In this day and age, when you’re an academic it is always good to have information about your research interests published online. Who knows, you’ll get asked by the media to give your expert opinion on topics you know intimately about, prospective students become inspired by similar research and seek your consult, and then there’s the general and ever curious public who wonder what it’s like in the ivory tower and at times do things to topple you from that tower. A few days ago, I received a short email that contained many searching questions:
I come across your profile on SOAS and I’d be interested to your views on Islam, gender and politics? Why do you think, as you mentioned, there is a gender inequality in Muslim society? Do you not think there is inequality in the UK society? How film is going to help in this?
Very patiently and interestedly I answered:
Thanks for your email and query. Gender inequality is a social problem that cannot be reduced as a problem with religion, and particularly not Islam. There are great many factors that contribute to gender inequality (which is rarely separated from other forms of social inequalities such as classism, racism, etc.) in Muslim societies – laws that are not enforced to protect the interests of women and girls, traditional gender roles which are enforced on women and male chauvinism that devalues women and femininity, war and conflict (women and girls tend to be the most vulnerable during these times, especially during the post-conflict period), and poverty. And as you can see, these factors are not unique to Muslim societies, but can and continues to occur in ‘Western’ societies (that also have Muslim communities).
Yes, there is a serious problem with inequality in UK society. Namely in terms of class, and it starts from the acts of classist injustice at the highest rungs of society and politics and seeps into other forms of inequalities. The Con-Dem government has exacerbated poverty levels by taking away public funding in places that need them most. If we’re talking about gender, class, ethnic, and immigration-related inequality rolled into one, take the example of funding cuts on ESOL classes for migrants to the UK. Most migrants who enter the UK with lower levels of education, lower employability status, and as adjuncts of better qualified migrants are female spouses and family members of male migrants. Inability to speak English will mean fewer work opportunities, lower self-esteem, and heightened racist panic.
About film, particularly fiction film; It doesn’t “help” in ending social inequalities in a direct way since films are things produced through a compromise of multiple factors (marketability, creative (and sometimes political) vision, and censorship constraints) but it holds up a kind of mirror reflecting the way society works. How we talk about gender (and our messages about gender inequality, whether implicit or not) comes to life on screen. I hope not to overstate this, but I believe that film is but a social barometer that gives us an understanding on how and what kind of images of women and men are being imagined, accepted, loved, and rejected. The more we see images of gender in a particular way (namely stereotypical images of women as sexual objects characterised by narrow standards of beauty, housewives who do the washing up and childcare, and mere adjuncts to important characters in film) the better we understand how women and men are expected to be seen in society. Hope this helps.
Perhaps I hit a raw nerve somewhere with my carefully thought-out reply, because the reply I got from MN was terse, accusatory, and frankly ridiculous:
Thanks for taking the time to reply to my email. I appreciate what you voiced in your email. But allow me to enquire further what is your responsibility when Muslim women are labelled as victim? And when France and Britain use familiar language towards Afghanis and Iranian women and yet humiliate them in public places? Would you voice against the current French regime’s decision to humiliate Muslim women who wears Hijab – daily? Or would you stop at “the ways film as ideology and social practice work toward maintaining and subverting domination and gender inequality in Muslim societies?” Will you merely focus on the Muslim societies and not domestic violence and issues women face in the UK? Should you not talk about the humiliation towards to the Palestinian women and girls in the name of the state Israel? And wouldn’t you care about the voiceless women and young females of Gypsy background in Europe and North America who are displaced by the states? And would you talk about and join protests against treatments towards women who cannot enter in the Westminster because of their gender? And finally, what is the meaning of your thesis title “”Construction of ‘new’ Muslim femininities and masculinities in post-New Order cinema “” and how would it help people?
ask all of these questions merely to mention the academic dishonest which only applies to some people and not to others. Because I care about humans and honest scholarships.
To which I replied:
Thanks for your reply. I get similar things said to me by people like yourself. If I was a scientist in the biological sciences, you would be asking me, “What am I going to do about climate change?!!”. Or perhaps not, because anything in the sciences would be considered worthy for study.
For film and media studies, people are quicker to dismiss, discredit and invalidate our scholarship as petty, insignificant, fluff. That’s because people are quite ignorant, Malcolm. And I sincerely hope you’re not one of them.
You may be pleased to know that I’m also a feminist activist and probably know more about and have done more for Palestinian and Roma women than yourself, but I also happen to believe in scholarship for the sake of intellectual growth which cannot be quantified as easily as world peace. But does it matter to you that I’m a feminist activist in my neighborhood, because you’d be asking me to sort the injustices that occur on the other side of the world.
If you’re frustrated about gender inequality in France, Palestine, Iran, and wherever else, perhaps you should go out there yourself and do something about it rather than telling me that I should be focused on X, Y, and Z instead.
If I can offer one valuable advice for you that will answer your enquiries and future ones, it’s this: if you care so much, YOU do something about it. It’s not just a Muslim woman’s “responsibility” to care about Muslim women and the injustices we face around the world, but also for people like yourself to care by stop labeling us all as mere “victims” and speak up yourself against injustice rather than piling on the “responsibility” on others and blaming them for apparently doing nothing. Volunteer at a women’s crisis centre, stop expecting women to “fix” gender inequality on their own, stop telling Muslims to “get ourselves in order” and not checking your prejudices, read more about gender, feminist politics, and Islam, and educate yourself rather than taking an anti-intellectual stand. Hope this helps.