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Arab Feminists Speak Out on Women's Rights

Any misogynist can find what he seeks in a partial reading of Islam's teachings.

Wajiha Al-Huweidar: "Covert Animosity and Open Discrimination Against Women Prevail in Arab Countries"

Writing in Elaph.com on March 7, 2005 Saudi author Wajiha Al-Huweidar explained: "All of the Arab regimes are U.N. members and have ratified the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly establishes justice and equality in the rights and obligations of all citizens. Despite this, women in our chauvinist countries are still considered the property of their relatives. All Arab countries, without exception, harbor covert animosity and open discrimination against women. To this day, all official bodies reject any scientific discussion of a solution to women's problems – while on the other hand the men, who benefit from women's oppression, continue to regurgitate [the mantra] that 'women are respected' [in Arab and Muslim societies]…

"Arab countries' legislation patently discriminates against women and clearly denies their rights, which affronts them as human beings. They are still treated as though they contaminate purity, and arouse temptation and immorality. What is astounding is that most Arabs, at all levels and in every area – whether governments, institutions, or individuals – still consider women's issues a religious issue, and thus believe that her concerns should be dealt with through outdated chauvinist [religious] interpretations…

"An improvement in women's status will not come through invalid solutions which have been proven ineffectual. The laws grant female citizens only half a voice, diminish women's rights, classify them as having only partial sense, denigrate their importance, doubt their capabilities, permit beating and banishing them, permit their caging within four walls, allow their husbands to treat them as they see fit, and allow them to be bought and sold according to legal agreements. When women fail [in matters forbidden by religious law], the laws welcome their barbarous execution.

"These laws are clearly no longer suited to an era in which cats and dogs in the developed world have more rights than Arab women, and more even than those of Arab men…

"Women's problems, which await a solution, are not religious problems, but are purely legal. They should be addressed in accordance with the international declarations that guarantee human liberty and honor ratified by all the countries of the world, in the East and West, including the confused Arab countries…

"The legislation which curtails women's rights as citizens must be replaced by legislation guaranteeing their full rights. This does not require wasting time on discussions, consultations, interpretations and counter-interpretations, debates and conferences … because it is nothing new for Islamic countries to change their form of government or to repeal their religious legislation so as to adapt these to their international interests and to the requirements of the era in which they live.

"It is known that in the Muslim countries the system permitting buying and selling slaves was abolished, as was the jizya [poll tax] system imposed on the dhimmi s – the Jews and the Christians – from the Islamic conquests until the last century. This is despite the fact that there are still religious texts that permit slave trading and thepoll tax – but both of these were suppressed so that [Muslims] could act according to [modern values]…

"These practices were abolished years ago, and people have forgotten them... because they violated civil and human rights… It is also time to abolish all chauvinistic interpretations that incite to violence, discriminate, and persecute women, and deprive them of their rights..."

Wajiha Al-Huweidar: "Discrimination Against Arab Women Begins in Utero"

Al-Huweidar discussed the never-ending cycle of discrimination against Arab women in a pervious article in Elaph.com on Feb. 5, 2005: "The cycle of discrimination against women generally starts at home. From an early age, sons receive the lion's share (double that of the daughter) of love, money spent on them, status, and even education. Many families send their sons to private schools but their daughters to public schools, so the sons receive a better education. The son grows up to be an engineer, a doctor, an officer, or whatever he wants; the daughter grows up to be a wife, a mother, and later a grandmother. Boys have opportunities, whereas girls have duties…

"The second phase of the cycle of discrimination against women is in the schools. In most Arab schools, boys and girls are separated. The overall goal of Arab schools, especially the state schools, is to reshape the pupil, and to work towards distorting [the personality] so as to make him a submissive citizen. Girls, however, receive much larger doses of submissiveness and prevention of thinking…

"The last phase of the cycle of discrimination is the workplace. The working woman in the Arab world is of course no more than a servant, slaving away outside her own home while raising her children within it – except for women from the Gulf, who have housekeepers to assist them. Yet the discrimination prevalent among Gulf women, especially Saudis, is even harsher and crueler in every aspect. Most labor laws do not treat the Arab woman equitably, and she also suffers from [harassment] and racism…

"In the Arab countries, and especially the Gulf countries, the cycle of discrimination against women begins when they are still in utero. It continues when they emerge into the world, and goes on until death. According to the male interpretation, women are always 'lewdness and pudenda' and part of the time 'impure'…

"Women are considered 'mentally and religiously deficient' – yet it was the mothers of the Muslims [i.e. the Prophet's wives] who taught many of the religion's precepts and principles. Women are 'weak and controlled by their emotions' – yet they are charged with educating the young generation, the country's source of pride... Women are 'temptation' – yet they were created for men to trust, and to give [men] a sense of tranquility. Women 'have more tricks than Satan' – yet men take two, three, or four wives. Women are 'vases' which must be handled gently to avoid scratching them – yet they are banished from the conjugal bed and beaten harshly.

"From cradle to grave, women are prohibited from being their own masters because they are 'incompetent and incapable of responsibility for their own affairs' – yet the Prophet's dearest and most beloved wife ['Aisha] headed the first opposition in Islam, led an entire army, and conducted a crucial historic battle [i.e. the Battle of the Camel in 656]...

"This abhorrent cycle of discrimination in which the Arab woman lives began centuries ago, yet still exists today – fastened around her neck and restricting her movements, as if she were born [only] yesterday. This suffocating cycle wastes the talents of half of society – the more human and more giving half... The most important question today is: What is the best way to break out of the cycle of discrimination against Arab women?…"

Dr. Iqbal Al-Gharbi: "Any Misogynist Can Find What He Seeks in a Partial Reading of Islam's Teachings"

Asking whether Islam really honored women, Dr. Iqbal Al-Gharbi, a Tunisian lecturer in psychology at Al-Zaytouna University in Tunis, wrote an article on Metransparent.com on March 13, 2005: "All the international reports highlight the Muslim world's many failings in gender equality. Moreover, the 2003 U.N. [Arab] Human Development Report attributed the failure of development in our region to three main shortcomings: lack of knowledge, lack of freedoms, and lack of gender equality. These reports are based on numerous important indicators, such as the 60 percent illiteracy among women, and women's [low] representation in decision-making positions – women's representation in Arab parliaments does not exceed 6 percent.

"The contemptible circumstances of Muslim women takes on nightmarish proportions when we hear of crimes of honor not only in Bedouin areas, but also across continents and oceans, and haunting women in Islamic communities in Britain and Scandinavia – or when we read a UNICEF report indicating demographic catastrophe in India because of families who, in their desire for sons, have done away with 40 million female fetuses through voluntary abortion.

"Further, the way of life in the Islamic world underscores the primitive nature of social relations between man and woman. The woman's role is to concede to and appease the man on a daily basis, in all possible ways, out of fear of divorce. This occurs in societies that to this day have been unable to give women the right to live alone, independent of the protection of patriarchal authority... The inability of Muslim society to accept women as mature beings is what causes our failure at modernity, since modernity is first and foremost the right of the individual – man or woman – to own his or her own body and mind...

"The religious discourse that discriminates against women occurs on three levels: establishment, imagery, and justification.

"In terms of the establishment, it is crystal clear that official religious activity makes man an intermediary between heaven and earth, and puts him in charge of sacred matters... According to religious law, Allah reserved certain roles for men: prophecy, divine mission, the caliphate, jihad, the sounding of the call to prayer, and the delivering of sermons. Women's participation in these sacred roles alongside men is, of course, a forbidden innovation. These acts of distancing women [from these roles] is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the fundamental discrepancy between the [good] intentions [favoring equality for women] that appear in the Koran and the historical reality, in which chauvinistic custom, habit, and tradition prevail...

"In terms of imagery, there is a salient contrast between [Islam's] innovations [regarding women] and the burden of cultural heritage [which weighs upon] religious discourse and further degrades the woman in the popular imagination... Religious discourse contains dual imagery of women that on the one hand sanctifies and glorifies her, yet on the other hand disparages her…

"Women occupy a place of honor in every literary or artistic piece, and in every work of art or epic. Moreover, some fanatical clerics write splendid love poetry about the woman, praising her and honoring her loyalty, motherhood, and devotion. However, this ideal and abstract image of the woman contradicts the reality of women's lives.

"Consequently... there are also images that condemn women, and there are religious traditions that blame all the [Muslim] nation's difficulties and disasters on women. The woman is Eve, created as a companion for Adam in his loneliness in the Garden of Eden. Her evil nature led her to tempt him, bringing about his banishment from the garden, where he was supposed to live forever. The woman is Zalikha, the wife of Al-'Aziz [Potiphar's wife in the Koran], who represents unbridled libido and who wanted to seduce the prophet Joseph. One of the effects of this story on the collective unconscious is to render 'artifice' and 'treachery' synonymous with 'woman'...

"…Any misogynist can find what he seeks in a partial reading of Islam's teachings – since [it is written in the Koran that] men are the custodians of women, the husband is entitled to banish his wife and to discipline her with beatings. He is permitted to rape her... [and] the testimony of two women is considered equivalent to that of one man.

"This misogynistic Islam is based on an ideology focused on the natural differences between the sexes... in order to justify discrimination against women. This is based on theories found in ancient Greek thought. For example, the woman represents nature while the man represents culture; the man excels in vitality and warmth while the woman is characterized by frigidity and negativity; the man is rational while the woman is emotional; the man is strong while the woman is fragile and weak, etc... Natural evidence plays a fundamental role in justifying religious discourse, since it is presented as incontrovertible and incontestable. This is despite the fact that the natural order, on which the fanatics rely, does not hold up [in light of] modern biology, history, and anthropology…"

Dr. Munjiyah Al-Sawaihi: "I Look Beyond the Horizon and See Nothing but the Tightening of the Noose Around the (Arab) Woman"

Presenting Tunisia's family law as an example of progressive legislature on the status of women, Dr. Munjiyah Al-Sawaihi, a Tunisian lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Higher Institution of Religion at Al-Zaytouna University in Tunis, wrote in an article on metransparent.com on March 19, 2005: "Thank God we live in Tunisia. Women [here] live in the light of laws that keep misogynistic ideas limited to words alone, spoken among narrow circles only.

"However, elsewhere in the world, these misogynistic ideas are put into practice, and women are marginalized … under the illusion that the man is protecting them – although he is not in fact able to even protect himself…

"In addition, ignorant clerics are to this day controlling and dominating [public] thought in order to sanctify women's inferiority through their chauvinistic interpretations of religious texts. These interpretations support discrimination against women, like the story about Eve being created from Adam's rib and [thus] being subject to him, and being bent since her very creation – and if you attempt to straighten it, the rib breaks. These interpretations still exist in 2005.

"On one of the Islamic satellite TV channels, the Koranic verse about wife-beating was interpreted to mean beating with a toothpick – blows that do not wound or break [bones], avoiding the face. Bravo! What genius in innovative interpretation and reading of a religious text!…

"Is it logical that on a religious program marking the celebration of [Women's Day] 2005, we hear discourse allowing legal wife-beating? Aren't those using this discourse, and the people around them, familiar with the prophetic traditions [ Hadith ] forbidding wife-beating?… Aren't they familiar with the human rights laws and the international conventions forbidding discrimination against women?

"The question that must be asked is what the Arab and Islamic countries have given women on their world day of celebration. I look beyond the horizon and see nothing. I see nothing but the tightening of the noose around the woman, to the point where she is prevented from owning her own face. [Her face] is the property of the man, and she must not uncover it. Of what modernization in women's issues can these countries speak, when the men of this world pass a law permitting the stoning of the woman [for violating religious convention], because she [harmed] man's honor? Has he any honor in the world of today?"

Dr. Al-Sawaihi spoke of Tunisian family law as a light "in the darkness enveloping women's rights in the Arab and Islamic world." According to this law, the woman has the right to choose her own husband, and to marry at age 17 without a guardian's permission. The wedding will take place only if both parties desire it, and polygamy is forbidden. The couple's relationship is based on cooperation, not on the wife's obedience to the husband. The husband is head of the family, and responsible for making a living. If the wife has means of her own, she helps him support the family, but he has no control over her funds. Parents are responsible for supporting daughters until they marry or until they find work with which they can support themselves.

According to Dr. Al-Sawaihi, the most important innovation in Tunisian family law concerns divorce. In Tunisia, divorce can be decreed only by a court of law; the husband cannot divorce his wife arbitrarily. The child of divorced parents lives with his or her mother. The father must pay alimony and child support, and if he does not, the mother is paid from a special fund for divorcees. The father may not take the child abroad without the mother's permission, and the mother has the authority to decide on child-rearing matters. Moreover, the child of a Tunisian mother is a Tunisian citizen even if his father is not. Tunisia's law also deals with eliminating gender discrimination in employment, and punishes all forms of violence against women.

After presenting examples of Tunisia's progressive family law, Dr. Al-Sawaihi concludes her article with a call to Arab intellectuals "to address the problem of the woman courageously and with strong resolve – and not to settle for sidestepping it out of fear of reactionary forces."

Dr. Raja bin Salama: "If You Look at a Woman Enveloped in the Hijab, You Will Read on it: No Courting. No Loving. No Looking. No Touching"

To mark Valentine's Day, Tunisian author and researcher Dr. Raja bin Salama wrote on metransparent.com on Feb. 2, 2005 of the Arabs' hatred of love: "For a long time, Arab men have boasted of powerful love in song and story, but have not actually lost their wits or their bearings and have never boasted of powerful love for their wives – because the wife must remain subject to the laws of marriage as set out by Shari'a, not to the laws of love…

"The Islamic Shari'a, like most ancient laws, did not respect women. The songs and poems 'honor the woman'… But love runs counter to the manly ideology based on control… [So] began the denigration of passion, after centuries filled with songs of love and passion, and tales of lovers.

"In the 10th century, [the poet Abu Al-Tayyib] Al-Mutanabi mocked the poetry of love and preferred a riding animal to a woman, and a desert voyage to love. In the 12th century, the [cleric close to Muslim mystic circles Muhammad] Al-Ghazali referred … to passion as a deviation from the path of righteousness, as decline, and also as 'the disease of an empty heart…' In the 13th century, the [preacher and cleric] Ibn Al-Jawzy wrote the book In Condemnation of Passion…

"And so we come to our time, to black woolen robes that turn women into faceless creatures, lumps of flesh sold at tribal auctions, and to scarves that cover the head and face and arouse morbid yearnings for white shrouds and wrapped-up corpses… If you look at the body of a woman enveloped in the hijab, you will read on it the following signs: No courting. No loving. No looking. No touching. And if one of these is permitted, it is behind the hijab, beneath the slogan, 'If you rebel, conceal yourself,' or 'If you rebel, let none rebel after you.'

"Today, despite all the programs and conferences on the struggle against terror, the clerics of terror – who go wild regarding anything connected to women, men, love, hate, and sex – continue … to forbid celebrating Valentine's Day so that man remains the guardian and woman remains a creature practically unfit to live and practically unworthy of being seen, from whose body the aura of Hell arises…

"The tragedy of sex and passion among the Muslim Arabs has today reached the point where the intellectuals and enlightened amongst them seek to enshrine in law that type of prostitution that Islam recognizes as mut'a marriage [temporary pleasure marriage] – and those amongst them who express solidarity with the problem of women … keep silent regarding basic issues such as the adult's freedom to maintain any relationship with anyone he wishes, and to be master of his own body, heart, face, hands, and tongue.

"You can barely find amongst them anyone who will move past the preoccupation with the veil and scarf, and with the prohibited and the permitted, to the simplest thing of all: To praise the beauty of the bare face and unbound hair, and the virtue of short handsome garments that do not distort the shape of the body nor restrict its movement…"

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