Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What does a liberated woman look like?

The U.K.'s Daily Mail reports on a study conducted by the British inter-faith organization Faith Matters that sets the number of Islamic converts in Britain at 100,000. In just the last twelve months 5,200 men and women in Great Britain have embraced Islam by publicly reciting the shahada (from the Arabic verb "he witnessed")- "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger." Public recitation of the shahada is one of the five pillars of Islam. A good analogy is that the shahada is to Muslims what baptism is to Christians.

Last year in London alone 1,400 people converted to Islam. The average Londoner converting Islam last year was a white woman aged 27 years. According to a second study, conducted by Kevin Brice of Swansea University in Wales, the main reasons cited by converts for turning to Islam were drunkenness, "lack of morality and sexual permissiveness," along with "unrestrained consumerism." Perhaps the highest profile recent convert to Islam in the U.K. is Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former prime minister Tony Blair, who himself converted to Catholicism after he left office. Unlike her brother-in-law, who shortly after becoming Catholic proceeded to lecture the church on sexual morality, using the tired trope of urging us to get with the times, Ms. Booth seems a humble adherent to her new faith. Since she converted in Iran, she presumably identifies as a Shi'ite Muslim, whereas the most of her fellow U.K. converts are Sunni.

Lauren Booth

For a long time now sociologists have been able to demonstrate that when it comes to religion the higher the level of commitment, at least up to a point, the more attractive it is at drawing and keeping people. This is one reason why watered down forms of Christianity that takes its cue from society stands no chance of being sustainable.

On that note, back in 2003 Eamon Duffy delivered the Cardinal Hume Memorial lecture in Newcastle, an extract of which, on corporately doing away with the discipline of fasting after Vatican II, was published in The Tablet. This extract begins: "The renewal inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council sprang in large part from the liberating discovery of the depth and variety of Catholic tradition. Yet paradoxically the post-conciliar reforms were sometimes implemented in a spirit of philistine dismissal of 'tradition' as nothing more than the dead hand of the past. In shedding a past perceived as sterile and oppressive, much that was profound and life-giving was also lost." This goes some distance to explaining the phenomenon of younger Catholics reviving many of these life-giving practices, often to the consternation of an older generation, which strikes me as a variant of the same dynamic leading many young people to embrace Islam in the U.K. and elsewhere. Another indication of this movement is the success of traditional women's religious orders, especially ones with active apostolates, like the Nashville Dominicans.

Some of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville

Oddly, it does not seem to me that the embrace of Islam and more traditional Catholicism by an increasing number of young women, albeit ones with some experience of the society that claims to have liberated them, to be a rejection of women's liberation, but a recognition that the liberation promised, at least as it is generally conceived, is not much of a liberation at all, but a reduction. One young woman, Lynn Ali, who is highlighted in a box in the Daily Mail article (taken from an earlier article in which she was featured), who is now 31 and who converted to Islam some twelve years ago, strikes me as fairly typical of such young women. Prior to her conversion she used to DJ in clubs and at parties. She describes going out with friends, getting drunk and wearing "tight and revealing clothing" in order to attract the attention of young men. She says now that "underneath it all, I must have been searching for something." It was her honesty about what she was searching for that ultimately caused her to recognize that she wasn't finding it in her partying lifestyle.

Lynn, as do many female converts to Islam, wears a hijab (i.e., Islamic head scarf, the Mail gets this wrong, calling what she wears a niqab- see my post Islam and the West: the wearing of the burqa for the differences and also for a good take by Peter Hitchens on some of the downside of this phenomenon) when she leaves home. She describes wearing her headscarf as "liberating." By living her faith, which includes covering her head in public, she proclaims that she is "no longer a slave to a broken society and its expectations."

It might interest people to know that very few of those who convert to Islam are radicalized, which means they do not convert for ideological reasons, Brice's study aptly demonstrates this. Somehow, I think there is a lesson in evangelization to be found in all of this.

Veni adoramus


  1. Thanks Scott for the article. Very interesting. From my perspective, especially since I have lived in England for the past ten years, Blair's sister-in-law has been an Islamic activist in the closet for many years and can only, in my opinion, be taken with a grain of salt. (opportunist/politically correct & motivated, etc.) As far as Tony Blair is concerned, I am personally very leary of his so called conversion to Catholicism. This guy is, and has always been, a man of the moment, so to speak. Makes me wonder what his real motives/intentions are? Personally, I am very glad he has converted to Catholicism, but I wonder if it is really sincere? If I was an adviser to the Vatican, I would recommend caution. Anyway, my humble opinion.

  2. Thanks, Anson. I have to admit to knowing little about Booth, but in any case, her conversion seems sincere, if a bit casual. I don't think Blair is taken with a great deal of seriousness by anyone at the Vatican. His lecturing did not go unnoticed and did not go down well. Authentic morality is not ideological. Many find it difficult precisely because it is not subject to our whims.

  3. Really interesting post. there was a BBC Radio 4 debate some time ago on whether it was right for a ban on the burka as France had taken steps to implement this and one of the panelists suggested that althought they disagreed with the oppression of women in many Islamic nations a parallel could be taken with the veil and enclosed orders of nuns and it would not be right to ban them .
    I have mixed views on all this. At one level, what "outer garment" we choose to wear is a poor substitute for what is in our hearts. Christ spent much time drinking and partying fasting ate with prostitutes, the destitute and all sorts of people who by the worlds standards were pretty despicable. It all boils down to motivation. Fasting and wearing the right code of dress can become obsessional and disordered and mere smoke screens for what we really need to change in our lives. As a lecturer I never paid too much attention to the weird and wonderful fashions the students wore. If dress was that important maybe the gospels would have told us more about what Jesus wore. All I can remember is that he had a seamless garment which I take to mean meant there were no barriers !! Anything that separates us from our fellow human beings and removes us from God is bad . Hope this makes some sense- it is off the top of my head.

  4. Philomena:

    I agree and I am not proposing a Christian dress code, as such a proposal is anti-thetical to the teachings of Christ. I do not see anything wrong, however, in suggesting that immodesty in dress represents anything like the realization of the authentic liberation of women. For the record, I am opposed to the wear of the full burqa in public, but have no problem whatsoever with a hijab or even niqab, as long as women are not forced to wear them. Women, like Lynn, should feel perfectly free in this regard. As to minor children, I defer to parents, not the state.

    TO say how we act, what we wear, even what we eat has no bearing on what's in our hearts strikes me as rather gnostic. For example, the idea behind no longer requiring Friday abstinence from the meat of warm-blooded animals on pain of sin was not to do away with Friday abstinence, but recognize that it must be freely chosen and not be practiced as in end itself, which is Duffy's point.

  5. Bl Teresa of Calcutta's sisters wearing the blue-striped habit of the Order, which is based on the Indian sari is lovely on a number of levels particularly because at the same time it sets them apart and inculturates them, at least in Indai, where they began.


A political non-rant

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