This column raises so many questions it's hard to know where to start, so I'll just dive in. Where did Pollitt get the information that "In Saudi Arabia, women can't even work in lingerie stores"? I lived in Riyadh for several years in the 1980s, and I find it hard to imagine that things have gone backwards from the time when I patronised a women's outfitters on Sitteen Street in the Malaz district. I bought lingerie there, among other things. All the staff were women, and I think one of them was the owner (Muslim women always having had rights of inheritance and control of their separate property, something British and American married women didn't get until the late 19th century). Of course the shop was open only to women; on the door was a stenciled male sihouette with a red cross through it and "No men" written in Arabic, English and French. The point was not the type of goods sold but the strict segregation of the sexes in all kinds of work except--of necessity--hospitals. At that time I taught in the Women's Section of the university there. All the employees from Dean to cleaners were women. Like the men's section, we had our own branch of a national bank and the staff there were also all women, just as those in the men's branch were all men.
You then go on to list various horrors visited on Muslim women as though these were normal and exclusively Muslim practices. Female genital mutilation is neither. FGM is a practice of sub-Saharan Africa, performed in a band of countries approximately from Nigeria on the Atlantic to Kenya on the Indian Ocean. It is practiced by Muslims, Animists and some Christians, although the Anglo-American missionaries of the late nineteeth century would have been more likely to discourage the practice, seeing their job as being as much the inculcation of Euro-American lifestyles (and spending habits) as conversion to the faith. The only Arab-Muslim countries in which it is practiced, and probably not nearly as often now as when I was there, are Egypt and Sudan. My guess is that this is a result of the tradition of Egyptian trade with Africa to the south going back to the days of the Pharaohs, Nubian slaves being one of the commodities traded for. The practice of FGM is unknown in the Arabian Peninsula, in Greater Syria, Iraq and in all the countries of North Africa west of Egypt, and in all the non-Arab Muslim countries of Europe, Asia and the Pacific.
Forced marriage, child marriage, stonings and lashings, are found in the most benighted parts of the region under nasty dictatorships using religion as a prop to their power (always, in any country, a good excuse for viciousness) and in a good many other places--although not in the Koran, where the only beating (not lashing) I remember is of the domestic variety, offered as a last resort for the chastisement of an unruly wife who can't be first reasoned with and, if that doesn't work, denied sex for a while. Nor is there any stoning in the Koran or any of the early works of Islam. I have read that it was adopted some time after the faith began to spread and took in several large tribes of Jews in the region. They had a tradition of stoning women (as we know from the Bible) and men (see Acts VII 59-60 on the stoning of Stephen) and didn't want to give it up.
The next paragraph begins, "The title of Bennoune's article, 'The Religionizing of Politics,' points to another problem: the tendency in the West to treat majority Muslim countries as a single cohesive entity--'the Muslim world'--rather than as Asian, African and Middle-Eastern nations that are as different from one another as the majority Christian lands of Britain and Mexico." That, surely, is just what Pollitt did in her previous paragraph, listing a series of horrors common to that same "Muslim world" (and not, actually, found in many of them).
On the French headscarf flap, I suspect Pollitt is right in impugning the motives of at least some of the French. I also suspect that part of the fear is for the compromise of the intensely secular nature of the French state, something our own country claims but manifestly isn't to the degree that France is. In that context the wearing of the headscarf has, ever since the Iranian Revolution, been as often a political statement as a religious one--and something of an "in your face one" at that. Still, banning it is stupid.
Jul 8 2009 - 9:52am