When it comes to addressing international feminist issues, I’ve often been criticized for arguing that progressive change must come from within oppressive societies themselves, and for saying that while it’s crucial to discuss the problems that women face world-wide, we must clean our own house before we go around lamenting the plight of “those poor Muslim women.” My point hasn’t been that we should ignore the influence of patriarchal religion, or the effects of poverty and lack of opportunity on gender equality, or the various problems that women face simply because they were born as women. But I think it’s a huge mistake to look at women “over there” and use them as an excuse for complacency here; I think it’s abhorrent when Western conservatives argue that Western feminists are selfish for demanding greater freedom, because “Look at how good you have it compared to women in Afghanistan.” Of course, these (mostly white, mostly male) conservatives are never told to examine how good they have it, but that’s another post. Even more offensive than being told to be happy with your second-class status because it’s not as bad as the worst is having the plight of Muslim women used as an excuse for this administration’s imperialist policies and violent excursions.
And so, after having been told by many an anti-feminist that I’m a bad representative for my movement because I supposedly demean international women’s issues by mentioning the U.S. (and naturally, these people are deeply invested in making sure that feminism has a good name), Laila Lalami’s article on Muslim women, feminism, and the United States struck a chord with me. She starts out criticizing far-right Muslim writers and leaders for insisting that women’s place is in the home, that the traditional family is the backbone of society and therefore women must submit to staying home and reproducing, and that women’s gifts are for child-rearing and home-making — sound familiar? Part of what’s so interesting about hearing the far right in this country champion the emancipation of Muslim women is that while they argue that women should have rights, they’re exactly in line with religious fundamentalists everywhere in limiting what those rights should be. And so they have to do this mad dance between attacking Islam because of its misogynist interpretations, and simultaneously interpreting their own religious texts in a way that oppresses women. And the cognitive dissonance doesn’t stop there:
Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about “our plight”–reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.
The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that “the fatal obstacle” to the country’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization” was Islam’s degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century, for now we have George W. Bush, leader of the free world, telling us, before invading Afghanistan in 2001, that he was doing it as much to free the country’s women as to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Five years later, the Taliban is making a serious comeback, and the country’s new Constitution prohibits any laws that are contrary to an austere interpretation of Sharia. Furthermore, among the twenty-odd reasons that were foisted on the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, of course, the subjugation of women; this, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi women were educated and active in nearly all sectors of a secular public life. Three years into the occupation, the only enlightened aspect of Saddam’s despotic rule has been dismantled: Facing threats from a resurgent fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shiite, many women have been forced to quit their jobs and to cover because not to do so puts them in harm’s way. Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone’s guess.
Well, it’s fairly obvious. Thailand, Botswana and Nepal are not countries which present economic and political opportunities for us the way that Iran, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan do.
The fact is that feminist groups have always pointed out inequalities that women face world-wide: In the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa. Just look at the website of any decent human rights group (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, etc) and you’ll see that their work is wide-spread and comprehensive; no one gets off the hook. While they certainly target their efforts at the most egregious offenses, they don’t play this game of, “Well, women in Afghanistan have it worse than women in Iran, and so we just aren’t going to worry about the Iranians.”
Similarly, those who would attribute the state of women in the Middle East to Islam clearly don’t see the whole picture. Islam is a belief system like any other, and is interpreted and spun to have certain meanings given the context. The truth is that economics, socialization (including the twisting of religion to suit one’s own oppressive views) and politics play far more of a role in women’s disempowerment than religion itself.
Lalami looks at two well-received books to illustrate this point, one by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin)and the other by Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam).
The overarching argument in The Caged Virgin is that there is insufficient freedom for the individual in Islam. This, Hirsi Ali argues, is because one of the fundamental tenets of the religion is the submission of the individual to God, which creates a strict hierarchy of allegiances. At the top of this hierarchy is God, then His Prophet, then the umma, then the clan or tribe and finally the family. The individual, she insists, is simply not valued. Whatever one thinks of this hierarchy, however, it is hardly unique to Islam; one can make the same argument about other monotheistic religions. Furthermore, many Muslim countries are in fact secular or military dictatorships (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt), while others are to one extent or another theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan). Religious hierarchy does not play the same societal role in Turkmenistan as in Saudi Arabia. On top of this, there are political, national and linguistic considerations to take into account, particularly when one is making claims about fifty-seven nations spread out across Asia and Africa. But Hirsi Ali addresses none of these. In her view, they simply do not matter. Rather, she sees Islam itself as the problem and its fundamental tenet of obstructing individual freedom as the very reason the Muslim world is “falling behind” the West.
Critics of Islam like Hirsi Ali are too often revisionist, and even ignorant, of what they’re speaking about. Now, there’s lots to be criticized in the actions of religious extremists of all stripes, including Muslims. But to indict the entire religion because of the actions of a few is as offensive as including me in the handful of radical Christians who bomb abortion clinics, or who seek to kill women by limiting the HPV vaccine. Unfortunately, people like Hirsi Ali are too eager to paint all Muslims with a broad brush, and insult all believers in Islam — and then she’s lauded by the Western press for her bravery:
Along the same lines, Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought: “Very few Muslims are actually capable of looking at their faith critically. Critical minds like those of Afshin Ellian in the Netherlands and Salman Rushdie in England are exceptions.” The work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Adonis, Amina Wadud, Nawal Saadawi, Mohja Kahf, Asra Nomani and the thousands of other scholars working in both Muslim countries and the West easily contradicts the notion. In any case, why the comparison with Rushdie? Have fatwas become the yardstick by which we measure criticism? If so, this suggests that the people who offend Islamists are the only ones worth listening to, which is ridiculous. The most shocking statement, however, comes from the essay “The Need for Self-Reflection Within Islam,” in which Hirsi Ali writes: “After the events of 9/11, people who deny this characterization of the stagnant state of Islam were challenged by critical outsiders to name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none.” That a person who has apparently never heard of the algebra of Al-Khawarizmi, the medical prowess of Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd, or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Umm Kulthum is considered an authority on Islam is proof, if ever one was needed, of the utter lack of intelligent discourse about the civilization and the cultures broadly defined by that word.
And how does the American press reward such stunningly ignorant scholarship? Time magazine picked Hirsi Ali as one of 100 “most influential people” of 2005, people with “the clout and power to change our world.” At the other end of the spectrum, the answer is even more spectacularly stupid: Islamic radicals have called for Hirsi Ali’s death repeatedly since 2002. Whatever the merits of Hirsi Ali’s arguments, one thing is clear: By making threats against her person, right-wing Muslims appear to agree with Western conservatives that Islam as a whole (religion, region, culture) is weak, unable to defend itself by intellectual reasoning. It is also quite ironic that these radical Muslims are guilty of violating the first right their faith grants them: The right to choose their beliefs. “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” the Koran insists. And for good reason, too, because without the right to choose (new) beliefs, there would have been no Islam in the first place.
Hirsi Ali has done some very good work in her life. But her anti-Muslim vehemence has unfortunately tainted much of what she has written and said. And because she clearly looks down on Muslim women, she never bothers arguing that perhaps they are intelligent, competent and strong enough to speak up for themselves — that while women world-wide can all help each other and do share some common experiences, the women experiencing specific forms of oppression are the best ones to fight that oppression. That Muslim women don’t need Western feminists in shining armor to come save them.
The argument that pervades The Caged Virgin–that Muslim women need Western advocates–is premised on two assumptions. The first is that Muslim women somehow cannot speak up for themselves–what Edward Said once called “the silence of the native.” Hirsi Ali demonstrates this: “The [reason] I am determined to make my voice heard is that Muslim women are scarcely listened to, and they need a woman to speak out on their behalf.” If, as the title of this book suggests, the Muslim woman is a virgin in a cage, then by definition she must be freed from the outside. Someone must break the lock so that the poor woman can finally step out and speak for herself. But Muslim women are not, nor have they ever been, silent. For example, a significant portion of hadith, the Prophet’s sayings that form the basis of the Sunna, are attributed to his wife Aisha. Here is a sample hadith: “Narrated Aisha: The Prophet said, ‘All drinks that produce intoxication are haram.'” But how did Aisha narrate this saying? Was it by sitting at home, in a cage, or by actively engaging with her community and teaching the hadith to the congregation? This tradition of engagement has continued, and Muslim women have made their marks in all fields–whether religion or science or medicine or literature. Over the past century, they have organized in groups dedicated to fight for the advancement of their rights. Even under the inhumane Taliban regime, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan remained active, providing literacy courses and medical services to women and girls. That these women are thought to be invisible is a testament to the patriarchal systems–on either side–that want to protect them. But it cannot be a testament to their silence.
Yes. Muslim women are speaking. The problem is that few people in power are bothering to listen.
Unlike Hirsi Ali, however, Manji takes a much broader view about women in Islam. She places the question in the general context of civil rights in Islam. Here she focuses in particular on the status of minorities. Manji maintains that as a civilization Islam has never treated minorities with respect, only with contempt. She does mention that during the golden age of Islam, Jews and Christians held significant positions within the empire. But, she says, this cannot cover for the systematic treatment of them as “different.” In comparison, she argues, Israel has a far better record of treating its minorities. As evidence of this, she recounts a number of anecdotes from her visit to Israel. An Arab actress headlined a local production of My Fair Lady. Jews and Arabs alike take to the op-ed pages of newspapers like Ha’aretz to debate political issues. Religious literacy is part of military training for the armed forces. Street signs are labeled in Arabic, and Arabic is an official language of Israel. And she calls Israel’s systematic discrimination against its Arab citizens a form of “affirmative action” for Jews.
To show how disingenuous this line of argument is, let’s turn the situation around. Consider the case of the Jewish minority in Morocco. Jews have lived in the country for more than 2,000 years. Newspapers regularly carry news of the community’s cultural and religious events. Jews and Muslims venerate the same saints. Serge Berdugo, a Jew, served as minister of tourism in the 1990s and is now an ambassador at large. André Azoulay, the current adviser to the king, is Jewish. So is the country’s most popular comedian, Gad El Maleh, and one of its most celebrated novelists, Edmond Amran El Maleh. One could put together a virtually endless list of these facts, but none of them would detract from this other truth: Last year, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 88 percent of Moroccans have a negative view of Jews; as shameful as this figure is, any serious discussion of Morocco’s Jewish minority would have to include it. Meanwhile, in Israel, the Haifa-based Center Against Racism found that 68 percent of Jews polled revealed they were unwilling to live next to an Arab neighbor. Acknowledging anti-Semitism in some parts of the Arab world, therefore, should not require us to gloss over anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings in Israel. This reductionist way of thinking permeates The Trouble With Islam Today and gets tiresome very quickly. When Manji argues that Arabs and Muslims must learn to think differently about their present, she writes, “liberal Muslims have to get vocal about this fact: Washington is the unrealized hope, not the lead criminal.” For all her advocacy of new modes of thinking, she seems not to have entertained another possibility: Washington can be both.
There is certainly enough blame and wrong-doing to go around here — Islam doesn’t deserve to shoulder all of it. Social inequalities are complex, and derive from a series of places and an interaction of various forces. Pinning gender problems in the Middle East on Islam itself is as silly as pinning gender problems here on Christianity itself. Do religious extremists spin their religious texts to fit into their existing dogmas? Sure. Liberals have done it too, along with religious peaceniks, abolishionists, civil rights advocates, feminists, and many others. But as we see around the world, the same religious texts are interpreted and treated diferently in different contexts — economics, politics, culture and history have much more to do with how social heirarchies are created. Religion is simply a tool for the powerful to push their ideologies; it’s not a root cause of these issues.
The Caged Virgin and The Trouble With Islam Today are billed as profound meditations on faith and searing critiques of Islam’s treatment of women and minorities, but they are riddled with inaccuracies and generalizations. In their persistent conflating of religion, civilization, geographical region and very distinct cultures, these books are more likely to obfuscate than educate.
Yes. And Lalami is quick to emphasize that recognizing the fact that Islam is not the root of female oppression does not mean that we ignore that oppression.
None of this is to suggest that there are not serious issues facing Muslim women today. Still less does it mean that we should excuse violence and oppression, in some relativist fashion, because they happen to take place in the region broadly defined as “Islam.” Those who believe in gender equality have every reason to be concerned about radical Islamist parties that view women as mere vessels, defined by their reproductive powers. These right-wing Islamist parties resist changes in civil codes that grant women more rights or, worse, want to impose antiquated and dangerous forms of Sharia. It is therefore particularly troubling that they have made electoral gains in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere.
So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women–and men–in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women’s rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women’s organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn’t this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?
Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women’s lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire. These women have become a politicized class, prevented by edicts and bombs from taking charge of their own destinies. The time has come for the pawns to be queened.
Emphasis mine. Go read the whole essay. It’s fantastic.