By Anne Marie Waters | June 2013
“The western experiment of women working outside of their homes has proved its negative effects”. This is according to an article entitled “Methods of westernising women and its effects” on Islamweb, a site that describes itself as increasing awareness of the “mission of Islam”. The article goes on to describe how pretty much everything wrong with the world is the result of selfish women wanting to work and includes the extraordinary statement: “deviant women are incubators of all forms of evil”. This is certainly not an attitude that is exclusive to a small number of Muslims, but attitudes to women can expose a large gaping hole between western and Islamic societies and societal norms. It is also a very important battle in any “cultural clash”. When Islamism tightened its grip in the Middle East following the Arab spring one of the first acts of new Islamist governments was to restrict the rights of women — it was a priority, just as it is a priority among Islamists here.
The Islamic Sharia Council (ISC) advises primarily on family law matters and gives women inaccurate advice on the law regarding domestic violence. In an undercover report filmed by Panorama, Suhaib Hasan — a senior cleric at the ISC who has previously called for stoning and amputation to be introduced to Britain — wrongly told a woman she would have to leave her home if she reported domestic violence to the police. He also asked if her husband left marks on her body when he hit her (this is the line — sharia allows men to hit their wives provided they leave no visible evidence of it). Haitham al-Haddad, another adviser at the ISC is on record as saying “a man should not be questioned why he hit his wife”. Over at the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, Britain’s second largest sharia organisation behind the ISC, a spokesman told the BBC that he was engaged in discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to seek an “alternative form of resolution” for domestic violence cases for Muslims; the aim of establishing a full system of sharia-based family law is openly acknowledged.
Domestic violence is not the only area of sharia family law that causes concern however. Women have little right to divorce under sharia, children go in to the custody of fathers from a preset age (regardless of the circumstances), and marital rape was described as “impossible” by the President of the ISC Maulana Abu Sayeed. So what is the response to all of this? Absolute unequivocal condemnation? Not a bit of it. Instead, we have respected figures like Rowan Williams reiterate his white-washing of sharia family law at Temple Church in Fleet Street recently. He again hinted at future integration of sharia law when he said “it needs to be made accountable and professional in ways which the legal establishment and statutory authority is best placed to take forward”. He is of course not the only public figure to sanitise sharia. Former Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips also argues that there is “no reason why Sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution”. No reason? This should worry us.
As an anti-sharia campaigner, one of the most frequent comments I hear is that sharia law is “their culture” and essentially it has nothing to do with me — it’s none of my business. If I complain about the increased legitimisation of this deeply misogynistic legal system, I am treated as if it is I who is causing the problem. A few days ago I was asked by a trade unionist why I felt sharia was a priority. I informed her that I believe the mistreatment of half of humanity is indeed a significant issue. I was told “I’m a woman and it doesn’t affect me”. This is a shocking response on so many levels. First of all, it is a disgusting “I’m alright Jack” attitude that abandons those we deem different to a set of laws that we would not want applied to ourselves. So much for human solidarity! But that is not the only important point; sharia law does affect her, just as it affects me and every woman.
Sharia law is turning back the clock on hard-won rights for women in the West. This is a system which treats women as second-class humans who should be obedient and who, if they are beaten, only have themselves to blame. On Panorama, the Islamic Sharia Council adviser twice asked the undercover reporter what she had done to deserve this violence). This is seeping in to public discourse and legal discussion and instead of being condemned, it is being promoted and normalised. This is a problem for women, whether or not they are Muslims.
There is an even more direct threat to western women from some Muslims however and another example of this was seen recently in Australia. A Magistrate there was forced to alter her actions to accommodate a Muslim man who refused to stand up when she entered the room. According to reports, Mohammad Issai Issaka, charged with rioting in Sydney in 2012, refused to stand for the Magistrate because she was a woman and to do so would be against his religion. In the end, a “compromise” was reached whereby Issaka would walk into the courtroom after the Magistrate and leave before her.
This is not the first time such a “compromise” has been made.
In Italy, a 5-star hotel in Venice also reached a “compromise” when a Muslim employee refused to take orders from the female boss. Instead of being fired as he should have been, the hotel hired a man to take orders from the female boss and relay them to the employee.
In Spain, female parking meter enforcement officers were withdrawn from an area in Palma de Mallorca following harassment from members of a local mosque who insisted that only men should work there. The women were replaced with an exclusively male team.
Women everywhere should care about this — as does anyone who does not want to see the advances of women put in to reverse. The very fact that non-Muslim women are expected to alter their working practices to accommodate Islamic misogynists is a very worrying development, and that such misogyny is treated as valid and respectable is even more worrying still.
Women, all women, need to be very aware that when it comes to a clash between their rights and religious or cultural sensitivity, the prevailing view is that we are not important. Islamism is on the rise across the world, and the western world is no exception. When Islamism spreads, women’s rights are attacked and the rights of non-Muslim women are no exception.
In response to the meter attendant issue in Spain, a union spokesperson said “It is unacceptable that in a free and democratic society, women are prevented from doing their job because they are women.” This message needs to be shouted from the rooftops, and religion or culture cannot change its content. On the matter of women’s rights and equality, there can be no exception.
Anne Marie Waters is spokesperson for the One Law for All Campaign and council member of the National Secular Society. She is a writer and speaker on democracy and human rights, and campaigns for gender equality and to end cultural and religious relativism.
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