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.
In Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries — where adherents of extreme variants of Islam try to intimidate peaceful Muslim majorities — antipathy toward the West revolves around sex and gender every bit as much as it revolves around “globalization” or the exploitation of poor countries by rich ones or infidel soldiers quartered on sacred lands. The dogma purveyed by the Taliban of Afghanistan, Jemaa Islamiya in Southeast Asia, and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, among others, would encourage polygamy; lower the age of marriage for girls (the mullahs who have ruled Iran since 1979 made girls legally marriageable beginning at age nine); require women to cover themselves in public; deny women marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights equal to those of men; punish females accused of adultery or prostitution with death by stoning; and, most fundamentally, unite church and state (a theocracy being the Islamists’ preferred way to impose the aforementioned rules on a society).
We must understand radical Islamism if we are ever to counter its malign force. By the term radical Islamism I mean the varieties of political Islam that take their inspiration from the early writings of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, from Sunni Wahhabism emanating from Saudi Arabia, or from the Shiite theocracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. All three are radical because they define Islam in opposition to all that is non-Islamic. In other words, these violent strains share in being reactionary. And one of the things about our way of life against which they have reacted most strongly, going back to at least the 1920s, is feminism.
This article will examine the radical Islamist reaction to feminism, along with other related matters: the participation of women themselves in radical Islamist thought and political acts; how attempts by governments to secularize their populations actually fed Islamism in the universities; the “Islamic revival” in Egypt; the less than healthy view of sex evinced by Islamists; the treatment of women in Afghanistan and American feminists’ role in bringing that treatment to light; and, finally, an emerging “Islamic feminism” (as opposed to Islamist feminism) that I believe deserves support and encouragement.
Coeducation and its discontents
Media commentators have explained to Americans over and over again since the attacks on New York and Washington what scholars have been documenting for decades: Radical Islamism is steeped in resentment. Iranian writer Daryush Shayegan tells us the Islamists’ “consciousness is wounded” by Western achievements. They use religion as a political weapon, he says, and their program is twofold: to wound the West in return while at the same time coercing mainstream Muslims into practicing a strange, stripped down version of Islam that will bring back the glorious age of the Prophet Muhammad.
Bernard Lewis, the dean of Middle East historians, places this resentment in the widest possible context: Islam’s fortunes and misfortunes since its advent in the seventh century. Its unimpeded rise, from the time of the victorious and prosperous Prophet Muhammad, lasted a thousand years. The defeat of the Ottoman Turks outside of Vienna in 1683 began a decline that has been just as steady, lasting to our own day. Lewis contrasts this up-down trajectory with the early struggles and checkered history of the Jews and Christians. How galling for Muslim radicals, he says, that the once persecuted Jews and Christians have come to define the world we live in. And, he adds, where Judeo-Christian and Muslim societies contrast most notably is on the woman question. Herein lies the West’s greatest vulnerability, or so the adherents of political Islam — the Islamists — believe.
In a recent interview, Lewis noted that, unlike Christianity in all its forms, Islam and most of the rest of the world allow and practice polygamy and concubinage. Western visitors to Muslim lands have
talk[ed] with horror of the subordination and ill-treatment of Muslim women (and, I might add, with ill-concealed envy of what they imagine to be the privileges of Muslim men). Muslim visitors to the Christian world are shocked and horrified by the loose and promiscuous ways of the West and also the absurd deference, as they see it, given to Western women.
One such visitor, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, a founder of modern Islamic fundamentalism, spent time in the United States from 1948 to 1950. He observed with disgust that, in the very churches of the Christians, there were dances at which the sexes mingled and touched. Such a sight convinced Qutb that Christianity had lost its way, leaving a society and a way of life that were debauched and ready to be defeated.
The Islamist project to attack the West and “purify” the faith began to take root in Egypt in the 1920s. In 1924, a reformist government opened a modern university that permitted women to attend. At the same time Egypt’s first feminist, Huda Shaarawi, set aside her veil in public, and photos of her uncovered face made the front pages of Egyptian newspapers. It was also when Sayyid Qutb and others were establishing the first Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood. But Islamism didn’t come to full fruition until the 1970s, starting to win large numbers of adherents at the precise moment that feminism was at the height of its political power in America and Europe and gaining a foothold in the urban centers of the less developed countries.
The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi draws the connection very directly in Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Indiana University Press, revised edition 1987). Mernissi’s book, first published in 1975, addresses the vast changes in Muslim societies as the European powers were relinquishing their colonies. Not only were rural populations migrating to the cities, but the universities in those cities — for centuries the exclusive preserve of local male aristocracies — were being democratized. Those whom Mernissi calls “traditionally marginalized and deprived male rural migrants” were for the first time permitted to seek higher education in Rabat, Lahore, Beirut, Amman, and other centers. So, too, were women.
The introduction of ideas of liberty and equality into these societies had effects that were complicated and in many cases subtle. Clearly discernible to Mernissi, however, was an antagonism that arose between nonveiling college women and the males who arrived in the universities along with them. The male parvenus, in the millions, glommed onto violently anti-Western strains of Islam out of a sense of pique. “What dismays the fundamentalists,” Mernissi writes, “is that the era of [postcolonial] independence did not create an all-male new class. Women are taking part in the public feast.” Newly urbanized and newly educated young men singled out modern women with diplomas and careers as the worst traitors to Islam. These zealots saw offenses against “real” Islam everywhere, but the uncovered women in their own midst were the ultimate heretics. That generation now constitutes the senior echelon of radical clerics issuing interpretations of Islamic law, or sharia, and the top level of terror networks such as al Qaeda and Jemaa Islamiya.
Yet the rigidly puritanical and misogynistic character of Islamism has not kept it from attracting female followers. In an interview for Vogue magazine last year, a Saudi extremist in London told journalist Deborah Scroggins that he and his cohorts “have turned the strict sex segregation that keeps even many wealthy, educated Saudi women confined to the home, and the traditions that prevent outsiders from so much as asking their names, into political assets.” He said women give his jihad organization money and serve on the review board of its publications. These nonworking women, he added, have a lot of time to devote to the cause, so they make good administrators of the group’s websites. In January of 2004, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the recently assassinated head of Hamas, called jihad “an obligation of all Muslims, men and women,” and women suicide bombers have been obliging, in Chechnya and elsewhere. In April 2003, a woman who had lived in Boston for several years was detained in her native Pakistan after the fbi put out a global alert saying she may have ties to al Qaeda.
It was not in a theocracy like Saudi Arabia, however, that the “feminist wing” of Islamism first developed. It arose in places where government was secular — Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran under the shah — and secularism was imposed on the French model, which is to say, harshly. Their admiration of the French Revolution led these governments to attempt a wholesale removal of faith from the public realm. To stand up against authoritarian secularism, then, many younger women, beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s, and particularly in the universities, turned to religion. Especially after the 1979 revolution in Iran succeeded and Islamism gained even greater force, campus activists railed against secular political establishments for slavishly imitating Western ways. The most militant act of rebellion for urban, educated women became wearing the traditional Muslim head coverings banned by their governments. In her portrait of Turkish women, The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling (University of Michigan Press, 1996), Nilufer Gole notes that “as Islam politicized itself, it moved women toward the political scene; and the black veil, the symbol of the return to premodern Islamic traditions, acted as an expression of the active participation of women in political demonstrations.” Ineffectual attempts by the governments in Ankara and Cairo to stop the rebirth of the veil among their educated elites only fed this protest sentiment. The rising Islamist movements, writes Gole, called for the female to return to her “traditional settings and positions. On the other hand, they replace the traditional portrait of a Muslim woman with . . . that of an active, demanding, and, even, militant Muslim woman who is no longer confined to her home.” Indeed, Turkey’s prohibition against the wearing of headscarves in public offices and universities has been enforced sporadically since the early 1980s, with a tightening of enforcement after 1997 when the secularist army ousted from office the country’s first Islamist prime minister. The Egyptian government tried in the mid-1990s to ban the veil, though the matter got tied up in the courts and came to no definitive resolution.
And so the irony reappears: Widening access to education strengthened the hand of fundamentalist Islam. A modern university woman asserting her “seclusion rights” is a woman forswearing her rights in the eyes of non-Muslims and of many Muslims as well. Women intellectuals of middle age today, exiled from various Muslim lands, look back nostalgically to a time before Islamism was widespread. Two decades or more ago, in Kabul, Teheran, or Baghdad, they could dress as they pleased and move about as they pleased. These are by and large secularist women whose adoption of Western notions of individual freedom puts them at odds with the “feminist” wing within Islamism. The Islamists’ often severe, scarf-plus-robe covering contrasts with the use, especially among older women and women in rural areas, of headscarves that leave the neck and some of the hair uncovered, or the discarding of the veil altogether. Gole’s interviews with Islamist women at Turkish universities record their preference for almost total coverage of the body and their disdain for the less strict reading of the Koran and the more modern dress habits of older Muslim women, whether traditionally Muslim or secular. The older women “do not practice true veiling because they are ignorant about Islam,” said one of Gole’s interviewees.
It is a matter of dispute, however, whether the Koran demands that Muslim women cover themselves. One frequently encounters a textual interpretation that is liberal: Modesty is required of Muslims of both sexes, and Koranic references to veiling apply (or, applied) literally only to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamists, on the other hand, and some non-Islamist traditional Muslims as well, argue that the female obligation to cover is clear in the text. We will not settle that question here; the point is that Islamists have taken the practice and elevated it, as Gole says, to be “the symbol of Islamization,” the visible assertion of their fundamentalism.
The new Humbert Humberts
Islamism has, according to its practitioners and some of its academic and journalistic promoters, yielded a feminism that is far superior to ours, because Western licentiousness has been removed. “My niqab [body covering] is my freedom, because it lets me choose who does and who doesn’t see me,” a daughter of Cairo’s political elite told the London Guardian’s Geneive Abdo. A former fashion model interviewed by Abdo added: “When I put on the veil, I put on my brain as well.” Abdo, researching her pre-September 11 book, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2000), donned long garments to penetrate the sexually segregated salons of Cairo’s high society. Her subjects had gone against their secularist, cosmopolitan upbringing to embrace the teachings of Egyptian clerics such as Sheikh Omar Abd al-Kafi, who preached Muslim distrust of Christians and endorsed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the life of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. Newly pious Egyptian men and women “spread their own, unorthodox brand of Islam to friends and followers within their elevated social circles,” Abdo writes. The Mubarak government’s crackdowns on al-Kafi and other Islamist Pied Pipers of the Egyptian leisure class merely enhanced their mystique.
Abdo’s labeling Islamism an “unorthodox brand” of Islam is telling. The main purpose of her book was to show English-speaking readers a benign or mainstream Islamism that was supplanting the murderous rage of Osama bin Laden (a Saudi of Yemeni extraction), Ayman al-Zawahiri (an Egyptian), and their like. This was wishful thinking, no doubt born of a belief that non- and anti-Western customs and ideas automatically deserve respect, and supported by the fact that they were catching on like wildfire among influential Egyptians at the time. In fairness, one cannot fault her too much for underestimating the relative strength of the terrorists. That she did not foretell September 11 makes her a lot like the rest of us.
Then, too, Abdo’s glowing depiction of “the Islamic revival” among Egypt’s intelligentsia dimmed considerably when she confronted certain aspects of it, such as clitoridectomy (which, she asserted, apparently on the authority of the Egyptian government, is performed on 97 percent of Egyptian girls). Abdo tried in vain to dissuade one of her Egyptian acquaintances from having his six-year-old daughter undergo the operation. The secularist government banned clitoridectomy in Egypt in 1997, but, as with veiling, the ban is rarely heeded. Clitoridectomy has no precedent in the Koran, Abdo pointed out; it is a pre-Islamic African practice. The objections she raised with an Islamist leader, Sheik Mohammad al-Berri, prompted this explanation:
A woman can be aroused at any moment. Even if a woman is riding in a car, if she hits a few bumps, she can become sexually aroused. Once this happens, a man loses control. So you see, this practice certainly is not meant to punish women. But it is necessary.
Islamist regulation of women’s morality — which is seen as the key to regulating male morality — apparently makes considerable use of the imagination.
In fact one senses beneath their primness an unhealthy obsession with sex. This is nowhere more evident than in accounts of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Azar Nafisi, a U.S. literary scholar born and raised in Iran, taught comparative literature at universities there during and after the overthrow of the shah. Her autobiographical Reading Lolita in Teheran (Random House, 2003) describes an Islamist regime that “went so far as to outlaw certain gestures and expressions of emotion, including love” and that levied upon women who did not totally cover their heads, hair, and bodies monetary fines, up to 76 lashes, and jail terms. While love was being ejected from the public sphere (as were other emotions — it was verboten to grieve publicly for relatives killed by Saddam Hussein’s bombs in the Iran-Iraq war, for example), in private things were, by government fiat, supposed to get considerably steamier: The mullahs brought back a practice long banned in the Muslim world, “temporary marriage” (concubinage), so that Iranian men “could have four official wives and as many temporary wives as they wished.”
It was the habit of the bachelor leaders of the Muslim Students’ Association on campus to declare that their only beloved was God. The rules imposed on women to aid male chastity could never be strict enough: Nafisi recounts that one of these young men got a female student expelled from the university “because he said the white patch of skin just barely visible under her scarf sexually provoked him.” Equally telling in this regard was the professor who became agitated when one of his students chose to write on the novel Lolita. The professor’s reaction was not disapproval of a Western novel about pedophilia — his sympathy was entirely with the pedophile. Indeed, if he sympathized more with Humbert Humbert than even Vladimir Nabokov meant readers to do, this was because he “had a thing about young girls spoiling the lives of intellectual men,” writes Nafisi. Notwithstanding the professor’s censure of “Nabokov’s flighty young vixen,” when he sought a new wife he insisted she be no older than 23. He found one at least 20 years his junior (and, as Nafisi points out, a child bride exactly Lolita Haze’s age would have been acceptable under the regime’s revision of marriage law).
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.
What is peculiar about radical Islamist women — who, perhaps understandably, dislike being leered at or accosted by disorderly men — is their prescription for coping with the problem. Rather than expecting men to exert control over themselves, or asking mothers, as moral guardians, to take charge of their sons early on and raise them to respect women, they speak of this as if it lies exclusively with the female. Nilufer Gole quotes a passage from a 1987 article in Mektup magazine that spells it out:
We can never go into the streets with our house dresses; if we do so, we will expose ourselves to lustful gazes and will become a source of disorder for the Muslim community. . . . To increase our attraction to our husbands inside the house and to decrease it outside are our fundamental principles. That is to say, we will be appealing in the house and repulsive outside.
Of course, what numbers of educated and professional Muslim women chose to do became compulsory for every girl and woman in Afghanistan. One wonders how soi-disant “repulsive” Islamist women think it worked out when female “repulsiveness” was adopted as the law of the land. Before the Islamist takeover in the 1980s, Afghanistan had been working in fits and starts to join the modern world. Over the years its monarchic governments had been rather progressive, including on the treatment of women. Between 1996 and 2001, under Taliban rule (as the world is now well aware), women and girls were not allowed to get medical treatment if there was no female doctor available to administer it; nor could they be educated, hold jobs, walk about unaccompanied by male relatives, or (a late ruling) enter public parks. Here was a subjugation so total that Iranians could adduce it to argue that their Islamic Republic wasn’t all that bad for women. As one female government functionary told Azar Nafisi before Nafisi’s 1997 exile from Iran: “These [Iranian] young girls are a little spoiled — they expect too much. Look at Somalia or Afghanistan. Compared to them, we live like queens.”
Afghan women and their allies
In the 1990s, after human rights monitors publicized the Serbs’ mass rapes of Bosnian women in the Balkans, the international community began to view the treatment of women as a prominent aspect of war and conflict. It became less difficult than it otherwise might have been for human rights groups and feminist groups to draw the world’s attention to the cruelty of the Taliban. The plight of Afghan women spurred American feminists — specifically, those from the “equal rights” branch of feminism that we associate with the National Organization for Women or Eleanor Smeal’s Feminist Majority — to do good deeds. Feminist Majority led the way, beginning in 1997, in condemning “gender apartheid” in the largely overlooked country of Afghanistan. Equality Now, an international research unit based in New York, also documented the Taliban’s practices many years before the United States took action against the regime. Lobbying by American feminists reportedly helped stop the Clinton administration from formally recognizing the Taliban government, which was, at least for a time, attracting positive attention from a U.S. administration keen to foster an Afghan pipeline deal proposed by the oil company Unocal.
Some Afghan activists say, on the other hand, that the Americans did not have much of a feel for local conditions or culture. These activists did not consider it helpful, for example, when Feminist Majority sponsored a back-to-school program exclusively for Afghan girls. Afghan girls have suffered terribly, but assisting Afghan boys — who will otherwise be sent to radical Islamist madrassas to become the next generation of terrorists — is also a necessity. Ignoring the boys and men of a deeply patriarchal society does not make sense, Fahima Vorgetts of the Women for Afghan Women’s Advisory Committee told me, “because the brothers and the fathers and the husbands, they are the ones who control the families. They are the ones that, if you alienate them, you won’t have any success in bringing women to the table.” The reflexive hostility to religion exhibited by the “equal rights” feminists also rubs some of their non-American colleagues the wrong way. Riffat Hassan, a Pakistan-born Muslim feminist theologian writing in the collection Women for Afghan Women (Palgrave MacMillan, 2002) edited by Sunita Mehta, said the support of the U.S. women’s movement is laudable but it “must be given without the expectation or the demand that Afghan women will follow a donor-driven agenda . . . rooted in aversion to Islam and Afghan culture.”
Afghans and Afghan Americans trying to help rebuild the war-torn country often speak of U.S. feminists with a mixture of awe for their grassroots political skills, gratitude for what they have done for Afghanistan, and unwillingness to adopt their quirks. The Afghans, like people all around the world, embrace the American polity’s appeal to inherent rights but resist defining those rights precisely the way Eleanor Smeal or Betty Friedan would. Another essayist in Women for Afghan Women, Zohra Yusuf Daoud, the first (and last) woman to hold the title of Miss Afghanistan, wrote: “Some aspects associated with Western feminism, such as bra-burning, revealing clothing, and sexual promiscuity are not appropriate at this stage for Afghan feminists, if they ever will be.” A spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a dissident group that has been active against every Afghan government going back to 1977 when the country was a Soviet satellite, told me that rawa considers the Americans too wrapped up in issues like abortion and women’s salaries compared to men’s. She called these “luxury items” for women struggling for the right to move about freely, to educate and support themselves, and to have political representation.
Most Americans, if they are older than 35, think of bra-burning as the political symbol of a bygone era; if they are younger, it’s a safe bet they have never heard of it. It is important to realize nonetheless that this is the image of us that lives on around the world. To a degree perhaps surprising to us, 1970s feminism’s shock to traditional societies — which Fatima Mernissi had singled out as key to Islamism’s rise — reverberates today. It isn’t only jihadists and Islamists who are capable of comparing the mores of their societies to our liberal and feminist-influenced mores and declining to hold theirs inferior.
Many women’s advocates in the Muslim world take veiling — politically exploited though it is by their enemies, the radical Islamists — in stride and believe that we should, too. Leila Ahmed, the Egyptian feminist scholar, has noted with chagrin that Westerners who don’t know much about Islam seem obsessed by the veiling issue. rawa, whose members have risked their lives to protest the Taliban’s physically beating any Afghan woman seen in public without the all-enveloping burqa, takes no official position on that garment, saying every woman ought to be allowed to decide for herself whether to wear it. As Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist and lawyer, told the Irish Times (December 13, 1997): “When my husband can marry three other women, when my husband can take my children, when my husband can kill me, I have more important problems. When I find a solution for these problems, then I will worry about hijab [veiling].”
According to many politically active Afghan women, their fundamental rights have not been vindicated despite the dislodging of the Taliban from power. They have a point. The anarchy and insecurity of postwar Afghanistan, particularly outside of Kabul, have made many women keep wearing the burqa to protect themselves. While millions of Afghan girls are now able to go to school, millions more remain confined to their homes because they fear retribution by Taliban or al Qaeda remnants or intimidation by the regional mujahideen, the heavily armed, religiously conservative warlords of the Northern Alliance that helped the U.S.-led coalition topple the Taliban. Several girls’ schools in the provinces have been shelled or set afire. Islamist elements within President Hamid Karzai’s postwar government have put in place (or in some cases continued) legal restrictions on travel by women and on the education of married women. The U.S. military announced in late 2003 that it was beefing up its security presence in southern Afghanistan, a tacit acknowledgement of the coalition’s postwar failure to secure the country and the Bush administration’s policy drift on Afghanistan.
Female delegates to Afghanistan’s postwar constitutional convention (at least those quoted in the press) have sharply criticized their fellow delegates and the final draft of the constitution, which was announced on the last day of 2003. The women numbered 100 or so of 502 delegates. A young, outspoken delegate named Malalai Joya, in a widely reported exchange that nearly got her expelled, rose to condemn the presence and the influence of several delegates, Northern Alliance warlords with blood on their hands and retrograde views of women. She and other members of an emerging female leadership in the country say they resent the compromises President Karzai made with the warlords to produce the final draft.
It is true that the constitution (judging from the unofficial English translation that has been made public) declares “the sacred religion of Islam” as the state religion and invokes that phrase constantly. However, the degree to which the document affirms the substance of Islamic law is not clear. It promises a government “based on people’s will and democracy” and one that “ensur[es] fundamental rights and freedoms” of “every citizen of Afghanistan.” The latter phrase got amended, no doubt in response to the outcry of the women, to read, “every citizen of Afghanistan, woman and man.” Two of its articles grant women a quota of political representation in the upper and lower houses of the legislature. (The constitutional scholar Noah Feldman has made the point that the 16.5 percent of the upper house slated to be female tops the 14-member female contingent in today’s United States Senate.) Another article requires the promotion of education for women and calls for illiteracy to be eliminated.
Whether the pluralistic and democratic aspects of the constitution are honored may depend on the makeup of the new Afghan supreme court vested with the authority to interpret it, as Feldman has noted. The process (the loya jirga) from which the document issued was messy; enforcing it will be no less difficult, particularly in a country struggling to emerge from decades of war, chaos, and tyranny. The achievement of formally bringing women back into politics for the first time in a generation should not be minimized, however. If women successfully go to the polls — and I venture to say any interpretation of the new constitution would support their exercise of their suffrage — sharia and related social regulations unfavorable to women are not likely to fare well in the long run. There is reason to believe the majority of women in Afghanistan — and in Iraq, where an interim constitution has been devised for the postwar transition — will, if they are able to vote, choose candidates and policies promising to modernize the country in ways that improve their position in society. As Fahima Vorgetts of the women’s advisory committee, who returns periodically to her native Afghanistan, recently told me: “This war changed a lot of women. People are talking about politics now.” Women in rural and highly traditionalist areas of the country have told her, “We may be blind, but I don’t want my daughter to be blind. Meaning, I don’t have an education but I want my daughter to have an education. That tells me a lot, for [women] to push for a better life.”
Defenders of tolerance and monogamy
A sobering reminder, however, that elections don’t automatically strengthen liberal democracy can be found in the recent history of Iran. Iranian women were granted the right to vote by the shah in 1963. They have been voting ever since, but the mullahs who took power in 1979 are still in power, doing their best to rein in an ever more rebellious populace. Sitting over the country’s political institutions is a theocratic judicial panel that stifles the reforms and the reform candidates approved by the Iranian electorate. (Because a too-powerful judiciary in Afghanistan poses just such a danger to that country’s fledgling democracy, President Karzai and the United States government pushed for a strong executive in the Afghan constitution.)
When the revolution was gathering steam, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in an eclectic and pragmatic move — and recall that the entire movement was eclectic, a coalition of Shiites and Marxists out to rid Iran of imperialism, capitalism, monarchy, and the decadent influence of the “Great Satan” — exhorted women to go out in the streets and demonstrate against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After Pahlavi was forced into exile, the Islamic Republic repealed important laws that protected women’s rights. Yet it also expected women (properly veiled, of course) to help the revolution advance and prosper by entering higher education and the work force. Hence the birth of what Azar Nafisi called “the myth of Islamic feminism. . . . It enabled the rulers to have their cake and eat it too; they could claim to be progressive and Islamic” at one and the same time, even as they indulged in the inveterate Islamist habit of denouncing Nafisi and other “modern women as Westernized, decadent and disloyal. They needed us modern men and women to show them the way, but they also had to keep us in our place.”
That female reformers are bursting out of their allotted place in Iran became obvious to the world when Shirin Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. The human rights activist and lawyer believes regime change can come to her country through constitutional processes. She told the Weekly Standard (November 3, 2003): “The situation in Iran is different from Iraq and Afghanistan. There were no mechanisms for internal change in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iran, there are.” Ebadi said traditional Shiism — unlike the Islamist variant of Shiism that is wielded as a political weapon by the Teheran government — countenances enough of a separation of religion and state to enable people of different faiths to form a polity together. It is not surprising that the Bush administration’s search for Muslim allies in the wake of September 11 has concentrated heavily on Shia believers like Ebadi. (Shiism is branded as heretical by the Wahhabis, the Islamist Sunnis of Saudi Arabia.)
Perhaps the two most important matters about which Americans and Shirin Ebadi agree are her championing of religious tolerance and her disapproval of polygamy. She is not alone in holding these particular views, leading one to suspect that Islamic feminism may not be as mythical as Azar Nafisi said. These views are, it seems to me, the markers of an Islamic feminism that the United States should wholeheartedly support as a direct challenge to the “feminist” wing of Islamism. Women authors and political activists of many Muslim and Western nations hold that, while the Koran permits polygamy, it seeks to limit a practice that was widespread at the time of its promulgation in the seventh century. The relevant verse, they point out, is both conditional and stated in the negative: If a man fears he cannot support more than one wife, he should have only one. Nevertheless, there are Muslim men who defend polygamy — strictly speaking, the term is polygyny since the verse refers to men taking multiple wives, not vice versa — as religiously compulsory and a way to fulfill their sexual desires without resorting to adultery.
The clash of interests that polygyny touches off has long been evident. The feminist pioneer Huda Shaarawi recounts in her memoirs that, as a 12-year-old bride in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century, she was told by her mother that her family tried in vain to get the groom (her cousin, with a wife and children all older than Shaarawi) to agree in the marriage contract to give up sexual relations with his first wife. Today one hears of advocacy on behalf of first wives to enhance their legal power to obtain a divorce should they oppose a husband’s intention to marry again. Women or their families have, from either vantage point, tried to enforce monogamy.
In Iran, a husband’s multiple marriage option is sometimes brandished as a threat — a way to assert power over one’s wife, according to women interviewed in Haleh Esfandiari’s book Reconstructed Lives (Johns Hopkins Press, 1997). There are reports out of Indonesia that, to evade the Indonesian law allowing polygyny only with a first wife’s consent, some men take another wife and keep it a secret from their first wife and children. Polygyny was hemmed about with legal restrictions during the dictator Suharto’s 32 years of secular rule. In the time since he was forced to step down in 1998, public disapproval of polygyny has eroded and the practice has flourished in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population. It flourishes also in Malaysia, where current law demands that a husband prove that starting and providing for a new family won’t lower the standard of living of the wife and children he already has. Powerful Malaysian clerics are challenging these restrictions. When a regional mufti nullified the requirement of wifely consent, a Malaysian women’s group, Sisters in Islam, responded with a controversial public information campaign called “Monogamy Is My Choice.” Its aims are strengthening wives’ legal options and creation of a national marriage and divorce registry for Muslims so women can find out the status of their husbands or husbands-to-be. (The country’s current database lists only the marriages and divorces of non-Muslims.)
Polygyny has been banned in the Muslim world only by secularist Turkey and Tunisia. Sisters in Islam cannot afford to be perceived as seeking a ban, given the strong backlash against the group by Malaysia’s religious establishment and growing Islamist movement. Sisters in Islam Executive Director Zainah Anwar insists that the goal is not a ban but simply allowing women to choose whether to participate in a polygynous marriage or not. (In comments to the New Straits Times [March 19, 2003], she made clear her belief that few women would choose it.) When Anwar spoke in Washington, D.C. on the status of women under sharia in May of 2003, in the midst of the anti-polygyny campaign, her prepared remarks did not touch on polygyny at all. She walks a fine line in confronting the social and legal practices that set men above women in Malaysia. Her reform-from-within approach — she is a believing Sunni Muslim — is comparable to Ebadi’s in Iran. Intrepid as lion tamers, these women have a prudence that tells them when and where to confront, when and where to desist.
Their work does not receive any backing at all from certain feminists: namely, the multicultural and postmodern ones considered to be at the cutting edge of academic thought in the West. “Polygamy can be liberating and empowering,” said one such cutting-edge feminist, Miriam Cooke, head of Middle East Women’s Studies at Duke University. If we could just shed our Western predilection for monogamy, Cooke told Kay S. Hymowitz of City Journal (Winter 2003), “we might imagine polygamy working.” She speculated to Hymowitz that some wives may be relieved not to have to service a husband so often, while other wives may use the opportunity to take on new sexual partners, too. When Cooke was asked how likely wives would be, in strict Muslim settings, to go on sexual adventures, her reply was the postmodern equivalent of a shrug: “I don’t know. I’m interested in discourse.” A male social anthropologist at the University of Oslo was described as positively “fundamentalist-friendly” by the literary critic Bruce Bawer, writing in Partisan Review (July 22, 2002):
One reason for the high number of rapes by Muslims [in Norway], explained the professor, was that in their native countries “rape is scarcely punished,” since Muslims “believe that it is women who are responsible for rape.” The professor’s conclusion was not that Muslim men living in the West needed to adjust to Western norms, but the exact opposite: “Norwegian women must realize that we live in a multicultural society and adapt themselves to it.”
Shirin Ebadi’s and Zainah Anwar’s efforts to defend women ground under the heel of sharia, Afghan women seeking to vote under a new constitution — none of these causes would make even the smallest amount of headway if such ostentatious relativism were the norm in the wider world beyond the elite campuses of the United States and Europe. At least the “equal rights” feminists are animated by a conviction that there are rights everyone shares; having taken leave of that conviction, the academic left is capable of excusing the worst cruelties of our time — as long as the perpetrators are members of “the Other.” As Azar Nafisi has said: “In the strange world of Middle Eastern Studies, any attempt to condemn gender apartheid is branded an imposition of Western values.”
Feminism(s) and freedom
How do western women stack up against the above-outlined standard of Islamic feminism — a feminism that is respectful of religious faith, committed to pluralism, and protective of monogamy? The truth is that Western feminists and liberals of various stripes fall short in different ways and to different degrees.
Two liberal journalists, Sasha Polakow-Suransky and Giuliana Chamedes, wrote an article entitled “Europe’s New Crusade” in the American Prospect (August 26, 2002). While it dealt with the ill-treatment of Muslim immigrants in Europe in the wake of September 11, the piece was most notable for its critique of European multiculturalists, gays, and feminists for their unhelpful political stances. The authors rightly faulted the multiculturalists for being silent about the threat posed by Islamist sects in Europe that advocate violence. They were far unhappier, though, with the 1970s-vintage feminist Oriana Fallaci, and the late homosexual politician Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands for criticizing Islamic intolerance. After witnessing the Twin Towers’ collapse, Fallaci wrote a broadside for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in which she heaped scorn on “the sons of Allah,” and the daughters, too, for submitting to polygyny and wearing the veil. Fortuyn, before being assassinated by a left-wing extremist, was gaining a following among Dutch voters in 2002 with his insistence that Muslim immigrants assimilate or be kept out of the Netherlands.
According to the authors, Fallaci’s and Fortuyn’s confrontational defense of Western freedoms was harmful — it would only incite the white, Christian, heterosexual majority in Europe to greater heights of prejudice toward Muslim immigrants. Polakow-Suransky and Chamedes clearly preferred that both the anti-religious bent of “equal rights” feminism and militant homosexuality’s anger stay trained on the Christian majority as the real problem (it being the locus, in their view, of most Continental religious, ethnic, and sexual bigotry). Thus, despite their chastisement of the see-no-evil multiculturalists, their article’s overriding message was to let Islamism largely off the hook in the name of political correctness. In making their plea for the continued alliance of feminists and gays with multiculturalists under the umbrella of a broad left coalition, they seem to have lost sight of what it is about the West that is most worth defending.
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.
The feminist reading of the Koran advanced by Asma Gull Hasan is not that of a scholar but that of a young American giving the illiberal elders in her family a hard time. Apparently building upon schoolwork she did at Wellesley College, Hasan put together American Muslims: The New Generation (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001), a book combining the relativism of the multicultural feminists, the policy diktats of the “equal rights” feminists, and hefty doses of complaint about her fellow Americans’ stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists. It is also, in some respects, a rather charming work. The cheeriness with which the author scolds her uncle for his “chauvinist beliefs,” or the way she doesn’t let up on her traditionalist grandfather until he admits that, on Judgment Day, men and women will stand equally before God, are pure American jeune fille. Hasan is a pro-assimilation American Muslim who appreciates the opportunities that the United States has afforded her family, originally from Pakistan. She criticizes her fellow Muslims who display anti-Semitism.
Yet the relativism of her outlook — and it, too, is very American — makes a muddle of her thinking. Most disappointingly, the book treats terrorist acts such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center not as an evil to be stopped, but strictly as a painful public relations problem for “Muslims like me, who would never think of hijacking planes.” American Muslims was written before September 11; a year after al Qaeda struck, a Hasan op-ed in the New York Times (“Learning a Lesson for Ramadan,” November 6, 2002) might have shown an improved understanding. No such luck, though. The op-ed, concerning her newfound reluctance to practice her faith openly during Ramadan for fear of discrimination, amplified the most vapid and bellyaching aspects of the book. Airport security was now a nightmare for her. Giving to charity risked government scrutiny. There was no allusion whatsoever to the event that changed not only her life but the skyline of Manhattan: the attack the year before that killed over 3,000 people. Such stubbornness places Asma Gull Hasan, to this day, in the mushy middle on terrorism — not a good place to be.
Betty Friedan published a memoir a few years ago in which she recounted hearing, at international women’s conferences, about things that women in faraway countries had to contend with, such as clitoridectomy. Sounding like somebody from Peoria, Illinois — which she is — Friedan wrote in Life So Far (Diane Publishing, 2000): “I thought there were certain absolute things that under no culture would you respect. Would you respect slavery? Certain things in women’s lives have to be absolute and under no culture should you respect the mutilation of young girls.” When a woman points a blameful finger — and that has been women’s job since time immemorial — her words gain force insofar as they draw upon eternal verities. To be sure, in her newspaper cri de coeur (which she later expanded into a book), Oriana Fallaci went overboard in calling the veil “stupid” and belittling wives willing to participate in polygynous marriages. Likewise, the secularism of feminist thinkers like Friedan can be rigid in a way that recalls not American history, tradition, or constitutional principles, but the Jacobins’ extirpation of faith from the public square.
Yet for all that, American women would do well to negotiate the tensions now being felt between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim East with a moral compass aligned more closely with Fallaci and Friedan than with the multiculturalist or the grievance specialist. September 11 has clarified matters for many. Left-liberal intellectuals are — or at least some of them are — groping their way toward a defense of the West that puts them alongside, if not fervently with, the Bush administration. This is happening even as conservatives make the case that the fight against terrorism is a fight against people who would mistreat women and stone homosexuals. The women writing in the American Prospect, Polakow-Suransky and Chamedes, registered the conservatives’ arguments and were not amused. It bothered them when “male politicians . . . suddenly began invoking women’s emancipation” as if they cared about it. The warning they issued to feminists and homosexual activists was that “their causes have been effectively adopted and appropriated by those who have claimed the mantle of defending [European] tolerance in the face of intolerant Islam.”
It’s a rather petty warning to issue. Why not let anyone who is willing — Westerners and those struggling in the Muslim world to emulate the pluralism and democracy we enjoy — converge on the need to bring about a decent life for women (and men), who deserve to have their fundamental rights respected? This is, in fact, what the woman question brings out especially well: the rights of human beings that are manifest not in any penumbra of any constitution but in the full light of day. As one of the supporters of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a woman from Denmark, put it: “Once in a while you can have your doubts about whether you are a feminist or not. But you cannot, even for a second, doubt that you are an Afghan feminist.”
1 Interview with Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio Journal (November/December 2002).
2 See the chapter devoted to Shaarawi in Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds., Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (Indiana University Press, 1990).