Guest post by Pink Prosecco
Above: Maajid Nawaz
If a Muslim expresses some reservations about Quilliam’s rhetoric or strategies, I tend to assume, not that they are an Evil Islamist, but that – they have some reservations about Quilliam’s rhetoric or strategies. These are things reasonable people may disagree about. However some recent responses to Maajid Nawaz’s decision to tweet a Jesus and Mo cartoon go beyond reasonable criticism.
He tweeted the picture after it featured (on a T shirt) on BBC’s The Big Questions, where it was the focus of a debate about free speech. This is the offending image in question.
Nawaz’s tweet has apparently caused many Muslims, including Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation, to make a formal complaint to the Lib Dems. (Nawaz is the Liberal Democrat PPC for Hampstead and Kilburn.)
Of course it is quite proper to draw attention to bigoted remarks made by politicians, and expect the whip to be withdrawn, or some other form of censure applied, depending on the level of offence. But the fact some Muslims think it is inappropriate to depict Muhammad does not make Jesus and Mo offensive. Non-Muslims, and Muslims (like Nawaz) who don’t think pictures of Muhammad are taboo, should not be bound by others’ religious dogma.
Reactions to Nawaz cover a spectrum ranging from death threats to warm support – and many of his supporters are fellow-Muslims. In the middle of the spectrum we find people who would certain not condone or incite violence but who demonstrate clear hostility towards the reformist Nawaz. Not all of his antagonists are Muslims. Here’s Gorgeous George’s response.
“No Muslim will ever vote for the Liberal Democrats anywhere ever unless they ditch the provocateur Majid Nawaz, cuckold of the EDL”
5Pillarz, a blog written largely by and for British Muslims, has decided that Nawaz should be their top candidate for ‘Islamophobe of the Year’. The EDL is mentioned at the bottom of their list of suggestions, as a kind of afterthought.
As Maajid Nawaz says:
“Why are many on the “Left” largely silent on Muslim reformers. Want to defend minorities? Well, we’re a minority within a minority, defend us”
As someone from the ‘Left’ I’m happy to defend and support Maajid Nawaz – though I’d draw the line at voting for him.
My partner and I were once travelling on the eastern side of Turkey. That is noticeably more conservative than the western side, and we followed the Lonely Planet’s advice. He changed his shorts for trousers and I put on a long skirt. On mini-buses if there was a spare seat next to me and a man got on he would not sit next to me, so my partner and I would swap seats If a woman came on, it was vice versa. We were trying our best to be culturally sensitive, and though we found this particular custom absurd, there’s plenty to admire about the people in eastern Turkey.
Note, though, how inconvenient it was. The bloke who got on looked tired, and had probably been working all day in the fields. But a cultural practice prevented him from taking a little ease for half an hour. Also, countries where women are segregated usually mean the women stay at home. These are not just Muslim countries. When a woman friend and I travelled around Greece in about 1979 it looked like a virus had wiped out the female population. The corollary of the local women being kept apart is that we visiting women were harassed constantly. It was a relief to get back to Britain and be treated as a normal human being.
This is working up to segregation at universities which has made big news recently.
Over at Loonwatch, an Islamophobia watch site, they are puzzled that people should get so upset about men and women being segregated at meetings at universities that they, the complainers, are very unlikely to attend. They also think it’s hypocritical, given the amount of gender segregation there is in our society.
Of course our society has a fair amount of informal segregation. Hen parties (which are yukky from other points of view) and stag parties for instance. However, the woman who goes on a girls’ night out or to a women’s networking event would be appalled to be segregated at a public meeting. It was the formal connivance of the UUK to segregation that made everyone so angry.
There are times when a woman is a female body. In a changing room, in a toilet, in a hospital ward, giving birth, flirting at a party wearing a low-cut dress and having sex. But that at a meeting she should be regarded as a female body rather than another citizen, another listener, questioner, point-putter or heckler is insulting to every suffragette and every feminist who fought for women’s equal rights in the public sphere.
Here are some of the arguments set out by Tehmina Kazi, the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. The full piece is here.
Aspects of the gender segregation debate that have annoyed and perplexed me
Denial that gender segregation even exists in universities.
Downplaying of the discrimination and shoddy treatment faced by women who have experienced it, which goes back many years.
Those who are unable to see why it is problematic for a public body like Universities UK to prioritise the whims of external speakers over university public sector equality duties, and THE SPIRIT of equalities law.
No-one has given me a GOOD reason as to WHY gender segregation it is practiced in the first place, in either civic or theological terms. “Because we’ve done it for years…” does NOT count.
. . .
Women who turn around and say, “But I’ve never had a problem with being segregated.” Fair enough, but where is the empathy for people who HAVE suffered as a result?
[An old feminist recognises "I've always got on very well with men. as an argument for anti-feminism.]
The endless comparisons with toilets. Since when did the privacy issues of taking a dump compare to those of engaging one’s brain and listening to a speaker as part of an audience?
The endless comparisons with single-sex educational establishments, which people actively CHOOSE to attend. Even if the choice was made for them by their parents, you’d think they would be able to enjoy such freedom of choice themselves at the age of 18, SHOULD they decide to attend university. What people effectively have NO choice over is attending a public event at a MIXED university – either as a guest or student – where the arrangements inhibit them from sitting or entering alongside the opposite gender.
(As for the single-sex colleges at Cambridge University, they were originally set up to help redress the gender imbalance in higher education. As I understand it, at least one of the Cambridge colleges in question intends to become co-educational when the proportion of women at Cambridge reaches 50%).
Confusion over the distinction between discretionary segregation (where people randomly sit where they wish, perhaps in same-sex clusters) and organised segregation (which is either enforced by the event organisers, or requested by the student societies in question). [See above for my point on the informal and formal.]
Complaints that the issue is receiving disproportionate public attention NOW. Where were these complainants when women’s rights activists were raising these issues within the community for YEARS? Keeping schtum and not upsetting the apple cart, yes?
Complaints that those who raise this issue MUST have an Islamophobic agenda, when many of them are actually Muslims whose concerns have been brushed aside for years. (As an aside, many of these same Muslim activists have ALSO done a lot to challenge GENUINE anti-Muslim sentiment).
Assumptions that those who campaign against gender segregation in university events MUST also automatically oppose it in congregational prayers. This is not about acts of worship, as Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive Mark Hammond made clear: “Universities can also provide facilities for religious meetings and associations based on faith, as in the rest of society. Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it. However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the Commission’s view, permissible to segregate by gender.”
This issue will come up again in another guise, and again will have to be slapped down. It is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.
KB Player, December 20th 2013, (cross-posted from That Place)
The London School of Economics (LSE) has today issued a long-awaited apology to students Chris Moos and Abhishek Phandis, representatives of the student Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (LSEASH), who wore t-shirts featuring the popular Jesus and Mo cartoon at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October, and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair.
The incident . . . was described as an “effective blasphemy law”, and said to be indicative of a wider trend around various university campuses across the country, wherein minorities are singled out and targeted under the guise of “political correctness”.
The LSE has published a statement (linked to above), including an apology for the disproportionate action and confirming that the students in question did no wrong. The British Humanist Association (BHA) and National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Students Societies (AHS), of which the LSEASH is a member, have both welcomed the LSE’s statement.
What with this, and the UUK “urgently reviewing” their guidance on gender segregation, it’s been a good week.
My friend and comrade Sean Matgamna has lately been the target of an ignorant and/or malicious campaign of largely synthetic outrage and accusations of “racism” (described and analysed here) from sections of the “left” who don’t like his militant secularism and anti-clericalism. The following short piece (from 2002) explains some of the background to Sean’s stance:
The Communist Party with Catholic Irish immigrants then, and the Left with Muslims now
There are striking parallels between the conventional Left’s attitude to Islam now and the way the Communist Party used to relate to Irish Catholic immigrants in Britain. I had some experience of that.
For a while, over forty years ago, I was involved in the work of the Communist Party among Irish people of devout Catholic background in Britain, people from the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, where clerics ruled within the glove-puppet institutions of a bourgeois democracy.
Hundreds of thousands of us came to Britain from small towns, backward rural areas, from communities of small commodity-producers that were very different from conditions we encountered in Britain. We spoke English and were racially indistinguishable from the natives, but we brought with us the idea of history as the struggle of the oppressed against oppression and exploitation, derived from what we had learned from teachers, priests, parents and songs, and from reading about Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against England.
Such ideas had very broad implications. It needed only a small shift – no more than a refocusing of those ideas on the society we were now in, and which at first we saw with the eyes of strangers not inclined to be approving – for us to see British society for the class-exploitative system it is, to see our place in it, and to reach the socialist political conclusions that followed from that.
Vast numbers of Irish migrants became part of the labour movement. Quite a few of us became socialists of varying hues, a small number revolutionary socialists. Catholicism was the reason why large numbers of Irish immigrants, whose mindset I have sketched above, did not become communists.
The CPGB ran an Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association. Instead of advocating socialism and secularism and working to organise as communists those being shaken loose from the dogmatic certainties we had learned in a society ruled by Catholic “fundamentalists”, the Connolly Association disguised themselves as simple Irish nationalists. They purveyed ideas not seriously different from those of the ruling party in Dublin, Fianna Fail, except for occasional words in favour of Russian foreign policy.
The real history of 20th century Ireland, and the part played by the Catholic Church and the Catholic “Orange Order”, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in creating the conditions that led to Partition, were suppressed by these supposed Marxists. Instead, they told a tale in which only the Orange bigots and the British were villains. The concerns and outlook of narrow Catholic nationalism were given a pseudo-anti-imperialist twist. All that mattered was to be “against British imperialism”.
The CPGB thus, for its own manipulative ends, related to the broad mass of Irish Catholic immigrants – who, in the pubs of places like South Manchester, bought the Connolly Association paper Irish Democrat, in large numbers – by accommodating to the Catholic nationalist bigotries we had learned from priests and teachers at home and battening on them.
We had, those of us who took it seriously, a cultural and religious arrogance that would have startled those who did not see us as we saw ourselves – something that, I guess, is also true of many Muslims now. The CPGB did not challenge it. (If this suggests something purely personal to me, I suggest that the reader takes a look at James P Cannon’s review of the novel Moon Gaffney in Notebook of an Agitator.)
For the CPGB this approach made a gruesome sense entirely absent from the SWP’s antics with Islam, because Moscow approved of Dublin’s “non-aligned” foreign policy, which refused NATO military bases in Ireland. Russian foreign policy, and the wish to exploit Irish nationalism against the UK – that was the CPGB leader’s first and main concern.
In this way the Connolly Association and the CPGB cut across the line of development of secularising Irish immigrants: large numbers became lapsed Catholics, but without clearing the debris of religion from their heads. It expelled from its ranks those who wanted to make the Connolly Association socialist and secularist. Instead of helping us move on from middle-class nationalism and the Catholic-chauvinist middle-class interpretation of Irish history, it worked to lock us back into those ideas by telling us in “Marxist” terms that they were the best “anti-imperialism”. What mattered, fundamentally, to the CP leaders was who we were against – Russia’s antagonist, Britain.
(from the Workers Liberty website)
How has it come to this? And how is that some who regard themselves as on the “left” not only tolerate religious bigotry and censorship of this sort, but actively promote it?
Statement from the British Humanist Association
LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society incident at freshers’ fair
October 4th, 2013
In a statement, the students have explained:
‘When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students.
‘At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts… After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room.’
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), commented, ‘The LSESU is acting in a totally disproportionate manner in their dealings with our affiliate society. That a satirical webcomic can be deemed to be so offensive as to constitute harassment is a sad indictment of the state of free speech at Britain’s Universities today. This hysteria on the part of the SU and University is totally unwarranted; intelligent young adults of whatever beliefs are not so sensitive that they need to be protected from this sort of material in an academic institution. Our lawyers are advising our affiliated society at LSE and we will be working with them, the students, and the AHS to resolve this issue.’
The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, ‘Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all. The AHS will work with our partners at the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society to assist our affiliated society and seek engagement with both the LSESU and LSE itself. It is the duty of universities countrywide to respect their students’ rights, not their sensitivities.’
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.
We haven’t always agreed with Yasmin Alibhai Brown, but her column in today’s Independent is an honourable and quite brave statement of principle that needs to be thrown in the face of relativist/”multicultural” (sic) idiots and religious reactionaries everywhere:
Fully veiled women hinder progressive Islam
Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument
First a British judge, then dedicated educationalists running a British college have been defeated by the aggressive guerrilla army of Muslim Salafists and their misguided allies. At Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Peter Murphy ordered a 21-year-old, veiled defendant to show her face. The accused had been charged with witness intimidation and pleaded not guilty. Whatever the results of that case, she and her supporters certainly intimidated the judge, who backed down so the trial could proceed.
Birmingham Metropolitan College was similarly cowed and had to reverse a directive forbidding students from covering their faces. One hooded lady crowdsourced a protest against the college. Some overexcited student union members, Muslim objectors and online petitioners have forced a U-turn. Shabana Mahmood, MP for Ladywood, Birmingham, welcomed the capitulation. Happy days. Muslim women can now to go to courts and college in shrouds.
That all-covering gown, that headscarf, that face mask – all affirm and reinforce the belief that women are a hazard to men and society. These are unacceptable, iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors. They have no place in our country. So why are so many British females sending out those messages about themselves?
Some think they are outsmarting anxious Western institutions by covering up, winning dispiriting culture wars which will give them no advantage in our fast moving world. Young women in niqabs are either testing the state as teenagers do their parents or think their garb is political action – but for what? Many women, mothers in particular, have been brainwashed by proselytisers who want to spread conservative Islamic worship across Europe and North America. They are well funded by sources based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
And then there are those vacuous females who argue that it is their right to be objectified, that they must be allowed to live as invisible creatures. I don’t know which of these dubious forces prevailed in the examples above. But I do know that this trend is growing fast and cannot just be “tolerated” as a minority tendency, just one of many choices people make.
Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument. I have written hundreds of times about the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Muslims, and other minorities. It isn’t easy being a Muslim anywhere in the world – not in Muslim lands or the West. But when Muslims wilfully create problems and build barriers, anti-racists and egalitarians have an absolute duty to engage with them critically and in good faith. I know frank engagement is avoided because it gives succour to the EDL, BNP, neocons and manic anti-Muslim atheists. I, too, have to think hard before penning columns like this one. In the end though, I don’t think we should abdicate these grave responsibilities because so much is at stake.
The woman before the judge must know that she or others like her will never be judges or barristers. Will she make her daughters do the same? The system wasn’t picking on her – a defendant in a micro mini would have caused as much disquiet. And the aggrieved college student, what future does she imagine? She denies herself jobs for the sake of what? They keep apart from fellow Britons by withholding proper human interactions. It’s not right or fair.
None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Some branches of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women. We are directed always to accept the rules of the countries we live in and their institutions, as long as they are reasonable. For security, justice, travel, education and health identification is vital. Why should these women be exempt? We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too.
This is a struggle between the light of the faith and dark forces here and also in Islamic countries. The clothes symbolize an attempted takeover of the religion just when believers are looking for liberty, autonomy, democracy and gender equality. Malala Yousafzai doesn’t hide her determined face. Nor do our female Muslim MPs and peers or civil rights lawyers.
Some of the bravest human rights activists are Muslim women. Take Tamsila Tauquir awarded an MBE for her charitable work with Muslims and Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded seven years ago. The two of them, with other idealists, have embarked on an “inclusive mosque” initiative, with pop-up prayers in various venues, where men and women, gays and straights, humanists and modernists can pray together. Many others are trying to promote progressive Islam, which fits our times and needs.
Islamic zealots must fear these developments and want to crush them. Whether they know it or not, fully veiled women are part of this reactionary mission. Our state must not aid and abet them. The judge and the college should not have retreated and handed them this victory.
NB: since this article was written, the judge in the (alleged) witness intimidation case has ruled that the accused woman must remove her veil while giving evidence and (presumably) while under cross-examination: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/16/muslims-woman-must-remove-veil-evidence_n_3933773.html?utm_hp_ref=uk
Above: Dawkins interviewed by devout Muslim Mehdi Hasan earlier this year
In case you missed it, Richard Dawkins caused a minor row last week with some comments he tweeted about Muslims, viz:
“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Noble Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
The twitter storm that followed included comparisons between Dawkins and David Irving and the suggestion that he be ‘no platformed’ as a racist.
Dawkins defended himself by pointing out that his comments about Muslims’ lack of (recent) scientific achievement is simply a statement of fact, and that Islamism is a belief, not a form of ethnicity. Both those points are plainly true and the suggestion that Dawkins is any kind of racist is plainly nonsense.
Nevertheless, his comments about Muslims (as opposed to other religious people) are worrying, and the reason isn’t difficult to fathom:
It’s not hard to find a skunk ready to lie and cause mayhem in order to advance the power of their religion:-
At a Council of churchmen and magnates called to Clermont in France and in a flurry of papal letters accompanying it around 1095, Urban [Pope Urban II] described renewed but completely imaginary atrocities against Christian pilgrims by Muslims in Jerusalem, so that he could arouse appropriate horror and action would follow. The effect was sensational: noblemen present hastened to raise their tenants to set out on a mission to avenge Christian wrongs in the East.
(From A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch)
And thus began the First Crusade.
When I read this I was reminded of latter day lying skunks in the Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoons.
Both these events seemed simple enough. A novelist, cartoonists, produced works that devout believers found blasphemous. Outraged, these believers rioted, burned buildings and killed people. Liberal commentators deplored the violence but had a sweet sense of empathy for the rage boys, and were inclined to scold Rushdie/the Danish cartoonists for their lack of sensitivity.
However between the blasphemous work and the spontaneous-seeming riots there were the clerics with the lack of scruple of Mafia bosses ramping up the outrage. With Rushdie it was the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, trying to gain political advantage over the Saudis.
The Danish cartoons were a chance for clerics lower down the scale to make their careers. The Motoons did not at first cause much of a stir, but journalists began to move events towards a story:-
Only when journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of imams for their response, did Islamists begin to recognise the opportunity provided not just by the caricatures themselves but also by the sensitivity of Danish society to their publication.
Among the first contacted was the controversial cleric Ahmed Abu Laban, infamous for his support for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. He seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims. Yet however hard he pushed, he initially found it difficult to provoke major outrage. in Denmark or abroad. It took more than four months of often hysterical campaigning and considerable arm-twisting by Saudi diplomats, to create a major controversy.
So Laban travelled around the Middle East and with him went an imam, Akhmad Akkari. To big up the blasphemy they included three extra drawings that were far more grossly offensive than the originals.
The first of the three additional pictures, which are of dismal quality, shows Muhammad as a pedophile deamon , the second shows the prophet with a pig snout and the third depicts a praying Muslim being raped by a dog. Apparently, the 12 original pictures were not deemed bad enough to convince other Muslims that Muslims in Denmark are the victims of a campaign of religious hatred.
Akhmad Akkari, spokesman of the 21 Danish Muslim organizations which organized the tour, explained that the three drawings had been added to “give an insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims.” Akkari claimed he does not know the origin of the three pictures. He said they had been sent anonymously to Danish Muslims. However, when Ekstra Bladet asked if it could talk to these Muslims, Akkari refused to reveal their identity.
This story now has a further unlikely twist. After spending some time in Greenland reading Montesquieu and Rousseau. Akhmad Akkari has recanted:-
“The world doesn’t need a lid on human expression. That also goes for people you might disagree with. There was something deep-seated in the mentality of the group I belonged to, which I just didn’t notice. There was this fundamental idea that people were not allowed to express themselves freely, and that is just wrong,” said Akkari.
It sounds as though John Stuart Mill was on his reading list as well.
Akkari’s days as an imam are now behind him and he says that he is “no longer a part of the Islamic mission”. He further claims that many of his former colleagues are hypocrites with a mindset that is “horribly wrong”.
When asked whether the cartoons were misused.
“The way I see it today, yes. Behind all the talk of protecting religious imagery, there is always power and abuse,” he said. “It is simply revolting.”
That’s a succinct summing up of this and similar affairs. You can hear Akkari on the World Service 5:04 in. He has apologised to one of the cartoonists.
So credit to the man for recanting, unlike Urban II and Khomeini, who should both be rotting in the hell they were so ready to hand out to those outwith their own religious kingdom.
Update:-, The Guardian has reported on Ahmad Akkari’s recantation in its own Guardianish way:-
“His unexpected change of heart has received praise from pundits and politicians in recent weeks, though some question his sincerity. It has also disappointed some in the country’s Muslim minority who were deeply offended by the cartoons.”
They say nothing about the addition of the 3 fraudulent cartoons, or the politics behind the Danish imams’ Middle East mission. Not peace making, anyway.
Ophelia Benson further explains why that Guardian piece was so annoying.
“Stupid Guardian. Even in an article about the guy who led the campaign that triggered “fiery protests in Muslim countries,” the Graun is still using that stupid inaccurate stock-phrase “the Danish cartoons, which sparked fiery protests.” Imbecile Guardian. The cartoons did not spark the fiery protests, you buffoons. Pay attention to what you write. . .
That group of imams and their spokesman got people killed. The cartoons didn’t do it. People deliberately stoking outrage about the cartoons did it. Sometimes outrage has to be stoked, but this was not one of those times, and the stoking got people killed.”
Further to Coatsey’s post on Wajdja, I could not miss a film about a girl longing for a bicycle so as to pedal against the patriarchy. Wadjda is a charming film.
Wajdja, played superbly by Waad Mohammed, is a spunky tomboy and rebel, the Saudi descendant of Jo March in Little Women, whom Simone de Beauvoir and other feminists have always loved. Like Jo she is best friends with the boy next door and like Jo she lives in a highly religious society but Islamic Saudi Arabia is far more restrictive than nineteenth century Protestant America. Her mother does go out to work – but wearing an abbaya, and with a long commute to an all female workplace driven by an illegal immigrant, Saudi women not being allowed to drive. Wadjda’s father is sweet to her, however work keeps him away from home and he is also considering a second wife, his first wife being unable to bear more children.
The school that Wajdja attends is reminiscent of a convent circa 1880. The girls wear long, heavy dresses and there is much emphasis about keeping out of the sight of men. They are a prurient, giggly lot, kept under control by their strict, heavy-eyed headmistress (Ahd Kamel) . Everyone is sex obsessed. The girl who has a clandestine rendezvous with her “brother” is married off, one of the girls in Wajdja’s religious class, who’s about 14, has also been married, the headmistress is anxious about romantic friendships between the girls, and when Wadjda falls off her friend’s cycle and cuts her knee, her mother is afraid that it’s blood from a broken hymen.
Wajdja longs for a bicycle, and in order to pay for one she joins the religious school so she can enter a Koran knowledge and reciting competition with a big money prize. We have some rather Hollywood conventions of following your dreams and the suspense of whether she will win or not but because of the film’s gentle pace and the exotic location it feels fresh and the stakes seem real. You do root for the delightful Wadjda and her longing for a bicycle is the longing for freedom and action.
At the end of the nineteenth century the bicycle was a symbol of liberty for women. They became independently mobile and they also had to stop wearing whalebone and other constricting clothing. They could go out to work, attend Suffragette meetings and, of course, socialise with young men. When women first straddled the machine they were seen as bold and unwomanly. So Wadjda’s mother, lovely and talented, was married from high school and is much hampered by her female role, but thinks that bicycles can prevent you having babies.
In Saudi Arabia the religious police have only just allowed women to ride bicycles, and then only with a male guardian in parks. The religious police are mentioned, but it is more social than legal sanctions that make everyone tell Wadjda that bicycles aren’t for girls.
Although the women are highly constrained, the view of Saudi is not overly dark. These are ordinary middle class people with strong family and tribal ties, habitually religious and also showing a fair amount of affection towards each other. When Wadjda does her Koran recitation, the liquid chanting is hypnotic. Again, as in a convent, the clothes may be drab and the behaviour repressed while the religious performance offers drama and poetry.
There are some final twists to the story with two scenes of heartbreaking disappointment but in the last scene Wadjda has broken free with her mother’s approval and is pedalling with her friend around the wide, sandy streets of the neighbourhood until she comes to a busy highway, where no sane being would cycle. She is smiling and the film ends on a hopeful note.
Don’t even think about commenting on this issue without having listened to this!
Starts at 11.57
The BBC Asian Network bills the programme as follows:
Debate about grooming cases, live from Oxford
Nihal’s phone-in [in fact the phone-in is preceded by an hour's debate from Oxford, which is the crucial part of the programme -JD] is coming live from the Cowley Road in Oxford where seven men groomed and sexually abused girls as young as eleven over a period of eight years. He will be getting reaction to the sentences given to the men and asking what lessons can be learnt from what has happened.
The issues up for debate are extremely sensitive – so much so that a lot of people from the area did not want to talk to us. Five of the seven men found guilty were of Pakistani origin and most of the people who BBC Asian Network has spoken to in the area either knew them – or knew someone who knew them.
Nihal asks – who is to blame for this terrible abuse, apart from the men themselves? Why were they able to get away with the abuse over an eight year period?
If the men were so well known in the community, why were their crimes not reported sooner? Is the fact that many of them came from the Pakistani community a relevant one?
The main debate lasts for one hour and forty minutes, but it’s well worth putting the time aside for. If you can’t do that, at least listen to the wise words of Julie Siddiqui of the Islamic Society of Britain, at about 30.20. This is only available for the next four days: