Women in Muslim Nations
In a Global Gender Gap Report, all 14 of the Arab countries ranked in the bottom 30.[i] In a 2009 survey of 15,000 youths, 67% of the female respondents believe it’s OK for a husband to beat his wife if she speaks to another man.[ii] This ownership of women’s bodies continued in the 2011 revolution when around 18 young women protestors were tested for their virginity, supposedly to find out if they were prostitutes. No women were on recent committees to shape policy and the constitution, despite women having the right to vote since 1956.
Some Muslim feminists point to progressive steps taken by the Prophet on women’s behalf and look to his youngest wife, Ayisaha, whose writings or hadith are quoted in shar’ia Islamic teachings. An interesting note is Muslim women were initially reluctant to participate in street protests in Egypt because of a history of widespread sexual harassment in a male-dominated crowd. However, the demonstrators were very respectful of women as organizers urged a peaceful protest—“purity” was the theme. Alia Mustafa El Sadda, a 20-year-old law student at Cairo University, protested with her mother, aunt, and two younger sisters because the demonstrations were the “only chance” for change.[iii] She said the protest was unique in its high number of women, and the respectful way the men related to them. See the Equality chapter for my interview with three women activists in Tahrir Square.
Today in a lot of countries like India, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia and even in my own country, girls are given less importance than guys or considered a burden sometimes. Even in really developed areas of those countries girls are less trusted by parents. Part of it is because they are considered the honor of the family, and their respect is considered a respect of the family. And part of it is because parents in these countries give a lot more importance to what society says. Today in these countries, if a girl is raped and loses her respect, the parents who still love her as their child, force her to commit suicide for the fear of what society will say. But society never says anything to that guy who committed rape. If a family has limited resources than their son’s wishes are usually priority.
When we were young we realized in our house we sisters were given more love and rights than our brothers, which was really unusual. But I think my father was born with that kind of heart and when he saw how people hate their daughters or consider them less loveable than sons, mostly because girls increase the burden on poor parents. Their marriage requires a lot more money. And then there is a very wrong tradition of giving money and property to a daughter when she is being married. All these things forced parents to consider their daughter a burden. My father wants for a girl to not to feel herself less capable than boys and less important than boys.
I shouldn’t go out without my dad or my elder brother with me. Society won’t think it right. And society matters a lot here, especially in a small city where I live, it matters a lot more for a girl to go out alone and I don’t want anyone to talk bad about my dad. I have been very depressed about my college plans since I’m not getting very many opportunities to go out and search, being a girl coming in the way. [She got into medical school with her excellent exam scores.] Sahar, 17, f, Pakistan
I asked Hassan to film villages near his home in Peshawar. I told him I was surprised that the people on the street, the children playing, were all male except I saw two women in purdah walking down the street. Hassan explained,
I was new to the village. They saw me for the first time with the camera. The women outside quickly went to their homes because they are scared of their men and they know that they are supposed to be inside at such times. We are talking about people who are absolutely confined to their own homes and not go out a lot. I live in Peshawar and we do have some exposure to girls. For example, we have co-education here. Women go out of their homes to markets, interact in schools, colleges, universities, cafes, etc. Villages have different lives than cities.
I also asked him about the role of women in Islam (the S.A.W. is respect to the prophet’s name, a calling for Allah’s blessing):
Women are surely a degree less than men when it comes to basic powers. Men are seen to be authoritative figure, just like every modest society. Wives are entitled to obey their husbands and speak to them in a lower tone. Women are supposed to cover themselves completely once they go out and interact with other men. In fact, their tone shall also be loud and to the point so the opposite person doesn’t hold anything in his heart. [I asked if this means they shouldn’t flirt and he said yes.] When it comes to business affairs, or for example, it’s a phone call, she should have an erect, serious voice to avoid controversies.
Please keep in mind that this doesn’t take any credit away from the importance of women in Islam. Islam has made tireless struggles in the Dark Age to make sure women get their divine rights. Women are also considered very respectful in the society. In fact, there is a saying by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), “Paradise is under the feet of mother”. He (S.A.W) means to say that if you want to win the paradise, if you want to achieve the eternal life, win your mother’s heart. There are also many other examples and quotes from Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), which shows that women hold an important place in the society.
A college student told me about gender roles in his country in an interview:
In Saudi Arabia, the only time girls and boys interact is in pre-school. If you go to friends’ homes, boys don’t eat with girls or play together. Girls might make cookies together, make crafts, or play clapping games, and boys play sports like soccer. Girls cover their hair with hijab—headscarf. When it’s time to get married, my mother or aunt will look for a wife for me. I’d like a tall woman, not fat, from my town, who will be a good mother. My mother quit teaching high school when she had her first son.
Mohsen, 19, m, Saudi Arabia
An American journalist who taught young journalists in Saudi Arabia reported on gender relations in his HBO special, My Trip to al-Qaeda.[iv] Lawrence Wright said the men are “nearly incapacitated by longing.” Some young men refer to the burka-clad women as BMO, “black moving objects.” He was “constantly flabbergasted by the lack of understanding between the sexes. I had thought Saudi women would be a force for change, but this was not really true.” There’s no civil society, nothing for young people to do but shop. He said as kind of a joke what civilizes young men is the desire to please girlfriends, but in reality segregating the sexes does lead to deviant behavior and subordination of women. A Saudi woman told me that because of all the regimentation, everything happens underground.
King Abdullah has made some progressive steps, founding the kingdom’s first co-ed university and giving women the right to vote and run for local office in the local advisory councils (no lawmaking power) starting with the 2015 elections. There are no national elections. He hasn’t yet overturned the the policy of male guardianship, putting Saudi women in the legal status of minors, or the ban on women driving. He did overturn a court’s decree of 10 lashes for a woman caught driving in a protest movement. As a consequence, the average woman spends half her income on a driver and protests have sputtered off and on since 1990.[v] One of their Facebook pages is “Support #Women2Drive.” A Saudi feminist, Wajeha al-Huwaider called the kingdom “the world’s largest women’s prison.”
When the young Taliban men took over in Afghanistan (1996 to 2001), they ruled that girls and women couldn’t be educated, employed, or walk on the street without a male family member walking with them–leaving widows in a real bind. Violence against women by their husbands wasn’t punished. They also required men to grow a beard. Traditional practices keep women subordinate as films illustrate.[vi] The movie Osama portrays an Afghan widow and her daughter living under the Taliban. They disguise her as a boy so they can go out of the house, but she’s discovered when she’s forced to attend a madrassa school. In his book A Thousand Splendid Suns Haled Hosseini describes the hardships women endured under the Taliban. His book and movie The Kite Runner tells the story from boys’ experience, as portrayed in the movie of the same name. This movie shows prejudice against the Hazara ethnic group by the ruling Pashtuns (the Taliban are Pashtun) and the practice of bacha baz explained below.
Even after the Taliban were overthrown by the US in 2001, they’re still bombing girls’ schools and throwing acid at girls who attend school. Most women still aren’t educated and depend on their husbands, but over 300 Muslim women protested in the capital of Afghanistan, April 2009. They were called whores by some of the men who supported religious restrictions on women’s rights. A 2009 law gave Shia minority husband the right to refuse to provide food for his wife if she refuses to have sex with him, a woman must have her husband’s permission to work, and only men have legal custody of their children, as in the 19th century in the West.[vii] The women delivered a petition to Parliament to repeal the 2009 law that permits Shiite Muslim husbands to rape their wives, requires a husband’s permission for a woman to go to school or work outside the home, and requires that if a husband wants his wife to dress up or “make herself up” she must obey.
Women live in fear in Afghanistan. “I get threatening calls almost every day asking why I think I am important enough to work in an office,” said Fouzia Ahmed, 25, a government secretary in Kabul. “The truth is, no women feel safe here. We are always threatened. That’s why we need the eyes of the world.” An Afghan woman is shown on a Time magazine cover, her ears and nose chopped off by her husband’s family because she tried to run away from domestic abuse.[viii] The local judge, a Taliban commander, allowed it. (The 18-year-old is currently being sheltered in New York City after having reconstructive surgery on her face.)
Afghan men can’t talk to an unrelated woman unless engaged to her. Segregating the sexes, however, leads to perverted sexuality and pedophilia, as in the Afghan Pashtun practice of bacha baz, young boys kept as lovers by older men. “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face? We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful,” explained a 29-year-old man.[ix] A common expression is, “Women are for children, boys are for pleasure.”
An innovative model program to train slum women to earn money was set up as part of an Indian billion-dollar aid program for Afghanistan. The training takes place in a guarded Kabul park where men are not allowed. Women and girls can take off their burqas, play on the swings, and learn organic farming, sewing, and literacy. A 19-year-old girl commented, “This is the one place that’s ours. For us, home is so boring. Our streets and shops are not for women.”[x] A former member of the Afghan parliament, a feminist, Malalai Joya described her experience in her book A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice published in 2011 when she was 32. When she spoke up in parliament about corruption, they turned off the microphone and her life was threatened to the point she had to leave parliament.
Some fundamentalist Islamic leaders see women as the source of all kinds of trouble, even earthquakes. In 2010, an Iranian cleric in Tehran blamed potential earthquakes on women. Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi explained, “Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes.”[xi] A global campaign tried to prevent Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old widow and mother of two, convicted of adultery in Iran, from being stoned to death. In one day alone, 500,000 responded to an Internet call for save her and her sentence was suspended.
A tourist in Iran in 2010, Sheila Collins reported to me about segregation of the sexes,
What surprised me is there is a very close bond of friendship between the boys starting at a young age. You see them everywhere–high school, college–with arms around each other, sometimes holding hands, greeting each other with real warmth and affection. [I saw the same in Egypt.] According to our Iranian guide these friendships are so strong they last through adulthood. Perhaps it is because they are segregated from girls from the beginning in school, etc. I was so glad to see young people – boys and girls – sitting on the grass, on benches acting pretty much the way we did when that age. There were no duennas around to keep an eye on them. Cities were less conservative and the young women often made fashion statements out of their Jaballahs and headscarfs. I hear rumors that things are tightening up because the ayatollahs see creeping western influence. Religion is there, that’s for sure, but many young people seem to be very much making up their own minds.
Ali, a young Iranian, told me that when his niece, age 18, and her boyfriend were eating dinner in a restaurant, neighbors called the police because it’s illegal for an unmarried couple to be together and even spouses can’t show affection in public. The boy was taken to the police station and the girl’s parents were called to pick her up. When Ali was a teen, boys and girls would gather in the gardens or the beach where the police wouldn’t see them. They would sometimes drink alcohol, although that’s illegal too. There’s no dance clubs, no bars. The guitar, chess and playing pool used to be illegal and playing cards still are outlawed. He said in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait they make a big deal out of prohibiting alcohol, although people manage to consume it, as they did during Prohibition in the US.
Women are a majority of university students, but leaders are discussing plans to segregate classes there too. I asked him why more women are in universities. He said they want independence or a good husband so they study harder. He added that it’s difficult for poor women and men to go to university because there are no student loans and it’s hard to get scholarships.
Since women led some of the Green Revolution protests against election fraud in 2009, this female activism is called “the lipstick revolution.”[xii] Women’s rights groups also organized the One Million Signatures Campaign in 2006 to change discriminatory laws against women, such as only husbands have the right to initiate divorce and have custody of their children. Men can be polygamous and have “temporary” marriages to have sex.[xiii] Dozens of women involved in the effort have been harassed, jailed or executed by the government.[xiv] When Neda Aga-Saltan was killed by a sniper on the street while demonstrating against the unfair elections of June 2009, she became a worldwide symbol of resistance. The video of her death went viral. Other women wore Neda masks and carried signs saying “I am Neda,” as shown in a documentary about her.[xv] The regime made a DVD of their version of her death to try to counter its power.
Islamic extremists continue their restrictions on women. In Iran, since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the law mandates that women cover their hair and wear long coats in public. Patrols search the streets of Tehran looking for “loose morality,” meaning signs of modernism like loose-fitting veils, short coats, or being too suntanned. The Interior Minister developed a “chastity plan” to promote the proper covering from kindergarten on up. An expatriated Iranian writes graphic novels about growing up under the extremists: You can view some of her drawings on YouTube.[xvi]
All the characters in the film Ten (2002) are women, except for the seven-year-old-son of the main character, who one after the other converse with the driver of a car. It shows male control in the way the boy tells his mother want to do and is rude to her. The mother/driver says the only way she could get out of an unfulfilling marriage to the boy’s father who wanted to “own me,” is by lying to the divorce court, saying he was a drug addict. A prostitute tells the driver that married women sell sex wholesale, while women of the street sell it retail, however the driver took action to divorce and marry a man who is a good friend. She repeats that you must love yourself before you love someone else, but the film ends with her son telling her where to go (to his grandmother’s home) and she complies.
Nawal El Saadawi was born in village near Cairo in 1931 when the British ruled Egypt, as she explains in her two autobiographies about a woman who breaks with tradition. She later joined other girls in her high school to break down the metal door to their boarding school to join a protest march against the British. Big landowners owned most of the agricultural land, not the peasants who took their young girls out of school to help work around the house. Although her relatives were disappointed about the birth of a girl, her parents were loving and supportive of her and her education, as her father was an educator and she was a bright student.
Early on her parents bowed to family pressure from her aunts and uncles and grandmother to search for a husband for her, starting when she was only 10. She found ways to scare off the suitors, like blackening her teeth and smiling to show them off to one unappealing man whose coffee she spilled in his lap while tripping on new high heels. This tactic earned her a “sound trashing” but kept her single. She later picked her own husbands, three of them over time, with two divorces. Starting at age 11, she was no longer allowed to go out of the house to play with other children in the fields, kept inside to safely do domestic tasks. Her parents did allow her to go to live with her aunt to go to school in Cairo.
Her parents struggled to find funds to send five sisters and three brothers to private schools (the government schools were crowded and the teachers not well educated). Because her mother insisted, Nawal continuing going to school rather than marrying. She went on to medical school where boys and girls were not supposed to have friendships—even conversations, and sex or circumcision practices weren’t mentioned in class. Students memorized information, but didn’t practice doing surgeries. She went on to become one of the few women doctors, receiving her degree in 1955, and then to be director of public health education for the government.
While working as a rural doctor, she saw the hardships women suffered from male relatives, like the girl married off at age nine to a man 50 years older. He literally drove her crazy by having painful anal intercourse while she was bent over in prayer. She thought Allah was hurting her. Dr. El Saadawi knew girls who burned themselves or drowned themselves in the Nile to escape this kind of cruelty, as did the girl mentioned previously. Her feminist writings led to her dismissal as director, and later to jail and exile where she taught university students and wrote autobiographies and novels.
Her name was on a fundamentalist death list, so it wasn’t safe to stay in Egypt, and she left in 1993. One threatening letter to her said,
You are a heretic, an enemy of Islam, an instrument of the Devil. You are the woman who caused Adam to be chased out of Paradise, and brought death and destruction with her.. . . The slogan of your immoral association, “unveiling of the mind,” is heresy. [She founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and it’s magazine Noon.] Do you not know that Allah commends all Muslim women to wear the veil? The veil is sacred and you are inciting women to disobey Allah. Women like you deserve only death.[xvii]
The most striking theme of Dr. El Saadawi’s autobiographies is the cruelty with which girls and women are treated, by both sexes. The custom in her village was that a bridegroom should beat his bride with a stick before she ate any of his food to make the point he ruled over her on earth, just as Allah rules from Heaven. The Korean teaches “to the male a share equal to two females,” so her grandmother gave the boys twice as much as the girls. Love was also haram, sinful, forbidden, despite all the love songs on the radio that didn’t mention marriage. But boys had a saying, “Nothing shames a man but his pocket,” since not having money is the only thing to cause shame.[xviii] She writes about her aunt and others like her, “It was the cruelty that had grown in them through suppression, the steam held back under pressure until their bodies were filled with it to bursting point.”[xix]
She is critical of Islam, as when she points out men are promised 72 perpetual virgins for eternity. Reading the sayings of the Prophet, she was surprised to learn that sexual pleasure was confined to men whose virgins would say to him, “In Paradise, there is nothing better than you, nothing that I like more than being with you.” She explained, “Everything in a woman’s life was seen as shameful, even her face.”[xx] Women are the daughters of Eve, responsible for sin, impure during menstruation when they’re not to be touched and not to mention Allah’s name in prayer. When she was six, without warning, a midwife grabbed her and cut off her impure clitoris with a razor, saying it was God’s will.
A Muslim teen in Pakistan, Hassan gives his perspective on women in Islam:
In the dark ages, when Arabs were so lost that they’d bury their newborn daughters, it was hard for them to groom up as a moral person. With Islam, new laws were imposed on the people. It says that women can’t leave their houses without proper covering, that is needed, and in addition, they are not equal to men. It’s also, realistically, hard for them to make it to mosques on daily basis. At the grand union of Muslims in Saudi Arabia every year, called HAJJ, men and women pray together and there is no discrimination. They even stand together. There are also mosques in Muslim countries where there’s a separate space for women to pray. So there isn’t as such a restriction. Men are guided to go since it’s convenient. Women can’t since it doesn’t fit in the society. And as we know human nature, when a man and woman interact, the third person around is the Devil so it leads to destruction in the society.
After the Youth Revolution of 2011, she founded the Egyptian Union for Women (EUW) in March.[xxi] A staff member, Sally Ali El-haak, age 18, emailed:
I knew Nawal from her writings, my parents are totally against her and that caused many problems in home! They were against me because I’m so rebel and upset from this sick society! I met Nawal for the 1st time on October 2010, we were some youth gathering at her place to discus political issues and secularism and her books. It’s a monthly forum she tried to fund it 20 years ago and after the revolution, Moubarak and his regime won’t obstacle her again. So, Me, Omar Ahmed, and Dina Amiri are her assistants in the EUW.
Another EUW staff person who calls himself a feminist, Omar Ahmed has done a lot for a 21-year-old. Social media officer for Sony Ericsson in Cairo since he was a teenager, he studies foreign trade at Helwan University, participated in the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011, and is the only male staff member for the organization committee at the new Egyptian Union for Women. He believes he only has one life so he invests in it fully. His parents are liberal, although his mother wears hijab, since she considers it her duty as a Muslim woman. Omar adds that most young women who also wear hagib couldn’t recite verses from the Koran that require veiling. His feminist beliefs started when he was a boy and his nanny read to him, as about Qasim Amin, a 19th century writer. Amin wrote, “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.” Amin opposed veils for women as a symbol of slavery.
Omar comments more on the ups and downs of women’s rights in Egyptian history, stating that under King Farouk women had the right to vote and go to school, but when he was overthrown by army officers in 1952, women lost ground. President Sadat’s rule in the 1970s brought Islamic fundamentalism to the fore, influenced by Saudi Arabian traditions. It lives on in the Muslim Brotherhood, whose older members view women as the gateway to hell because of Eve’s sin, not fully human. The younger Muslim Brotherhood members are talking about breaking away and forming their own organization advocating a secular government.
Omar believes these traditionalists have the majority support in the villages. The Egyptian education system teaches obedience to parents, teacher, and boss. Around six TV channels are Islamic. The Brotherhood had 88 members of Parliament under President Mubarak, officially labeled independents since religious parties were outlawed. Omar fears that Muslim Brotherhood majorities in the new Parliament would create a new constitution like Iran’s. However, he thinks that now as a legal party their hidden funding sources will be monitored and that will be helpful, like germs die in the sunlight. Although out of 80 million Egyptians, only 6 to 7 million are on Facebook, it’s expanding to the villages where Omar thinks it will gradually counter the influence of fundamentalists. Facebook members have doubled since the revolution.
The February revolution didn’t have a plan or a unified leadership, it’s main goal being to get Mubarak out. Omar participate because he felt it was his duty to be there with his friends to achieve freedom. He’d been to a few demonstrations before the revolution, but wasn’t a member of a political party or movement. Since the protests started on January 25 women were represented and sometimes the majority. They were the first to bring blankets to sleep in the square. They were attacked by the police and threw stones when the camel drivers entered the square to attack the protestors, just like the men. It was like one big family of 5 to 6 million. No one brought up religion, gender, or age as everyone had the same goal. Will Dr. El Saadawi’s Egyptian Union for Women make a dent in feminist reform?
Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali described her evolution away from her Muslim beliefs in her book Infidel.[xxii] She tells us Mohammad consummated his marriage with his young wife Ayisha when she was only nine and playing with dolls, although some Muslims say she was older.[xxiii] Ayaan was raised in her early childhood in tribal society in Somalia where her illiterate grandmother was a nomad, married against her will at age 13. The family would pack their mats onto camels and move to another place every month or so to find more water and pasture. They believed not only in Allah, but also the influence of Djinns (spirits) and ancestors. Loyalty to one’s clan was all-important. Later, in Kenya, she observed increasing reliance on tribal affiliation and religious tradition as the government fell apart due to corruption.
Her grandmother insisted she and her sister suffer genital cutting and the resulting pain of their future husbands breaking through scar tissue on the wedding night without foreplay or any sex education from parents. Otherwise girls would be considered dirty, not pure and unmarriageable. A woman is supposed to be baarri, a pious slave who submits to her father, then her husband. Submission is the message girls and women get. They can’t go outside without their father’s permission and are taken from school and married off when they’re girls. Her father was a political leader who moved the family to Saudi Arabia where Ms. Ali saw her first toy at age eight. She heard the word haram—forbidden–every day. Boys and girls playing together was haram, as was taking a bus with men, or having a headscarf fall off even with no males around. The Saudi boys were in charge at home, telling their mothers and sisters what to do. One tactic was to blacken her teeth when meeting a suitor who came to her parents’ home to look her over.)
(To update haram, in 2010, Saudi religious police tried to punish three young people who appeared on an MTV show for “openly declaring sin.” On the show, one of the youths said, “We are not free to live as we like.” The episode showed how Aziz tries to meet his girlfriend for a date, unacceptable in the kingdom. “I feel great solace when I talk to her,” he said in his declaration of sin. In the same year, four women and 11 men were sentenced to flogging and prison terms for mingling at a party in the northern town of Ha’il.)
Ms. Ali’s family moved to Nairobi in 1980. Her Muslim Girls’ School followed the British system with O level exams at the end of year 11 and A levels in year 13. Some of the teachers hit the students when they made mistakes. A devout teacher warned them to beware of Western decadence, “the corrupt, licentious, perverted, idolatrous, money-grubbing, soulless countries of Europe.” However, once she learned to read English, she started reading western novels she got from the library, where girls and boys were more equal, as in Harlequin romance novels, European fairy tales, Nancy Drew detective stories, the adventures of Enid Blighton, the Secret Seven, and the Famous Five. In literature class they read novels including 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Cry, the Beloved Country.
The novels countered the traditional belief that love and sex were lowly and that love marriages were a stupid mistake that forfeited your clan’s protection if your husband left you. Without a clan protector, a girl could be raped and left to die without honor. Another example of western culture was her brother listened to “devil music” tapes of Michael Jackson until his mother threw out them out the window. When they visited family back in Mogadishu, Somalia, they watched Indian movies and Arab soap operas on TV.
After Nairobi, she ended up in living in the Netherlands. Her father decided to marry her to a Canadian Somali without consulting her, just as he took another wife without telling her mother. When her plane landed in Frankfort she decided not to continue her flight to Canada to join her new fiancé. She took the train to the Netherlands and applied for refugee status. She worked as a translator, got into an excellent university to study political science, and was elected to parliament. She was critical of funding Muslim schools where children weren’t encouraged to ask questions and told not to be friends with unbelievers. Although she considers herself Dutch, she and her guards are now in the US because of extremist Muslim immigrants’ threats to her life due to her criticism of the Islamic treatment of women and children. Her partner in a film about this topic, Submission, was killed by a Muslim extremist so Dutch authorities took threats to kill her seriously. (As an update, in the Dutch election of 2010, the anti-Islam party called the Freedom Party did its best finish with 24 seats out of 150 parliamentary seats. The winning VVD party (The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) continued a European shift to the political right by advocating cuts in government spending and limiting immigration.)
In the US in 2007, Ms. Ali set up the AHA foundation to help protect and defend the rights of women in the West against militant Islam.[xxiv] She warns against excusing crimes in the name of tolerance of cultural differences:[xxv]
Feminists need to be wary of the celebration of “cultural diversity” unless they want to inadvertently celebrate polygamy, child-marriage, marital rape, honor killings, wife beating, selective abortion of female fetuses and other traditions that are now legitimized in the name of culture. . . Westerners run many aid programs in non-Western nations. Most of these programs are value-neutral, and pose no challenge to the cultures of recipient nations. That must change.
A hopeful note is a 2004 film, The Syrian Bride, about the complexities of life on the border between Israel and Syria. The sister of the bride is an Arab woman who lives in a traditional Druze village in the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. She had raised her children and wants to go to university to be a social worker. Her husband doesn’t want her to go, telling her the villagers will say, “Your wife wears the pants. You’ll shame me, people will say I can’t control my wife.” At the end of the film she walks away from a family gathering for the wedding, on her own, implying that she will attend university.
In Lemon Tree, 2008, the same actress, Hiam Abbass, played a Palestinian widow who refuses to allow the Israeli government to cut down her lemon grove as a security measure when the Defense Minister moves next to her. The actress grew up in a village and reported that her own father doesn’t think acting is an acceptable profession for a woman, but she does it anyway. Some Muslim nations are changing: A Jordanian young woman with a master’s degree, Nebaal Mhade emailed me: “The old imperative that the girls stay at home, this thing was old, in the meantime, the girls compete with men in all areas of work and just the opposite, it is now becoming the pride of her family.”
A young Algerian activist tells about her rise to leadership:
I have been involved in political work since my adolescence–then an elected municipal councilor and member and spokesperson in several international bodies and committees. I am currently working for International NGOs in Maghreb Region, willing to see some progress made for women and within their daily lives.
These past experiences and my day-to-day work as a political official and leader in Algeria have taught me numerous important lessons: As a woman in a male-dominated society I have to live under a double standard, constantly being forced to do better work than the other(s) (men) in order to defend my position, while being constantly discriminated against for what I think, say or do because I am a woman. This painful experience nevertheless has provided me with the necessary self-esteem and self-assertiveness that is crucial to possess in order to make a difference in society. Algeria must abandon its discriminatory Family Code, adopted in 1984, even though amended in 2004, which has relegated women to the status of legal minors. Kahina, ?, f, Algeria[xxvi]
Despite sex segregation and oppression, educated Muslim women are breaking tradition.
[v] Robin Morgan, “Keys to the Kingdom,” Ms. Magazine, Summer, 2011.
[vi] Osama, 2003, is about a 12-year-old girl whose widowed mother disguises her as a boy so they can go outside—based on a true story, the first Afghan film after the fall of the Taliban. 2003 Divorce Iranian Style, 1998, was shot in a divorce court. Runaway, 2001, was filmed at a shelter for runaway girls and abused women in Tehran.
[xvii] Nawal El Saadawi. Walking Through the Fire. London, Zed Books, 2002.
[xix] Nawal El Saadawi. A Daughter of Isis. London: Zed Books, 1999, p 235.
[xxii] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press, 2007. See also Fadumo Korn. Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2006. She was also the victim of female genital mutilation.