Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BRIEF NOTE] Islam and Gender in Europe

Yahoo! News has reproduced Deborah Scoggins' article from The Nation, "The Dutch-Muslim Culture War". Starting from the person of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Scoggins goes on to examine the wider role of Islam on some of Europe's more conservative communities.

Moors and others don't dispute the existence of the social problems Hirsi Ali identifies. Many Dutch Muslim women do live in segregated "parallel cities" where Islamic social codes are enforced. Muslims make up only 5.5 percent of the Dutch population, but they account for more than half the women in battered women's shelters and more than half of those seeking abortions. Muslim girls have far higher suicide rates than non-Muslim girls. Some Muslim girls, mostly African, are genitally mutilated. But in putting all the blame on Islam, they say, Hirsi Ali ignores the influence of patriarchal custom as well as the work of a generation of Muslim feminists.

A custom phrased in terms of religious necessity is, in fact, a religious custom. Trying to disclaim responsibility for the less savoury elements of a religious culture because, well, they're not really part of the religion is a classic response by cornered reactionaries. It's a risible response, of course. Scoggins' further observations deserve mention.

Whatever happens to Hirsi Ali, the debate she helped polarize over women and Islam is sure to spread and intensify all over Europe in the next few years. As Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued in their book Rising Tide, the true clash of opinions between Islam and the West is not about democracy but sex. Successive World Values Surveys, in which social scientists polled public opinion in more than eighty countries between 1981 and 2001, have shown that people in Muslim countries share broadly the same views on political participation as people in the West. What they disagree strongly about is gender equality and sexual liberalization.

In the United States the distinction is not as sharply drawn. Conservative Muslims are not the only religious group here opposed to what they see as sexual license; it's their opposition to Israel and US foreign policy, not their sexual politics, that sets American Muslims apart from the rest of the right. But in Europe, acceptance of gender equality and homosexuality have become core values across the political spectrum, said Jocelyne Cesari, a Harvard research associate and the author of
When Islam and Democracy Meet. "Here it is part of a national debate that doesn't involve immigrants only," Cesari said. "In Europe, this is seen as proof that Muslims are still outsiders whose values are in contradiction to ours."

Islamist thinkers have often argued that women are the key to culture, since they have the responsibility of raising children. An emerging coalition of European feminist and anti-immigration forces seems to be adopting the same view. In France, Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia, as in the Netherlands, the "woman question" is at the center of the debate over how to integrate the Muslim community. "I know most of my Muslim friends will disagree with me, but in my opinion the gender issue is the most important issue," says Martijn de Koning, an anthropologist at Leiden University who studies jihadi groups. "The head scarf, the Islamic schools, the policy of family reunification--every debate here more or less concerns the position of women."

Hirsi Ali is only the most prominent of a number of young Muslim women who have lately begun to criticize their own communities for their treatment of women. In Sweden, Fadime Sahindal campaigned against forced marriages before her father killed her in 2002 for having a relationship with a Swedish man. In France, Fadela Amara heads the Ni Putes ni Soumises ("Neither Whores nor Submissives") movement against Islamist groups she calls "the green fascists." In Germany, where six honor killings have taken place just this year, Seyran Ates, a Berlin-based lawyer, has charged the government with allowing Islamic fundamentalism to flourish under a policy of false tolerance.

In the United States, too, some of the Islamists' most vigorous opponents have been female. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies, have led the fight to open Muslim prayers to women. Most of the members of the newly formed Progressive Muslim Union, which aims to provide liberal Muslims with a platform, are women, according to co-founder Ahmed Nassef.

Many conservative Muslims have been almost as hostile to these female critics as they have been to Hirsi Ali. As with Hirsi Ali, they tend to disregard the women as deviants who want to change Islamic sexual mores because of their personal failure to live up to them. Nomani, who bore a son out of wedlock, was expelled from her hometown mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. She and Wadud received death threats and condemnation from religious authorities around the Muslim world for organizing a female-led prayer service in March in New York.

But particularly in Europe, some Islamists are beginning to see the woman question as their Achilles' heel. The influential Swiss Islamist Tariq Ramadan recently warned Muslims that they were going to have to change their attitudes. "We are going through a reassessment," he said, "and the most important subject is women. Our experience in Europe has made it clear that we must speak about equality." In Austria in April, a meeting of 160 imams called for equality between men and women.

I'm tempted to agree with this analysis. At Queen's, I met a nice young woman who happened to be a lesbian, belonging to a Muslim sect known for its liberalism and coming from a country not under shari'a law. She mentioned that one thing that she rather liked about Canada was that she didn't have to worry about being subjected to Soviet-style psychiatric mismedication or gang rape. Speaking from a purely Rawlsian perspective, I can't begin to imagine why she shouldn't receive the same protection from assault as any other Canadian, or why the mores of that particular Muslim community (and, I fear, of Muslim communities in general) should be granted any legitimacy at all.

I just hope that it will be over quickly.
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