In very recent times it seems that news about violence against Muslim women is everywhere. I was recently directed to a Boston Globe article entitled The Islamist War on Muslim Women by Jeff Jacoby. He describes the many recent incidents of violence, leading to death, against Muslim women in Muslim countries as well as in the West. Reading through it my stomach started turning with disgust. Of course I was disgusted by all the acts of violence against Muslim women. How dare men think they can hurt or kill women? Those horrible Muslim men and those horrible Muslims for allowing it to happen!
But wait a minute! My dad is a Muslim man, my brother is a Muslim man, and hey, so are my grandfather and my uncles and they’ve NEVER laid a hand on a woman. And, oh my! I’m a Muslim woman and I’ve never felt threatened by a Muslim man. And so my anger started to grow. And as I re-read the article I began to dissect why I was feeling angry.
First let’s look at the title – The Islamist War on Muslim Women. At this point the (over)use of the word ‘war’ to describe antagonism is just plain auctorial laziness. This word has been used and re-used, and used yet again by writers of all kinds. The word’s relation to the term terror (as in War on Terror) has already been linked to Muslims. Now by utilizing this word here it further creates an aura of fear and antagonism toward Muslims, especially Muslim men.
Jacoby asserts that “(b)y Western standards, the subjugation of women by Muslim fanatics, and the sometimes pathological Islamist obsession with female sexuality, are unthinkable.” Unthinkable? Really? Has he watched any American porn lately? Subjugation galore. There may not be Muslim fanatics doing the subjugating in those movies but some man (men) is (are). And I think Maxim, Playboy, FHM, etc. and their popularity (to the point that I even know about them) demonstrate excellent examples of Western obsession with female sexuality. Subjugation of women and obsession with female sexuality is not exclusive to any one part of the world – every culture has some form of both.
Jacoby then continues to list examples of how such “subjugation of women by Muslim fanatics” and “Islamist obsession with female sexuality” have lead to violence and death of Muslim women. Again, no doubt they have. And I will be the first to admit that I hate the Muslim men who commit such acts against Muslim women and treat women as sexual beings. But belief in the subjugation of women and an oversexualizing of women is often related to violence against women in most cultures, including countries in which Muslims are not the majority. Rape has often been related to the images in porn in which women appear to be forced into having sex. Men who buy into this image are more likely to rape.
However, my biggest complaint is Jacoby’s assumption that the global Muslim community is compliant and passive when it comes to violence against women.
In relation to recent internationally publicized cases Jacoby states that “(t)he sparing of these women was very welcome news, of course, and it was not coincidental that each case had triggered an international furor. But for every “Qatif girl” or Nazanin who is saved, there are far too many other Muslim girls and women for whom deliverance never comes.” He further states “No international furor saved Aqsa Parvez, a Toronto teenager, whose father was charged on Dec. 11 with strangling her to death because she refused to wear a hijab. “No doubt many Muslim women face violence and fear of death every day. I do not minimize this nor can I deny this. Yes, many Muslim women are beaten every day and many killed. And yes many of them are for issues that appear to be related to Islam, or some twisted interpretation. But this does not mean, as Jacoby seems to be implying, that unless international attention is given to victimized women these women are doomed. This implies that no Muslims are trying to help women in these countries. This implies that Muslims only work to help their women when the international community tells them to do so. After all, helping women could not come intuitively to Muslims. Not only does Jacoby paint the picture of the passive and helpless Muslim woman, but he paints a picture of a passive, helpless, and indeed indifferent global Muslim community. This is an insult to Muslims all over, especially those who have dedicated their lives to helping, saving, and empowering Muslim women in all parts of the world.
For instance, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has been working for Afghani women’s right since 1977. Over the years they have been threatened and intimidated by various groups and governments and yet continued their brave work. Pakistan has many organizations and human rights workers aiming to help and empower women. One of the most prominent is human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir. Living under constant death threats for angering some victimizer or other, this woman keeps fighting for the rights of not only Muslim women, but also minorities, children, and other marginalized people. She helped in the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), one of many women’s organizations in Pakistan which also include the Aurat Foundation, the War Against Rape (WAR) organization, Sahil (for abuse and exploitation of children), and Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre. Finally, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) was formed in 1984 and is “an international solidarity network that provides information, support and a collective space for women whose lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws and customs said to derive from Islam. ” They recognize that not all Muslim women are the same nor are their needs the same. They hope to aid in the struggle many Muslim women face in trying to gain equality. They have offices in Senegal, Pakistan, and England. Besides these organizations, there are associations of Muslim women fighting for other Muslim women all over the Muslim world, located in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe, North America, etc.
Although sincere help from international organizations can prove to be very positive for many Muslim women, making the assertion that domestic attempts are not being made to help women living in Muslim countries is an insulting and patronizing assumption. Jacoby, as well as the many others who speak of the terrible conditions of Muslim women in Muslim countries (and even in the West), seem to believe that Muslim women are helpless and passive and Muslim men indifferent (note that WAR in Pakistan includes both men and women).
Mr. Jacoby may need to re-assess his assertions. By making the assumptions he does he clearly states that the West is superior and the Muslim world inferior. I thought we were past the days of such ethnocentric assertions.