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Sunday, October 10, 2004

Women, Islam, and Feminism (Part I)

"One of the reasons I don't see eye to eye with Women's Lib is that women have it all on a plate if only they knew it. They don't have to be pretty either."
-- Charlotte Rampling.

When the conflict erupted between theocratic, medieval, misogynist Islam - known as the war on terror - I quickly surmised that western women, feminists, and Islamic women had the most to lose (or gain in the case of Islamic women). If one is so inclined, there are many 'advantages' for men in Islam. Polygamy, pedophilia, near instant divorce, unequal favorable treatment under sharia, to being able to leave the house by oneself wearing the clothes you choose, these are available to men under Islam. Not so for women, and I intend to prove that shortly.

As I noted below in a previous entry, for some feminists the enemy remains President George W. Bush. In the hopeful belief this has something to do with uninformed factual opinion, not merely irrational, self-defeating, visceral hatred, I've decided to write a few posts on this subject.

There are several defenses I discovered while researching this post. One, Muslims claim that Islam allowed women rights they did not have in the West. The problem with this argument is that it focuses on history from hundreds of years ago. Second, many Muslims find the rights of women in the West to be horribly excessive. Muslims claim that women in bikinis on billboards, abortion, or birth control, prove corruption in the entire western approach to women. Some feminists, and Pat Buchanan (see blog entries below), would agree. Muslims often view depictions of women as intolerable. But this behavior is contracted freely by women who are not compelled to sell their likeness. This is one small aspect of western culture, despite Muslims choosing to judge us based on some billboards, movies, ads, or magazines. For brevity, and to avoid another morass, I'll leave abortion and birth control for someone else.

For a scholarly overview of Islam and Women (Lauren Weiner, Policy Review) generally, this article is excellent. There are differences from nation-to-nation, one historical period to another, within various branches of Islam, or from imam-to-imam, but this article is a wonderful overview.

In the first paragraph Weiner emphasizes the critical importance of this issue which summarizes my rationale for focusing on it also.

Near the very heart of a question Americans have been asking themselves since September 11, 2001 "Why do they hate us?" lies the question of how different societies treat their women. Americans by now seem bored and faintly embarrassed when feminist stories make the headlines. Who wants to hear about chauvinism at a stodgy American golf course when most of the meaningful barriers to female achievement in the United States have already been scaled? Yet as routine as the self-assertion of women is here, in other parts of the world it may be the most contentious issue of all.

It would be best to read the entire article, as Weiner's next point about Islamist women shows that many women vehemently defend their right to be considered inferior. In other words, there are many Islamic women who would fight against their liberation as hard as their male oppressors. The article is simply too long to summarize the whole thing. Again, please read it. But the following really struck me.

When the mullahs suddenly revived concubinage in Iran, Wahhabi religious authorities in Saudi Arabia raised objections, saying that it contravened the Koran. But in general, Saudi fundamentalists, no less than Iranian, put the 1950s hall monitors in the shade when it comes to being moralists with sex on the brain. According to Soraya Altorki, a sociologist who has studied women, marriage, and the family in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the Arabic word fitnah denotes the disorderly behavior of men who have been sexually tempted by women; the word also means femme fatale, a woman who can drive men to distraction and destruction. This linguistic conflation of cause and effect is one more reason to conclude that Islamism does not remove licentiousness from society but simply wraps it in layers of misogyny.

This is fundamental (no pun intended). Islamic leaders often allow men to get away with rape, beatings, 'improper' sexual activity, or murder, literally, then place the blame on their female victims.

Efforts to reform the Islamic view of women run into roadblocks in basic docrine which can be ignored, but not overcome without changing the history of Islamc thought (perhaps with a memory hole).

Weiner continues.

Several American feminists have put forward a feminist reading of the Koran, which in itself seems a very healthy development. One of the more prominent efforts in this line is Qu’ran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1999) by Amina Wadud, an African-American convert to Islam. Inasmuch as it is a linguist’s highly detailed study of the Arabic text of the Koran, I am not able to judge whether sound reasoning has been used to reach the conclusion that the words of the Prophet Muhammad offer justice to women as well as to men. Certainly Wadud is at one with the Islamic feminists I have been discussing in saying that domineering male interpreters of the text, not the text itself, are responsible for misogynistic practices under the aegis of Islam. Nor do readers of Wadud find a breezy multicultural endorsement of polygyny; she roundly condemns it.

The trouble comes when she announces that two of the three “commentators whose exegetical works were consulted” for Qu’ran and Woman were Sayyid Qutb and Syed Abdul Ala Maulana Maudoodi, the two principal Sunni theoreticians of Islamism. The political project of Qutb — inciter of the destruction of infidels and the coercion of nonfundamentalist Muslims — was to cure the Muslim world of the “hideous schizophrenia” caused by separating church and state. Yet to hear Wadud tell it, Qutb, in his writings on the Koran, “discusses the shared benefits and responsibility between men and women in the Islamic social system of justice” and is generally something of a feminist. This is not easy to reconcile with his rabid reaction against the social mixing of the sexes, mentioned above. True, one could argue that Qutb stood for a sexual politics of “separate (very separate) but equal.” But Wadud does not so argue. Neither Qutb nor Maudoodi (the foremost jihadi ideologue of the Indian subcontinent) is presented in political context. Filling in that context would have meant defending Qutb’s and Maudoodi’s fundamentalism or else trying to deny it. In any case, exercises in mainstreaming these ideologists of holy war do not serve the cause of women.


(to be continued)

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