels. The UK also supplies British military advisors to Saudi on lucrative contracts, who sit in the control rooms where the attacks are planned. Human rights groups estimate more than 3,000 civilians have been killed since 2014.
Brushing aside the horrific consequences of this complicity for the Yemeni people, May argues cooperation with Saudi is “in the interests of the British people”, especially given the uncertainty over trade after Brexit.
Growing extremism within Islamic schools, fertilising terrorism and stifling equality, is the hidden price we pay for these profits, a trade-off I would amount to “shooting oneself in the foot.”
There is a lot of dirt hiding the base of a tree, but when you dig it all up, you can see the real roots of a problem. As is often the case, it all comes down to economics.
So, if you really want to help ‘liberate’ Muslim women, I suggest investing in an electric car instead sensationalising the debate over whether or not they should be allowed to cover their hair.
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