Women’s right to equality

Originally published in the Age written by Pamela Bone:

Public execution of a woman by the Taliban

Public execution of a woman by the Taliban

November 30, 2006

A MEETING of Muslim feminists from across the world in New York last week made a brief paragraph in The Australian, and in no other newspaper that I saw. It should have made front pages, being at least as important as the Group of 20 or Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings, which had as wide a coverage as sound editorial judgment demanded.

The reason I make such a claim is this: if Islam is to be reformed, and the world consequently made safer and happier for all, it is women who will do it. Yes, there are male Muslim reformers, but in general most Muslim men do not see a feminist interpretation of Islam as in their interest. Why should they? Western men didn’t see last century’s women’s liberation movement as in theirs. It had to be driven by women because the status quo advantaged men.

The meeting, of more than 100 female Muslim religious leaders, human rights activists and scholars, vowed to form an international shura council of Muslim women. “This is a historical and critical event in the history of Islam,” says Daisy Khan, director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

A shura council is an advisory body that interprets Islamic law for the political and religious leaders in its region of authority. The women’s council aims to overcome two stereotypes: that Muslims are terrorists and that Islam oppresses women. Leave aside the question of why anyone would put the words Muslim and terrorist together. Most Muslims are not terrorists; the point has been made a thousand times. As to whether Islam oppresses women, there is no Islamic society in which women are free. The question is whether it has to be this way.

The Koran seems fairly clear about women’s subordinate status, but then so is the Christian Bible. If Christian women have been able to argue, more or less successfully, that the misogynistic passages in the Bible are merely a reflection of the era in which they were written and have no relevance to today, there should be no reason Muslim women can’t do the same.

And why is it important that Muslim women be liberated? Well, if women’s freedom from honour killings, forced marriages and stoning for adultery were not reason enough, consider that any country in which women are badly oppressed is an economically and socially backward country, and that such conditions provide fertile ground in which resentments against the West can grow. As the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report noted, a large part of the reason so many Arab countries are economic basket cases is the oppression of women.

One need only read the ravings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian philosopher who provided the principal inspiration for al-Qa’ida, or the directions of the September 11 attacker Mohammed Atta that no woman was to touch his body, to see that political Islam has a deeply ingrained hatred of women. To a significant degree, the control of women is what the war on terrorism is about.

Some women from Muslim backgrounds believe that Islam and women’s rights are antithetical. Maryam Namazie, a British-based human rights activist, said recently: “Debating the issue of women’s rights in an Islamic context is a prescription for inaction and passivity, in the face of the oppression of millions of women struggling and resisting in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere. Anywhere they (Islamists) have power, to be a woman is a crime.”

Namazie is of the Left. She is the director of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran’s International Relations Committee and has been named British secularist of the year. But in general, she notes, the Left, the traditional defender of human rights, is silent about the oppression of Muslim women. The reasons are that political Islam is seen as anti-imperialist, racism is these days much worse than sexism and minorities are automatically to be supported. (Some minority; Islamism is the strongest and fastest-growing ideology in the world.) Change must come from within, say the good liberals. Strangely, no one said that about South Africa’s apartheid system.

Today it is the Right that has latched on to women’s rights. John Howard was an unlikely feminist until various sheiks began expounding their theories about women’s role in society. It was only when Osama bin Laden became a threat that George W. Bush started talking about the freedom of Afghan women. No one cared about the Taliban when all they were doing was oppressing the female half of the population.

Given that a half-billion Muslim women are not going to abandon their faith, the only way they can be liberated is for Islam and women’s rights to be reconciled. That is why all power and support – and maximum publicity – should be given to Muslim women reformers.

We have today a war on terror and a (fairly half-hearted) war on poverty. It took the threat of global instability to convince some world leaders the present rich-poor divide is unsustainable. It is time it is recognised that there also needs to be a war to promote women’s rights because poverty, the oppression of women and the rise of religious extremism go together.

Western leaders should be pouring billions of dollars into the education and empowerment of women around the world. If John Howard really cares about the rights of women, he should increase Australia’s meagre overseas aid budget and direct it into health and education programs for girls who will then grow up to have healthier, better educated and fewer children.

If Western governments can’t manage to support women out of compassion, they should do so out of self-interest.

9 Responses to “Women’s right to equality”

  1. 1 steve owens

    “Why should they? Western men didn’t see last century’s women’s liberation movement as in theirs. It had to be driven by women because the status quo advantaged men.”
    This is the sort of feminist shit that really shits me. Talk about gloss over the struggle for womens rights as if it wernt a class issue.
    Anyone reading Bone should stop and first read Sandra Bloodworth.

  2. 2 steve owens
  3. 3 admin

    Hmm. Pamela Bone wrote a few articles that challenged feminists to put their muscle and their country’s muscle in the struggle to lift women’s status around the world. As Julia said to Tony “I don’t need a lesson from you” about the class position being the correct path. I have taken a look at the page you suggested – even though you used the word shit twice in 3 sentences of comment. Bloodworth is certainly more informative than any of the cultural feminist perspectives being published on women’s issues. Why not follow up and prepare a summary of her position on how to assist women in Afghanistan and other militarised societies etc..

  4. 4 steve owens

    Hi admin When I want to understand how to assist the women of Afghanistan I dont turn to Bone or Bloodworth. I always go to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

  5. 5 Byork

    Steve, RAWA doesn’t seem to have had much impact on progressive women in Australia… Pamela Bone actually caused a discussion to happen and embarrassed a few ‘progressives’ who didn’t want to ‘play into the hands of US imperialism’ while other real progressives came to support the war against the Taliban.

  6. 6 Steve Owens

    War against the taliban as a war for womens rights?
    Think of how women could have progressed if the money had been spent on womens rights

  7. 7 admin

    Why the hell else would we encourage sons to go there? This is talking the talk but it can’t walk the walk. So, we ought to build schools and encourage girls to attend so that they can be raped and killed because they are attending school? How about we build health clinics so that the nurses and medical staff can be charged with infamy if they don’t inform a family of a pregnancy, or if they perform abortion or offer contraceptives without patriarchal approval?
    Not so easy and clear cut?

  8. 8 steve owens

    Admin I agree things are not easy and not clear. Years ago people who supported the USSR invasion pointed out that the pro Soviet government were the ones running schools and educating girls. But that didnt stop us from supporting the armed opposition who had the nasty habit of bombing schools and throwing acid into the faces of school girls.
    The people who defeated the USSR were a nasty bunch particularly noticeable by their habit of fucking young boys. These new leaders of Afghanistan were hated by the people because they were unpredictable warlords. This created an opening for the Taliban who with Pakistan Saudi and American help replaced the warlords who were reduced to a rump and went under the name of the Northern Alliance.
    Now the Americans for their own reasons have supported the Northern Alliance and it is under their tender mercies that girls are again attending schools.
    Theres lots to argue about here and I agree girls have made some impressive gains under US occupation as they did under the occupation of the USSR but the cost has been astronomical and I fear that we have seen the high water mark of womens gains in Afghanistan.
    Pamela Bone argues that Islam can be reformed as Christianity was reformed. I disagree, I think that Christianity collapsed under the wieght of its own bullshit where a minority challenged it upfront while the majority tagged along observing the forms but rejecting the essence ie Italians accepting the Pope as infallible but taking the pill on the QT

  9. 9 informally yours

    I am currently reading ‘The Little Coffee Shop in Kabul’ by Deborah Rodriguez that outlines the difficulties for women in Afghanistan etc. as it relates to women’s reproductive health. There are regions of Afghanistan which have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Overall, it is a master slave society (Hazara’s are most often the servants) and as my book says the only status a woman or girl has is the one of the man she is with.

    Afghanistan is a society which is more likely to punish the ‘victim’ of domestic violence, or rape, than the perpetrator! It is a society where widows and their children are extremely vulnerable. The main character in my current read is a 16 year old country girl whose poor uncle was forced to take her and her much younger sister in when the husband whom she loved was killed by a land-mine and she left homeless and pregnant.

    She is forced to hide the fact that she is pregnant but anyway as a result of the increased family size he borrowed from the local thugs and when unable to repay on time one of his nieces was ‘forfeited’… but discarded when the thugs found out she was pregnant and so bundled out of the car on the side of the road and left for dead. But this is where her luck comes in and she meets the outside ‘saviour’ in the character of Sunny, an American woman living in Kabul and owner of the coffee shop.

    I’m only a third of the way through and I know that the shit is about to hit the fan in some shattering manner (No Hollywood endings with Farsi literature) as the coffee shop people come in contact and conflict with the Taliban. Having read in the past year the Khaled Hosseini books (Kite Runner; And The Mountains Echoed; and Thousand Splendid Suns; as well as Confessions in exile an Iranian story the revelations are always deeply unsettling and a way forward never clear unfortunately.

    Kite Runner is a a man’s tale a story about turning a blind eye to cruelty and suffering and rape and how this affects the conscience. It is also a people smuggling, familial ‘slavery’/servitude story of two young boys as servant and master, but growing up together as brothers in a relatively wealthy and liberal household disrupted by war. Whereas, A Thousand splendid Suns, and the Mountains Echoed have female main characters and tell stories of everyday madness and public stadium executions etc.. All are tearjerkers but inspiring. The ‘Kite Runner’ has been made into a film which I am yet to see, but that may be an easier route for some to gain further insights to the historical imperatives that shape Afghanistan today.

    There are still vast differences between city and country people and the double standard mentioned by Steve operates more so in places like Saudi Arabia, (As noted in ‘Girls of Riyadh’ by Rajaa Alsanea) but not so much in the more tribal areas where men’s honour is still bound up with the conduct of their chattels and Taliban types are the ones who will gladly enforce such compliance through fear and intimidation. (As one female character points out even good, loving, and kind men turn bad when a family crisis possibly attracts undesirable attention.)

    I don’t have time to explore this more at present but the war on terror and the war on drugs appear to be at odds with each other in gaining desired policy outcomes in Afghanistan. All I know is that we can’t just turn a blind eye to this and must do what is possible to empower women and girls via economic security etc.. Which leads us to a lot of small businesses, and things that make you go Arggh… over a long period of reflection over the origins of capitalist and patriarchal exploitation and how to empower women and girls today… which will have to be subjects for another day.

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