The Subjection of Islamic Women (bolds added)
A version of this article appeared in The Weekly Standard on May 21, 2007.
The subjection of women in Muslim societies–especially in Arab nations and in Iran–is today very much in the public eye. Accounts of lashings, stonings, and honor killings are regularly in the news, and searing memoirs by Azar Nafisi and AEI’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali have become bestsellers. One might expect that by now American feminist groups would be organizing protests against such glaring injustices, joining forces with the valiant Muslim women who are working to change their societies. But this is not happening.
If you go to the websites of major women’s groups–such as the National Organization for Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the National Council for Research on Women–or to women’s centers at our major colleges and universities, you will find them all caught up with entirely other issues, seldom mentioning women in Islam. During the 1980s, there were massive demonstrations on American campuses against racial apartheid in South Africa. Today, however, there is no remotely comparable movement on campuses against the gender apartheid prevalent in many parts of the world.
The condition of Muslim women may be the most pressing women’s issue of our age, but for many contemporary American feminists it is not a high priority. Why not?
The reasons are rooted in the worldview of the women who shape the concerns and activities of contemporary American feminism. That worldview is–by tendency and sometimes emphatically–antagonistic toward the United States, agnostic about marriage and family, hostile toward traditional religion, and wary of femininity. The contrast with Islamic feminism could hardly be greater.
Writing in The New Republic in 1999, philosopher Martha Nussbaum noted with disapproval that “feminist theory pays relatively little attention to the struggles of women outside the United States.” Too many fashionable gender theorists, she said, have lost their dedication to the public good. Their “hip quietism . . . collaborates with evil.”
This was a frontal assault, and prominent academic feminists chastised Nussbaum in letters to the editor. Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton pointed out the dangers of Nussbaum’s “good versus evil scheme,” saying, “When Robespierre or the Ayatollahs or Ken Starr seek to impose their vision of the ‘good’ on the rest of society, reigns of terror follow and democratic politics are undermined.” Gayatri Spivak, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, accused Nussbaum of “flag waving” and of being on a “civilizing mission.” None of the letter writers addressed Nussbaum’s core complaint: too few feminist theorists are showing concern for the millions of women trapped in blatantly misogynist cultures outside the United States.
Multiculturalism vs. Feminism
One reason for this is that many feminists are tied up in knots by multiculturalism and find it very hard to pass judgment on non-Western cultures. They are far more comfortable finding fault with American society for minor inequities (for example, the exclusion of women from the Augusta National Golf Club and the “underrepresentation” of women on engineering faculties) than criticizing heinous practices beyond our shores. The occasional feminist scholar who takes the women’s movement to task for neglecting the plight of foreigners is ignored or ruled out of order.
The primary focus is on the “terror” at home. Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation, talks of “the common thread of misogyny” connecting Christian Evangelicals to the Taliban:
It is important to remember just how barbarous and cruel the Taliban were. Yet it is also important not to use their example to obscure or deny the common thread of misogyny that connects them with Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition.
In a similar vein, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich characterizes Christian evangelical movements as “Christian Wahhabism,” using the name of the sect that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and the inspiration for Osama bin Laden. Eve Ensler, lionized author of The Vagina Monologues, makes the same point somewhat differently in her popular lecture “Afghanistan Is Everywhere”:
(HH here: I can see why, pre-9/11 this might have been their attitude. Hyperbole in service of progress. But now that Radical Islam has made itself at home in our living room these comparisons are divisive and disingenuous. The so called “Christian Taliban” IS alive and well but their proponents are considered idiots and laughingstocks by the vast majority of Americans. They also have little political power above the local level and are routinely trumped by the courts and Constitution. Finally the damage Bush’s presidency did to their mindset has put them into major retreat in many states.)
Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pollitt wrote the introduction to a book called Nothing Sacred: Women Respond to Religious Fundamentalism and Terror. It aimed to show that reactionary religious movements everywhere are targeting women. Says Pollitt:
In Bangladesh, Muslim fanatics throw acid in the faces of unveiled women; in Nigeria, newly established shariah courts condemn women to death by stoning for having sex outside of wedlock. . . . In the United States, Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have forged a powerful right-wing political movement focused on banning abortion, stigmatizing homosexuality and limiting young people’s access to accurate information about sex.
Pollitt casually places “limiting young people’s access to accurate information about sex” and opposing abortion on the same plane as throwing acid in women’s faces and stoning them to death. Her hostility to the United States renders her incapable of distinguishing between private American groups that stigmatize gays and foreign governments that hang them. She has embraced a feminist philosophy that collapses moral categories in ways that defy logic, common sense, and basic decency.
(HH again: I have to completely agree here. Radical feminism has so little moral high ground that if it rained they would drown in minutes. Both proper sex ed and a basic right to choose are among the things of which I am VERY vocally in support. But I cannot put them in the same breath as the horrors to which non-Western women are routinely subjected. Here again is where the independent, moderate mind cannot comprehend the inability of the political mind to view each issue as it comes and not try to lump it all into a “platform”.)
Though Ensler’s perspective is warped, her courage and desire to help are commendable. She went to Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban and smuggled out now-famous footage of a terrified woman in a burqa being executed at close range by a man with an AK-47. Ensler has firsthand knowledge of the unique horrors of Islamic gender fascism. But her “feminist theory” obliterates distinctions between what goes on in Afghanistan and what goes on in Beverly Hills:
, a World Health Organization 2000 fact sheet reports: “Today, the number of girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation [FGM] is estimated at between 100 and 140 million. It is estimated that each year, a further 2 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM.”
Given her capacity for conceptual confusion, it is perhaps not surprising that Ensler cites “gang rape in a suburban high school parking lot” to show how women in America are menaced. Yes, that is an atrocity, but it happens rarely, and America’s allegedly “misogynist” culture reacts to it with revulsion and severe punishments.
On February 20, 2007, a Pakistani women’s rights activist and provincial minister for social welfare, Zilla Huma Usman, was shot to death by a Muslim fanatic for not wearing a veil. And he had a second reason for killing her: she had encouraged girls in her community to take part in outdoor sports.
The plight of women like Usman does not figure in the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) “Six Priority Items,” although Global Feminism is one of the nineteen subjects it designates as “Other Important Issues.” NOW hardly mentions Muslim women, except in the context of the demand that the U.S. military withdraw from Iraq. So what sort of issue does the flagship feminist organization consider important?
The inability to make simple distinctions shows up everywhere in contemporary feminist thinking. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World, edited by geographer Joni Seager, is a staple in women’s studies classes in universities. It was named Reference Book of the Year by the American Library Association and has received other awards. Seager, formerly a professor of women’s studies and chair of geography at the University of Vermont, is now dean of environmental studies at York University in Toronto. Her atlas, a series of color-coded maps and charts, documents the status of women, highlighting the countries where women are most at risk for poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.
One map shows how women are kept “in their place” by restrictions on their mobility, dress, and behavior. Somehow the United States comes out looking as bad in this respect as Uganda. Both countries are shaded dark yellow to signify extremely high levels of restriction. Seager explains that in parts of Uganda, a man can claim an unmarried woman for his wife by raping her. The United States gets the same rating because, Seager says, “state legislators enacted 301 anti-abortion measures between 1995 and 2001.” Never mind that the Ugandan practice is barbaric, while the activism surrounding abortion in the United States is a sign of a contentious and free democracy working out its disagreements. Besides which, Seager’s categories obscure the fact that in Uganda, abortion is illegal and “unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal mortality” (so states a 2005 report by the Guttmacher Institute), while American abortion law, even after the recent adoption of state regulations, is generally considered among the most liberal of any nation.
On another map the United States gets the same rating for domestic violence as Pakistan. Seager reports that in the United States, “22–35 percent of women who seek emergency medical assistance at hospitals are there for reasons of domestic violence.” Wrong. She apparently misread a Justice Department study showing that 22–35 percent of women who go to hospitals because of violent attacks are there for reasons of domestic violence. When this correction is made, the figure for domestic-violence victims in emergency rooms drops to a fraction of 1 percent. Why would Seager so uncritically seize on a dubious statistic? Like many academic feminists, she is eager to show that American women live under an intimidating system of “patriarchal authority” that is comparable to those found in many less-developed countries. Never mind that this is wildly false.
(HH here: Anybody else getting a tad disgusted here? I call MYSELF a feminist for crying out loud but this makes me nauseous. If there is no progress that is enough to be called progress then..oh never mind, they just wouldn’t understand.)
A Solid Foundation
The good news is that Muslim women are not waiting around for Western feminists to rescue them. “Feminists in the West may fiddle while Muslim women are burning,” wrote Manhattan Institute scholar Kay Hymowitz in a prescient 2003 essay, “but in the Muslim world itself there is a burgeoning movement to address the miserable predicament of the second sex.” The number of valiant and resourceful Muslim women who are devoting themselves to the cause of greater freedom grows each and every day.
They have a heritage to build on. There have been organized women’s movements in Iran, Lebanon, and Egypt for more than a century, and many women in Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia already enjoy almost Western levels of freedom. But as radical Islam tightens its grip in places like Iran and rural Pakistan, and as it increasingly threatens Muslim women everywhere, even some devoutly religious women are quietly organizing to resist. Mehrangiz Kar, an Iranian human rights lawyer and researcher at Harvard Law School, predicts that “a feminist explosion is well on its way.”
Islamic feminists believe that women’s rights are compatible with Islam rightly understood. One of their central projects is progressive religious reform. Through careful translation and interpretation of the Koran and other sacred texts, these scholars challenge interpretations that have been used to justify sexist customs. They point out that forced veiling, arranged marriages, and genital cutting are rooted in tribal paganism and are nowhere enjoined by the Koran. Where the Koran explicitly permits a practice such as the physical chastisement of wives by husbands, the feminist exegetes try to show that, like slavery, the practice is anachronistic and incompatible with the true spirit of the faith. This kind of interpretation of scripture has been practiced by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars for centuries. Now Islamic women want to play a part in it, and nothing in Islamic law, they believe, prohibits their doing so.
(HH here) and this is why I started this blog. Mainly to highlight and disseminate the constructive and the progressive. Not just to shine light into the dark cracks but to put a spotlight on the ones who will not lie down to oppression but also will not stoop to the level of their enemy. These women are why the Heretics Crusade will triumph!!!)
Helping Muslim Women Help Themselves
This past November more than a hundred Muslim lawyers, scholars, and activists from twenty-five countries gathered in New York City for the express purpose of supporting the modernization of Islamic jurisprudence and reviving the spirit of ijtihad, a once-vibrant Islamic tradition of independent thinking and reasoning about sacred texts. The organizing group, the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity (WISE), plans to launch an international shura, a consultative council of Muslim women leaders who will advise religious and political leaders on women’s issues. They are also establishing a scholarship fund for the training of gifted female students to become Koranic scholars, or muftia. These women would be licensed to render fatwas, religious judgments that, while nonbinding, drive custom and practice in Islamic societies.
“This could be Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” Ipso facto, it should be our fondest dream. And if, along the way, Islamic feminism were to have a wholesome influence on American feminism, so much the better.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.