I promised myself to put the blog on hold over the next two weeks as I get the Humanist-Etisk Forbund national AGM, teaching a two-day course in Bergen and helping to organise and speak at the Norwegian Forum for English for Academic Purposes out of the way but I started thinking about something on the bus home last night and thought it was worth scribbling down.
It’s a bit random, and a strange post to write directly after one about making a beef sandwich, but I thought I’d write about three very separate stories of Muslim women that have in some small way affected or inspired me in the last couple of days.
The first is Amira Gumma, a student from North Sudan that I’ve been mentoring for the last couple of months as she writes her Master’s thesis on education provision for children living in pastoral nomadic societies, with a particular focus on access to education for girls and young women. (She knows I’ve been wanting to write about her and her project for a while; I have her blessing to do so and she is happy for me to use her name.)
Reading about the tangle of cultural, political and socio-economic reasons for the poor provision of education for nomadic children in Sudan has been eye-opening to say the least, but it has been our conversations about the role of Islam and tradition on the education system, and particularly the role of girls in that system, that has been fascinating. Having investigated its workings through interviews with government ministers, NGOs and nomadic parents and families for her thesis, and despite being a deeply devout Muslim (along with 97% of everyone else in Sudan), she has come to the conclusion that fully secularised education is the only way that Sudan can hope to free itself from war and allow itself to really flourish.
She argues that that government and education authorities are stifling the progress of students by passing all academic subjects through the filters of Islam. ‘They should teach Islam, of course, but things like engineering and science and geography, they are nothing to do with religion really. They make it hard for the students by distorting everything just to fit into the religion. If they teach academic subjects separately, the students will understand more and be able to do more things with it in the future’.
With regards to education for girls, Amira found that parents often stopped their daughters from attending school because they fear that their daughter will lose her ‘honour’. The nebulous idea of honour is way to maintain control over women in a highly patriarchal society ‘where men have all the power and they are very scared about losing it, or what will happen if women get educated; in these societies, parents sometimes care more about honour than the future lives of their daughters’. Her interpretation of her faith, and the situation she grew up in and then researched, is that it is this sense of honour and not Islam itself that is holding back the education and progress of women, and that she sees it has her duty as an educated woman to fight this inequality.
The resolution in her voice and the words on the page has made the secular feminist in me a very happy man. Both Amira’s personal story and her thesis, which, after our session on Monday, is nearing the final stages of writing, are fascinating and inspiring, and it has been an absolute privilege to have been involved, in my own small way, with a project that is so fundamentally important.
The second Muslim lady is Razana Abdul (although that probably isn’t her real name), who was quoted in an article on the Guardian yesterday on how universities can deal with gender segregation at (typically Islamic) student events.
The Guardian article centred around an event held at University College London in March, organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), which hit the headlines after it emerged that Lawerence Krauss threatened to walk out of the event after learning that the audience were to be segregated by gender. I wrote a little bit about my disappointment that the key Muslim speaker, Hamza Tzortiz, visited Aston sooner after the UCL event. He also spoke at Aston University back in 2010, which is when I wrote about being shocked to see that that women in the audience were made to write their questions for the speaker on a piece of paper rather than ask them directly, only to then also have all their questions ignored.
Two comments typified the defensive response I got to writing about the incident:
“I'm not a philosopher hence will not comment on this aside from guffawing at the persistent suggestion that Muslim women MUST be subjugated because they weren't facilitated to verbally ask questions. I'm Muslim and female and would not have hesitated to voice any concern over feeling subjugated. Evidently neither did the Muslim ladies there. You could do better to focus on the matter rather than looking to diverge.”
And the second left on my recent follow-up post:
“So you're crying about how women had to write their questions on a piece of paper? If they had such a problem with it then why didn't they speak up?”
I defended myself by saying that it would be difficult for woman in that situation to speak up if she objected to the practice. It’s easy to dismiss me because I’m ‘not a Muslim woman and so have no idea what’s it like’, so it was good to read the following from ‘Razana’, who is a Muslim woman and does know exactly what it’s like:
"If you don't want to be segregated, there's social pressure. I do actually regret not standing up and going and sitting in the men's section as a form of protest." For mixed groups [at the UCL event] there were just two rows in a huge auditorium made available for "couples". Abdul says anyone choosing to sit there would have been very obviously rejecting the "norm" being imposed. "We'd look like the evil ones, choosing to sit there in the middle," she explains […] Universities, she says, are anxious not to "discriminate against Muslim people's practices, but this is a minority of Muslims. I'm a Muslim, an Asian woman, and I felt intimidated."
It appears that many universities, including my old uni, Aston, are going with the 'voluntary segregation' option as a way to accommodate Islamic societies whilst trying to minimise straight-up segregation, but it's stories like the one above that show just what a cop-out that option is: just how voluntary is it when the social pressure to conform is so high? Hopefully more women can speak up like this so that we can put the woeful excuse that ‘the women don’t mind being segregated/discriminated against otherwise they’d speak up’ to bed.
The final inspiring story is that of two women, Rehana Kausar and Sobia Kamar who hit the headlines this week after becoming first Muslim lesbian couple to get married in a civil ceremony in the UK. Given that they then immediately applied for asylum in the UK in very real fear of persecution in their native Pakistan, they managed to stick a finger up to the Islamists, the homophobes and the racists/anti-immigrationists all in one go! Huzzah!
So, four Muslims who have given me some cause for cheer in a week that has been less than great for Muslims in Britain thanks to two murderous psychopaths in Woolwich. A tweet I read on the bus home last night is appropriate here, I think:
"Two things are almost always true: 1) The world keeps getting better and 2) The people always think it’s getting worse." --- @pennjillette
— Joseph Fahmy (@jfahmy) May 28, 2013