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A Call to Our Communities: Institutional Misogyny Is Real, and We Must Acknowledge It Before We Can Address It

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 14th February, 2022

*Editor’s note: Please note that throughout the article we reference “recent” in relation to the first incident mentioned. 

I write these words in a state of overwhelming exhaustion, pain and despondency. My feelings have been precipitated by the reaction of our communities, our institutions, and leading individuals within them towards a recent* “scandal” around the broadcasting of presenters on a certain Muslim TV channel, who engaged in despicable language, and displayed reprehensible attitudes towards women in general, but specifically towards their female colleagues.

I am not going to rehearse the details of the incident, accounts of which are readily available for anyone wanting to find out, and I do not wish to dignify it with further attention.

Neither is this going to be one of those posts where I weigh in with “my take” on the incident.

I feel we have become all too accustomed to this kind of response to moments of crisis and contention, and I find the climate generated by such responses—well-intentioned as they may be—to be quite trivialising, often to the point of voyeurism, of an issue that carries far more weight and gravity than many of us seem to appreciate. 

Let me explain then:  

Like you, my reader, I too live in the real world, where attitudes and incidents of sexism and misogyny are routine, both in the every day, and scaffolded on structural levels into the societies we inhabit. We experience various manifestations of discrimination and marginalisation—such as mockery and “mansplaining,” rape culture, and violence against women (physically as well as in general discourse). All of these surround us, permeating the media we consume, the arts industry, our politicians, educational establishments, community spaces, and places of prayer—none of these are immune to or free from these issues. Nonetheless, we should be alert to the wider context within which we identify injustices: one form of discrimination should never be a licence for our indulgence in another, and I feel deep indignation at simplistic and racist suggestions that are made about Muslims having an exceptional or specific problem with misogyny. 

Often these arguments are linked with an essentialisation and a misrepresentation of Islamic beliefs and Muslim communities.

 I will also declare from the outset that while I am calling for an honest and introspective appraisal of how our Muslim community institutions and spaces may be enabling harm towards women, I emphatically reject the idea that this is an issue that can be addressed under the framework of ‘counter-extremism’ or ‘counter-radicalisation’.

The cynical weaponisation of women’s “empowerment,” or “safeguarding” as a front in the ever-expansive security state’s battle with the archetypal Muslim “extremist,” is not only disingenuous, but a harmful state-orchestrated strategy which does not centre the best interests of Muslim women, nor those of our communities as a whole. 

But even as I push back against these insidious hazards and voices of prejudice, it would be a huge injustice to overlook or to minimalise the existence of discrimination and harm enacted against women in Muslim spaces. In fact, it is our collective failure to adequately acknowledge and address such discrimination and bigotry that has resulted in its persistence in such a way that the climate and culture within many of our institutions and community spaces promotes—or is complicit in—harm or hostility towards women.

Thus we may say that we have a real problem with institutional misogyny. 

When I put it to you that misogyny in our communities is of institutional proportions—I recognise this is a big claim, but it is not one that I make lightly. Though there is a pain and trauma in the very act of elaborating further, I ask you, in the first instance, to consider what we mean when we use the term “institutional” to describe another disease in our society: racism. Often this denotes a culture where racism and prejudice is sanctioned within institutions and public spaces—whether formally in structures, or informally, through the abuse or undermining of official regulations and protections. We say that a prejudice exists on an institutional level when those in authority are complicit in oppression, through personally authorising it, or through turning a blind eye to conditions around them where this oppression takes place.

We should note that it is generally the case that no single prejudice exists to the exclusion of other forms of bigotry—so often we will find racism and misogyny festering in tandem within an institution, those perpetrating or excusing one of these harms, readily indulging in the other.

So what are these institutions to which I refer here?

These can include our mosques and community centres, our activist spaces, institutions of learning, and those organisations seeking to speak for Muslims in the UK. Though I would include all of these types of spaces under this banner, I will make clear that when I say our problem with misogyny is on an institutional scale, I do not make the claim that all institutions are implicated nor that they are all complicit. 

There has been a fair amount of public discussion and campaigning for change around the physical inclusion of women in our communities. For example, the inadequate provision of prayer space, and the lack of, or unequal involvement of women in decision-making and executive roles at many of our mosques has gained significant attention over recent years.

While still very much an issue, there are a growing number of examples of good practice where these areas are being raised and addressed. 

More broadly, inclusion has been on the agenda of Muslim community spaces for some time now. Many major organisations and mosques have made visible efforts to diversify the composition of their leadership—some even implementing positive discrimination policies to speed up the pace of diversification. We see regular social media campaigns calling on event organisers to be more conscious about the contributors they choose to platform—with “manels” being called out, and a number of individuals publicly demonstrating their decision to “pass the mic” in favour of similarly or better-qualified female contributors. 

To a lesser extent, there have also been a handful of admirable efforts to begin to address the existence of spiritual abuse, to support and obtain justice for victims, and to make communities aware of offenders.

I do not denigrate any of these efforts, but I want us to think beyond them. Many of our institutions may now look more diverse and more inclusive than they did ten or fifteen years ago… they may even sound more diverse and more inclusive. But we need to ask ourselves the deeper questions:

Do women feel any safer in our community spaces? Do they feel that they are heard?

To return to the incident that prompted my intervention. Let us ask ourselves honestly, were we surprised by what we saw and heard? I know that neither I, nor any of the Muslim women I have spoken with since were surprised, and there are reasons for this. Incidents such as this recent Muslim TV “scandal” do not surprise us because we are already accustomed to disrespectful attitudes towards women being displayed by Muslim men in so many areas of public life. Just consider how often we see preachers infantilise women in their discourse—sometimes literally comparing them to, or lumping them along with minors. How common in religious discourse around the home and family life do we find the image of the wife portrayed as nagging, as a burden or source of irritation, or perhaps, at best, someone to placate and pacify rather than a partner of equal worth and respect?

How often have we sat in a talk or discussion and heard speakers and prominent figures indulge in cheap “humour” at the expense of “the sisters”—presumably as a strategy to “lighten the mood” or to grab attention and appeal to young men in their audiences?

Countless numbers of women who work in Muslim-run establishments or volunteer in the Muslim activist space have shared with me stories of times that they have experienced harassment or predatory behaviour from male colleagues. They relate how the culture in these spaces is often one where speaking out about such experiences is discouraged, frowned upon or even penalised. Of course, I emphasise that the existence of such hostile workplace cultures is not a unique feature of our community spaces—indeed all we need to do is look to the world of politics, the corporate world, and the film industry—to name just a few examples—to see how organisations can operate like old boys’ clubs, where predators and abusers act with impunity because the power they wield, and the discretion of their peers, both protect them from scrutiny and accountability. While there are clear differences between these two types of spaces in terms of the scale, extent, and, to a degree, the nature of abuse that is excused, the comparison holds.

A culture of impunity where time and again, incidents of disrespect, harassment, and abuse are met with equivocation or gaslighting—“he meant well,” “you’re being too sensitive,” “it was a one-off”—exists and thrives in many of our community spaces. Cherished concepts from our faith are abused when we counsel women to “have patience” or ask them to “forgive” and “have mercy.”

Do we stop to consider how this can so often be a misuse of these higher ideals, when they are used to add further burden to our most vulnerable, even as they seek out support from us?  Do we counsel offenders, and those who would defend them in the name of “covering up a brother’s sins” to consider how we can show mercy to women and young people growing up in our communities? And what about accountability and justice? Often, this culture is so pervasive and so internalised that many women find themselves resigned to work within in it, or grow desensitised to the very attitudes that harm and dehumanise them. It cannot be emphasised enough that in such situations, our silence, or indifference in response to oppression is tantamount to complicity.  

Then there is the elephant in the room. The high-profile, “celebrity” offenders who, despite intricate details of their misdemeanours being documented in the public domain, continue to be afforded platforms, nay, actively celebrated and promoted in our communities. Among these individuals are those who, despite public knowledge of their engagement in behaviour directly at odds with the ethics they have actively preached, have been afforded an uncritical and, in some ways, reverential public rehabilitation by some of our community figures and establishments. 

I take no pleasure in mentioning this, but I ask a genuine question to those who continue to promote and provide platforms to such individuals—do you consider the far-reaching impacts of the legitimacy that your actions (or inactions) provide for such individuals? That you are demonstrating to our communities, particularly to our young men and women, that engaging in activities that are morally reprehensible from the perspective of our faith can potentially be of no consequence to a person’s position as a high profile religious preacher or intellectual? That by continuing to place these individuals on a pedestal and facilitating their access to and interaction with the public, you may somehow be partially responsible for placing someone vulnerable in harm’s way? Do you consider that the swift and seamless rehabilitation of these individuals into public and religious life is a source of deep hurt and trauma for women and young people who have experienced abuse or predatory behaviour themselves? Additionally, that it serves to embolden and enable actions and comments such as those at the centre of the recent Muslim TV “scandal.”

After all, when predatory behaviour and extramarital liaisons from “celebrity preachers” is effectively given a pass by our institutions, it is easy to excuse and even to laugh off incidents such as this, as merely inconsequential “banter,” or “locker room talk.”

What can change look like?

So while it was not surprising in the least, and while it is common knowledge that so many Muslim women are exhausted and intimidated in equal measure by the state of affairs in many of our community spaces, what the incident exposed was why and how recent “progress” in addressing misogyny has been superficial and simply not effective enough. 

As I mentioned earlier, there have been substantive changes in inclusion and diversity over recent years, and I emphasise that this is an achievement which has brought about a shift in standards and expectations. Nonetheless, I cannot help but question the extent to which it has brought about a shift in mindset. It is when our attitudes as community institutions are stress-tested during moments of crisis, like this recent incident and the outrage it quite rightly generated, that we can actually begin to assess and take stock of the state we are in.

My honest assessment is that our community institutions continue to fall short in this area. 

I am most interested in what substantive steps are being taken to change, to learn, to improve.

So in the case of the RECENT incident—is a forceful apology from the TV station adequate for us to put this issue behind us? Who are we centering in our apologies, and what commitments are we making to improve our work environments and our community spaces? How transparent are we being about these changes and processes,? How are we demonstrating to women that we are serious about listening to them, affirming them and prioritising these commitments? Is the claim from the presenters in question that “this does not reflect who I am” something we should accept as sufficient? The argument that we should give a brother the “benefit of the doubt” was mooted by many in the community—what does this actually mean in the case of a person for whom such unbefitting comments seemed to roll so easily off the tongue? What workplace and community culture are we sustaining by affording this “benefit of the doubt,” and what does it leave for us to give to sisters who put their heads above the parapet at great personal strain and risk to talk about their experiences of harm and abuse? Furthermore, what does it leave for us to give individuals for whom there remains a possibility that they might be placed in a position of vulnerability or harm?

What I am asking here is, are we swallowing a paracetamol every so often, to dull the painful symptoms we feel, or are we seeking to treat our malaise from its root causes? 

I thought long and hard before writing these words. Without a doubt, this is the most personal piece of writing I have shared. I hesitated, and I wondered if the time was “right,” if I would be misunderstood or misconstrued. Ultimately, I was encouraged to share this because I feel I am duty-bound to my young sisters making their way in this world, who have shown such bravery and courage in speaking out against the damaging cultures of acquiescence or indifference that they face around these issues. The very least that I can do is to stand with them and to add my voice to theirs. 

So here I am. I’m not an outsider, I am a product of our communities, and I am deeply invested in our institutions and spaces, with a strong desire to see them succeed and be better. My scholarly expertise, intimate connection with, and goodwill towards so many of our community spaces are matters of public record. Differ with me on the details, pull out quotes and say that you could have expressed the point better. Accuse me of being a “feminist” or a “feminazi.” Tell me that if I only look back at our history and heritage, I will see that women were emancipated by Islam 1,400 years ago. By all means, narrow the discussion and focus it on the deplorable juvenile behaviour of two young men, by arguing that it would have been better for me to have shown mercy and forgiveness and put it behind me. These are all familiar and predictable responses which ultimately, are little more than distraction and whataboutery. 

This is not about whipping up a baying mob calling for people’s blood. It is not about “cancelling” or the performance of “wokeness.” It is not even about shaming individuals or establishments. It is about demanding standards, and demanding respect—which are our God-given rights. I make no apology for putting forward this demand; indeed it is long, long overdue. 

If we have religious leaders and teachers who indulge in sexist “jokes” during their classes for a few laughs, if we have some of these individuals engaging in exploitative indiscretions and liaisons—no matter if they argue that they are “consensual”—if all of this is made public and we as communities CONTINUE to provide platforms not only for these individuals to teach, but to teach on these very same issues… then we need to take a really good look at ourselves and consider the extent of our own complicity in the harm and prejudice that our women face.

We need to not only acknowledge the scale of the problem but to move towards concrete steps to effect change. 

Khadijah Elshayyal

Khadijah Elshayyal

Khadijah Elshayyal is a specialist on Muslims in Britain at SOAS and the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain, and Scottish Muslims in Numbers: understanding Scotland’s Muslims through the 2011 Census. Follow her on Twitter: @DrKElshayyal