31 January 2013

Religion and Patriarchy (3)

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Students shout slogans during a protest against a leader of the ruling Congress party, who was arrested on accusations he raped a woman in a village in the early hours of the morning, in Gauhati, India, Thursday, Jan. 3. Recent post-rape protests have renewed debate over the rise of a new urban middle-class activism in India. Students shout slogans during a protest against a leader of the ruling Congress party, who was arrested on accusations he raped a woman in a village in the early hours of the morning, in Gauhati, India, Thursday, Jan. 3. Recent post-rape protests have renewed debate over the rise of a new urban middle-class activism in India. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2013/0103/Could-gang-rape-protests-mark-beginning-of-an-age-of-activism-for-India-video?nav=87-frontpage-entryLeadStory

In Iraq and Afghanistan, women in the US military have often been in combat roles, a little-known fact until this past week when gender equality in the line of fire became official Pentagon policy. Staff Sgt. Keesha Dentino, an explosives-dog handler for the famous Old Guard infantry regiment at Fort Myers, in an interview with the Washington Post said she welcomes the new ruling. Doing battle officially “is something that I would enjoy,” she said. It’s about an individual’s ability to deal with stress. “It’s dependent upon the person and not necessarily the gender.”

While on combat patrols in Afghanistan, she noticed that when she had proved to the local women that she too was a woman, many of the usual barriers fell. They were especially curious, she recalled, “to know why it is that I’m able to be around other men,” she said. “They’re restricted in that culture. To see a woman out there kind of being treated equally by men is unheard of to them. So they’re very intrigued by that.”

Notice on the one hand the constant pressure a human rights ideal puts on governments to achieve more equality. Let’s call it here “modern egalitarianism.” Though not all agree, in effect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had little choice in decreeing the right of women to join combat units. For some time – and admittedly aided by the nature of two wars in which any routine patrol might find itself on the front lines – women have been doing combat shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades. Understandably, they were crying out to be recognized and given equal pay and opportunities for advancement.

On the other hand, Afghan women in the countryside were justifiably amazed to see women and men in such close quarters doing a job on an equal footing – a job which in their culture is reserved exclusively for men. That’s the point – “in their culture.” As I see it, religion has little to do with this. But then, how do you draw the line between religion and culture? We’re back to the discussions of the two previous blogs.

This is the third and last installment in this series. Using many current events and debates, I have argued that though there is definite collusion between religion and the unequal treatment of women, neither is it a clear cause and effect relationship, nor is the relationship in every case possible to establish at all. Cultural beliefs and practices (especially the impunity with which men do violence to women), authoritarian regimes and outside pressures (western colonialism was one example), and often the hardships imposed by grinding poverty – all of these and more are factors that increase the suffering of women the world over.


India, the US and everywhere

Since my last blog in this series the world has been riveted by a storm of popular protests in India, and mostly by women. No wonder. It was sparked by the gang-rape of the 23-year old medical student in a New Delhi bus on December 16, 2012. Her boy friend was seriously injured as well and both were dumped into the street naked. For weeks and weeks, crowds poured into the streets of many Indian cities protesting the lack of police protection and the impunity with which men commit crimes against women.

The picture above you shows female students protesting the rape of a village woman by one of the leaders of the ruling Congress Party. News of other rapes and despicable acts of violence against women suddenly began to flow more freely than usual, sending more and more people to vent their anger in the streets.

Not all of the protests are democratic in nature or show an appreciation for the constitution and the rule of law. A lawyer and seasoned women’s rights activist, Flavia Agnes, pointed out that many are calling for sex offenders to be castrated or executed. Their frustration is understandable, however, in a country where “only about 25 percent of rape cases resulted in convictions in 2010, and conviction rates were less than 10 percent in some states last year.”

“What is needed,” said Agnes, “are nonsensational, small measures. Getting women better access to the police station, getting the medical reports done sensitively.” Still, she adds, this groundswell of protest is a boon for women. A senior police officer contacted her to find out more about her organization, Majlis, and how they could partner to get more women to report crimes at their local police station. Also, one party has already vowed not to field candidates charged with rape. Agnes concluded, “For some reason, this rape has caught the national imagination. If that means the government and police cannot ignore this issue anymore, that’s a good thing.”

According to a Gallup poll conducted in the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, women feel less safe in the streets after the “Arab Spring,” and in particularly so in Tunisia and Egypt. Dalia Ziada heads up the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. The revolution, she said, was a call for greater economic and political freedom, but it was not about women’s rights. And with the breakdown of law and order women more than ever before are suffering sexual assaults in the streets. Since the fall of 2011 in several Egyptian cities vigilante groups composed mostly of males have been patrolling the streets to confront men who harass women. They’ve been overwhelmed in the recent explosion of anger across Egypt at the end of January 2013.

Meanwhile, in the United States, legislation to reauthorize the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been stalled. The new bi-partisan bill, co-authored by senators Leahy and Crapo, was passed by the Senate in April 2012, but is still held up in January 2013 in the Republican-led House, mostly because the help to victims of abuse (like shelters or legal help) would be offered regardless of sexual orientation or immigration status.

Republicans reject in particular the issuing of special visas (called U-visas) to undocumented immigrants victims of sexual assaults or domestic violence. The New York Times urges the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, to use all his power to help pass this law, with or without this provision. It will save women’s lives and deliver justice, particularly through its provision to reduce "the inexcusable national backlog of untested rape kits."

Faith-based groups are also getting the word out. The Presbyterian Church USA devoted a website to advocate for this law to be reenacted. This is part of the letter they suggest their member use to urge their members of Congress to take action:


“I believe that God wants health and wholeness for all of us, including a home and world free from violence.

We must ensure that victims of violence have access to the services they need and that perpetrators of violence must be held accountable.

This legislation builds on the past successes of VAWA, increasing effectiveness and reaching more victims and provides law enforcement with more tools for protecting victims from their batterers.”


I mentioned in the last blog protests in Latin America seeking to bolster the protection of women victims of violence. No doubt, human societies across the globe (and likely from time immemorial) struggle to curb the aggressive domination by males of the opposite sex. And like the Presbyterian initiative above, people of faith have joined other activists to make their voices heard.


The issue of Muslim exceptionalism

In this three-part series I’ve emphasized the broad scope of patriarchy, both geographically and across religious boundaries. Still Muslim societies are often singled out as being the worst offenders, whether it was the Taliban fiercely misogynist policies of the 1990s, the news that the Saudi state now sends automatic text messages to inform males that their female dependents have crossed the border, the shooting of the 14-year-old Pakistani advocate for the education of girls in her country, or the recent imposition of extreme forms of Sharia law in northern Mali.

In the first blog we saw how the Muslim Brotherhood actually curried favor with the masses through its patriarchal discourse and programs. Egypt, like other societies in that part of the world remains very traditional in its outlook. So what is dictated by Islamic law (interpreted narrowly) is difficult to disentangle from traditional near eastern culture. Though perhaps in Saudi Arabia, where the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia is enforced by the religious police (the mutawa) and where people today are more openly pushing back against its well-known excesses, religion and culture may be easier to distinguish. The king’s latest promise to deploy women agents of the mutawa, however, seems unlikely to curb the kingdom’s zeal to patrol and control how women dress, who accompanies them in public, and whether they perform their prayers at the set time.

Some new research sheds light on the phenomenon of “Islamic exceptionalism.” A young Professor of Comparative Political Science at the University of California (Berkeley), M. Steven Fish, has done us all an immense favor. Specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe he later branched out and spent a sabbatical year in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. The result was a brashly ambitious work, Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence (Oxford U. Press, 2011). The reviews were glowing. UCLA’s noted scholar of Islamic law, Khaled Abou El Fadl, gushes, “This book is a profound achievement. Reading it has been an eye-opening experience to the point that I feel that I will never be able to approach my own work and scholarship in the same way.” A good review in pdf form by San Diego State political scientist Ahmet T. Kuru is available here.

So how are Muslim-majority countries distinct from other ones? Fish’s data-driven analysis of the issues reveals some surprises. First, Muslims are not more religiously observant than people of other faith. For instance, in France only 10% of Christians and 10% of Muslims attend weekly services. The same parity holds for the USA, though at 40%. In Muslim countries the numbers are higher, but not significantly so.

 Second, the Muslim observance of zakat (the prescribed “poor tax”) seems to make Muslim-majority countries distinctly more egalitarian, with less of a gap between rich and poor. Third, Muslim societies have lower rates of homicide, which, he notes, may correlate to the previous point. Fourth, statistics on terrorism do point to a prevalence of Muslim-initiated attacks on civilians between 1994 and 2008 (74 out of 136). Yet fifth, there seems to be no evidence that Muslims oppose the separation of religion and state more than others.

Finally, on our topic of patriarchy, there does seem to be a Muslim exceptionalism. In a variety of surveys Muslims show much more of an inclination to favor men in relation to employment and educational opportunities. Further, and here I follow Kuru’s assessment of Fish’s book: “It stresses the exceptionally higher gender gaps in income, literacy, and political positions in Muslim societies. Gender inequality is a deep problem that all societies, especially Muslim-majority societies, should take seriously.” Then follows a point which Kuru will dispute:


“Yet, one variable Fish employs—the level of healthy life expectation—makes me extra curious, because providing ‘inferior health care’ for females (p. 203) is much worse than patriarchy. Fish notes that females in Muslim countries have a substantially smaller healthy life expectancy advantage than they do in Christian countries.”


Kuru goes to the World Health Organization (WHO) webpage and combs through the country statistics, arguing that the data turns out to be more significantly related to regions than to religions. Nevertheless, the gender gap still stands out more starkly in Muslim societies than elsewhere, he avers.

Fish recently teamed up with Danielle N. Lussier from Grenell College for an article entitled, “Men, Muslims, and Attitudes towards Sex-Based Inequality.” This is a statistically sophisticated analysis that goes far beyond what I can tackle in this blog. But the following percentages corresponding to these three questions give a good idea of the direction the research is going:


1. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl” (Muslims: 38.4%; non-Muslims: 17.7%).

2. Percentage who “agree” that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to a job than women” (Muslims: 68.2%; non-Muslims: 29.0%).

3. Percentage who “agree strongly” or “agree” that “on the whole, men make better political leaders than women” (Muslims: 70.9%; non-Muslims: 40.3%).


I will have to come back on this article at a later date. Suffice it to say here that Muslim distinctiveness on gender-based inequality seems to be entrenched. Perhaps this is why one finds such a vibrant civil society led mostly by women scholars who devote their lives to reversing these trends.


Muslim initiatives to curb violence and promote gender equality

Many courageous and creative Muslim women could be cited here, but one in particular stands out in my mind because of her global reach. Zainah Anwar was born into the family of a prominent Malay politician (b. 1965) and early on decided she wanted to be a journalist, and a non-conformist one at that. She has never married, preferring to devote herself to her lifetime calling – fighting for justice and human rights, and particularly for women in Muslim contexts.

With a background in journalism, international law and diplomacy (Boston University and Tufts University) Anwar worked seven years for the Institute of Strategic and International Studies and then a couple of years at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. But then in 1987 back in Malaysia with a group of like-minded lawyers, scholars and activists, she began to turn her attention to the plight of women both in the state-run courts and the Shari’a courts. One of those scholars, an African-American Muslim from Philadelphia, Amina Wadud, teaching in Kuala Lumpur at the time, was one of those who challenged Anwar to study the Qur’an with fresh eyes. That process led this group to found an NGO Anwar would lead for two decades, Sisters in Islam (SIS).

In an interview with the Malaysian Star newspaper as she was leaving her SIS executive director post in 2008, Anwar mused about her discovery of the Qur’an’s egalitarian message. It began as she discovered that the same Qur’anic verse that gives permission for men to marry up to four wives (Q. 4:3) then adds, “If you fear you cannot be equitable [to them], then marry only one.” Then further on in the same sura (Women), we read, “You will never be able to treat your wives with equal fairness, however you may desire to do so.” Muhammad Abduh, the great Egyptian reformer (d. 1905), was perhaps the first to write that God’s intention was monogamy, whereas he would only tolerate polygamy in times when many men had been slain in battle, as was the case when these verses were revealed.

Anwar called this moment “an epiphany”: “It was that kind of questioning that made us want to read the Quran with a new lens. It was a liberating process understanding that the Quran speaks to women and is lifting and empowering.”

I encourage you to go to the SIS website and click on “Knowledge Resources.” Then click on “Muslim Family Law.” Toward the bottom of the page you will find an item, “Best Practices on Muslim family law issues.” There you will discover an illuminating comparison between current Malaysian practices and what SIS considers “the best” practices elsewhere. Every comparative rubric starts with Morocco, where in 2004 the king was able to get through parliament one of the most progressive family law rulings anywhere in the Muslim world. Tunisia, Indonesia and other countries are also represented.

I have no doubt but that Zainah Anwar was one of the movers and shakers behind the historic 2006 WISE Conference in New York.WISE is a global forum for Muslim feminist scholars and activists and this conference provided the launching pad for the movement. According to their website,


“The inaugural WISE conference convened 150 of the most accomplished Muslim women scholars, activists, artists, and religious and civil society leaders from 25 countries – spanning Afghanistan, Jordan, Senegal and Morocco to Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and the US. The gathering facilitated seminal discussions on the unique challenges facing Muslim women globally and developing concrete tools for realizing the vision of an Islamic expression of gender equality and justice. Collectively, these leaders assessed the needs of their specific constituencies, identified ways to expand their own work and developed recommendations for creating an effective global change movement.”


Their first publication is endorsed by a wide spectrum of female Muslim scholars, “Jihad against Violence: Women’s Struggle for Peace” and is well worth studying in detail. It can be downloaded here.

In the United States one of WISE’s prime movers is the illustrious imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who developed the 13-story “Park 51 Islamic Center” that opened in November 2011. It is open to people of all faiths, and like the other activities Abdul Rauf promotes through his Cordoba Initiative, it is meant to serve the cause of interfaith dialog. Unsurprisingly, the Cordoba Initiative’s motto is “Amplifying Voices of Moderation,” and Park51 includes a 9/11 memorial. Rauf’s new book is entitled Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America.

Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, an immigrant from the Kashmir area of India, has been very active with WISE even before its inception. With her husband she co-founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) which includes “youth and women’s empowerment” as one of its core values. A spin-off of the Cordoba Initiative, it seeks inspiration from the apex of Spain’s Islamic civilization to foster “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration.” ASMA also functions as an American chapter of WISE.

These activists are not preaching in the desert, however. Women in the Arab world in particular have been emboldened by the popular stirrings of 2011. One of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 2012, Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, thanked all Arab women for their fight for equal rights. Then she added, “The solution to women's issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. . . . Our civilization is called human civilization, and is not attributed only to men or women.”


Closing words

This concludes our three-part exploration of religion and patriarchy, probably leaving you with more questions than answers. In a way, I’m glad for that. Nothing is more destructive to the fabric of a more peaceful global society than the strident voices of those who take their own opinions as the TRUTH. People of faith should indeed be convinced of the veracity of their own tradition’s creeds, but this leaves a whole lot more truth about the world God created to discover, and in particular the world of human beings He empowered, so that they would manage this good earth with justice and compassion.

So we need one another as fellow trustees of the earth. Gender inequality and the resulting violence perpetrated against women is a planetary problem we can only tackle together. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s celebrate initiatives like SIS, WISE, ASMA, and the work of many other religious and secular groups of all kinds. Only then will be able to make headway.