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Home > Women’s Rights > Ignorant goodwill

Ignorant goodwill

by Afiya Shehrbano, 2 May 2013

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The News International (Pakistan), April 30, 2013

This article has not been sponsored by any infidel government or agencies such as Mossad, the CIA or RAW. The author is neither an Islamophobe, nor an orientalist or imperialist. She is also not a closet cheerleader for drone warfare, nor a liberal-secular fascist who has been brainwashed by western-funded NGOs. She has not been culturally duped by Bollywood or by Zionist publishing houses, nor is she a self-loathing brown Muslim woman with a master’s thesis on Satanic Verses. She was not raised by godless communist parents either.

Readers do not have to believe this disavowal – it’s simply an attempt to set up a pre-emptive firewall against such personal accusations flung at anyone who offers a critique of liberation theology, especially one linked to Islam. To suggest that all people are equal, in all respects, regardless of race, class, gender or religion (including intra-faith sects), is now taken by some as an attack on the exceptionalism of Muslims.

Since gender equality, democracy and freedoms of expression were used duplicitously as ruses for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become fashionable to suspect these very principles as permanent neo-colonial conspiracies against all Muslims.

Despite objections to the orientalist project of ‘saving brown women from brown men’, a new wave of post-9/11 ‘corrective’ politics ironically continues to deploy the rescue motif itself. This time, it seeks to defend Muslim women from universal, rights-based values, laws or freedoms and so it rationalises anti-women practices in Muslim communities. The reasoning is that liberal (western) freedoms must be replaced with ‘Islamic rights’ based on ‘Muslim autonomy’. After such reinvention, there must be global concessions across international legal and social policies in order to accommodate this exceptionalism.

In the post-9/11 period, conservatives in the west view Muslim women’s freedom exclusively through the act of unveiling, while ‘anti-imperialists’ fetishise it as a tool of passive revolution against racism, imperialism and Islamophobia. Neither wishes to discuss discrimination or material rights beyond wardrobe politics.

Then, there are some adventurous souls who overstretch their benevolent sympathy for the Muslim woman’s cause with a recklessness that only the very privileged can afford. Jemima Khan, enamoured by all that she has learnt about Muslim women’s exceptional rights during her time as Imran Khan’s wife, has recently ‘investigated’ British Muslim women’s partiality towards polygamous marriages as a socio-cultural refuge.

Mrs Khan herself renounced the traditional right of Muslim women to keep their maiden names after marriage but interestingly, chooses to retain her ex-husband’s identity even post-divorce. Social-celebrity affectation or not, that’s her personal choice. However, when she masquerades as a social scientist, then Mrs Khan may be well advised to read some of the prolific international scholarship by (Muslim) women on the historical intersections of polygamy with culture, religion and class and their assessment of its doubtful ‘benefits’.

Not to privilege science too much, even an anecdotal survey of some working class communities of Lahore, where Mrs Khan lived for several years, would have confirmed her thesis – albeit not with the same optimistic conclusions. Often, polygamous marriages have indeed provided some women a sanctuary...but not from poverty or abandonment, instead, from domestic violence. Once displaced, primary wives of polygamous arrangements sometimes (though not always) become lesser targets of spousal and in-law violence/discrimination. Technically, this could qualify polygamous arrangements as safer havens, I suppose.

Several first wives have also confided that they are relieved when their husbands contract second marriages, since it can also liberate them from domestic chores while transferring these to the auxiliary second wives. The labour of the first wife is often moved out of the house in order to earn supplementary income for the growing ‘family’. Thus, she ‘escapes’ to earn a livelihood while the second wife is ‘privileged’ with household responsibilities including multiple child-care. I suppose all this could too be read as a happy division of labour and beneficial patriarchal bargain.

In most Muslim societies, polygamy has not been a solution to the growing problem of the abandonment of divorced women/children because most ‘first’ families are also dumped when men contract polygamous marriages. Indeed, abandonment of responsibilities is independent of any form of marital setup. The single mother/female-headed household phenomenon in Muslim communities remains understudied because it’s an inconvenient truth that marriage, in any form, is not a haven for women. It’s a form of social order and control over women’s sexuality and, according to Engels, a patriarchal method of organising private property.

Such practical considerations are ignored in counsels that seek to give a ‘Muslim solution’ to what are really common, universal, pragmatic and secular problems. Such divine alternative solutions also reinforce the perception of Muslim women as infantilised creatures in permanent need of male protection, rather than acknowledging them as independent citizens who deserve equal rights within social and state institutions.

There is also profound defeatism in such proposals. The burden of finding redeeming elements, survival strategies and happiness within unequal power relations and unjust laws seems to be the exclusive privilege of Muslim women. This resonates with other similar patronising proposals such as, the poor are at least happy in their poverty, domestic workers are at least well taken care of in the sanctuaries of elite households, that disenfranchised migrant labour in Gulf countries at least earn foreign currency, that madressah children at least get fed...

Beyond recovering the pragmatism of polygamy for Muslim women (and accepting that Muslim men enter multiple marriages out of pure altruism), one may ask Mrs Khan to propose concrete recommendations on how to institutionalise polygamy for British Muslim women with reference to inheritance rights or indeed, immigration laws, child custody concerns or domestic financial obligations in a secular welfare state.

She would also need to make a case on why Muslim exceptionalism should stop at polygamy and why this should not extend to the institutionalisation of Muslim family laws across the board. That would require discussions around age of consent/early marriages, equal right to divorce and, more troubling, Muslim laws on child custody and post-divorce maintenance. Indeed, given the multiple social advantages of polygamy that Mrs Khan advocates, shouldn’t this privilege now be extended from an exclusively Muslim choice and made available more widely, as a social protection policy for all British women?

Clearly, social policy depth is neither the purview nor the purpose of liberal white women saviours like Mrs Khan. Unfortunately, in their charitable defence of ‘Muslim traditions’, they may be doing more damage than intended. Postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak has argued that such efforts by white women (in colonial India) were often motivated not so much by benevolent colonialism but more so by ignorant goodwill.

Such lingering orientalist goodwill should have an expiry date, particularly at a time when Arab Muslim women are struggling against the very real retraction of their secular autonomous rights in a post-revolutionary period. The recuperation of male-defined dogma in the interest of liberating Muslim women is as misplaced as imperial adventures that pretend to rescue them.

And no, this is not a pre-electoral, anti-PTI, embedded article either.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: afiyazia at yahoo.com

P.S.

reproduced here form The News for educational and non commercial use