Colour Blind

(This post was originally published by the Independent, 24 October 2012)

More than a decade ago the poet Lemn Sissay visited my sixth form and performed his bittersweet poem Colour Blind. I was 16, contrarian, and determined not to be moved by his plaintive climax: “Why do you say you are colour blind / When you see me?”

My friends and I dismissed the idea that skin colour was important, and pretended to each other that to be colour blind was a good thing. We were cocooned in an insular, bustling world where most of us were a shade of brown, and had yet to feel too keenly our otherness.

Yet deep down I knew it had struck a chord because many of us had experienced racism; sometimes overt taunts and sometimes the other, subtler kinds of intolerance. But we pushed these experiences to the edges of our existence, buried deep with lessons on a distant, tragic history, drowned out by the cacophony of proudly taught lessons on the British Empire.

Then I went to university, embarked on a career in journalism, and my world grew whiter. But simultaneously I learned that, as a journalist, to be colour blind is not an option. You have to see colour, religion, class, and every facet that distinguishes people. If one insists on seeing the world in a certain way then how can one understand and objectively report the experiences of others? But our media is so homogenous that it often forgets that white is not universal or neutral.

It struck home after 9/11, when the media began writing about British Muslims, littering their articles with a casual ignorance that probably had less to do with Islamaphobia and more to do with the lack of Muslims in newsrooms.

The inaccurate generalisations of British Muslim life swept away the myriad of experiences of those I knew who practised the faith; until a terrifying caricature of the British Muslim had etched itself firmly onto the public imagination. So much so that when a group of men who happened to be Muslim abused and raped vulnerable young girls in Rochdale, it fitted perfectly into a dangerous narrative which continually demonizes anyone part of that faith. “While our media continue to exclude minority voices in general, such lazy racial generalisations are likely to continue,” wrote Guardian journalist Joseph Harker in an article on the subject back in July.

Caitlin Moran’s dismissive comments on the experience of black women provides another example of our media’s inability to recognise that white is not universal. Moran said that she “ literally couldn’t give shit about” about the lack of black women in the Brooklyn-based TV show Girls. When criticized for her comments, Moran’s defenders, including high profile journalists and writers, leapt to her defence. One tweeted nauseatingly that Moran’s book was not called How to be ALL Women and Lena Dunham’s TV show was not ALL Girls. How depressing, how patronising, how belittling; I want your understanding not your tokenism.

One positive is we have had a spate of eloquent articles from young black womenvoices rarely given a platform, which has enriched the debate. Sadly they have been derided as trolls and dismissed by other feminists.

But what saddened me most is that while I know the media in general does not represent the myriad of experiences that make up modern Britain, I had thought many female journalists were different; in their writing I found what James Baldwin described as “the specialness of my existence [which] could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.”

I cling to the idea that humanity and good writing  trumps skin tone, as I clung to it in my sixth form common room when Sissay poeticized the reality. In some journalists, especially feminist writers, I could do what Baldwin wanted and “connect”. Growing up I enjoyed the wit, intellectual curiosity and platform of writers like Zoe Williams (one of Moran’s defenders on Twitter). And I swooned over Caitlin Moran’s teenage revelry in How to be a Woman, exalting in the familiar, if banal, battles of figuring out the physicality of being a woman.

The casual flippancy of one journalist has lifted the lid on a deep seated complacency within the liberal, white media. Each day brings a new article explaining why it is impossible for writers to represent everyone, all the time, tacitly defending the need to remain insular. The lack of understanding is frustrating, but the unwillingness to even try to understand is infuriating. It is the same ignorance that informs the reporting on British Muslim, and it saddens me that we have these battles in 2012.

As a black women, over-schooled on a diet of English literature, I am used to making excuses for my favourite long dead writers, exalting in their prose and excusing prejudice and casual intolerance as a product of their time.

But it is wrong to make excuses; brilliant writers can transcend the bigotry of their time with a little empathy and understanding. As African-American Richard Wright did in Black Boy published in 1945:

“There were many more folk ditties, some mean, others filthy, all of them cruel. No one ever thought of questioning our right to do this; our mothers and parents generally approved, either actively or passively. To hold an attitude of antagonism or distrust towards Jews was bred in us from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was part of our cultural heritage.”

Quiet revolutionaries: women’s rights and Islam

A few miles outside the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur, tucked away in a quiet suburb, sits a grand detached house cloaked in shrubs and plants. The house is out of place on the quiet residential street, its prettiness framed by grim iron gates and CCTV cameras. But the ramped up security is a necessary precaution against regular death threats for the Muslim activists using the house as an office.

Behind their iron-gated office, Sisters in Islam (SiS) work to promote equal rights for women based on Islam’s fundamental principles of equality, justice and freedom. While in Europe we obsess over what Muslim women wear, in some Muslim majority countries, these women are quietly building on a long tradition of feminist thinking within Islam.

SiS’s biggest battle is against the discrimination of Muslim women in Malaysia (where 60% of the population are Muslim) under the country’s dual legal system. While non-Muslim women are legally protected against discrimination as set out in the federal constitution, Muslim women are subject to Syariah law.

Though their work often attracts anti-SiS fatwas, death threats in Friday sermons and police reports accusing them of crimes against Islam, Norani Othman, one of the founding members of SiS, remains unfazed. “We got hate mail in the eighties and nineties…saying we would be punished in the next world,” she says. “At least for the moment they are threatening us with punishment in the next life, not this one.”

A lively, tireless woman, Norani has spent her life as a sociologist and academic steeped in the study of Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and is defiantly confident that there is such a thing as women’s rights within the framework of Islam. She scornfully refers to these “stupid men” who know very little about Islam, yet use it to stymie women’s progress.

“One the early things I wrote that shocked,” she says, “was that the Prophet Muhammad could be regarded as one of the early feminists. He promoted the rights of women to inherit and to participate in the contract of marriage.”

SiS began in 1987 as a weekly informal gathering of professional Malaysian women, airing their grievances about the growing injustices meted out to women in the name of Islam. They were especially angry about the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in Malaysia’s Syariah courts. Sisters in Islam was officially launched soon after with two controversial pamphlets entitled ‘Are men & women equal before Allah?’ and ‘Does Islam allow men to beat their wives?’

At this time, Malaysia had begun to veer from its liberal approach to Islam – the country’s Islamic family law was once considered one of the most progressive in the world – and to follow the path of other Muslim-majority countries towards conservatism. Soon the government of Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad began to pander to conservative agenda; changes to family law particularly affected women’s rights. One of SiS’s early victories was the campaign against the exclusion of Muslim women from the protection of the Domestic Violence Act (itself hard fought for).

But nearly 20 years later, Malaysian Muslim women still do not enjoy the same rights as men or their non-Muslim sisters. If a Muslim woman wants to get a divorce, she must seek approval from the Islamic courts, whereas her husband has the right to simply say ‘I divorce you’ and that’s that. “It is quite burdensome for the wife,” says Rozana Isa, a young SiS activist. “In cases of domestic violence the onus is on the woman to prove that she has been beaten up and show that a police report has been filed.” It took one woman seven years to get the courts to approve her divorce.

The problem is the disproportionate power given to religious authorities, argues Norani. And the reason for such practices in a country considered “moderate” is poor religious education; Children are forced to chant the verse of the Qur’an rather than engage in critical thinking, she says. “Many modern Muslims are ignorant of their religion. They have never been taught about the history and life story of the Prophet. They don’t have the basic cultural literacy of their own religion … [but] they accuse us of being western minded and anti-Islamic.”

Sisters in Islam are not alone. Across the world, Muslim women are increasingly taking up arms – or in this case the Qur’an – to revolutionise Islamic thought to turn the tide against conservative attitudes towards women. In each country, and even within countries, the experiences of Muslim women vary enormously, but academics have noted a trend of women becoming politicised through Islam, but in a way alien to the violent rhetoric of extremists that has gripped world attention since 9/11.

Musawah (meaning equality), a global network of activists from 47 countries, has been set up to promote “equality and justice in the Muslim family”. These activists exchange ideas and strategies to combat outdated attitudes. It makes our work a lot less lonely, says SiS activist Rozana.

Professor Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American expert on women and Islam, described at a recent lecture, how she began to change her mind about the potentially regressive consequences of political Islam when researching her latest book. Spurred on by the fear that the spread of the Hijab in the west was a sign of the growing influence of a fundamentalism hostile to American values of democracy, equality and tolerance, she was surprised when her theory unravelled when interviewing young American Muslims.

“The ways in which both Islamist and American ideals, including American ideals of gender justice, seamlessly interweave in the lives of many of these younger generation is present in both sexes, but with regard to gender it is significantly more pronounced among women.

“For this had been the truly remarkable decade as regards women’s activism. Perhaps the post 9-11 atmosphere in the west, which led to intense scrutiny and criticism of Islam, including with regard to women, spurred Muslim Americans into this corrective activism.”

She adds: “This then was the final irony. It was they Muslims of Islamist heritage and not us, the seculars and the non-Islamist Muslims, who were now in the forefront of the struggle for equal rights including in relation to Islam and gender.”

Isobel Coleman, a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, charts this struggle in her recent book ‘Paradise Beneath her feet – How Women are Transforming the Middle East’. The book documents Muslim women fighting for equality in the most conservative Muslim societies: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like Sisters in Islam, they regard equality and justice for women as a central tenant of Islam.

But change is often slow to come. SiS has been forced to devote much of its time fighting court cases against politicians and other groups. They recently won an appeal against a government decision to ban their 2005 book ‘Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism.’  And an Islamic youth group has started legal action contesting their use of the word ‘Islam’ in their name. Norani Othman admits that there is still a lot of work to do. “I am sorry if I sound like an angry young woman even though I’m in my fifties,” she sighs. “I’m fed up and impatient. I have had to grapple with this for 25 years.”

This article first appeared on hackeryblog