Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Groove Book Report: Fighting Hislam - Women, Faith and Sexism - Susan Carland

The Muslim community that is portrayed to the West is a misogynist's playground; within the Muslim community, feminism is often regarded with sneering hostility.

Yet between those two views there is a group of Muslim women many do not believe exists: a diverse bunch who fight sexism from within, as committed to the fight as they are to their faith. Hemmed in by Islamophobia and sexism, they fight against sexism with their minds, words and bodies. Often, their biggest weapon is their religion.

Here, Carland talks with Muslim women about how they are making a stand for their sex, while holding fast to their faith.  At a time when the media trumpets scandalous revelations about life for women from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, Muslim women are always spoken about and over, never with. In Fighting Hislam, that ends.

I have to say, up front, that I really struggled with the timing of this book.  Not so much the actual release date but the climate to which it has been released into.  My nightstand is groaning with books at the present, so I took me a little while to come around to this one.  In the meantime a bomb had just gone off in Manchester at a major concert and there were multiple attacks of civilians in London and in France involving cars, trucks and all manner of weapons.  On our TV's the new cop show Hyde/Seek had just started.  Its plot line predominantly dealt with terrorism.

Dial up Netflix or and other cable provider and Homeland or Designated Survivor is top billing on the watch list.  Fear of Islamic extremism is behind every story.  Add to that regular column inches, internet and radio feeds coming at us 24/7 and it's no wonder we Westerners are feeling overwhelmed.  We want peace.  We want this, this, this Islam/Muslim thing, this threat, these 'attacks' to just all go away.  But we can't escape, no matter what we do.  When it gets so deep that even our fiction is infiltrated we cannot look objectively any more.

Add to the mix the Kiwi/Aussie experiences of Afghanistan.  Both nations have troops over there 'helping' to restore peace and justice to that part of the world and fighting the Taliban model of sexism and oppression, particularly again women. And it is this mode; that colors the brush that we dip into the tar.  So this is why  we of the Westernized Pacific think that all Muslim women are equally oppressed.  That Muslim men are sexist pigs and do not respect their wives, sisters and mothers as they should. It's just so easy to write off the Muslim community as a misogynist’s playground.  Yet within the Muslim community and outside where it is also perceived as such, feminism for Muslim women is often regarded with sneering hostility.

This may be true in the extreme cases, argues author Susan Carland, who actually converted to Islam, as opposed to being born to it, and feels she is in the best position to offer a more balanced view on the subject.  The role of women in Islam is most definitely a hotly debated topic, she acknowledges, both among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But a Muslim women’s perspectives is rare, often excluded from mainstream discussion for a variety of reasons.  Some of these are because we, as Westerners chose to ignore or look past these voices.  Sometimes it is convenient to look at them as victims of a medieval (emphasis on Evil) system,.  one where these women must be rescued.  Modern feminism has always come from the point of view of the oppressed and the downtrodden, the restricted and the unspoken, so it's makes sense that we should identify Muslim women as slaves to the Hijab.

But we, in the West are, in fact, simply laying our own moral, ideological and political blankets over a culture and religion that we do not really understand, argues Carland.  OK, her book is not the first to raise this.   Beyond Veiled Clich├ęs by journalist Amal Awad also dug deep to explore life from the perspective Muslim women living in both in the Western and Arabic world. As an academic, Carland chooses to go even further offering a new twist on feminism whereby religious beliefs and laws can co-exist in harmony with women’s rights.

he Muslim community that is portrayed to the West is a misogynist’s playground; within the Muslim community, feminism is often regarded with sneering hostility. Yet between those two views there is a group of Muslim women many do not believe exists: a diverse bunch who fight sexism from within, as committed to the fight as they are to their faith. Hemmed in by Islamophobia and sexism, they fight against sexism with their minds, words and bodies. Often, their biggest weapon is their religion. At a time when the media trumpets scandalous revelations about life for women from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, Muslim women are always spoken about and over, never with. In Fighting Hislam, that ends.

People don’t realise the influence culture has on faith, she argues, through examples and through the voices of some of her own interviewees.  Sh notes that within Australia, where this book is set, the Muslim community is incredibly diverse. "It’s so multicultural and yet we’re all clumped together [but] if you look at the countries of origin,"she argues they often practice Islam in very different ways."  Somali Islam she notes, is practiced in a very different way and understood in a different way to practices in Indonesia, Afghani Islam or in Saudi.  Effectively, she's saying, that to us, Westerners, the impression is that Islam is a monolith.  Which is not the case.

One of the main intentions of this book was to change opinions.  Or at least to open the discussion.  Now that's extremely hard, given our current political climate.  As I outlined above, we Westerners almost revel in the painted doom that's been painted and into that paint pot we include the oppression of women who must endure within those confines.  We don't ask the questions the Carland has, we don't even look up to notice.  We are scared.  And even if we did, could we?  We white and middle class would be hypercritical and far too patronizing.  We would judge with our west-feminist eyes and our post-colonial spyglasses.  We wouldn't listen but we'd interpret.

Nothing much has changed, argues Susan Carland. Carland is a lecturer and researcher at Monash University's National Centre for Australian Studies. She has been listed as one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and as a 'Muslim Leader of Tomorrow' by the UN Alliance of Civilizations. She was a co-creator and presenter of the ground-breaking television show, Salam Cafe and is an ambassador for Possible Dreams International. She is a good spokesperson for this debate, indeed.  She knows the territory and ii anything, it’s harder for Muslims living in the west today than it once was. And that goes for the conversation about gender equality and Islam.  No, we really haven't moved on from 9/11, And Our views of Muslim women are even more archaic.  She highlight the Victorian fantasies of Harems, kept as sex slaves by Turkish Sultans.  Women who veiled their faces to create an 'allure' but were never chaste and pure like Western Women.  They were women to be rescued from debauchery and abuse.  The 'allure' has faded but the need to be 'saved' seems to remain, Carland says.  She wanted to get an 'in my shoes' perspective so when interviewing Muslim women, as a Muslim woman, she asked the "Why do you wear hijab?" "Do you feel oppressed?" "Does your husband make you wear that?" "Why does your religion command FGM?”

“The stereotype of Muslim women is that they’re meek and submissive. So they’re seen as a weaker target.  It’s Muslim women and kids in Muslim school uniforms who are more likely to be targeted with Islamophobia. Her findings are both surprising and acceptable.  There are some women in her interviews that talk abut the benefits of sisterhood.  This is true of many African variants.  Women work and cook together and spend many hours in the exclusive company of other women.  In doing so they have company, friendships, strength.  They learn skills, make bonds and are in no way as vulnerable as they may be living as individuals in society 'equal' to men.  It's hard to know if sexism and particularly abuse is higher in Muslim society, as compared to Western or even indigenous communities.  it is high in Maori and Pacific societies, especially when women are separated from the other women in their whanau and community due to Urbanization.  Anthropologically, this could be said to be true for nearly any society.  By the same token, women who remain close knit due to the confines of Muslim laws and practices are really no different to Western Women who through a need for friendship form book clubs or Women's Societies or Plunket support networks or any other.

And the Ha jib,  Carland argues, is both a perceived tool of oppression and a veil protecting independence.  To some of her interviewees it protected them from the scrutiny of other men.  The opposite of the leers young women endure when wearing skimpy clothes, for example.  Yet, whilst wearing the Hijab in a Western place like a shopping mall or a park, they are the opposite of anonymous.  They stand out, not as an admired individual, as a women dressed in punk gear or quirky, colorful clothing, or even dressed as a clown.  No they stand out as a women enslaved to our perceptions.

These are but two pints Carland makes in her book.  She has many more.  Her tone is sometimes critical of the Western view.  She holds no truck for our terrorist views or our obsessions with their consequences.  She is not the enemy, she thinks.  She's also honest about the fact she didn’t write this book to win fans.  Interestingly, even though she wants to speak out and reveal the soul of her interviewees - some in America, some in Australia and some elsewhere - she, herself is furiously private.  She's also personally uncomfortable with the media spotlight her husband, television host Waleed Aly’s fame has brought upon her and her family. Ally is Australian writer, academic, lawyer, media presenter and musician. But more importantly, he's a co-host of Network Ten's news and current affairs comedy twist program The Project. which has a high profile in Australia.

None the less, Carland is driven by obligation, as a teacher first.  Her ambition is to educate as many people as she can and to enrich the public conversation about women and Islam.  In this book she does it well.  As I said at the start this is a topic that is very hard to discuss at the present, without taking sides.  Add to that the debates about immigration and you've got a smoking safari to contend with.  But if you really want to push all that aside and take a brave leap at objectivity then give this a go.  You won't necessarily agree with everything and at times you'll shout "That's not Me!"  Isn't it?  

“There is this assumption," Carland points out, "that you all think the same thing, you’re all of one mind on these issues … It shows the desperation of the media and politicians to say ‘all of you people, who speaks for you?’ They can’t let go of this idea that someone should speak for all of us. No single person does”.  Here's a new voice in the conversation.

Fighting Hislam is published by Melbourne University Press.

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