Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

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.

Jane Gardiner

Auburn, NY

Jul 8 2009 - 10:52am

Web Letter

Opinion papers are very dangerous because they write someone's opinion of the facts rather than the facts. I hope that The Nation will be more discerning in printing articles that are well researched and make it clear that an article is written by someone who is not an expert in the area they are writing about, i.e., Islamic religious law.

In this matter, I completely agree with the two previous web letters that clarify Islamic law with cultural norms in "Muslim countries." In most cases, it is hard for anyone to show that Islam is oppressive or unjust to women. As a practicing Muslim woman, who grew up in California as a normal teenager, and is educated with a PhD, I can verify that the religion of Islam is not oppressive towards women. However, unfortunately many of the those who profess to be following Islam abuse the religion to match their desires. Therefore, we need more Muslim women scholars to counter the false and faulty interpretations by some Muslim male clerics towards the issue of women.

Yet articles such as these only help in the misrepresentation of Islamic laws, and thus they actually help to continue the suppression of women under Muslim men, rather than showing that these countries are not following the correct Islam as they profess they do.

For example, the issue of the need for two women eye- witnesses compared to one man. The Koran mentions this only only for cases dealing with business transactions, not for criminal cases, or matters of rape, etc. It is faulty to take that to mean for all cases, which many Muslim countries have done. For business transactions, two women were required, as they were less versed in the business jargon, and therefore to ensure complete justice in the matter, having a second woman as the witness to corroborate the evidence makes sense. But the jurisprudence cannot be extended to all cases.

Some jurists have ignored the fact that the very same Koran has shown that one woman's testimony is greater than a man's in case a husband is accusing his wife of adultery. If she testifies before God that she is free from such guilt, then she wins her case.

In case of rape, a woman's testimony alone is enough to remove any punishment towards her and to punish her accuser. There is no need for four witnesses. www.karamah.org/docs/Zina_article_Final.pdf

Also the issue of Hijab comes up again and again. There is no Islamic punishment for a woman who does not want to wear the hijab. Iran and Saudi Arabia have made that one up. Women in other Muslim countries wear it or don't wear it based on their own convictions and circumstances. The Koran specifically says that you cannot "force" faith upon anyone. If someone wears the hijab out of personal conviction, they are rewarded for it by God, not any human. Those who don't, God knows their reasons, so no human can or should question them for it. Keeping modesty is the main concern, and unfortunately that word has become so foreign to Western ears that it sounds oppressive just saying that modesty is good for society overall and women in general.

But I agree, many abuses towards women have taken place since the beginning of civilization, not only in Muslim countries but also in "Western countries", where women only recently got their "freedoms" in the 1960s. Like many of the injustices going on during the time of Prophet Muhammad, Islam came to remove and eradicate injustices towards women. But a religion and faith can only do as much as there are followers that truly follow the faith rather than their own desires.

For example, the United States has a Constitution, yet the Bush Administration refused to follow much of it, including habeas corpus, freedom from unlawful search and seizure, not lying before Congress and the courts, etc. Now should we say the Constitution is wrong and so are the founding fathers of the US because Bush ignored the rules? Or should blame go on those who ignore the constitution even though they swore before God and the nation that they would uphold it?

Islam and women's rights is exactly the same thing. When Muslim countries practice real Islam, women in those countries will be free.

Umm Zaheen

Los Angeles, CA

Jun 30 2009 - 6:34pm

Web Letter

Although the more intelligent journalists write for The Nation, they still got it wrong about Islam in this article, and I will tell you why.

The West cannot differentiate between culture and religion. The only thing that is sanctioned by Islam in your article is the head cover; everything else is a cultural habit of the Arab and Indo-Pakistani world. Pakistani and Afghani culture in particular has corrupted the reputation of Islam immensely. Their behavior is not Islamic, it is their culture.

Genital mutilation is not required by Islam, this is a terrible North African cultural practice.

Stoning to death is not a punishment for women in Islam; it is a capital punishment for men and women who are adulterers (five witnesses needed to stone to death), and those who steal, murder and rape. Obviously, we have capital punishment in the United States; while it is not stoning, it is the same thing. Most Muslim countries don't execute for these crimes, just those convicted of murders and rape.

* The raped are victims in Islam, and those who rape criminals--not the other way around. If you are seeing the raped being punished, that is because of the stupidity of the culture and country they are in, not Islamic law. Please know that.

* There are no forced marriages in Islam. If you are seeing forced marriages in the Muslim world, it is because that is part of the culture of that particular country. Islamic law clearly states that "women should choose or refuse their partners of marriage" and not be forced into marrriage, as was the habit in the world at the time of the establishment of Islam. So Islam gave women rights that didn't exist at the time.

* The laws in Saudia Arabia don't reflect those of Islam. For instance, Islam encourages education of both men and women, and the independence of both parties to work. This is clearly stated in Islamic law. Women do work in Saudia Arabia, but are not allowed to drive a car--they are required to be chauffered---does that even make sense? The culture of Saudia Arabia is preventing women to drive, not Islam. And currently they are working on abolishing this hideous law.

* Please don't think the head cover is a bad thing; its purpose is to promote modesty and equality. The girl with the better hair and body will not flaunt it in front of the girl that is fat, balding and dumpy. It is an equalizer. The reason men don't wear a head cover is because the woman is thought of in Islam as the more beautiful of the two. Let's face it, men can't compare to the beauty of a woman. So a head cover is not a repressive idea, it is a modesty-promoting idea, and just because the West doesn't like it, it doesn't mean it is wrong. Orthodox Jews also cover their hair, but they are never told that they are backwards, only Muslims are.

The bottom line is that when writing about Islam, one must understand the difference between culture and Islamic law. Much of the cultural problems in the Middle East and Asia are being attributed to Islam, and that is not right.

Also, let those with different habits than you live in peace without criticism for being different.

Tina Issa

Chicago, IL

Jun 27 2009 - 9:43am

Web Letter

The horribly daunting part of articles like these is that they fail to represent the opinion of the woman who are "being oppressed." Once again, we see another American feminist who thinks they know everything about what it means to be an oppressed woman. In my culture, married women cover their hair as well--though not with a hijab but with a wig instead. This is religiously driven, as is wearing the hijab in Islam. One needs to realize that when one is covering their hair in this situation it is not because they are being subjugated but rather because they feel that showing their hair is uncouth and immodest. When you tell women from these cultures that they are being subjugated and they don't feel they are, problems arise. Please take that into consideration.

Neshama Olitzsky

Randall, MN

Jun 26 2009 - 5:36pm

Web Letter

For yet another case of fatwa and flogging of innocent village women in Bangladesh, see this.

M. Siddique

Chevy Chase, MD

Jun 26 2009 - 2:48pm

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.