November 4, 2006
The Canberra Times

Feminist silence on Islam’s oppression of women is deafening

To see Muslim women stand in silent vigil outside Sydney’s Lakemba mosque yesterday was heartbreaking. Heavily robed, veiled and silenced, these passive creatures stand like mute foot-soldiers for Allah.

But surely a loving Allah wouldn’t ask this of them. Surely the wisdom of Allah is insulted by the subjugation of women.

Why does the interpretation of sacred Muslim texts continue to benefit and empower men – at the expense of women?

The world outside that mosque – the one in which the women-as-meat doctrine was preached – is a modern world.

The Mufti of Australia may well have intended his sermon on the culpability of unveiled rape victims to be heard by Muslim ears only, but the whisper became a roar, and we’ve all heard it now.

Sheik Taj Al-Din Hilali’s sermon has stirred some furious anger; some of which is sadly xenophobic and cheap racism. But some of the anger resides in a deep fear about the powerful force of Muslim misogyny. Why do these modern Muslim women; educated, intelligent, travelled, sensible women continue to buy into it? Why do they stand there looking deaf, dumb and mute?

When I was very little, I was taught to pray for non-Catholic’s because ”they weren’t going to heaven”. When former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali was little, she was taught that non-Muslims were immoral and obscene, ”their girls and women whores”.

A refugee from Somalia, Hirsi Ali hailed from a devout Muslim family. At a young age she refused to participate in an arranged marriage in Canada and fled to Holland instead.

Now a high-profile activist in the US, Hirsi Ali is a fierce critic of Islam’s attitude to women. As such, she has a price on her head. Soon after collaborating on a film about the oppression of Muslim women, the film’s director, Theo Van Gogh, was slain by an Islamic terrorist, and Hirsi Ali was forced into hiding. Fortunately, the death threats haven’t silenced her.

This week she wrote about the outrage surrounding Hilali’s ”uncovered meat” statement, but suggested that ”he will have many faithful followers who agree with him”.

Hirsi Ali went on to express her increasing ”alarm” at the number of young Muslim women now living in the West who are choosing to wear the niqab (a full veil) as a statement; ”They enjoy all the Western freedoms but choose to flaunt the veil. They are the female equivalent of the radical young men who travel to Pakistan and come back wanting to blow up trains.” Let’s hope she is wrong.

At 17, Derya, a young Muslim woman living in Turkey, wore the veil to placate her family. But when she fell for a boy at school and giddily flaunted her new teenage love, her family took action. In an interview with The New York Times, in July this year, Derya explained how the first text message she received from her uncle stopped her cold. It read, ”You have blackened our name. Kill yourself and clean our shame or we will kill you first.” Derya said she was in no doubt about the serious intent behind the message.

So-called ”honour killings” were something she had grown up with. Her aunt had been killed by her grandfather for the similar offence of choosing her own lover. Derya managed to escape to a women’s shelter and has ditched her veil and her religion.

Hatin Surucu, a Turkish Muslim living in Germany, wasn’t quite so lucky. After leaving the man she was forced to marry at 16, she was gunned down in a Berlin street last year. Three of Surucu’s brothers were charged with her murder. Another seven Turkish Muslim women were killed in ”honour killings” in Germany last year. When this fact came to public attention, teachers reported to the media their outrage at the response from some young Turkish Muslim school boys. ”She deserved what she got. The whore lived like a German,” one 14-year-old said. Hatin Surucu had apparently not only embraced a Western lifestyle, she’d also stopped covering herself with a veil. ”She only has herself to blame,” another young student said.

Does that sound familiar? In coming to the defence of Hilali this week, the most senior Muslim cleric in Western Australia, Imam Abdul Jalil Ahmad, was at pains to emphasise the need for women to remain fearful and dependent: ”Especially when they are alone, there’s a problem.” He told ABC News on Wednesday that he supported the Mufti’s call for women to dress modestly. ”It’s a good idea,” he said, ”you know, for preventative measure, you know, that is the only way to, say, protect themselves from the possibility of being assaulted, or being raped and so on.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right. Hilali certainly has many ”faithful followers”. Some probably think he didn’t go far enough.

More than a decade ago, I travelled to Malaysia to report on the practice of female genital cutting – an abhorrent and despicable circumcision practice carried out in the name of family honour and Muslim tradition. On my return to Australia, with the help of refugee advocates, I managed to make contact with some women now living here who had undergone an extreme form of this horrible ordeal in Somalia. To my utter surprise, despite the pain, the infection, the complications with childbirth that they had endured, they nevertheless planned to have their own daughters similarly circumcised. Why? The power of fear. Defying Islamic tradition, no matter how inappropriate, outmoded, even abhorrent, is too much to ask of some women.

The struggle for all women to assert themselves in a world dominated by male authority is hard enough; the struggle for Muslim women must be exasperating.

It was disheartening to read the editorial of this newspaper on Monday liken Hilali’s comments to the sort of ”commonplace”, ”fuddy-duddy” things lots of people used to say ”about 30 years ago”. This is sadly missing the point. No, Hilali didn’t condone rape, by using the sort of English words that would convict him. Rather, he condoned a Muslim world view where all women are potential instruments of evil: ”Satan sees women as half his soldiers.”

In this warped and dangerous world, the Mufti is teaching his devotees that the inferiority of women makes them targets, trouble and temptresses. In such a world, women cannot walk alone. Indeed women must not walk alone.

There is nothing ”fuddy-duddy” about how backward and potentially divisive this kind of world view is.

Muslim women should not be standing silent and mute in the face of this damning appraisal and gender apartheid. And non-Muslim women ought to find their voice and speak up. Feminist silence on Islam’s oppression of women is deafening.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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