On Sans and islamophobia

Helle Klein has instinctively labeled Sans magazine as islamophobic, solely on the grounds that its cover portrays a woman in a burqa. If that is the case, most articles and news stories from Afghanistan should be labeled islamophobic in the delusional world of Helle Klein, write Sara Larsson and Christer Sturmark, editor and editor in chief of Sans magazine.

The new cultural magazine Sans has recently been launched. Its theme is the religious oppression of women and in the issue’s main article, American feminist and author Ophelia Benson is interviewed. In her book “Does God Hate Women?”, Benson examines how women’s human rights are violated in the name of conservative religious traditions all over the world.

On Sans’ cover, which bears the headline “A God for Women?”, we have published a picture of a woman dressed in a burqa.

The magazine had barely left the printers before Christian think tank Seglora smedja, run by Helle Klein among others, had dismissed it as islamophobic. Ignoring the fact that the think tank has not prioritized its research (Sans is published not by the Humanist Association but by Fri Tanke publishers) Klein makes the following remarkable comment on Seglora’s website:

The first issue will be about religion and gender oppression and the cover is decorated with a woman in a burqa under the headline “A religion for women?”. As usual religious criticism has an islamophobic undertone. Seglore smedja will, however, wait with a full review of Sans until we have read the issue in its entirety.

It is kind to put off reviewing the magazine until it has been read, but instinct seems to allow the judgment islamophobic to be passed without scruple. Also note that the headline is misquoted as “A religion for women?”. Perhaps a Freudian slip? Seglora smedja would probably have preferred it had we pointed at Islam as the only reason behind global gender oppression. Such journalistic one-sidedness would have made it easier to throw suspicion on the magazine.

If Seglora smedja actually does take the time to read Sans, they will see that we highlight religious gender oppression within all the Abrahamic world religions, that is to say Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One example is the extreme abortion legislation that characterizes many Catholic countries and that dooms almost a hundred thousand women to death every year. We also write about the more subtle conservative gender patterns in the Swedish church and point at the treacherous “difference feminism” that can take both religious and secular shape.

There are without doubt many degrees on the scale of oppression, and there are many different expressions for religious exclusion in terms of gender as well as the religiously motivated violence and disrespect against women in today’s world. Not all these expressions can be linked to Islam; something we expressly state in our themed first issue.

But we cannot see any reason to deny that the most obvious forms of gender apartheid and the worst crimes against women’s rights are currently happening in the name of Islam, which Benson also points out in her book.

It is hard to find a more eloquent symbol for this reality than the burqa. The garment is – unfortunately – not a figment of imagination produced by neurotic atheists, but an actual expression of Islam in the modern world. To call the burqa oppressive to women is an understatement. It would be more correct to say that the garment represents the woman’s total eradication as citizen, individual and autonomous subject. Far from all Muslims embrace the extreme view of gender and sexuality that lies behind these clothing restrictions, but the garment is still an Islamic reality.

It is surprising, to say the least, that it is not possible to publish an authentic depiction of this reality without being called islamophobic, as if the burqa picture were a caricature or a montage.

Using Helle Klein’s definition “islamophobic undertones” should be applicable to not only Sans’ cover but many documentaries from the Muslim world. Swedish National Television’s reports from Afghanistan should, in keeping with this argument, be labeled islamophobic, as women in burqas are more than often shown on footage.

Sans’ first issue contains a multitude of facts about religious oppression. We now anxiously await Seglora smedja’s comments on this realistic depiction. Will our information be called into question? Will the seriousness of the situation be denied, relativized or toned down?

To present different facts or different evaluations of facts is totally legitimate in a debate about religion’s role in society, but the impulsive allegations about islamophobia are disappointing in their prejudice. They risk paralyzing the discussion on human rights in general and brutal violations of women in particular.

Perhaps this is in fact the purpose. Let us not forget that religious criticism and its truths hurt, especially for well-meaning liberal theologists.

Let us also remember that those in the debate who would discard humanist critical theory as islamophobic cast their verdict from a very safe and comfortable corner of the western media landscape. Rather than open their eyes to the insufferable subordination and suffering of women in other parts of the world, they choose to once again try to silence critics with lame labels of disease.

The denial may be psychologically understandable, but it is intellectually and morally unsustainable.

About the Author

Translation from the Swedish by Emma Ulvaeus

4 Responses to “On Sans and islamophobia”