The Future is Female

‘Some folks don’t believe there is pious niggers, Shelby,’ said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, ‘but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans – ‘twas good as a meetin’ now, really; to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap off a man that was ‘bliged to sell out; so I realised six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it’s the genuine article, and no mistake.’

  •  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Post 9/11, everyone wanted to have something to say about Islam. Governments fell over themselves to establish the essentially peaceful nature of the religion, and justified the Afghan war with feminist arguments about the position of women in Islamic cultures. Once the Taliban had been overthrown, NATO allowed the parliament to be filled with vicious warlords and a 2009 constitution that sanctioned marital rape, domestic imprisonment and child marriage. Coalition forces left Iraq with a confused and discriminatory sharia constitution and its cities ravaged by fanatic militias blowing people up for the crime of trying to vote or get a job. Intellectuals drew attention to discrimination against Muslims in Western societies, the far right used a half-arsed critique of Islam to justify racism against Asians and migrants in general, and everyone worried about a bomb on their commute, whether they admitted it or not.

Now the rich world’s engagement with Islam is winding down. The UK presence in Afghanistan is being phased out. There are talks of deals with the Taliban. The British public are sick of the mounting roll call of UK dead and the procession of flag-draped coffins through Wootton Bassett. Conservative isolationists and doctrinaire pacifists agree that there’s no point risking the bones of a single Lancashire grenadier just so that little Nooria can go to school. Domestically, people whinge about immigration at great and tedious length while liberals denounce the French burqa ban to gales of applause.

The West is no longer interested in Islam. But the war continues.

Muslim Women Reformers is a compendium of writing by female dissidents in Islamic countries and cultures from Bangladesh to Indonesia to Qatar to Lebanon to Saudi Arabia to Iran. Many have been subject to imprisonment, assault and mutilation; some are under twenty-four hour bodyguard; a few have been murdered. Seldom is it their purpose to tell the world how empowering the niqab feels.

The Somalian writer Aayan Hirsi Ali, who has experienced genital mutilation, forced marriage and attempted assassination, admits freely that she has been ‘extraordinarily lucky.’ The horror stories of the women profiled in Lichter’s book represent the very tip of a black, rotting iceberg. The history of Islam is a chronicle of cruelty and slavery and exploitation. The lives of women in the theocratic world get little attention, no doubt because of racism or ignorance, but also because such suffering is too terrible for the heart and mind to bear.

The war was never between the West and Islam but within Islamic societies: between people who fight for human rights, freedom and equalities and those who profit by the current sexual apartheid. The latter have most of the guns, money and power backed up by centuries of tradition and low expectation. Consider: if a man lives in a society where he can rape and beat women with impunity, where he can exchange a wife for money, throw acid in his sister’s face for not wearing chador or talking to a boy on the street, if he can marry a teenager when in his sixties – then he is unlikely to want to change the status quo. This, I’m more and more convinced, is part of the reason for indifference to the lives of Muslim women from men in rich societies. Lots of Western men are tired of ladettes, feminists and career girls and like the idea of a society where women do as they are told. They trawl the Far East in search of submissive females while their intellectual counterparts write paeans of praise to sharia law. 

The contribution expected of Muslim women in the developing world is to produce children and nothing else. The Tunisian reformist Lafif Lakhdar asked why ‘we Muslims’ consider ‘the proliferation of children as a religious obligation.’ Raid Qusti, a columnist for the Saudi Arab News, described his country as ‘a handicapped society… which [relies] on only half the country’s human resources – the male half.’ The emancipation of Occidental women was the only successful revolution of the twentieth century and led to unprecedented success and advance. Conversely, the Arab world, despite its undeniable creativity, talent and industry, is a world of poverty and despair. The UN’s Arab Human Development Report of 20005 (partially appendicised by Lichter) recognised explicitly the obstacle gender inequality posed to development in the region. People in the Arab world live short, unhappy lives and die of preventable causes, and this is because it is ruled by clerics.

There is a running debate in Muslim Women Reformers on whether Islam is inherently misogynist or has simply been perverted by Islamic authorities. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan believe that Islam cannot be redeemed. By contrast, Iranian activist Maryam Rajavi insists that: ‘the peddlers of religion who rule Iran in the name of Islam, but shed blood, suppress the people and advocate export of fundamentalism and terrorism, are themselves the worst enemies of Islam and Muslims.’

Personally, I feel that if there were a way to accommodate God’s law with basic human rights, we would have found it by now, considering the weight of scholarship and enquiry devoted to the problem. The novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin is said to have contributed to the death of the slave trade, would have understood what the women of the theocratic world are up against:

So long as the law considers these all human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master – so long as the failure, or misfortune or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil – so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best-regulated administration of slavery.

Muslim Women Reformers, Ida Lichter, Prometheus 2009

About the Author

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He lives in Manchester and writes fiction and criticism.

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