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Artillery Row

Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies

The reaction to the BBC Woman’s Hour interview with Zara Mohammed exposes the cliquishness of contemporary feminists

If, by some twist of fate, I was appointed the first female secretary general of the council of bricklayers, and asked in for an interview on the radio, I would be wise to have a rough estimate of the number of women hod carriers to hand.

So, it was rather bizarre to witness the outrage aimed at BBC Woman’s Hour’s Emma Barnett for asking the new secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain – Zara Mohammed, the first woman in the role – how many female imams there are in Britain. Barnett is known for her terrier-like approach to interviewing, refusing to allow a side-step or other avoidance tactics go unnoticed. But when Mohammed politely refused to answer the question, claiming she didn’t know, Barnett didn’t go in for the kill (as she has done before) but gently pushed the question several times.

Much of today’s politics borders on the insane

And yet, for daring to ask the first top female in the Muslim Council of Britain about the status of female Muslims in Britain, Barnett has been attacked. The magazine gal-dem published an open letter, penned by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Mariam Khan and signed by a list of peers, Labour MPs, commentators, feminists, poets and Twitter celebrities, complaining that Barnett’s “tone” was “disappointing and strikingly hostile”. The letter celebrated the fact that the BBC had removed the clipped segment from its Twitter feed, but continued to argue that the “response is insufficient”. It demanded, among other things, that the BBC release “a public statement recommitting to engaging with Muslim women and those from historically marginalised communities in good faith”. Unsurprisingly, the BBC has thrown Barnett under the bus – with director general Tim Davie publicly agreeing with the letter, committing to “reflect on” its suggestions to prevent a repeat of Barnett’s interview.

Much of today’s politics borders on the insane. This week alone, police have stood in front of a virtual billboard outside an Asda, warning shoppers to not commit hate crime, and elsewhere, commentators are tearing themselves apart arguing about the rights and wrongs of criticising two rich people in Beverly Hills for planning to appear on Oprah. But the scandal-that-should-never-have-been over Barnett’s female imam question takes the biscuit.

Woman’s Hour is a show about women – if Mohammed didn’t expect to be asked about Muslim women in positions of power, she obviously didn’t prepare for the interview. Worse still is the suggestion that she be given an easy ride because of her faith. As Kenan Malik put it this week, “to insist that Muslim leaders should not be subject to the same harsh questioning as anyone else is hardly an argument for equal treatment”. And yet, this is exactly what the signatories of the open letter were demanding. Barnett was wrong to have “mirrored the style and tone of an accountability interview with a politician”, instead, she should have been “authentically recognising and engaging in what this represented for British Muslim women”.

Contemporary feminism has become a middle-class girl’s club

In my short, pink polemic on women’s freedom, What Women Want, I called contemporary feminism a middle-class girl’s club – this is what I meant. Woman’s Hour can occasionally feature an interesting topic, but for a long time it’s been a safe space for whinging professional feminists to air their gripes about boardroom equality or celebrate the inspirational messages of celebrity hashtags. I, and most other women, couldn’t give a rodent’s backside about how many female imams, rabbis, priests or vicars there are in the UK – but Woman’s Hour listeners do, the clue is in the title.

A group of supposedly serious, professional women writing a letter claiming that it was unsisterly of Barnett to give one of the clan – a woman like Mohammed who had made it to the top – a hard time by asking tough questions exposes the cliquishness of contemporary feminists. Allergic to any kind of scrutiny, their worst fears lie in having their pointlessness revealed. Mohammed’s defence was that her role “is making sure that we include our affiliates, in particular women, in the work that we are doing, making sure that our structures… are truly representative”. If her role in overseeing greater input from Muslim women doesn’t involve knowing or caring about how many women are in positions of influence or power, what is the point of it?

Barnett should refuse to apologise in the face of such petulant demands for special treatment – and any journalist worth their ink or airtime should stand in solidarity with her. If I were interviewing Mohammed I would have cut to the chase and asked her why she “didn’t have a clue” about the number of imams, rather than repeat the same question over and over. Then again, Barnett is known for asking her interviewees what they don’t want to answer – if you don’t like it, switch her off.

More importantly, perhaps this ugly episode should stop and make some feminists think about what repeated portrayals of women as weak, fragile and in need of protection are doing to society’s sense of our worth. Any woman in the public realm knows life can be tough – progress is never easy. If we can’t even handle frankly quite mild questioning without throwing our toys out of the pram, why would anyone allow us anywhere near positions of power?

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