Human Rights Watch, a major western human rights agency, issued a report about violence against women in Pakistan on October 19, shortly after the coup there. It estimates that between 70 and 90 percent of Pakistani women are victims of domestic violence, and accuses the now-deposed government of Nawaz Sharif of not acting to change the situation, and of condoning acts of violence against women’s-rights activists.
Bernard Kouchner, now governor of Kosova, is calling for UN intervention in any nation “abusing its national sovereignty”, in order to prevent tragedies like Auschwitz, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosova happening again in the 21st century. The examples he gave of situations in which intervention is called for are “a Muslim woman in the Sudan” who does not want to endure clitoral excision, and a Chinese woman who does not want her feet bound. Claims of cultural autonomy and objections to imperialism won’t wash, he says. The UN will only intervene to protect the weak and the powerless.
Foot-binding is not practised in China any more, and has not been for decades. Excision is practised in Sudan (and elsewhere) by Christians and animists as well as by Muslims. So why did Kouchner single out Muslim women? One might also wonder why, as governor of Kosova, he did not call for the UN to take effective action to arrest Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen to stand trial for the horrendous crimes they committed against Muslim (and Christian) women in Bosnia and Kosova. Or why he did not urge the UN to intervene in Kashmir to prevent Indian forces from gang-raping Muslim women? And does he not realize that sanctions against Iraq deprive Iraqi women of their basic right to survival?
Another interesting point is that excision is usually carried out on girls, not on grown women. It is unlikely that a girl, aged about ten or so, will take it into her head to call the UN and ask for intervention to save her from it. It seems that Kouchner does not predicate UN intervention on some woman actually asking for help - he envisions intervention on behalf of nameless, faceless “victims” rather than a real individual voicing specific opinions or demands. This would give the UN freedom to act in any way it wishes, without having to worry about such questions as whether lasting, positive social change can really take place under duress.
This exploitation of the oppression of women in Pakistan and the Sudan for political ends is only the latest installment of a drama which has been going on since at least 1979. Women are being used to discredit and destabilize Islamic movements worldwide, and to justify intervention in Muslim countries and communities. Would the US designation of Iran as a ‘rogue state’ have been so easily accepted in the ‘international community’ were it not for the constant alarmist media coverage about the oppression of women there? Would the ‘international community’ have tolerated the Algerian generals’ cancellation of election results to prevent FIS from winning, and the subsequent years of military rule, were it not for the horrifying reports of rape, mutilation and killing of Algerian women by ‘Islamic extremists’?
Too often, Muslims respond to this problem in one of three ways. Many Muslims take refuge in “cultural norms” and say that the UN has no business interfering in their culture. They accuse the UN of neo-imperialism. This is, of course, true. But the UN line is that its charter of human rights is applicable to everyone. They construct the discourse in such a way that anyone asking for a “cultural exemption” looks pathetically parochial, like a dinosaur asking for space in a game reserve. The notion of “culture” is also individual in this discourse: you may choose to adhere to a particular culture, but you do not have the right to demand that your children or your society do likewise.
But Islam is not a “culture” in that sense. Culture is how we live, but Islam is how we ought to live. Culture does not truthfully claim to give anyone salvation, or the pleasure of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. Much of the oppression Muslim women face comes from this confusion of Islam and culture, whether that culture is pre-Islamic or modern globalized materialism. The rights that Allah ta’ala has given women are constantly being ignored in favour of cultural norms.
Alternatively, some Muslims would like to stone the messenger. They ignore, defame, harass or even kill writers and activists who say unwelcome things about the situation of Muslim women today. In most cases, this is totally unjustified in Islamic terms (although cultural notions of ‘shame’ may demand it) and it is in any case counter-productive; refugee status in the west, fame, career opportunities and internationally prestigious prizes await the women (and men) who are ‘brave enough’ to ‘lift the veil’ on the oppression of Muslim women. While some are evidently trying to discredit Islam and mislead Muslims, a fair number are genuinely concerned about the injustices they see and find no other way to address them. Unfortunately, many Muslim groups tend to marginalize such activist women, because they do not want to alienate conservative potential supporters.
And thirdly, some Muslims promise a future utopia. Oppression of women in a given country is ascribed entirely to the present corrupt, un-Islamic government. We are assured that when the war is won, or an Islamic government is established, things will right themselves. This approach ignores the cultural and individual bases of oppression. Government policy may encourage people to carry out acts oppressive to women, or even institutionalize oppressive policies, but people still choose whether or not to do so. The social, moral and economic factors which frame the context in which people make these choices are not likely to change dramatically with changes of government.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has called on Muslims to be the ummatan wassatan, the ‘middle nation’ (Al-Qur’an 2:143), standing up for justice even against ourselves. Those who would do so need to work through four distinct processes. Firstly, an honest and detailed study of the situation of Muslims, male and female, and the family as a whole in their community, taking into account differences such as those of class, age, ethnicity, and education level, for such differences often produce very different life-experiences.
This must be accompanied by a study of the roles, responsibilities and rights that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has given each person, according to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, following which this ideal must be honestly compared with the reality of life in the community. Attention must be paid to ethical and not simply legal issues. The world-view and character of the Companions, male and female must be considered - what sort of people were they, how did they interact, and how did they transform their cultural identities to accord with Islam?
When the ideal and the reality are compared, the reasons for differences between them must be explored. Legal, ethical and cultural problems will inevitably arise, ranging from ignorance or disregard of clear legal rulings (such as female inheritance rights), to ethical problems (such as when the letter of the law is followed in divorce procedures in such a way as to cause the woman maximum distress), to cultural issues (such as when brothers who follow the Sunnah in the kind treatment of women are said to be “unmanly”). The specific social, economic, moral, political and personal factors need to be discussed.
And finally, measures need to be defined, appropriate to the community in question, to address the problems, focusing on specific issues in their context. Factors such as lack of Islamic education, social pressure, cultural ideals, poverty and/or wealth, and political oppression need to be considered. The experiences of other Islamic movements with similar problems will have to be examined for possible insight into the effect measures might have, and which ones would be most effective.
These four processes need to be ongoing, as circumstances are constantly changing. In particular, continual effort needs to be made to educate all Muslims, male and female, about their roles, responsibilities and rights.
Some problems will remain, because this approach is a process, not a mould into which Muslims can be poured. Islam is not a utopian philosophy. Also some issues, such as those hinging on juristic differences, may not be easily resolved. As this process is not designed to bring about the secular utopia imagined by the UN, Muslims may expect that ‘intervention’ will continue to be a threat to even (or especially) the most sincerely Islamic of communities. But at least, in the process of bringing justice to the oppressed in our societies, and cleansing our own lives of a stain on our collective record, we can also deprive our enemies of a pretext on which they seek to attack us at every opportunity.
Moreover, by this process we will, insha’Allah, move from begging piteously for a corner of the earth upon which to preserve our ‘culture’ to asserting our Allah-bestowed status as ’ibaad-Allah- servants of the Living Lord, not of dying or dead cultural norms. We can move from defensively denying allegations that we know in our innermost selves to have some validity, or from being torn between concern for justice and loyalty to community or identity, towards upholding justice, even against ourselves. We can stop blaming the state, the scholars and our enemies for our problems, and move towards changing what is in ourselves, for it is only then that Allah ta’ala will change the condition of a people. May Allah help us in our task. Ameen.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999