I knew as soon as I heard – via word of mouth – of this talk, I knew it would be something. There are no seats downstairs at the Buchanan Lecture Theatre. I am surprised. I ran upstairs, am shown in and still cannot believe the turn out. Half the seats are occupied in the … heavens. Because it did feel like a stage. The panel, too, is larger than expected. Seven actresses on stage confronting an audience as diverse as they. “I am not sorry” Zara Mohammed begins. “I am very comfortable with saying that I am a feminist”. And then, there is “not one feminism, but many feminisms. “No incompatibility” between feminism and Islam.
This opening statement struck me for the entirety of the talk. It spoke true to me and I feel many others, not just liberals championing so called universal and inalienable rights. In fact, perhaps, it spoke to every single human being. This needs to be identified as an ‘I’, above a ‘we’, a collective, a Muslim, a feminist, a Tory or a Marxist – and on it goes. Those categories we like to call communities.
I spoke during the Q&A exactly this. “I do not have any questions because… I agree with everything that has been said”. And I do… in every way – that matters. This wish to speak of solutions, to look forward and all the while appreciating the history of collectives such as Muslims (not Islam, she emphasised, because, I think, again the focus is on the people and not the ideology.)
Explicitly, why is the distinction important? For the very reason the first and fourth question posed to the panel – one and the same in essence – questioned exactly what had already been addressed. The questions were along the lines of “Why is it that Islam exhibits more gross unjust attitudes towards woman than others?” and “Is it not that rape within marriage, in Islam, is justifiable?”
I, of course, if asked, could add to this list of accusations towards Islam and likely with far more legitimacy (credulity?) – being a Bangladeshi British woman growing up in East London as a Muslim, having worn not only the hijab but the jilbaab too. The two who asked questions of the nature above were ironically men who I doubt have ever had to experience wearing the hijab. But I will not – my grievances are not towards the religion, or even the culture. They are against those individuals.
“Islam should not be held accountable for the man who rapes… and all those horrible things” I continued. “The human…” I almost pleaded. I will not waste more words towards justifying my position. I can only appeal to your nostalgia to understand mine.
There are many things I could write endlessly on – that featured in the talk. They were… Delicious… to listen to. To feast upon. Domestic violence, hijab politics, Suffragettes, Emma Watson, Iranian revolution, segregation in Mosques, prayer spaces, Islamophobia, cultural relativism, autonomy of Islamic governments, exile, imperialism, post-colonial studies, Muslim Britain…
But what I believe was the most pressing message to take away from this provocative and stimulating talk is this: behind the veil, both viscerally and metaphorically, is a human being with a narrative. The women of Islam are individuals who should be viewed as such – diverse and beautiful, the essential nature of humanity.