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Women under Islam

Stewart Henderson

    Stewart Henderson lives in Adelaide,  Australia and is a Founding secretary of the      Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics.


Monday, June 04, 2007


Even writing this title makes me quake, perhaps especially after spending much of today reading here, here and here, with all the various links and comments. Still, Iíll have a go at summarizing my emotional and intellectual response, while acknowledging that people like Kim at LP and tigtog from hoyden about town are much more up on the issues and background.

As an avowed secularist, Iím naturally very much in agreement with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the horrors of Islam viz-a-viz women [and men for that matter Ė I read recently that Islam means submission, which doesnít seem to give too much room for development]. I was also interested in what this Somalian infidel had to say about responses to her message in the west in recent times. She found that she was getting a much more positive response from the political right, because the left were too concerned about harmony and multiculturalism and were uncomfortable about her message that, basically, Islam should be thrown out lock stock and barrel as an inferior tribal religion completely incompatible with democracy, progress and all the rest of it.

My immediate reaction to this was again sympathetic. Iíve crossed swords with a couple of people of the left whoíve argued that female circumcision [they baulked at the term female genital mutilation] was a matter for the particular culture or religion involved [we never did get round to determining whether it was a cultural or religious practice, though I might explore that later], and who are we to interfere or to invoke the specifically western concept of universal human rights. In fact the response to this sort of thing is complex. Perhaps my squeamishness or disgust is some kind of western construction, but the fact that these sorts of practices are carried out on children not in a position to give informed consent is a worry and a flagrant abuse of the rights of the child. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1959, and a Convention on the Rights of the Child, dealt, inter alia, with concerns about child female circumcision. Some 140 nations are signatories to it. Article 24. 3 of this Convention states that States Parties shall take all appropriate and effective measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. Of course it can be argued that, if done under adequate supervision by a qualified medico, female circumcision might be just as little injurious to physical health as male circumcision, which leaves the issue of emotional health with all its attendant subjectivities.

This leads us directly to the big issues. Clearly there are some women who experience no great problem about submitting themselves to circumcision, or feel no sense of betrayal about having it done to them as children, just as they feel comfortable wearing the hijab and submitting to what western women would see as a highly circumscribed role in their society. Writers like Michel Onfray and critics like Ayaan Hirsi Ali would see this as evidence of the inferiority of those religion-based societies. I seem to recall the latter pointing out in an article that, in fact, most Islam-infected societies have been little touched by the scientific and political enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, which led to the erosion of religio-political power, the erosion of the divine right of rulers [except of course within the Catholic Church], the separation of church and state, universal secular education, and the advent of democracy. The churches and the believers among us have reacted to these changes in one of two ways, broadly represented in the Richard Dawkins documentary Root of all evil? Theyíve retreated into a primitivist denial of science and secular morality, or theyíve sought an often uneasy accommodation with it, seeking to update their religion, which necessitates rejecting or quietly ignoring large slabs of biblical writing, in the light of scientific developments.

Itís not too surprising that in the west, scientists like Dawkins have been keen to press home their advantage, by not only exposing the absurdities of the primitivists, but challenging the accommodationists over their inconsistencies and the conveniently Ďprogressiveí nature of their version of religion and the deity.

Itís important to note that, in launching his challenge, Dawkins has focused very little on politics. He would no doubt see the issue as a battle over what is true, with politics being essentially irrelevant to the outcome. Less scientifically-minded thinkers like Onfray, on the other hand, are much more concerned with the nexus of religion and politics, arguing forcefully that the three great monotheisms have achieved their positions of influence largely through the infiltration of the political system. A politicized religion is able to take advantage of the state apparatus to police and punish those who transgress religious morality and religious law. Such a religion can quite quickly become Ďnaturalisedí as a political and social reality in a population rendered docile by traditionalist values and assumptions, with no real outlets for dissent and challenge.

All this by way of background to the debate Iíve been reading about over the past few days. Apparently Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been welcomed in places like America by the political right, whereas the left has treated her uncompromising message far more warily. Along similar lines, Oz journalists Pamela Bone and Janet Albrechtsen appear to have annoyed feminists of the left by taking what they see as the high moral ground in claiming western society to be superior and, in Albrechtensenís case, castigating western feminists and Moslem women themselves for not doing enough to try to change the situation for women under Islam.

Clearly this is a hot topic. A post by Kim at Larvatus Prodeo, criticizing Bone, drew more than 300 comments, many of them informative, but many of them overheated and aggressive, on both sides. Although there are a multitude of positions in the debate, basically the argument from the left is that taking a hard line on the inferior status of women under Islam, and a hard line on the inferiority of Islam in general, both plays into the hands of cultural imperialist, clash-of-civilisation types, and alienates Moslem women, who are hardly going to toss off their hijabs and chuck out their domineering husbands on the say-so of a Somalian intellectual or an Australian pen-pusher.

These are surely valid points. Many of the most crusading interventionist types, from liberal interventionists like Tony Blair to some of the more brutish holy warriors of the Bush administration, have a more or less hidden Christian agenda or raison díÍtre, and that worries me, as I happen to believe that Christianity has no more evidence to support it than Islam Ė their supernatural underpinnings being essentially the same. Whatís more, attempts to impose enlightenment products such as the separation of state and religion, secular education and democracy, from without or above, are not likely to be successful, as history shows. At least not in the short term.

Having said this, I canít agree with claims that Ayaan Hirsi Aliís message is one of simplistic rhetoric. As far as I know, sheís not pushing any kind of intervention to liberate Islamic women, the vast majority of whom would not welcome such interference. That would be a simplistic and counter-productive approach. I take her message to be not dissimilar to that of Michel Onfray, that Islam, like Christianity from the time of Augustine through to the Reformation, has been a dark, debilitating force, anti-intellectual, authoritarian and ultimately fascist in orientation. I think there is a pile of evidence to support this view. Christianity, moreover, has only moved in a more Ďlovingí direction since being debarred from political power [though of course Augustine and others always liked to employ the rhetoric of love while advocating the elimination of heretics].

Where this uncompromising position leaves us in terms of dialogue with Islamic theocracies is a difficult question, but I think the best solution is a pragmatic one. I certainly donít think interventionism will work, though Iím not an anti-interventionist absolutist. The appeal needs to be made to what is universal in human nature. Innumerable studies, many of them gathered together in Steven Pinkerís work The Blank Slate, have pointed to the inescapable conclusion that there is a universal human nature, beyond all cultural differences. The UN has obviously tried to draw upon that nature in drawing up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many have dismissed this attempt as a purely western concoction. I think this is simplistic, but if it can be shown that this is so, then maybe we can replace or refine these rights to make them more universally reflective, and more scientifically based. Of course there are those who claim that science itself is a western construction, at which point I must throw up my hands.

Returning to pragmatism, let me give a personal example. I teach English to a group of women, most of them Moslem. Iíve been teaching this class for about twelve months now, and religion has never been mentioned. I havenít gone to any extreme lengths to avoid the subject, though I certainly have no plans to bring the topic up for discussion. Itís a matter of accentuating the positives, finding common ground, and thereís plenty of it. Playing my part in the Howard governmentís push to assimilate migrants into our Great Oz culture, I incorporate quite a bit of Australian history and Australian politics [non-partisan of course] into my classes, and the students display a lively interest. The point being that they show the same inquisitiveness and interest as I imagine non-Moslems would. Presumably none of these women [mainly from the disputed territory of Eastern Turkestan, but some from Afghanistan and Indonesia] are extremists, though most wear hijabs. At least one of them has been quite outspoken against the Howard government and the Iraq war, and on one occasion I was pressured Ė very gently Ė by her, to reveal my attitude toward this government. I could see that my brief response met with a general, amused satisfaction.

What Iím trying to say is, there are ways in which people of different cultural backgrounds can influence each other without being antagonistic, and without compromising their own views. If I was pressured by any of these women to give my views on religion [an unlikely event], Iíd have no difficulty in saying that Iím not a believer, but I wouldnít go much further. Iíd try to avoid saying anything offensive, as it would serve no useful purpose. Better to show than to tell, to show that, as a non-believer, you can lead a full and useful and stimulating life, and the world wonít come tumbling down. Itís a very slow, piecemeal approach, but thereís no better one, and the mess of Iraq today shows how badly the attempt to impose western Ďfreedomsí on another culture can go wrong.



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