Manufactured Consensus

This is typical. And irritating. Irritating in many ways.

Humera Khan of the An Nisa Society, an organisation that represents the views of women, agreed the school had failed to take into account the huge diversity of the UK’s 1.6 million Muslims. “If you consult on what is Islamic, and you for instance only talk to the Pakistani community, they will say the shalwar kameez is suitable. But other communities would have a different view that then becomes excluded,” she says.

Where to begin. How about with that ridiculous misleading essentially meaningless phrase ‘an organisation that represents the views of women’? The views of women. Does it mean all women, or some women? Notice that you can’t tell. It could mean three women, for all we know.

At any rate, it is clear enough from what Khan says that the organisation certainly does not represent the views of all women. So you know what? The article should have said that. It should have used some modifiers before the word ‘women’ – some adjectives. ‘An organisation that represents the views of’ ___ ___ women. Not just women – women of a certain kind, or with certain beliefs. So why didn’t it? Sloppiness? Absence of mind? Stupidity? Who knows. But my guess is that it was out of a (probably vague, semi-formed) intention to make Khan and An Nisa seem less sectarian, parochial, regressive than we might otherwise think them. A well-meaning woolly effort to make An Nisa sound like just some neutral set of boffins like any other. In other words, an effort to make what is at least arguably a regressive attitude to women seem more harmless and reasonable than it in fact is.

Picture the New York Times or Washington Post running an article with a quote from one Hannah Sheep of the Because Paul Said So Society, talking about consulting on what is Christian in the way of clothing for girls and women. If you talk to the Ohio community, she says, they think long skirts and bonnets are good enough, but other communities – those in Utah and Idaho, perhaps – would have a different view that then becomes excluded. Would the Times or the Post call the Because Paul Said So Society ‘an organisation that represents the views of women’? Would they tell their readers that a fundamentalist Christian organization represent the views of women? Just like that, women, without any modification to specify which women? I don’t think they would. Would the Guardian or the Independent or the BBC characterize, say, a women’s branch of Christian Voice that way? I don’t think so.

That’s where to begin. Now to go on. Why didn’t the reporters talk to anyone else? Where are the other women? Where are the women An Nisa does not represent? Why don’t they get to say anything? Why are they just ignored? Talk about different views that then become excluded! If I’m not mistaken, Humera Khan is worried about more fundamentalist, stricter, more traditional views that become excluded. Maybe I am mistaken, maybe she is worried about the other views too, the ones that go in the other direction, but you’ll notice the article doesn’t say so. You’ll notice that the article doesn’t talk to any secularists at all, or consider their views at all. You’ll notice that the article pretty much accepts it as a given that what girls wear is something properly determined by Islamic scholars.

Humera Khan says many Muslims are frustrated that the West had become apparently obsessed with how women express their faith. “The Western world has seen women’s Islamic dress as a sign of oppression. But when Islamic movements reacted against colonialism [in the 20th century] the clothing was a sign of liberation with political connotations.”

Yes but there again – there are other women from majority-Muslim parts of the world who strongly disagree with what Humera Khan says – who in fact strongly agree that ‘women’s Islamic dress’ is indeed a sign of oppression. Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian have written eloquently on the subject. But their view just gets systematically ignored – ‘excluded,’ just as Khan says. Unfortunate.

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