A week or so ago I watched a very insightful documentary on British women who had converted to Islam. According to a study, which was quoted in the programme, almost 70 per cent of respondents associate Islam with a repressed position of women. I genuinely believe that the prophet Mohammed aimed to advance the standing of women in society. He forbade the common practice of killing baby girls and limited polygamy to up to four wives and only if the husband is able to afford so and treats all is wives equally. This was rather progressive in 7th century Arabia. However, what was normal or even considered progressive in 7th century Arabia is not necessarily so in 21st century Britain, so you could consider me part of the 70 per cent*. The number of muslim converts in the UK is increasing and especially among white British women. If 70 per cent of those questioned believe that Islam obstructs the advancement of women, why are an increasing amount of British women converting to Islam on their own account? Is muslima conversion a new feminism?
A reason for some converted muslimas to find their peace in islam is the pressure they experience as women in an oversexualised society and the Sun’s Page 3 Girl is a very well-known feature of this. For those who don’t do British-Isle living, the Sun is a right-leaning, populist tabloid newspaper, which features a topless girl on its third page. The paper’s Page 3 Girl has been the topic of much debate for decades and recently the monarch of News International, the media empire that owns the Sun, Rupert Murdoch himself implied in a tweet that he might get rid of the Page 3 Girl phenomenon.
You could argue that the practice of covering up according to muslim tradition as well as posing semi-nude is objectifying and degrading women. The point is that these women cover up or bare (almost) all out of their own free will. Apparently there is enough supply of young women who would love to show their boobs to the nation and the number of female converts to islam is increasing.
My idea of feminism is that if a woman can do something out of her free will without any legal, social and moral objection attached just because she is a woman, then that is serving the cause. However, I am both uncomfortable with a particular muslim view of women as well as with bare breasts in a family newspaper. I am by no means a prude and if people want to enjoy uncovered tits and ass I believe they should be free to do so. I just really don’t think that a family newspaper is the right context for that. Women are already considerably under-represented in public life. The majority of media stories are about, involve or are produced by men. In many news stories women feature as victims or as celebrities and the appearance of the latter is highly scrutinised. On a daily basis the Page 3 Girl is likely to be the most prominent woman in the entire paper, sending a message to both men and women that women can do what they want; get degrees, have careers, do stuff men do, but what it all comes down to is that women are just a piece of eye candy. So women, especially the younger generation, might get the idea that sexing oneself up might be the only way to get attention, to be appreciated or loved. Beyonce and Rihanna do it and they’re world famous, loved and highly successful so they must be doing it right.
In that light I do understand that islam can offer a refreshing alternative. You don’t have to bare it to be appreciated, to the contrary, it’s frowned upon. But this has its issues too. Islam prescribes women to dress modestly. ‘Dressing modestly’ is very much open to interpretation. For some this means a woman is to look as unattractive as possible to the outside world. In the vast majority of mosques and muslim houses of worship women and men pray separately. Men in the main hall and women are tucked away in some back room or upstairs. The covering-up of women and the segregation of the sexes has to do with men not being able to control their sexual desires or very much fearing female sexuality and women carrying the burden of honour of the family and the wider community.
Both Page 3 Girls as well as muslima converts consider their choice as empowering. The question is, how free is one’s choice to bare (almost) all or to cover up if what is appreciated and excepted is on the basis of what men think and believe. Women describe being a Page 3 Girl as an honour or empowering. But if it is up to men to bestow you all that and who would just as easily take it away if the objects of your empowerment, are not to their liking, how truly empowering is posing semi-nude in a newspaper? What if your conversion is not merely about finding a spiritual home and your relationship with god, but also very much about not ‘tempting’ men, being their idea of a ‘good woman’ and interact with them as little as possible because they might get ‘excited’ and if they do, it is all your fault?
Whatever your manner of empowerment, it might not be my way, just make sure you truly own your way and don’t forget to spread some love.
* I don’t think the other ‘Big Two’ Judaism and Christianity are doing any better.