News Editor Shehryar Sheikh discusses the interaction between feminist, LGBT+ and Islamic societies on UK university campuses, and the need to more openly engage with some vital and controversial issues.

DISCLAIMER:  this article reproduces its author’s thoughts, but it doesn’t necessarily represent the views of our magazine.

In 2015, outspoken secularist, refugee activist and ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie tried to speak at Goldsmiths University in London. Whilst she has many views that I find to be (in my subjective opinion) unhelpful generalisations about Islam, I would stress that the chance to criticise religion is a fundamental freedom in our Western society. Maryam didn’t get that chance. She was continuously hounded and aggressively interrupted by members from Goldsmiths’ Islamic society. When she attempted to display a picture of the Prophet Mohammed (?), a member of the Islamic society turned her projector off. Isoc members also shut off the lights at one point. Some were eventually removed.

The fall-out from this very blatant attack on freedom of speech on a British university campus was swift – the disruptors were roundly criticised by the media and secularist groups. Curiously, both Goldsmiths’ Feminist and LGBT societies came out firmly on the side of the Islamic society (Isoc for short). In an even more ironic twist, the President of Isoc was forced to quit shortly thereafter, not because of the Islamic society’s shameful role in disrupting Maryam’s event, but because he was caught tweeting about ‘fag lovers’ and that ‘homosexuality is a disease of the heart and the mind’.

The Goldsmiths saga had many an observer asking how in the world these radically different societies came to be allied with Isocs. It really isn’t that hard to understand why they co-operate on university campuses in Britain. In Pakistan, I saw the bitter conflict between social liberals/women’s activists and conservative Muslims play out online, in the streets and in the media. It’s different here. Muslims are a relatively small minority (4.5% of the national population), the vast majority of whom are just trying to get on with life, but are constantly vilified by the right-wing press. The shared experience of being marginalised, stereotyped minorities pushes otherwise disparate groups together.

Growing up in 97% Muslim Pakistan, I saw the extent to which some parts of the Islamic world have sunk into a victim complex, while refusing to accept or deal with core issues. When a wave of bombings carried out by Islamist terrorists began around 2008, my countrymen obstinately refused to even fathom that the perpetrators of the violence could be our co-religionists. ‘Muslims don’t kill other Muslims, these are clearly Jews/Western agents/CIA etc’ was a mantra repeated ad infinitum, and so the root causes of the issue went unaddressed.

Muslim countries and societies are vastly different from one another, but share one major problem: the proliferation of a puritanical, Saudi-inspired fundamentalist interpretation of the faith that has also made considerable inroads into the Western Muslim diaspora. When groups like LGBT people or feminists engage with Muslims, that’s a definite step in the right direction. However, it sometimes ends up being a self-congratulatory event for (mainly white) well-meaning people to join hands with Muslims to discuss issues like identity or discrimination – both valid concerns – while overlooking problematic and awkward bones of contention (such as the fact that 52% of British Muslims think homosexuality should be criminalised, while 39% think wives should always obey their husbands). Just like in Pakistan, I see important issues being ignored because they challenge the accepted ‘feel-good’ narrative.

What about closer to home? Jo Boon, one of the co-organisers of the Islam and Feminism conference at St Andrews tells me that the point of her upcoming conference isn’t to prove Islam is a feminist faith, but rather to understand the perspective of the other, free of media-influenced prejudice. I also found her admirable ability to accept and encourage criticism of mainstream feminism refreshingly broad-minded. Many Muslims, from Goldsmiths to St Andrews, could learn from Jo Boon about the capacity to tolerate and engage with differing viewpoints without trying to delete them. I think that critique shouldn’t be one-sided, and such collaborations offer organisers the opportunity to find common ground, but also, vitally, address some blatant points of disagreement between their respective beliefs.

In its desire not to pander to racists and xenophobes, the left in Britain has sometimes given minority communities a wide berth, avoiding awkward questions. This is paternalistic, patronising and ultimately unsustainable. It also allows the far-right and bigots to make sweeping statements about minorities, particularly Muslims, in the absence of a counter-narrative. Critically, this silence inadvertently emboldens sexist, homophobic and violent Islamists in places like the country of my birth. Concern for minorities and stereotyping is admirable, but shouldn’t come at the cost of remaining silent over very real ideological disagreements. What might some of these glaring disagreements, as well as some unexpected common ground, be? In the spirit of an open discussion, let’s look at two issues important to feminism from an Islamic perspective.

Reproductive rights and particularly abortion remain hot-button issues in many Western countries. It may therefore be surprising for some to learn that Islam is remarkably progressive on abortion rights, and there is unanimous agreement in all Islamic schools that abortion is allowed to save the mother’s life. However, abortion for social or financial reasons is considered forbidden, as the Quran says ‘Kill not your offspring for fear of poverty; it is We who provide for them and for you. Surely, killing them is a great sin.’ (Quran: 17:32). Scholars disagree on whether abortion in cases of rape, incest or severe birth defects is permissible.

Wife beating/Domestic violence
‘As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly)…’ (Quran: 4:34). The Quran allows the ‘’light’’ beating of wives as a last resort, however, other verses (4:19, 30:21) emphasise kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Islam was responsible for considerably increasing women’s rights in Arabia at the time of its inception, including granting them the right of divorce, inheritance and property ownership. The fact remains though that this specific verse continues to have very real implications in the 21st century, with Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology having recommended that a domestic violence bill be amended to allow for wives to be ‘lightly beaten’.

Let me be the first to concede that I am neither a woman nor a scholar of Islam. I have much to learn and am open to discussion. However, I find it deeply perturbing that that discussion by and large is not happening. I left Pakistan in part because I wanted to escape the stifling intellectual dishonesty and lack of open discussion that had allowed violence and fundamentalism to become commonplace in the country. I see the same seeds being sown in Britain today, albeit with the best of intentions. Muslims are far more than just Islamic terrorism, and Muslim women are far more than just the hijab. This is undeniable, and should be forcefully reiterated to the far-right. However, there are clearly certain distressing problems within particular Muslim communities in Europe and abroad, especially with regards to issues similar to some of those discussed above, meriting conversation. The sooner we find a way to talk about these issues in an honest, frank and understanding way, the sooner femsoc+isoc and related interactions can stop being somewhat disingenuous and become rather more productive instead.

Shehryar Sheikh