Journalist Hasnet Lais argues that Islam has the solution for Britain’s sexism problem.
For many Muslims in Britain, Islamophobia renders their thoughtful contributions to national debate as null and void.
Every political melodrama and media upheaval reminds them of belonging to a group which large swathes of the country would love to see deported en masse. Although it is dispiriting when the prevailing sentiment of our press and public view Islam as a scourge to their way of life, there’s an irony to all the Muslim-baiting which as a nation we ought to recognise for our benefit.
I may have one heck of a PR task ahead of me, but I can’t resist stating an unfathomably hard-to-digest prospect: Islam may be a solution and not the problem.
Notwithstanding the fact I’ve already handicapped myself against the predictable horde of Islamophobes, I do myself even less favours when revealing what Islam could potentially a solution be for. So here it goes…casual sexism. Yes, the recurring epidemic which cuts across the heart of countless British women can be addressed by dare I say it, our cultural nemesis, Shariah Law.
As a Muslim male, weighing in on anything remotely linked with sex and girls is likely to generate a paranoid defence of British freedoms, owing to the number of child grooming and female genital mutilation cases which are conveniently spun to reinforce our pariah status.
With the complicity of large sections of the press, the far right feels it can neatly encapsulate the visible presence of British Muslims through a series of noxious images which conjure a manufactured fear of creeping Shariah, stealthily lurking in the shadows before abducting unsuspecting white girls on their way home from school. Thus, we’re told to yield our pride of place, seeing how we rarely open our mouths without making ourselves an accessory to sexism.
But the disturbing notion of male entitlement to female bodies is way too pervasive for anyone- including Muslims-to brush aside, so I’m not willing to concede the moral high ground just yet.
Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism campaign, drew our national scandal into sharp focus through the project’s Twitter feed, overflowing with testimonies of women’s daily encounters with casual bigotry.
Recently, UN official Rashida Manjoo claimed the levels of sexual harassment in the UK was more “in your face” than any country she visited. From recommendations that schools introduce lessons on sexism as part of the curriculum to discussions on policing sexist behaviour on social media, public transport and wherever it rears its ugly head, I couldn’t help from imagining how different our gender interactions would look if we sought refuge in a social practice enshrined in the Quran – lowering the gaze.
Lowering the gaze
So what is lowering the gaze? And can the British public benefit from embracing such gestures as part of their social etiquette?
Upon closer inspection, lowering the gaze is not so much the leap of faith as some would assume. The practice bears resemblance to Britain’s Victorian tradition of Gentlemanly conduct upheld by the Anglican Church, where a lustful gaze – according to the Gospel of Matthew- was akin to adultery in the heart. In the Islamic tradition, it is a command from God to both men and women mentioned in Surah Al-Nur: 31-32.
Given how the sexual desire of a male is deemed greater than females, the overwhelming number of Prophetic narrations caution men against letting their eyes wander in directions which could easily elicit unlawful temptations.
When confronted with any potentially alluring situation, Muslims are instructed to avert their glances, as the verse states “…that will make for greater purity for them”. In return for restraining their gazes and allowing women to go about their business without the slightest harassment, God will reward them with a heart which is clean and steadfast.
Practising Muslims take much pride and affinity in this practice of male courtesy, deeming it essential for a woman’s wellbeing.
On first impressions, it would appear such a simple moral maxim is symptomatic of an idealised purity born of faith, but there’s a sincerity underlying this conviction which victims of sexism cannot ignore. While much of our society can aptly be described as a libidinous cesspit, there are men living in the same sexist potholes that are deeply sensitised to women’s suffering, insisting their adherence to scripture would never inure them to the damage wrought by a pernicious culture of sexual excess.
By lowering their gaze, their pieties would fend off the slightest inclination to score a cheap laugh at a girl’s expense. Catcalls and wolf-whistles are not only frowned upon but seen as reflecting a decrepit soul which must be healed. Now surely there’s a story involving Muslims and women which doesn’t evoke a moral panic.
As a devout Muslim male, I’m proud to belong to a circle of friends who wouldn’t dare mutter a bawdy remark to a female out of deference to God and respect for her dignity.
For women reeling at the chauvinism that promotes a tediously reductive view of sex, I’m sure they’d agree the same cannot be said of men who are completely inebriated by the near-constant stream of sexist banter which is sadly bred in our school playgrounds, only to find expression with insatiable colleagues and bosses at work who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
As incredulous as it sounds, religion may be an antidote for a laddish culture steeped in churlish discourse about its womenfolk.
Can it seriously work?
Of course, many will scoff at the suggestion that old-fashioned Puritanism can restore public decorum between genders. Positing faith as a moral defender in this conversation will vex those for whom religion has historically circumscribed women to social nunneries, at the behest of patriarchal priesthoods and male hierarchies.
But the very fact this temperament is being touted by a group often deemed culprits in the oppression of young women should echo a sigh of relief for those constantly berating our society’s proclivity for sexual harassment.
Much of the feminist and populist angst with Islam needs evaluating. There will always be some aspect of the Muslim ritual code which advocates of women’s rights find unsettling, but denying faith any right to be heard over our sexism debacle will only deny victims from recognising potentially novel and spiritual means by which men navigate around the problem.
For women too often on the receiving end of normalised bigotry, the Islamic ethic that men accrue respect and reward from lowering their gaze may point towards a social fabric conducive to mitigating harassment.
Not only is it refreshing that some of our boys are taking active strides to tackle sexism through religious dictum, even more heartening is they hail from a minority so often maligned as child-poaching loonies, bent on the sexual enslavement of young white girls.
Whatever reservations we may have with organised religion, the constraints stipulated by faith offers a beautiful yet underappreciated value which should be accorded respect by anyone unfortunate enough to have endured our cultural ailment.
Instead of playing to the proverbial Muslim-bashing gallery and fretting over the degree of religious accommodation in the public realm, it’s time we acknowledged that a faith-based reproach to everyday sexism can lend a compelling voice to Britain’s unchecked licentiousness.