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Femen's topless condescension towards Muslim women only helps sexism | Susan Carland

‘The belief that women can pursue advancement and emancipation as Muslims
will be dismissed by many as a kind of “false consciousness”.’ Femen activists
in 2013. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

In an old parable, some people gather in a dark room in which there’s an
elephant. They’re asked to describe it. One, who can touch only the elephant’s
trunk, argues the elephant is like a tree branch. The one who can only feel its
tail claims the elephant is like a rope. The people begin to argue amongst
themselves about what is correct, and the parable reveals its wisdom when
someone lights a candle and all see the elephant – and their incomplete
perception – for what it really was.

Such judgements, that are as adamant as they are ignorant, are nothing new to
humanity. But they play out with startling frequency when discussing Muslim

The latest antics of Femen at a French Muslim conference
allegedly discussing wife-beating and proper womanly pursuits are a case in
point. Running on stage in front of the two shocked male speakers after tearing
off the abayas they had worn as a disguise, they stripped to the waist with
slogans such as “I am my own prophet” and “no one subjugates me” scrawled across
their naked torsos. They then shouted at the crowd until they were forcibly
removed by security.

Femen protesters storm the stage.

What is most troubling about this event is not the outrageously condescending
attitude of Femen, nor the reported appalling sexism of the some of the Muslims
involved: it is that these two voices are once again propped up as the only two
in the conversation. It is as if one can only be either a Muslim who loves
misogyny as a religious duty, or an orientalist feminist who hates Islam.
There is no other option.

Forcing the discourse into such a binary is not only myopic, but factually
incorrect. I’ve researched the way Muslim women fight sexism within the Muslim
community, and to the shock of many non-Muslims, my research showed that far
from being a recent practice borrowed from the west, Muslim women had been
standing up for themselves since the advent of Islam.

Aisha, the prophet’s wife, lacerated her male contemporaries with, “You make
women worse than animals?!” for believing (wrongly) their prayers were nullified
if a woman walked in front of them during worship. It was a woman who
challenged, and beat, the second Caliph in a debate in the mosque about women’s
financial rights in marriage. And today, lawyers like Asifa Qureshi use
blisteringly strong sharia arguments to fight against rulings that punish rape
victims in Pakistan and call for the stoning of women in Nigeria.

Far from seeing Islam as a barrier to liberation, a majority of the women in
my investigations use Islam to help them in their fight against sexism and
shockingly, many named Muslim men (husbands, fathers, teachers) as some of the
biggest supporters of their endeavours.

When I’ve told non-Muslims about my findings, they were often baffled, even
infuriated. The belief that women can pursue advancement and emancipation as
Muslims will be dismissed by many as a kind of “false consciousness”, so certain
are they that there is only one way to understand the issue.

But this is simply a function of people’s own fumbling in the dark over a
small piece of elephant, all the while trumpeting their grasp of absolute truth.

Of course the scourge of sexism exists within Muslim communities and
societies, just as it does in every community. The very fact that there are
Muslim women fighting against it proves that we are not in denial. Yet Femen, for
all its self-righteous stripping and screaming about women’s rights, is actually
in the same ideological camp as the misogynist Muslims they rail against.

Both reinforce the idea of a “real” sexist Islam, an idea to which the
broader public conversation so often unquestioningly gives support.

But the stories of Muslim women, in my research and beyond, show there is a
third way, and there always has been. It’s a belief in an Islam that is
egalitarian and empowering to women, and is strongly rooted in authentic,
classical interpretations of the faith.

It isn’t just the Islam of a lucky few women who grew up in the west in the
last 50 years, but women and men through Islamic history in countless Muslim
communities across the planet who firmly believed that gender justice was a
divine mandate. And if people actually spoke to Muslim women, instead of about
them, as the incident at the conference in France perfectly encapsulates, this
would be known.

And so while the fable about the elephant raises an important point about
opinions based on limited information, I have to wonder: what if instead of
someone lighting a candle but still ultimately relying on their own opinions,
the people asked the elephant: tell me who you are? 
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