Dead Men Left

Friday, March 04, 2005

Women's rights II

The earlier post here on the Shabina Begum case seems to have stirred up a bit of controversy, from Lenin, Third Avenue, plus Shuggy and Kate in the comments box.

What we're arguing over is, I think, a difference in the political interpretation of the result, rather than the judgement itself. There are three reasons to stress women's rights in this case.

The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is that there is a special space in Western societies reserved for Muslim women, and it is quite extraordinarily confined: a little Oriental box marked "submissive and ignorant". The general, political climate engendered by the war on terror tramples on Muslims - from the top of society, to the bottom. A prevailing sexism adds the second bind.

It may well be the case that for some Muslim women, the decision to wear a certain kind of garment is not one made of their own free will. But we can't judge that beforehand; we have, if we think rights apply universally, to assume that Muslim women are as competent as any other women. We could no more legitimately ask a teenaged Muslim to uncover herself than we could ask teenaged atheist to cover herself up.

The society-wide attempt to dictate women's appearances - and only a brief glance at any magazine rack will tell you how concerted this is - fits very neatly with the attempt to dictate to Muslims. Muslim women in the hijab, or similar, fail to conform to any standard for female appearances, and are so they, too, have to be shoved into line using more overt methods. The clever trick, of course, is to pretend that this is done in the name of liberating women.

There were clear efforts in Shabina Begum's case to hint at the "manipulation" that must obviously be taking place. (Here's a more overt example.) Confronted by an articulate young Muslim woman, the Islamophobic, sexist response is to find the shadowy hand of the male "Islamic extremist" pulling her strings. It is an attempt to deny Begum's autonomy.

There is, then, a special political purpose in exposing a mythical liberation; though presented as an act of emancipation, it is quite the reverse.

The second, broader, reason relates to how we deal with religious beliefs. Third Avenue suggests that this judgement "raise[s] religious belief above other secular values, and give[s] religious groups rights that are denied their non-believing counterparts." The means to avoid doing this is precisely to argue the case on the grounds of women's rights.

This does open into the charge that there is then nothing to prevent anyone turning up to school in anything. I don't have a great problem with that thought. School uniforms are a useless anachronism. But, as the National Union of Teachers' response to the case says, in practice some compromises have to be made. I don't have a problem here, either. What does concern me is that a "compromise" between a school holding all the cards and an individual holding nothing but their religious beliefs will be no "compromise" at all. Something has to be done to ensure the individual's convictions carry some weight.

This also avoids the slippery problem of attempting to define religious beliefs. Not only are beliefs themselves questioned internally, on theological grounds, with disputes over (for example) the necessity of the jilbab, but attempting to create a space in which religious beliefs can now be said to operate is both difficult and potentially dangerous, involving an unwarranted meddling of the state in matters of individual liberty. It is far better to protect followers of a religion through safeguarding individual rights and allowing them to define their own community of believers.

Finally, staking a position on the grounds of women's rights allows us to be consistently internationalist. It is as wrong to deny women the right to wear a hijab or jilbab in Britain or France as it is to force them to do so in Iran or Saudi Arabia.