A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognise that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women – and men – in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty), and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities.
As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women’s rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counter-reaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, home-grown women’s organisations are fully empowered, stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn’t this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?
Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women’s lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire.
There is a sensible strategic argument to be had here. Can support and solidarity be offered by liberals, feminists, socialists and other progressives to women – and men – in those countries in which they face a real threat from socially conservative and oppressive politics, in a manner which cannot be dismissed as “an excuse for building empire”? If so, what might be done?
Part of the problem is that an important part of Western radical politics has settled into an alliance of shared interests with Islamists: which has ranged from formal coalition-building to shrill and strategic accusations of Islamophobia, which serves only to bolster religious politics, while masking the genuine racism directed at arabs and south asian Muslims.
The other part of the problem is that the support we do give to progressive politics is inevitably treated by Islamists as a Western assault on fundamental social, religious and political values: all the more insidious, because it is carried out by cultural means.
Much of the discussion of Lalami’s article has revolved around the notion that anti-religious figures, such as Hirsi Ali, and radical religious reinterpreters, including Manji, have nothing of use to add to the debate. A more gentle approach, by figures with greater sympathy for traditional beliefs and a deeper appreciation of religious learning, are more effective conduits of a progressive agenda.
Hirsi Ali and Manji are both polemicists, of course. Polemicists tend to be iconoclastic figures, whose appeal is significantly to those who are already receptive to the arguments that they advance. This does not mean that they should be defamed or ignored. In a pluralist poltics, there are in any case other voices – those of thinkers who Lalami finds more sympathetic – which it is also important to hear. Lalami lists some of them:
“Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought… The work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Adonis, Amina Wadud, Nawal Saadawi, Mohja Kahf, Asra Nomani and the thousands of other scholars working in both Muslim countries and the West easily contradicts the notion.”
The problem, as David Thompson points out, is that “most of those [Lalami] names have faced sanction, persecution or serious threats of violence for demonstrating their capacity for critical thought:
In the wake of 9/11, Khaled Abou El Fadl wrote a modest article for the Los Angeles Times about the need for introspection within the Islamic world. The article, and subsequent lectures and TV appearances, resulted in El Fadl’s UCLA office and home receiving a barrage of death threats. The threats and subsequent property damage were not the work of ‘Islamophobes’ or racists, but of indignant American Muslims accusing El Fadl of “defaming” Islam and “selling out” their religion.
The feminist Muslim Asra Nomani is indeed another outspoken reformer, but the homicidal reactions to Nomani’s efforts scarcely refute Hirsi Ali’s basic argument. Nomani is perhaps best known for campaigning for women to be allowed to pray alongside men in mosques. A modest enough request, one might think. Less well known — and unacknowledged by Lalami — are the numerous death threats that began two days after Nomani argued for this right on the Nightline news programme. One outraged male Muslim called Nomani’s mobile phone and left a message in Urdu, promising to “slaughter” her, halal style, if she didn’t “keep her mouth shut”. The caller promised to murder Nomani’s mother and father, too, and, to emphasise his point, he called her parents’ home immediately afterwards. The pious caller added, thoughtfully, that he would say a prayer as he slit their throats.
The Iranian author, Reza Aslan, and Amina Wadud, a Professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, have both suffered death threats for allegedly “corrupting Islam”. As has the Egyptian feminist writer, Nawal Saadawi. Other prominent victims of theological intolerance were excluded from Lalami’s list. The Sudanese writer Kola Boof fled to the U.S. after receiving death threats for her comments on Islam and slavery. In March 2002, Jordan’s first female Member of Parliament, Toujan al-Faisal, was imprisoned for publishing material deemed “detrimental to religious feeling”. One month earlier, the Iranian writer and human rights lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar, and her publisher, Shahla Lahiji, received jail sentences based on similar claims of affront.
Nor was any mention made of the Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasrin, who, in the early Nineties, aroused widespread ire among Muslims by publicly questioning Shariah and the treatment of women under Islamic law. Strikes and rallies ensued across Dhaka, drawing over 200,000 protestors and calls for her imprisonment. Nasrin fled Bangladesh in 1994 after Muslim fundamentalists placed a bounty on her head. Tried in absentia for blasphemy, a 2002 court ruling condemned her to jail if she returns. Her books are, of course, banned.
It is unsurprising that, in such a political climate, that those who are least likely to be silenced are also women with the fortitude and stridency of a Hirsi Ali or a Manji.