Why Are British Feminists Being Called Islamophobes?

Protest in the UKWhy do British women feel they are living in a time where they need to reclaim feminism? Because they are branded as Islamophobes by progressives and feminists in the UK for their criticisms of Sharia councils and Islam.

“We are in the ISIS era.”

Houzan Mohammed, a Kurdish woman who is a representative of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, made that proclamation at the recent Feminism in London conference. She was on a panel of four feminists called, “Unlikely Allies: Religious Fundamentalism and the British State,” that focused on the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and British law.

I attended this panel to hear Maryam Namazie, an Iranian Muslim-born woman who lives in London and is a spokesperson for One Law for All, a group that opposes Sharia law in Britain. I was unprepared for the bluntness of the talk about ISIS and the extreme pressure progressive feminists are putting on these women to be silent and to curb their critique of what they see as an untenable situation for Muslim women there.

When Namazie said that “We need to reclaim the left and feminism,” and that it is a “historical task and necessity,” the audience erupted into applause. Clearly this is an important topic of discussion in the UK.

But why would these women on this panel feel the need to reclaim feminism? Because they are branded as Islamophobes by progressives and feminists in the UK for their criticisms of Sharia councils and Islam.

Sharia councils have been in existence since the 1980s in Britain. They are not legal courts, they are religious tribunals. They give advice on family disputes and can grant an Islamic divorce, but not a civil divorce. (An Islamic divorce would not be recognized by British law but it is honored and considered legitimate in Muslim communities in the UK). In closed Muslim communities within the UK, these councils hold power over Muslim citizens even though they would not be legally binding in a British court.

The increasing use of Sharia councils has alarmed critics, prompting some of them to say that the decisions by the councils are keeping Muslim women separated from British society at large and under male religious control. The councils are fraught with controversy and conflicting beliefs around religious freedom and secular space in a Western democracy. Indeed, there have been instances where women have been advised to give up their custodial rights to their children to abusive husbands. However, the overall criticism by these panelists was that male-dominated religions should not rule women’s lives, and that British law should be the only law. In short, these feminist critics of Sharia councils fight for a secular society.

Another panelist, Gita Sahgal, founder of the Centre for Secular Space, said “Sharia councils have become parallel law enforcement mechanisms [to British law],” calling the people who defend the use of Sharia councils as “religionists” who use “multi-faith terrain” to keep women enveloped by religious tribunals and, essentially, separated from democratic society. She sees minority needs being framed in accordance to religion by these progressive religionists who are using the word “Islamophobe” to silence critics.

I’m fascinated with the new dynamic that’s being created between what were once opposing groups – feminists and fundamentalists. But now some feminists are aligning with fundamentalism? I believe the use of the word “Islamophobe” is being used as a tool to shut down critical thought about male-dominated religions and the negative impact they have on women. As Namazie said, “Progressives no longer believe in free-expression, they believe in self censorship.”

So what does this all mean for me? I am Catholic and have long been a critic of the Catholic Church. Catholicism is rife with sexism. I consider it a male-dominated religion that preserves the top power spots for men. Moreover, the gown-wearing priests, who boldly opine on women’s roles in society and private lives, are just a religious variation on ‘mansplaining.’

To deny women the opportunity to be priests is discrimination. My right to say so does not make me a Catholic-phobe.

Mahmoud says of the word Islamophobia, “I think this in itself is racist.” She compared the well-worn history of progressives and feminists who have criticized religion as part of their feminist analysis of patriarchy. As a woman with a Muslim background she claims the same right. Yet these same leftists do not support her right to reject religion, as they would probably support mine.

She refers to these progressives as “white people [who] can ridicule, criticize and break away from Christianity.” She saw discrimination in the way liberals use Islamaphobia to shut down protestors because they are “people from a Muslim origin [who] reject their religion and all forms of religiosity.”

Sahgal said, “Multi-culturalism and multi-faithism shrinks secular space.” In other words, by seeing society as just a collection of homogenous groups of people identified by religion we deny their individuality as citizens.

Secular spaces are the realm of the feminist intellectual women and usually the realm of universities, too. But this is a shifting landscape.

On November 30, Namazie was shouted down at Goldsmiths, University of London by members, all male, of the Goldsmiths Islamic Society. She had been invited to speak by the Atheists, Secularists and Humanists Society. The protestors disrupted the talk, laughed at her and repeatedly stood up to create a distraction from her words. Members of the Atheists Society protected Namazie and confronted the protestors for their disruptions and disrespect. (Interestingly one of the females in the room apologized to Namazie for the disrupters. Namazie said to them that they didn’t have to apologize for anyone.) The protesters also turned off Namazie’s power point presentation when she showed a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammed.

Shutting down the presentation. Sound familiar?

At Goldsmiths, Namazie talked about the word Islamophobia, saying, “What it implies is a phobia against an idea.”

The next day after Namazie’s talk at Goldsmiths (she managed to finish despite the interruptions), the Goldsmiths Feminist Society wrote a letter aligning themselves with the Goldsmiths Islamic Society, in which they wrote, “We support them in condemning the actions of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and agree that hosting known Islamophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.”

The word Islamophobia is also used here in the States to silence critics of Islam. Look at recent trends on U.S. campuses where some have had their speaking invitations rescinded due to protests by students who say that their safe spaces will be compromised if a particular individual is allowed to speak and presumably  say something that will offend. Some of these speakers who have been pressured by protesting student bodies to turn down college invitations, or have been disinvited from speaking, include some famous names –  Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and the Somali-born author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali, who survived genital mutilation by her family members and later fled Somalia, is an outspoken critic of the religion of Islam. Brandeis University was planning to award her an honorary degree, but some students protested because they considered Ali to be Islamophobic. The administration capitulated and rescinded the offer. Much like the author Christopher Hitchens, who hated religion, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has nothing good to say about Islam; but unlike Hitchens, Ali has had death threats made against her and has been known to have bodyguards.

We are living in a strange time of shifting allegiances, demands for censorship and pleas for safe space. And feminists, when they align with the male religions who attempt to shut down the anti-religion feminists, shrink the secular space.

In fact, a dramatic moment at the panel discussion crystalized the debate when towards the end of the presentation, as audience members were asking questions of these brave feminists, a white woman stood up and criticized them. She labeled them Islamophobes and then abruptly left the room, clearly not willing to engage in further discussion.

Mahmoud says in general of her critics, “Their criticism will not silence us, because we have a just cause, we own it, we know more about it and we continue to expose all religions for their hypocrisy and women hating.”

When feminist allies turn their backs on secular feminists in favor of allegiances with male-dominated religious groups, we are indeed living in the ISIS Era.

Jennifer Hall Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films,  in visual effects, and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and she has public screenings scheduled through 2016. Jennifer was named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project. To schedule an interview with Jennifer or book her as a speaker, she can be reached at jennifer@feministstories.com.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/See Li


  • Kate Smurthwaite

    I was also banned from Goldsmith’s after accusations of Islamophobia based on me saying I was against compulsory veiling. http://cruellablog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/goldsmiths-and-me-full-story-proof.html?m=1

  • lancastrian1

    Those who brand opposition to sharia law as islamophobic need to read this judgement summary from the ECHR:

    ECHR: Noting that the Welfare Party had pledged to set up a regime based on sharia law, the Court found that sharia was incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy as set forth in the Convention. It considered that “sharia, which faithfully reflects the dogmas and divine rules laid down by religion, is stable and invariable. Principles such as pluralism in the political sphere or the constant evolution of public freedoms have no place in it”. According to the Court, it was difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverged from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervened in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts.

    This judgement allowing Turkey to ban a political party for wanting to introduce sharia as official Turkish law is probably the only judgement that truly fulfills the original remit of preventing the spread of totalitarian ideology in Europe. Before crying ‘islamophobia’ please give court standard evidence as to why this judgement, by the most liberal court in Europe, is wrong!

  • Buddah Dave

    How about stopping calling these people ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’? They are neither.

    • Miles Mayan

      There’s already a name for them: the Regressive Left.

  • Medusa 2015

    100% with you Ladies islam is a disgrace….it is offensive to all women including muslims women who are too stupid to realise how much it belittles them

  • Sue

    Overall I think this is an excellent article. The only thing I take issue with is the headline for the article – “Why Are British Feminists Being Called Islamophobes?” It implies all British feminists are being called Islamophobes (clearly this isn’t the case) and it’s unclear who is calling these women Islamophobes other than the Goldsmiths Feminist Society. I have no doubt there a number of people/groups who are falsely accusing these women, but it would be helpful to have additional examples.Again, overall an excellent article broaching an important issue.

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