By Arshia Malik
For us women in India, carrying water signifies courage, fortitude and surviving amidst insurmountable odds, considering the country still has parts where drinking water is not available and women have to walk miles to get two potable vessels of water for the cooking of the day. Compared to the slur of “carrying water” which the dictionary defines as “performing menial tasks for or to serve; to assist; to be forced by politics or pragmatism to endorse or promote a belief”, this act has become symbolic of Indian women and their march towards progress and empowerment.
In contrast, Muslim women are at the centre of a huge revolution where they have to make a choice — will they support reformation in their culture and religion which could lead them into the 21st century, or will they choose to “carry water” for Islamists as Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out recently when a video was launched to smear her activism and paint her as someone who is the star of white supremacy?
There is something fatalistic about hijab-clad women, pouting into the screen and talking about repression and freedom, dishonestly dismissing the scores of women who are coerced to wear the hijab, either since childhood or in their teens and attacked if not conforming to the piety standard of Muslim women. The very fact that Hirsi Ali has actually undergone FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) does not bother these women who, while living in a country that is giving them the freedom to criticize Ali, campaigned for not allowing her to speak, and created a hostile environment where the sponsors had to rethink the invite.
As I watched the video, the familiar “honour brigade” came up in various edited clips, the same ones who accept the second-class status that male patriarchy in Islam has defined for them in order to get into the “frat boys club”. Evolutionary biology and psychology have an explanation why they do this — to gain acceptance and approval in the tribal hierarchy and ensure the survival of their progeny (definitely not “stupid” of them but very shrewd).
Many times they go overboard in dissing anyone who criticises regressive practices in Islam, especially women with a seemingly nuanced rhetoric of bringing progress to their culture “within and from outside”. This is counterproductive, for it pushes the dissenters into the only people who will listen — the right wingers with their own conservative agendas.
I am all too familiar with this “banding of sisters” when it comes to criticism of hijab, triple talaaq (divorce), polygamy, muta (temporary) marriage, and so on. Having had the courage to speak out about the Arabisation of my hometown Kashmir in the 90s when women were acid attacked/kneecapped into the veil by Pakistan-backed jihadis, the backlash was vicious and has not abated as yet.
What is more, the same kind of language can be seen among the women choosing to dismiss the events of the proxy war in Kashmir: that these are sporadic incidents; that the jihadis do not represent the “true Islam”; that hijab actually gives them freedom both within their cultural boundaries and from outside”; that women who speak out against such practices are actually shills for “Islamophobia”, a term very cleverly inserted into the global discourse to shut down debate and to keep dissenters silent under the garb of post-modernism and cultural relativism.
What balks those of us who speak out despite the very real life-threatening risks is that while these women in the video are won’t be harmed for speaking their minds, unlike countries where there is no freedom of speech.
Also, despite the fear of the unknown that develops into real crimes of “Muslimophobia” or anti-Muslim bigotry in the social fabric of the country that this article in the Business Insider debunked, even a small number of indoctrinated Muslims with an agenda are enough to use the country’s free laws to clamour for sharia law and disturb the integrated diversity of that region
In terms of integration, Australia does not have a national religion. Australia is culturally associated with a democratic tradition that has Christian origins. People of all religions pledge to uphold Australian values when they join the Australian community.
The video and subsequent events prove that what is happening in several European countries because of mass migration of refugees and giving into their demands for cultural appeasement will result in laws just like the Canadian Government proposed recently. The dissenters in Islam — ex-Muslims, apostates or those fleeing persecution by fellow Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and cultural Muslims — should be given the space and platforms to voice out their concerns and experiences.
Otherwise, as has happened in India and continues to happen in the world, the right wing hardliners will latch onto the real or perceived fear of the unknown and fill the vacuum that the left and liberals deliberately create when they do not address the Islamic hard right.
There is a civilisational war going on no matter how much people dismiss it. The Islamic world is undergoing a revolution whether silent or visible. Whenever there is an attempt to bring the Muslim World into the 21st century, the Islamic hardliners hijack it and start playing their own agendas, as has happened in Syria, or my own puny hometown on the border of a country which is now the centre of exporting terrorism with the Saudi-funded Petro dollars.
What starts out as a struggle for democracy, equal rights, women empowerment, abolishing regressive practices like triple talaaq, FGM, hijab, segregation and polygamy, finds an immediate hijacking as the extremist forces in the said culture and religion take over and package it into a colonially impoverished East vs the big Satan West conflict. Or to put it in the late Edward Said’s postmodernist words, “exotic Orient vs the civilized Occident”.
Western nations need to beware of this hijacking and need to develop skills, policies, plans and laws to sift the dissenters, at great risk to their lives, from the deceptive Muslim Brotherhood type organisations and individuals like the Lindas, the Iqras, the Dalias, and the women in the video operating under the suspect CAIR and others like them. While I do not support the Trump-like ban on immigration of Muslims from all countries, the kind of check mechanisms that M Zuhdi Jasser of the Muslim Reform Movement proposes can be looked into and explored.
There is an existential crisis within Islam and outside of it. The West could do well to give the rationalist strain in some Muslims (Mutazalism from the traditions of the 11th century Baghdad and Moorish Spain philosophers) a chance and credit the dissenters to lasso their communities towards reason and logic. This kind of giving in and appeasement to the most regressive Left/regressive Liberal/political correctness for Islamists does a disservice to those scores of men and women who believe that reformation can be wrought in Islamic societies and at great risk to their lives, try to reason with the extremist elements in their respective communities.
Inviting Hirsi Ali back would be another step to stop the jubilation of those who think freedom of religion won at the cost of defeating freedom of expression to protect the “sentiments of the Muslim people”.
To the women in the video: You do not speak for me.
I want to hear what Hirsi Ali has to say, in order to agree with her if she is right, to disagree with her if she is wrong, to reason with her if her approach in criticising Islam is harming Muslims, and more importantly, to collaborate with her in what could be the best way to uphold the human rights of even those who wish death for her. Because All Lives Matter, even the ones who are out to silence dissenters with knives stabbed to dead director’s chests with the next target named in a bloody note.
Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflicts in societies with a particular focus on South Asia. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature.
Follow her on Twitter.