Faithful Women

Of course, there is no simplistic divide between radical secular-minded feminists and faithful Muslim women; the former are not whores nor are the latter doormats. Indeed, some of the most impressive representatives for Islamic organizations across the continent are themselves women, who sometimes hold senior rank in these groupings. In Spain, where white European converts are prominent in Muslim groups, we find leaders like Jadicha Candela, founder of the women's network al-Nisa, who retains the leftist ardor of her preconversion days. The Spanish case might be unusual given the potent role of converts, but other Muslim women of immigrant origins succeed in maintaining public careers while remaining firmly within the faith. When France established its network of Islamic councils to provide ethnic communities with a public voice, the region of Limousin elected as its head Han-ife Karakus, a prominent lawyer of a Turkish family. Nighat Awan is a well-known woman entrepreneur in Britain, founder of the popular Shere Khan restaurant chain. London Bangladeshi politician Manzila Pola Uddin, Lady Uddin, became the first Muslim woman to serve in the British House of Lords. (Taking up her office, she swore "by Almighty Allah that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her heirs and successors.") Women also now hold high office in Britain's two main Muslim national federations, the rigorist MCB and the more liberal BMF.31

Popular culture depictions have also undermined stereotypes about submissive Muslim women. In the 2005 television season of the British version of The Apprentice, aspirants tried to secure jobs with a corporate tycoon. The winner was Saira Khan, daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who won more than fifteen minutes of fame by an aggressive manner that earned her the nicknames "the Mouth of the South" and "the Foghorn." Though a Muslim, she became a popular favorite by denouncing the religion's lunatic fringe. Asked about Islamist Abu Hamza, she replied, "I want to say to people like him, 'Why are you living in the West? Why don't you go and live in Saudi Arabia? ... If you live in this country there are democratic ways to behave. If you don't like it, then go and live in a Muslim country." Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she condemns all forms of Muslim separatism, and preaches "integration, integration, integration." Her television triumph made her one of the best-known faces of British Islam, and she was soon announcing her aspirations to be prime minister. Obviously, such a celebrity may not represent a mass trend among European Muslims, but her career does achieve much by trampling popular clich├ęs while offering an alternative role model for other young women in the public sphere. One brash young British comedian opens her act with the line: "My name's Shazia Mirza, or at least that what it says on my pilot's licence."32

Europe's Muslim communities have also produced some distinguished women writers, most notably perhaps Monica Ali, a British author of Bangladeshi roots. She makes great use of the characteristic problems of immigrant communities, such as the plight of women in arranged marriages. In her book Brick Lane, the heroine Nazneen is imported to England at eighteen to marry forty-year-old Chanu. However strange such a match may appear, her mother declares, "If God wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men." Yet for all the initial passivity and the overwhelming social pressures within a Bangladeshi enclave in London, the book is ultimately the story of Nazneen's liberation. This seditious quality helps explain the fierce conservative protests against attempts to film the novel in the actual area, even though London's secluded Muslim women reportedly bought and circulated thousands of copies of the Bengali translation.

Faiza Guene's bestselling novel Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow similarly describes the lives of Moroccan immigrants trapped in a French banlieue, Seine-St.-Denis, where women are expected to submit to the iron rules of fate, mektoub. But as with Nazneen, Guene's characters demonstrate a striking toughness and a hunger to escape their bonds. Suggesting that such stories resonate far beyond fiction is the dramatic growth of divorce in Muslim families in recent years, apparently as a result of women seeking far more autonomy than their husbands will concede. In the Netherlands, the boom in divorce among families of Moroccan and Turkish origin can be traced just to the start of the present decade, with a substantial majority instigated by wives.33

Western views of Muslim cultures often assume that women excluded from public life were in effect socially dead, confined to home and family. As anthropologists have found so often throughout the years in encountering many diverse societies around the world, just because men cannot see something does not mean that it does not exist. The view of women's exclusion in Islam was never fully accurate; women always formed their own cultures and social settings, marked by distinctive patterns of celebration and socializing, and that was particularly true of Maghrebi societies. In Europe also, women have found many ways to interact with the mainstream world while respecting traditional constraints. Computers and the Internet have had an enormous impact in permitting extensive socializing online without the physical proximity that raised the hackles of conservative observers. Male-female contacts online even have their own description, as halal dating.34

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