Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Islam, Women and the Middle East – Some thoughts from the GAC

Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments

Another highlight for me from the Global Atheist Convention was the talk by author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who took the stage on the afternoon of day 2 of the convention. Her talk focused on the rights of women living in Islamic countries, the rise of the people in the middle-east to overthrow the tyrannical and oppressive regimes they have been subjects to, and the idea of a true “secular spring” for northern Africa and what this would look like.

Ms Ali’s talk showed how the Arab Spring has turned into what she called “The Islamic Winter”, and she highlighted some of the very dire situations these people are facing now, and into the future, particularly women under these regimes. She certainly presented a scary future for  these people and urged people of the West to not turn a blind eye to these troubles being faced.

On day 3 of the convention, a group of Muslim men, dressed in traditional gear protested outside the front doors of the Melbourne Convention Centre, brandishing placards and chanting some rather unpleasant things to the slowly gathering crowd. One of the placards read in all-capitals black lettering:

“Message to INFIDEL Ayaan Ali Hirsi [sic] BURN IN HELL FOREVER”

At one point, the chant rose among the convention attendees: “WHERE ARE YOUR WOMEN? WHERE ARE YOUR WOMEN?” As could be expected, there was not a woman among them.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a permanent accompaniment of bodyguards following her wherever she goes because of just such threats. For a full blow-by-blow account of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s talk, go see Chrys Stevenson’s blog. She’s done a great job documenting all of the speakers’ talks.

My blog today is on a slightly different topic though, and based on some thoughts from the talk, and in particular an article that came to my attention only yesterday, featured in the online magazine Foreign Policy. The article is by journalist Mona Eltahawy and is titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” It is an emotional ride through stories of oppression at the hands of a land that is supposed to be enjoying the freedoms brought about by the overthrow of governments. I’ll admit the article is intentionally emotive, and uses language and examples that intentionally evoke an emotional response, it is a powerful and through-provoking piece well worth reading. The article further incites emotions by including pictures of a nude woman covered in black paint with only her eyes showing, accompanied by quotes from the piece itself.

The article also admits that the rights of women worldwide have still got a long way to go, but highlights the fact that things are particularly bad in the Middle-East with this paragraph:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

Defenders of the Islamic states always point at culture as the reasons for the mistreatment of women, and people in the west are loathe to criticise culture for fear they might offend someone. But is this really justified? Should cultural practices be given a free-pass when they are at odds with what the more developed nations are trying to achieve, namely equality and justice for all of earth’s people, particularly women? Can someone rightly say that a practice such as genital mutilation, or cloaking a person from head to foot to “protect them”, or treating women as little more than infants and giving them as much rights as children, and insisting that the women never leave the house without a chaperone “for their own safety”, that just because it is deeply ingrained in their cultural heritage that it is right? And who determines what is wrong or right?

Any practice which stifles the rights of its people, physically, emotionally, politically or socially, is a practice worth turning our attention to. These age-old practices are the result of interpretations of their holy books, always by men, and the practises of the religion itself is controlled only by men. But there are always the defenders of these cultural practises, who claim that life for women under Islam is just peachy, and that Islam and the cultures under which it operates does so to protect the women from “other men”. Here’s an example of a rebuttal to Eltahawy’s article entitled “Dear Mona Eltahawy: You do not represent ‘Us'” by blogger Samia Errazzouki. In her article she defends the Niqab and the women who wear them, as well as telling Eltahawy why she is apparently misrepresenting women under Islam. Her defence of the Niqab, and her reasons why the above image is wrong are threefold:

The face veil is rooted in pre-Islamic history, and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam goes into a comprehensive explanation of its roots in the region. Today, those who are fixated on the Niqab believe that focusing on what a Muslim woman wears is what defines her thought, her intellect, her capabilities, her sexuality, her gender and her very existence. It is a narrative that’s been framed by the West and fed by the likes of Qasim Amin and even Hoda Sha’rawi. Foreign Policy’s decision to choose this photograph of a naked woman with a body-painted niqab embodies this problematic narrative in more ways than one:

1. This inherent sexualization of the niqab through the pose and exposure of the female form revives the classic “harem” literature and art, presenting the Arab and/or Muslim woman as “exotic” and “mysterious,” but still an object: An object lacking the agency to define herself, thus defined by others.

2. All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice.

3. The feature of an Arab woman’s article on the front cover does not justify the editorial choice to use the image. Mona Eltahawy was notoriously owned during a debate over the niqab ban in France, where she took the position in favor of the ban. Her stance on the niqab is convenient to the narrative being perpetuated by the problematic image.

This is precisely the kind of defense of cultural practices I am talking about. Deep cultural ties make it accepted, and expected behaviour. But the reasoning for her defending the Niqab is something I see again and again by women who “choose” to do as they are told by their culture. It’s the ultimate Stockholm Syndrome, where those who are held as captives come to love their captors and their situation, backed by culturally ingrained behaviours and expectations, and bolstered by a sense of apparent “freedom” of choice, as their would-be oppressors present it.

I see the Niqab as a symbol of all of the other oppressive behaviours perpetrated by men against women in Middle-Eastern cultures and the Islamic religion. The men claim it is there to stop women getting raped by strangers on the street. Likewise, the fact that in some Islamic societies, women are not allowed to leave the house alone, if at all, is cited as protecting the women from rape at the hands of strangers. You and I know that a society can and does operate quite comfortably without these kinds of extreme actions in order to “protect our women”. Even the idea that the women belong to the men, like some kind of pet or belonging, is abhorrent.

There is no doubt that women living in Islamic theocratic states are oppressed. It is in the culture of these lands to do so, and backed by the doctrines of Islamic law as laid down by the Quran and the Hadith. In some countries it is better than in others, but in all of these countries, women are treated as second class citizens.

This is not anti-Islamic (I am equally astounded and dismayed by the cultural practices of other religions), nor can I be accused of racism (Islam is not a race). This is a human rights issue, one where no matter what your cultural history says, no matter how long this practice has been around, no matter if it’s “the way we’ve always done things”, if it oppresses and violates the basic human rights of people, it is NOT OKAY.

Some might say I have no right to comment on this, for several reasons:

a. I am not a woman
b. I do not live in the Middle-East
c. I am not Islamic
d. I have never lived in the situations described above

To that I say, it does not take a genius to see that women are being oppressed. I am a citizen of the world, and therefore I claim the right to criticise when I see injustices being served. I will not pussyfoot around cultural oppression of women, and I will not pussyfoot around religions. If this is what the religion means, then it must change or continue to be criticised by the likes of myself.

Finally, I want to just put this forward. Why is it that when a woman, who seem to be the main victims of oppression at the hands of these theocracies, openly and publicly criticises Islamic practices, that she is instantly disparaged as a liar, and then threatened with hell or death? Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Taslima Nasreen both know of this, and I wonder how many others do also.

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  1. Nice job Martin.  I will take the bait…I have never been one to respect cultural relativism.  I agree with you, as a citizen of the world, I will continue to write and speak about human rights abuses wherever and whenever I see them.  I do not accept the argument that “this is how we have always done it in our culture, you do not understand”.  It is a cop-out.  Here is what I do understand:  female circumcision, women not being allowed to leave their home, women having no control over their own body, women being able to be beaten–for any reason, women being forced to wear certain items of clothing, etc—is wrong.  These things violate basic human rights and remove basic human dignity–cultural relativism be damned. 
    People need to speak out against this type of behavior when presented with it.  Allowing or tolerating it because it takes place in a different culture is, in my opinion a failure to act and even cowardly at times.  Great Post Martin–and my hat is off to women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, and others like them

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  2. In a world where we value free speech you have every right to comment on this barbaric behaviour.  Anyway, is the niqab there to hide the bruises sustained during the beatings that were not severe or to the face?  Even in tolerant countries like yours and mine, I find it difficult to tolerate the burka and niqab.  I find that they offend our cultural values.  Don’t you?

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  3. We should expect many locals to be passionately defending their cultural identity/practises and status quo of gender inequality, their local influential moral leaders seem fairly united in demonising the liberalism of the West.
    Updating their local laws will take a chorus of dissenting voices like that of brave AHA.

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