Monday, December 5, 2011

The Most Feminist Muslim in Britain, Shaista Gohir

This is the post that someone made a false copyright claim against.  That is, after checking it appears that neither the author or The Times, entities with claim to copyright, made the complaint. Regardless, after I heard back from Stephanie Marsh, the author, I did not hear anything further.  I have left this as a draft for a while, but have now removed more of the excerpt, as the complaint was I used too excerpted too much of the original article.  

The Times paywall is a pain. Here is the link for subscribers. Here is an excerpt for everyone else:

By her own admission, forced marriage is not a subject that many British Muslims want Shaista Gohir to be talking about. But here she is at a conference in Birmingham where Gohir, a married mother of three with Pakistani roots and a degree in chemistry and physics, is to deliver a lecture on “taboo issues”.
Because Gohir is known to be more or less the only outspoken Muslim feminist in Britain today, the conference organisers have given her free rein — and she has decided not to pull any punches: as well as forced marriage, her chosen subjects today are homosexuality, child abuse, polygamy (“It’s on the rise in this country”), female genital mutilation and mental health — all subjects that, she reminds her audience, are not considered taboo in the wider British culture....
Friday night, the BBC News. Gohir has been asked to comment on women’s dress. She is defending their right to wear the veil. Later, she receives several e-mails. “How dare you come on national TV in full Western attire?” reads one. “Your head was not covered, you had lipstick and make-up on.”...
Later she tells me that she finds it frustrating how introverted Muslim girls can be. Yet it doesn’t surprise her: “We grow up with the idea that women can’t do this, can’t do that. The list of can’ts goes on and on. Where is the list of things women can do? As a Muslim girl you’re never told. Whatever the question, the answer is always no.”
In a way it feels odd calling Gohir a feminist. Many of the things she argues for — that women have a right to go to university, say, or that they should not be subjected to domestic violence — have long been taken for granted in mainstream British society. Not so in some Muslim communities, she says. It’s like a parallel universe....
Yet conservative extremists in liberal countries such as Britain have been advancing their agendas. “I mean,” says Gohir, “the idea that women need male chaperones — we’re moving back towards that in this country. I can’t believe it’s happening. In other countries women are fighting to take off the veil; in Britain they are fighting to put it back on again.”
I first met Gohir three years ago. Then, as now, she ran the Muslim Women’s Network, the aim of which is to educate Muslim women about their rights and supply the information they need, especially about Islamic texts, “to think for themselves”. I was fascinated by the amount of research she had undertaken and impressed by her sense of humour, passion and pragmatism (“I’ll stick my head above the parapet. If you want to make a difference you have to be prepared to take risks”).
At the time she had just returned from a Foreign Office trip to Egypt. Over coffee, she laughingly recounted an argument she’d had with a British imam: “He told me that most inhabitants of Hellfire were women. To back up this claim he quoted a Hadith (Hadiths are accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet, categorised as strong, ie, likely to be accurate, or weak, ie, likely to have been made up). But I immediately said, ‘That’s a weak hadith. You shouldn’t quote that or you end up misleading people’.”
Gohir reminded the imam about a verse in the Koran that describes the inhabitants of Hell, “and nowhere does it say that there are more women than men”. The imam then began to list his intellectual credentials. “He was trying to make me feel unsure about my knowledge. But I was sure! So I kept pressing him, and eventually he admitted that it was a weak Hadith. ‘Well then,’ I said, ‘You shouldn’t have quoted it. It doesn’t make sense anyway — if you look at what’s happening around the world, most atrocities are carried out by men.”....
She grew up in Northampton and was the only Muslim girl she knew to go to university. Her mother worked as a seamstress in shoe and clothing factories, and Gohir knew instinctively that she wanted more for herself. By the time she met her husband-to-be (she describes him as a progressive Muslim), she was working in environmental health. But then her thoughts of a career evaporated. “When I was 30,” she laughs, “I just wanted to get married, have children and be a housewife. I didn’t have any ambitions about women’s rights.”
That changed once she had given birth to her three children. “In my mid-thirties I began to feel rather bored,” she says. “I’m a bit of a thinker.”
The was in 2003, two years before the July bombings in London and before Muslim extremism rose up the political agenda. Being at home a lot, Gohir often watched the TV news “and it would just be Muslim men commenting on Muslim issues. I kept thinking, ‘Where are the women?’ ”
She also found it frustrating that the Labour Government “engaged only with one or two prominent Muslim men, mainly from the Muslim Council of Britain.

No comments: