Amid ongoing international outrage over the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls by the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram, the House considered the controversial questions of Islam and gender on Thursday evening.
The debate was delayed by an unsuccessful attempt to remove librarian-elect Mehrunissa Sajjad from her post. After surviving this attempted impeachment, Sajjad opened the debate for the proposition by arguing that whilst Islamic scripture could be compatible with gender equality, its manifestations in the real world were very different. She went on to discuss the position of women in the Islamic states that use Sharia Law, referring to a woman’s inability to vote or hold public office, as well as the refusal to recognise marital rape as a crime.
Also supporting the proposition, student Ely Sandler discussed the long history of institutional racism in the UK and US, arguing that these countries have adapted with time. Likewise, Oxford University traditionally excluded women but has since reformed. According to Sandler, Islam’s failure to adapt to changed social attitudes made the current state of the religion incompatible with gender equality.
Prominent Muslim writer and strident feminist Myriam Francois-Cerrah spoke in opposition to the motion, quoting the Prophet Muhammed, who she described as a ‘pioneering feminist’. Francois-Cerrah criticised the motion for rejecting the struggles of feminist Muslims like herself, with the writer also pointing out that the ‘pseudo-religious practices’ discussed by the proposition were a product of social context rather than Islamic scripture.
Opposition speaker Kubra Gumasay gave a similar argument, pointing particularly to Female Genital Mutilation as a practice that ‘predated Islam’. Alluding to the assault on female education by the Taliban and Boko Haram, Gumasay went on to argue that Muhammed actually encouraged all forms of knowledge and had no problem with female education.
Stand-up comedian Kate Smurthwaite gave a lively speech in support of the proposition, arguing that any form of theism was potentially incompatible with gender equality as religion requires us to unquestioningly accept the word of a deity. Smurthwaite also criticised the burqa, insisting that Saudi Arabian women did not choose to ‘cover themselves head to toe’, but were forced by social and legal pressures.
Perhaps the most entertaining point of the evening occurred when Smurthwaite asked a burqa-wearing member of the audience to remove their religious clothing and emerge from the ‘shadows’. After removing the burqa it was revealed that the audience member, who was clearly part of Smurthwaite’s act, was male.
Co-founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy Dr Zudhi Jasser criticised the proposition for seeking to tell one-quarter of the world’s population that they must choose between their religion and equal rights. Jasser also praised the ‘millions’ of Muslim women who continue to protest against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The comments made by audience members after the debate tended to support the opposition, with Nikita Makarchev arguing that female sexuality was far more socially acceptable in Medieval society, and that female oppression was in fact a product of Western Imperialism.