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Women and Islam
By Cathy Young | October 23, 2006
BRITAIN HAS been in turmoil over veils in recent days, after a school
in Yorkshire suspended a Muslim teacher's assistant for wearing ``niqab" --
a form of the traditional veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes.
Further stoking the flames, House of Commons leader Jack Straw revealed
that in meetings with constituents, he had asked niqab-wearing women
to remove their veils for better face-to-face interaction.
The niqab controversy has focused on thorny questions of cultural
integration and religious tolerance in Europe. However, it is also
a debate about women and Islam.
For Westerners, the veil has long been a symbol of the oppression
of women in the Islamic world. Today, quite a few Muslims regard
it as a symbol of cultural and religious self-assertion and reject
the idea that Muslim women are downtrodden. In our multicultural
age, many liberals are reluctant to criticize the subjugation of
women in Muslim countries and Muslim immigrant communities, fearful
of promoting the notion of Western superiority. At the other extreme,
some critics have used the plight of Muslim women to suggest that
Islam is inherently evil and even to bash Muslims.
Recently, these tensions turned into a nasty academic controversy
in the United States, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported.
In June, Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-born professor of Iranian studies
and comparative literature at Columbia University, published an article
in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram attacking Azar Nafisi, Iranian émigré and
author of the 2003 best seller ``Reading Lolita In Tehran." Nafisi's
memoir is a harsh portrait of life in Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini's
Islamic revolution, focusing in particular on the mistreatment of
women, who were stripped of their former rights and harshly punished
for violating strict religious codes of dress and behavior.
Complaining that Nafisi's writings demonize Iran, Dabashi branded
her a ``native informer and colonial agent for American imperialism." In
a subsequent interview, he compared her to Lynndie England, the US
soldier convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
While Dabashi's rhetoric is extreme, it is not unique. Even in academic
feminist groups on the Internet, criticisms of the patriarchal oppression
of women in Muslim countries are often met with hostility unless
accompanied by disclaimers that American women too are oppressed.
A more thoughtful examination of Islam and women's rights was offered
earlier this month at a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute
in Washington. The keynote speaker, Syrian-American psychiatrist
Wafa Sultan, an outspoken critic of Islam, described an ``honor killing" of
a young Middle Eastern woman that occurred with the help of her mother.
In a later exchange, another participant, Libyan journalist Sawsan
Hanish, argued that it was unfair to single out Muslim societies,
since women suffer violence and sexual abuse in every society including
the United States. Sultan pointed out a major difference: In many
Muslim cultures , such violence and abuse are accepted and legalized.
Yet the symposium's moderator, scholar Michael Ledeen, rejected
Sultan's assertion that Islam is irredeemably anti-woman. He noted
that the idea that some religions cannot be reformed runs counter
to the history of religions. Several panelists spoke of Muslim feminists'
efforts to reform Islam and separate its spiritual message from the
human patriarchal baggage. Some of these reformers look for a lost
female-friendly legacy in early Islam; others argue that everything
in the Koran that runs counter to the modern understanding of human
rights and equality should be revised or rejected. These feminists
have an uphill battle to fight, and they deserve all the support
they can get.
Meanwhile, using the language of tolerance to justify oppressive
practices is a grotesque perversion of liberalism. The veiling debate
is a case in point. No amount of rhetorical sleight of hand can disguise
the fact that the full-face veil makes women, literally, faceless.
Some Muslim women in the West may choose this garb (which is not
mandated in the Koran), but their explanations often reveal an internalized
misogynistic view of women as creatures whose very existence is a
sexual provocation to men. What's more, their choice helps legitimize
a custom that is imposed on millions of women around the world who
have no choice.
Perhaps, as some say, women are the key to Islam's modernization.
The West cannot impose its own solutions from the outside -- but,
at the very least, it can honestly confront the problem.