An all-male panel at the World Economic Forum. The lack of women on panels contributes to their maginalisation, writes Shelina Janmohamed (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
An all-male panel at the World Economic Forum. The lack of women on panels contributes to their maginalisation, writes Shelina Janmohamed (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)

Women’s opinions must be heard

In 2007, the book Who Speaks For Islam? published the results of a global survey of Muslim attitudes. The title posed one of the best and most contentious of challenges to the global discourse about Muslims today: what exactly is Islam and who gets to decide?

Many would like to claim that they are the ones to speak for Islam. ISIL says that it is the true Islam. Self-proclaimed reformers claim they are struggling for the soul of Islam.

But there’s no pope in Islam, no ordained hierarchy. In fact, there’s no single definitive Islam. There are clearly some basic tenets upon which self-identifying Muslims agree, but these are few. Beyond this, the lived experiences and expressions of belief vary across school of thought, culture and geography.

To try to define a single rigid Islam is a failure to understand the heterodoxy of the religion and the glory of the differences it encompasses. Such an approach also smacks of a sense of privilege claimed by any proponents that theirs is the only true and authentic Islam.

In Britain this week, the Normative Islam Report was published. Its stated aim was to clear up confusion about what real Islam is and offer an empirical reference point for what qualifies as mainstream Islam. The findings were based on interviews with 150 British Muslim “influencers”.

I’m shocked that only 20 per cent of those surveyed were female. So how does that represent “normative” Islam? And worse, the authors of the report were unashamed of this disparity. They conclude, shockingly that, comparing the number who responded against the total surveyed, “at least in respect of gender, it is clear that the achieved sample was representative”.

It’s a story that is far too common. Male privilege has decided who is influential and then their views are upheld as what is considered to be Islam.

It’s well documented that those who make media appearances, and are recognised by religious institutions and academia are overwhelmingly male. All-male panels are a ubiquitous blight on conferences and seminars. And yet those who appear on such panels are considered more influential simply by virtue of having been on them.

It is absolutely not good enough to be so blasé about not seeking out female views. It is just downright lazy. It is also deluded to think that any sample that has only 20 per cent of its respondents as female can be even remotely considered representative of Islam.

It reeks of male privilege to show such flagrant disregard about women’s views. In this case, all that the report’s authors have managed to demonstrate is that female viewpoints are as lacking in defining “normative” Islam as they are in being represented in wider society. That’s nothing for either group to be proud of.

As always, the lack of representation of women is the bellwether for the fact that other diverse and minority voices are also excluded. This report is a case in point, with variation in religious opinion hardly visible at all, and representation of ethnicity not even getting a mention.

In any situation that women’s voices have not been properly presented, beware! It’s almost a certainty that it is neither representative nor meaningful. Until women’s voices are properly represented, attitudes have no claim on being normative or mainstream.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.


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