February 20, 2005

The Lost Cause of Muslim Women

The Iraq War has more casualties than just human, economic and diplomatic - it also has intellectual casualties. The one I'm speaking of now is the feminist and pro-woman cause and activism on behalf of women in Muslim states. It's a casualty because the conservatives defending the Iraq war are unused to speaking in stereotypically feminist subjects, and feminists are often unwilling to make comments that could be construed as endorsing the US military action against Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, the plight of women in Arab and Muslim states is getting less press than usual - and far less than it deserves and needs.

While it's important to recognize that Islam is hardly synonymous with misogyny or spousal abuse, it's difficult to underestimate the mistreatment of women in some of the more under-educated and impoverished parts of the greater Arab world, especially the poorer Palestinian areas.

Mistreatment of women is a cultural thing in this context. Islam itself is relatively equal towards men and women, with a number of passages espousing equality and at least a few passages requiring inferiority. For example, women have to stay behind a special wall in mosques - in practice sort of like the black-only balconies in Jim Crow-era theaters. But this in itself isn't all-damning - after all, the New Testament (1 Corinthians 14:34) requires women to be silent in churches.

Let's move beyond the religious text, since religious text is often made subservient to cultural demands as often as it is made instructive over them. People will often read religious texts in opposite ways, if only to reinforce their pre-conceived views and behaviors. I'd also like to move beyond cross-cultural examinations, even though it would be very fun to get into it right now.

Moving right to the core: a lot of Muslim countries perpetuate practices that are downright abusive, degrading and immoral regarding women. This is especially prevalent in Arabic countries, but it is not unheard of elsewhere.

Case in point - a few years back, a little Pakistani girl and a little Pakistani boy walked home one day unchaperoned. The boy, 11 years old, was from Gujar tribe and the girl was from mastoi tribe. The boy's tribe was of much lower caste, and so there had to be a reckoning - but not for the girl, rather for the tribe. This was not seen as a boy wronging a girl; this was one tribe wronging another. Vengeance had to be taken from the other tribe, and it was - when four Mastoi men raped the 18-year-old sister of the Gujar boy. They didn't simply roam out and do this - it was actually sentenced to be done by a tribal council. She was gang-raped by the four in a hut, while hundreds of Mastoi stood outside, cheering in jubilation.

Believe it or not, this is one of the better examples of mistreatment toward women. That's not to say the crime was not horrific, because it was. It's not as bad as others, like Palestinian honor killings, because Pakistani police aggressively investigated the case and Pakistani civil society groups have been protesting tribal justice for years. The crime was horrific, but at least the preponderance of Pakstani government, society and elites recognize it as a crime.

In some Arabic regions, this is not so. While places like Dubai (UAE), Kuwait City (Kuwait), Doha (Qatar) and Manama City (Bahrain) often have very cosmopolitan cities, educated populations and wonderful access to various goods and luxury items, this is not true for many Arabs. In parts of the West Bank the Gaza Strip, an uneducated populace -whether in the densely-populated urban areas or the rugged rural villages- is plagued by views of women that date back many hundreds or thousands of years.

Women are responsible for everything that happens to them regarding monogamy - premarital sex, adultery, rape, incest, molestation, divorce, refusing an arranged marriage or even the barest rumor of any of these. Women are responsible for sex, whether consensual or rape, because it's assumed she brought it on herself with seduction or temptation. It is literally her fault that she was rapped. It is also her fault if the rumor persists that she did something wrong. It is still her fault, even if the sex-related rumor was proven false.

Remember, a lot of Muslim countries have various forms of female genital mutilation, from excision to infibulation. Although female cutting is always (acorss the world) performed and enforced by other women, it is indicative of a viewpoint where virginity goes beyond morality or romance to a deeply-held obsession. Love's got nothing to do with it. If a woman is not a virgin at marriage, the marriage can be denied and the woman returned to her family. For this reason, many Arab women have their hymens recreated before marriage to save their lives - failing to bleed the first night is proof enough of infidelity, many times.

There's also a culture of multiple marriages, both Arabic and Islamic. Muslim men can have four wives, but of course Muslim women do not have multiple marriages ever (not that it makes much sense, biologically). In addition, marriages are often arranged in these less-educated areas - perhaps more than half of West bank marriages are arranged without the bride's input.

So what happens when a woman breaks one of these rules or goes against this culture of derision toward women? She ruins her family's honor. Her impropriety, or perceived impropriety, is a source of great shame to the entire extended family. It grows worse and worse as time goes on. There is one way to fix it - honor killing.

An honor killing is when a male family member - father, brother, uncle, cousin, husband, son - executes the impure woman. One mis-step is sufficient to perform an honor killing - in fact, even one is enough to virtually require it by the rules of this culture. The honor killing not only restores the lost honor, through eliminating the impure woman, but actually brings additional honor to the killer and to the family. There are numerous instances of honor killings in Arabic areas, but experts believe many of them are unreported or covered up. There are instances of stabbings, burnings, and multiple-wound shootings being classified by GS and WB police as suicides. In many cases the body is likely buried and never found.

In order to protect women from honor killings, the only thing that is done is jailing women. They are kept in jail for weeks, months or years to avoid killing. Even this tactic is largely ineffective, since they are often discharged into the custody of a male relative. Even though the male relative must swear not to kill her after release, it often happens anyway. One man who did exactly this trick to kill his own daughter received prison time... nine months' worth for fraud and pre-meditated murder.

That's what really makes it so horrible. Bad things happen everywhere, and rapists and murderers are hardly foreign to the West and the US, but it is the reaction of the judicial system and society that forms the real test of a culture and of a government. Honor killings in Palestinian areas are often not investigated at all, police can be persuaded off the case or bribed away from it, and even when it results in arrest (it's usually very easy to find the killers, since they receive widespread praise for the killing) then a) the punishment is often very light, almost never more than a year, and b) the killer almost invariably returns to a jubilant family and celebratory atmosphere on his release from prison.

Not only are women blamed for being raped, not only are women blamed for false rumors against them, not only are they killed by their own families for unsubstantiated charges of consensual acts - but the crime is encouraged, instead of punished. The legal system, such as it is, has special sanctions and allowances for honor killings written directly into it. This is the truly terrible part of the crime.

Now, I just want to clear something up. This is by no means a rant on the evils of all Muslims or Arabs, or even on most Muslims and Arabs. I've known and worked with a number of Arabs and Muslims, and a few Palestinians. In my experience most were polite, hard-working and in good humor. One Palestinian I knew loved drinking, sex and eating, and had no issues or hatred toward women, gays or anybody else. This is mostly aimed at pressing the moral case against a minority of the population that engages in these horrific acts. Don't use this as an excuse to hate all Arabs or Muslims, and don't assume that this somehow means Europeans and Christians don't have any connections to a sordid past or unsavory, horrific elements. Every culture and people has good points and bad, good people and bad. This is just supposed to remind us about something particularly bad that happens in a particular place - and that the peculiarities of world politics are giving this issue the cold shoulder right now.

To add an endnote on another aspect also being lost in the cracks between the anti-war left and pro-war right - the plight of gay people in Gaza and the West Bank is deplorable. Outright hatred of gay people goes beyond a theologically-inclined judgment of their lifestyles or even a subtly bigoted denial of housing opportunities. Honor killings are regularly performed against gay Palestinians in often horrific ways. Unlike being a woman, against whom honor killings require at least a rumor of sexual or marital infidelity, being gay is an automatic death sentence. This issue has also been lost by the anti-war, pro-gay marriage Democrats and the pro-war, anti-gay marriage Republicans.

So to all those who aren't simply anti-war partisans, try and revive one or both of these issues. Even if you find yourself normally opposed to 'feminist' arguments or pro-gay marriage arguments, there's absolutely no contradiction between that position and not wanting women or gays to be killed at the drop of a hat. If the anti-war left is going to close their eyes to avoid looking like neocons, then somebody has to remember the truly deplorable treatment of women and of human rights in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Here are some of the examples from the link provided at top.

Ahmed, a Palestinian boy who killed his teenage sister because she refused an arranged marriage, was commended upon his release from jail. Neighbors showered him with compliments, and his father called him a hero for restoring the family honor.
An eighteen-year-old Palestinian man stabbed his teenage sister forty times because of a rumor that she was involved in an extramarital affair. The family thanked God for her death.
In [one] neighborhood, a sixteen-year-old boy killed his divorced mother, stabbing her repeatedly as he chased her into the street. The boy told authorities he was upset because neighbors were gossiping about her allegedly immoral behavior.
Last year, seventeen-year-old Afaf Younes was killed by her father, who had allegedly been sexually molesting her. Afaf had tried to escape his sexual abuse by running away, but she was caught and returned to her father. He then shot her in the name of honor.
A sixteen-year-old Palestinian girl became pregnant after being raped by her younger brother. Once her condition became known, her family encouraged her older brother to kill her to remove the blemish from their honor. Her brothers, the rapist and the murderer, were exonerated. The girl was blamed. "She made a mistake," said one of her male cousins. "She had to pay for it."
[A] four-year-old Palestinian girl, raped by a man in his mid-twenties, was left by her family to bleed to death. They did this because they felt her misfortune would sully their honor.


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