This is difficult for me to write. I am a life-long feminist and I am immovable in my resolve that women should be free to live as we please, should have political and legal equality with men, and should be able to fulfil our dreams and ambitions - to work out what makes us happy and to pursue it. And yes, that includes women who are happy to stay home and look after their families. There is nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. In fact, looking after a family is one of the most difficult, and undervalued, jobs in the world. But it cannot be compulsory, women must be free to change their minds about this if they wish, and they must be free to do so without asking permission from anyone.
Unfortunately, there are many people standing in the way of such female autonomy - and the sad reality is that many of these people are women.
The spectacle of women obstructing other women's autonomy and empowerment was displayed again recently when a number of women in the laity of the Church of England voted against female Bishops. Some will argue that this is their theological position - which is fine, nobody is forcing those women to become Bishops, but they should not have the right to prevent other women from doing so; especially when the women who do want to be Bishops clearly don't share that theological interpretation.
Some of the no-voting women will say that genders have complimentary roles (a bit like the complimentary roles now being proposed in Tunisia?) and that insisting that women never have the ultimate power is not to demean us. This is disingenuous at best, downright misogynist at worst. To argue that women can never rise to the top is not to appoint us a different status, but an inferior one.
Earlier this year I attended a conference on gender equality at the University of Kent. I spoke in opposition to a female solicitor - Aina Khan - who was there to promote sharia law as a valid system of family dispute resolution. (I wrote about the encounter on my National Secular Society blog here). Despite reading out quotes from men who run sharia bodies in Britain - such as Haitham Al-Haddad who is on record endorsing the notion that "a man should not be questioned why he hit his wife" - I was met with fierce opposition, including from women, who insisted that sharia tribunals in the UK were entirely valid, all the while implying that I am a bigot for opposing them.
It is often mentioned that it is women who partake in the appalling and brutal violence that is female genital mutilation (FGM). Little girls have their genitals butchered; their clitoris cut off, their labia (inner and outer) removed, and then their vaginas sewn up to commence a life of pain and humiliation. This "procedure", it is argued, is carried out primarily by women. While this is true to a point, we must not forget that the society in to which these girls are born insists that they be virgins at marriage (and can prove it by having sewn-up vaginas), and that these societies are created and endorsed by men - it is most often the men who insist on marrying sewn-up virgins and they do so in a world where women will starve if unmarried.
However, to deny that women collude in this appalling practice is to deny the simple truth. Why they do this is up for debate. Perhaps it is to legitimise their own suffering, perhaps they believe that despite the screams and the blood and the agony they are doing the girls a favour, or perhaps they will do simply anything to empower themselves and raise their own social stature.
It is also possible that some women collude in misogyny because they agree with it. They believe themselves inferior and worthy of punishment because that is all they have ever known. Tell people something often enough - especially if it comes, as it so often does, from religion - and many will believe and embrace it.
I am regularly asked why I oppose sharia law if it is what some women want. My response is quite simple: just because a woman condones the oppression of women does not somehow make it right. But more importantly, I do so in solidarity with the men and women all over the world who fight for human rights and gender equality.
In short, I believe it is the message of female inferiority - and the subsequent brutal treatment of women and girls - that we must oppose, and we must do so regardless of the gender of the messenger.
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