Islam and Women: Choosing to Veil and Other Paradoxes

By Weiner, Lauren | Policy Review, October-November 2004 | Go to article overview

Islam and Women: Choosing to Veil and Other Paradoxes


Weiner, Lauren, Policy Review


NEAR THE VERY heart of a question Americans have been asking themselves since September 11, 2001--"Why do they hate us?"--lies the question of how different societies treat their women. Americans by now seem bored and faintly embarrassed when feminist stories make the headlines. Who wants to hear about chauvinism at a stodgy American golf course when most of the meaningful barriers to female achievement in the United States have already been scaled? Yet as routine as the self-assertion of women is here, in other parts of the world it may be the most contentious issue of all.

In Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries--where adherents of extreme variants of Islam try to intimidate peaceful Muslim majorities--antipathy toward the West revolves around sex and gender every bit as much as it revolves around "globalization" or the exploitation of poor countries by rich ones or infidel soldiers quartered on sacred lands. The dogma purveyed by the Taliban of Afghanistan, Jemaa Islamiya in Southeast Asia, and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, among others, would encourage polygamy; lower the age of marriage for girls (the mullahs who have ruled Iran since 1979 made girls legally marriageable beginning at age nine); require women to cover themselves in public; deny women marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights equal to those of men; punish females accused of adultery or prostitution with death by stoning; and, most fundamentally, unite church and state (a theocracy being the Islamists' preferred way to impose the aforementioned rules on a society).

We must understand radical Islamism if we are ever to counter its malign force. By the term radical Islamism I mean the varieties of political Islam that take their inspiration from the early writings of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, from Sunni Wahhabism emanating from Saudi Arabia, or from the Shiite theocracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. All three are radical because they define Islam in opposition to all that is non-Islamic. In other words, these violent strains share in being reactionary. And one of the things about our way of life against which they have reacted most strongly, going back to at least the 1920s, is feminism.

This article will examine the radical Islamist reaction to feminism, along with other related matters: the participation of women themselves in radical Islamist thought and political acts; how attempts by governments to secularize their populations actually fed Islamism in the universities; the "Islamic revival" in Egypt; the less than healthy view of sex evinced by Islamists; the treatment of women in Afghanistan and American feminists' role in bringing that treatment to light; and, finally, an emerging "Islamic feminism" (as opposed to Islamist feminism) that I believe deserves support and encouragement.

Coeducation and its discontents

MEDIA COMMENTATORS have explained to Americans over and over again since the attacks on New York and Washington what scholars have been documenting for decades: Radical Islamism is steeped in resentment. Iranian writer Daryush Shayegan tells us the Islamists' "consciousness is wounded" by Western achievements. They use religion as a political weapon, he says, and their program is twofold: to wound the West in return while at the same time coercing mainstream Muslims into practicing a strange, stripped down version of Islam that will bring back the glorious age of the Prophet Muhammad.

Bernard Lewis, the dean of Middle East historians, places this resentment in the widest possible context: Islam's fortunes and misfortunes since its advent in the seventh century. Its unimpeded rise, from the time of the victorious and prosperous Prophet Muhammad, lasted a thousand years. The defeat of the Ottoman Turks outside of Vienna in 1683 began a decline that has been just as steady, lasting to our own day. Lewis contrasts this up-down trajectory with the early struggles and checkered history of the Jews and Christians. …

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