International: Islamic Fundamentalism's War Against Women, 1993

Vanity Fair

 As the influence of Islamic fundamentalism spreads, more and more women are fleeing its repressive laws - compelling Western nations to deal with such cruel traditions as forced marriages, honor killings, and female circumcision.In April 1991, a 22-year-old Saudi student arrived at Montreal's Mirabel Airport and requested asylum on the unprecedented grounds of gender persecution. The woman, who has asked that she be identified only as Nada, told authorities that if Canada forced her to return to Saudi Arabia her life would be in danger. Her crime, she said, was walking outside her home without being fully veiled - that is, enveloped from head to toe in a black chador.

 Initially, Nada's request for asylum was rejected, Canadian officials being reluctant to believe that women in Saudi Arabia today live at best as second or third-class citizens. They are not allowed to drive, to marry whom hey want, or to travel without written permission from a male guardian, and they are the target of frequent and random searches by the mutawah, the dreaded religious police.

In January of this year [1993], following an international outcry, Canadian immigration finally granted Nada's petition. However, it was made thunderously clear that this was an "exception." One Western official, who requested anonymity, put it this way: "Consider that there are one billion Muslims in the world, so we're talking hypothetically about 500 million women who might want out."

Though this is an absurd exaggeration of the problem, his meaning is unambiguous. As Islamic fundamentalists seize the power or the social agenda of one country after another, there has been a steady flight of the affluent and the educated as well as the poor. Although there are fundamentalists operating within virtually every religion, no others have achieved the stunning political successes of their Islamic counterparts.

Even such countries as Egypt and Algeria, which have-ferociously resisted the fundamentalists, have tightened the screws considerably in an attempt to mollify the religious right. While fundamentalist regimes restrict the rights of all, the greatest sufferers have indisputably been women.

By selectively interpreting the Koran, the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), and Sharia (a code of religious law), most Muslim countries have legalized polygamy and repudiation whereby a man divorces his wife simply by announcing, "I divorce you" - while denying women the right to divorce, child custody, and any community property. The issue, of course, is not Islam - the world's fastest-growing religion - but fundamentalism, which uses Islam as a billy club. The mock slogan of fundamentalists, "One Vote, One Man, Once!" is no longer a joke; for many it's the grim reality.

In the heart of Provence in France is an ancient Callic village known for its maze of ribbonlike cobblestone streets. No doubt many of its inhabitants would be surprised lo learn that their sleepy town is also the international headquarters of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, u powerful advocacy group. Such is the sensitivity of its work that I have been asked not to disclose its exact locution.

Much of the strength of W.L.U.M.L, flows from its formidable 54- year-old founder, an Algerian named Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas. Dressed indifferently in baggy green sweat clothes, Helie-Lucas meets me for coffee at a local outdoor cafe. With her rosy complexion, pale blue eyes, and blunt mop of white hair, she looks more like a farmer's wife than a revolutionary. In sharp contrast to her friendly mien are her opinions - vehement, lucid, and uncompromising.

First off, she is eager to make known her concern over the ever increasing fundamentalist activity in all religions. However, she likens the last decade for Muslim women to "the Dark Ages. " Though she skillfully dodges personal questions, it is no coincidence that she arrived in France soon after Algeria's imposition of the Family Code. "In May 1984, we lost the right to marry whom we want, to divorce, and the custody of our children," she says, "while polygamy and repudiation for men were legalized. The Family Code is pure apartheid. It discriminates against half the population."

Helie-Lucas attributes much of the success of Islamic fundamentalism to a kneejerk rejection of nearly a century of colonialism. The death of the U.S.S.R. and the systematic attacks on leftist parties in general eliminated the only significant political opposition. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Africa, she says, "where the spread of Islam has been recent and rapid." The adoption of Islam as a religion is to some extent a rejection of the colonists and their Christianity, she says, "and is quite a shocker considering the dominant role of Arabs in the slave trade.

"Islamic fundamentalism is not a religious movement," Helie-Lucas says wearily, and I sense that she has made this argument hundreds of times, "it is a political movement. It is the extreme right wing using religion as a cover. Yes, it is a populist movement, which therefore gives it legitimacy. But we should never forget that Hitler was a populist. Hitler was elected. It is the Fascism of today." She points out the ongoing persecution, even murder, of Islamic scholars who dare to refute the party line. "Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was executed in the Sudan in 1985, and having one of his books in your house today will take you to your death," she says. (There have also been repeated attacks on secular writers critical of fundamentalism such as the Egyptian novelist Farag Fouda, who was gunned down while leaving his office in Cairo in 1992. This past May [1993], the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout was murdered by "Muslim terrorists," according to the Algerian police.)

In fluent English, she rattles off some of the most heinous developments regarding women in the Muslim world: In 1990, Iraq issued a decree allowing men to kill their wives, daughters, or sisters for adultery. In Pakistan, the current penal laws stipulate stoning to death for adulteresses. Women who claim to be raped are often imprisoned for having committed zina, sex outside of marriage. To prove that a rape occurred, women must produce four male witnesses. Under the law, the testimony of a woman carries only half the weight of a man's. In rape cases, women's testimony carries no weight.

Prior to these laws, an estimated 70 women were imprisoned in Pakistan. Now [1993] at least 6,000 women languish in jail. In India in 1986, Muslim women who had been divorced lost the right to receive alimony. Honor killings are not uncommon in parts of the Muslim world, and are rareIy prosecuted. Should a father believe that his wife or daughter has dishonored the family, it is his prerogative to punish - even kill her.

Helie-Lucas relishes demonstrating the arbitrariness of the so-called Islamic laws. "In Algeria, contraception and abortion were banned because 'Islam forbids it' until the government realized that the population was exploding at more than 3.5 percent a year. Then they suddenly discovered a passage in the Koran," she says mockingly, "and legalized both. And in Africa the local mullahs make people believe that female circumcision is part and parcel of being a Muslim."

While others may view the disenfranchised women of Muslim countries as a pathetic adversary for the fundamentalists, Helie-Lucas cites a string of small but significant successes, considering the David-and-Goliath playing field. The first major victory for Women Living Under Muslim Laws came soon after Algeria instituted the Family Code, in 1984. "Three Algerian women were arrested for simply explaining to a group of illiterate women how the new laws affected them," says Helie-Lucas.

For seven months the women were kept in jail, without any legal counsel. Through ferocious networking within the Islamic world, W.L.U.M.L. created a sufficiently embarrassing amount of pressure upon the Algerian government to prompt the release of the women. In the West, the group's most notable success was the case of a 20-year-old student named Mansouria at the University of Toulouse, in France. In 1988, according to W.L.U.M.L., Mansouria fled from her family to a women's shelter to escape being sent back to Algeria for an arranged marriage. Her father and brothers visited her and persuaded her to step outside. Then they dragged her back to Algeria.

When W.L.U.M.L. first notified French authorities of the kidnapping, they were met with total indifference. "I have it in writing from a minister that the government cannot interfere with Algerian internal affairs - as if the kidnapping did not take place in France!" fumes Helie-Lucas. In the meantime, Mansouria was kept prisoner in her family's home, according to W.L.U.M.L., drugged and beaten, and forced to marry a stranger.

"The case was resolved by women, who located her in a city near Oran. It was like looking for a straw in a field," says Helie-Lucas. "They found a feminist lawyer and got a judge who pronounced an annulment of the marriage." She continues angrily: "When there is any crime involving Algerians in France, they are prosecuted - except when the victim is a woman."

Helie-Lucas asks me if I have ever wondered about the lack of interest shown by the international community over the circumcision of some 90 million women. Did I hear about the Pakistani doctors who locked horns with the late general Mohammad Zia ulHaq when he instituted a Sharia code that mandated the amputation of the hands of thieves? The doctors, says Helie-Lucas, "simply announced that they would refuse to perform the procedure.

However, doctors in the Middle East, Africa, Italy, and even England have been known to perform female circumcisions, she says, on the grounds that it will be done properly. "When it comes to the sex of a woman, nobody says a word. It's an interesting question," she muses. "Is the hand of a thief so much more valuable than the sex of a woman?"

A chilling development, according to Helie-Lucas, has been the spread of circumcision into countries and regions which previously never practiced it. "In Sri Lanka, for instance, where they had a symbolic ceremony in which the knife was touching the sex of the girl, but not a drop of blood, women from Muslim fundamentalist groups are now asking for actual circumcision. Similarly in Malaysia, Indonesia. So under the banner of Islam, something which was local... ancient Egyptian, is now being spread as Islamic."

 The Growth of Fundamentalism

The success of fundamentalism, [according to Pakistan's Prime Minister] Bhutto [interviewed before she was reelected], has two causes. First, it springs from an authentic "search for identity in an increasingly global village where all the messages come from the West... In the absence of the Cold War, when Muslims look out they see the Christian West. It is a reaction to preserve one's-culture when other cultures have dominance."

Second, she says, it is the monster child jointly created and funded by the West and the totalitarian regimes of the region to keep the Communists at bay. "Political parties were largely banned," she says. "To keep the clerics happy, the mosques were well funded. The mosque was allowed to become a place where people could gather. The clerics became very powerful, and they started a new doctrine, where the clerics knew what was best for everybody else. "Virtually every regime in the region which has played the religious card, she says, from Iran to Saudi Arabia, has seen it backfire, leaving the regime hostage to the religious right.

In 1977, when Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, needed to appease the religious right, he outlawed gambling and alcohol. "Some people say that it opened the door at that time," she admits, "because, after that, General Zia came in and started Sharia [in alliance with] the Muslim Brotherhood. "The biggest catastrophe for the region, and perhaps the world, began, she says, when the C.l.A. decided to fund - to the tune of $3 billion - the most extreme right-wing Islamic groups in Afghanistan (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Party of God) to fight the Russians.

"The Muslim Brotherhood ran the training camps," she says, which were headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan, and which soon became the stomping grounds for the international Fundamentalist set, including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Hezbollah, the Sudanese strongman Hassan al-Turabi, the outlawed Egyptian party Gamaa al-lslamiyya, and "the usual suspects" from Iran. "A lot of money was funneled through the Brotherhood and they siphoned off a lot of money. Now we have all these revolutionaries - bought and trained - and nowhere to go. Where could they go after Afghanistan?"

One place they went was the United States. Several of the suspects in the World Trade Center bombing in April are reportedly Afghan veterans trained in these camps, and their mentor, Sheikh Abdel Rahman, frequently held court in Peshawar.

Still, Bhutto is hardly a radical - never mind a feminist. As prime minister, she was criticized for instituting only the barest of reforms for women. "I had a limited mandate," she says quickly, defensively. Even if she wins power again this year, she makes no promises for radical change. "One can only be as effective as one's majority.' Nor does she have a problem about living in an Islamic state under a form of Sharia law. Her own arranged marriage, she says, is a happy one, despite rumors to the contrary." I have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood - not with being Muslim, not with Sharia,'' she says. "Because it is making a political bid for power that will lead to the destruction of our society. Because it is based on apartheid." Demonizing the Muslim world and invoking the Green Peril (green being the color of Islam) as the successor to the Red Menace, says Bhutto, is not helpful. "Being frightened of fundamentalism is not going to get anywhere," she says, warning that it is ill-advised for the West to support the repression of democratic elections for whatever reasons. "Eventually, the fundamentalists will spend their force, because they have no social or economic programs. Eventually, people will be fed up and throw them off like they have colonialism.... That's why Iran is now trying to come back into the mainstream.

"In Islam, the communion is direct between God and the individual. Any Muslim can lead the prayer. But throughout the Muslim world, you have clerics saying that Muslims don't know what's good for them. We have to tell Muslims which side of the bed to wake up on, how to brush their teeth, how to wear their clothes, how to look. They say a woman has to look down at the floor. But the Prophet said the best veil is the veil in the eyes. You don't have to look down. You have to look with good eyes. The Prophet himself married a working woman. She was 15 years older than him. She was a businesswoman. I mean, she was the first convert to Islam. He didn't want her to be in the kitchen. So why don't we learn from their examples?"

"I am not a woman of ideas. I'm a storyteller," protests the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, whose claim to fame, she says with a laugh, "is writing the first sexually explicit novel in Arabic." Her experience with fundamentalism is firsthand. "My father was an orphan, and he was brought up by a sheikh, meaning a religious man, in his village. He had nobody, nothing, except religion. When I was eight years old, my father told me to cover my hair with the hijab, and I recall so clearly saying to him, 'Why did God create such a beautiful thing as hair only to tell us to cover it?'"

At 17, she persuaded her parents to allow her to study in Egypt. "It's very sad when I go to Egypt now," she says, "because this is where Huda Shaarawi became the first Muslim woman to take off the veil. In the 1920s. And here they are again, wearing the veil"

Al-Shaykh believes fundamentalism, at least in Lebanon, will fizzle and die with the resolution of the Palestinian problem. "I visited my mother recently, who lives in Beirut. Even now, in the same district where the Hezbollah is, you see girls wearing hot pants. It's surreal.

"I always-look at Islamic fundamentalism in that it's coming into the vacuum of the political process," says Karma Nabulsi, 35, a striking dark-skinned woman who is an Oxford scholar and a former P.L.O. official. "There was a very interesting poll that showed that when there is movement within the peace process the support for Hamas Palestinian fundamentalists] recedes, and when there is a cycle of despair and regression, the support for fundamentalism rises."

Like her colleague and friend, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, Nabulsi is a creature of arresting humanity. Although she likens the appeals of Islamic fundamentalism to "fast food" and "an infectious allergy," she is reluctant to make it her enemy. "We [the Palestinians] are going down the tubes anyway on so many levels. Not only do you not have a state, you are living under occupation. Islamic fundamentalism is not my fear. What? Because the fundamentalists are going to take away my right to go shopping? My fear is that my people aren't taken seriously." However, should Hamas - which was supported for decades by the Israelis as a buffer against the P.L.O. - prevail, Nabulsi concedes, "of course it's a disaster for us as Palestinians," long regarded, along with the Bosnians, as the most secular Muslims. "If you try to break down the agenda of the fundamentalists or Hamas, they have no political platform. They're saying, 'We'll fix it instantly with religions' and that feels good."

I ask her how she musters the will to fight for the rights of a group like Hamas, who, should they prevail, have promised to purge women like Nabulsi and Ashrawi from leadership positions. "Because that's who I am," she says softly. "If I give that up, then who am l?"

Interview with Fatima Mernissi

The name repeated over and over again, like a mantra, as the bearer of the solution to the misogynist pickle of women and Islam is Fatima Mernissi. Unlike many of the Muslim intelligentsia, Mernissi is not in exile. If I want to see her, I discover, I have to go to Rabat, Morocco, where she teaches at University Mohammed V,.

"There has been a terrible hemorrhage of educated women to the West, where they can flourish," she tells me over the phone in her songlike English, with an occasional French phrase. "I understand, but it is terrible. We must stay home." A tall, grand woman, Mernissi is a blaze of color and jewelry at our first meeting, at a beachfront hotel outside Rabat. Her hair wrapped in a filmy red turban, her large expressive eyes lined in turquoise, she is the spirit of the souk. "I cannot live anywhere but here,'' she declares. "I am away more than three weeks and I am desperate for this," she says, waving toward the ocean.

"Living here, I feel I can make sense." She lowers her voice. "So I am careful what I say. The state can stop me; they stopped The Veil and the Male Elite. [Regarded as Mernissi's masterpiece, it was banned in Morocco as well as throughout the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.] But I made such an grand scandale," she says with a laugh, "that they've never bothered me again." While Morocco's King Hassan is widely regarded as a fairly benign despot, he has been under increasing pressure from - the religious right.

When Latifa Jbabdi, a human-rights activist, gathered a million signatures endorsing the banning of polygamy and repudiation in Morocco, she was viciously attacked by fundamentalists. A powerful sheikh issued a fatwa calling for her death, according to Jbabdi. The country - long regarded as among the more moderate in the Arab world - was stunned. The crisis was defused only when the king intervened. "He said basically that there was not to be any conflict between men and women in his country," relates Mernissi approvingly. "He made sure that the fatwa was rescinded, and made clear that the only person who would be issuing fatwas would be himself."

The author of five books on Islam admired for their original and scrupulous research, Mernissi is regarded by many as the pre-eminent Koranic scholar of our time. A Muslim feminist may seem an oxymoron to some, but not to Mernissi, who describes herself as "the product of a lifetime of Koranic schools." "You find in the Koran hundreds of verses to support women's rights," she tells me, "and perhaps four or five that do not. [The fundamentalists] have seized upon those four and thrown away the rest."

Born in 1941 in Fez, she was educated entirely at Koranic schools, and spoke only Arabic until she was 20. Her mother and grandmother were both illiterate. After earning a degree in political science at University Mohammed V, she won a scholarship to the Sorbonne, and later received a doctoral degree in sociology from Brandeis University.

"So much of Islam is Judeo-Christianity. It's impossible to divorce them," says Mernissi by way of explaining the relative newness of her religion. "Islam is 600 years after Christ. Thousands of years after Judaism. Christ, Moses, Abraham - they are all in the Koran," she says between sips of coffee. "In the Mecca desert, these guys were really savage. There was no respect; you just robbed your neighbors, took their wives, killed whatever. And along comes this guy Muhammad, who had this completely subversive idea about slaves, nonviolence, and women, of course. Saying that you cannot be violent against another.

They were going to smash him. They tried. That's why he left Mecca for Medina." Muhammad, says Mernissi, revolutionized life for women - granting them the right to divorce, the right to inherit, the right to have custody of their children in the event of divorce, the right to pray in the mosque, and the right to participate as fully in life as men. In Mernissi's latest book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam [published by the University of Minnesota press), she documents the lives and reigns of 16 women who have mysteriously fallen out of recent Islamic history books, but who ruled from 1000 A.D. to 1800 as governors, sultanas, and queens throughout the Islamic world.

"Sharia law" she says, "does not exist in the Koran. It was created by man. There are only four or five laws in the Koran." Much willful misinterpretation, she says, stems from the Hadith, a four-volume encyclopedia believed to be the sayings and wisdom of the Prophet. But as Mernissi and others have pointed out, the Hadith - similar to the Gospels - was compiled long after Muhammad's death, and over a period of centuries. Moreover, some of the sources were known to have conflicting and oddly selective memories of their conversations with the Prophet.

For instance, Abu Bakr, a disciple of Muhammad's, is said to have heard the Prophet say, "Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity," among other disparaging notions concerning women. "Abu Bakr must have had a fabulous memory," writes Mernissi in The Veil and the Male Elite, "because he recalled [this] a quarter of a century after the death of the Prophet."

One must be careful, warns Mernissi, to distinguish between what she calls Risala Islam - the true Islam of the Koran and the Prophet's intentions - and political Islam. Much of what is preached by fundamentalists today in the Middle East she refers to as "Petro-lslam." And the West, she avers, has no right to stand in judgment, having gone into business with most of the repressive Islamic states.

"Misogyny is the key to the global economy," she declares. "If you have a king in Saudi Arabia, then [the West] is only dealing with one guy and his family - his club. He needs a symbol which says, 'I am a Muslim country.' That is the veiled woman. So if women are veiled, you can have whiskey, you can have whores, you can squander money, you can call foreigners in to run the place, you can treat other Muslims like shit. You can do all that, because you only need one symbol of the despotic tradition where half the population have no rights - the veiled woman.

Now, if I were in the White House, I would want things to stay that way, because if you have democracy you are going to be dealing with many men and around 100 million Arab women. If you don't understand this, you don't understand why people are financing fundamentalism. As for veiling, Mernissi says that the Koran puts no restrictions on how a woman should dress, but suggests "modesty for both men and women." The hijab, which Mernissi explains means "curtain" in Arabic, has nothing to do with women's wearing veils or chadors. It refers, she writes, to the curtain that Muhammad dropped outside his bedroom on the night of his marriage to his cousin Zaynab, to ensure privacy.

While many Muslim women gasp with relief at the scholarship of Mernissi, others say it is irrelevant. "I'm very pleased that Fatima Mernissi can tell us that this nonsense is not in the Koran," says H‚lie-Lucas, "but that's not the point. What if it were? It would still be unacceptable. There are no excuses.

"The flight of the affluent and the educated to the West, says Mernissi, has further fertilized the feeding grounds of fundamentalism, much of it homegrown at the universities. "The university in the Arab world has no link with the job market whatsoever," she says. She adds sarcastically, "They are now thinking about that. The upper class sends their daughters and sons to schools abroad. The ones sitting in the university here are the slum kids, the ones who in New York would be into drugs and throwing rocks."

Suddenly she looks very sad. "What a pity that people don't see interviews with the little fundamentalist - the one who is not a terrorist but who is just a lost kid trying to give sense to his life. Fundamentalism tells him, 'You are O.K. You belong to a very old religion. It gives dignity.' And it is much better to have fundamentalism sweeping our cities than drugs. At least we can win them back later."

To her amazement, she says, she recently came across a U.N./UNICEF financed booklet for young girls. "One of the chapters, " she fumes, "is entitled 'Islam Wants You to Have a Lot of Babies.' The fundamentalist states do not want us to make the connection between birth control and unemployment. After all, they thrive on poverty. One thing we all saw during the Iran-lraq war was the value of babies as cannon fodder. How despots don't hesitate to use their people for target practice."

I ask her whether the condition of Muslim women warrants intervention from the United Nations or the West. "The Muslim states have signed the United Nations charter, which prohibits discrimination against women," she says with some agitation. "They need only to enforce it. It's just like slavery. Slavery only stopped when they criminalized it." She does suggest, however, that the International Monetary Fund reconsider the terms of its loans to certain countries. "The day the l.M.F. says you cannot get a loan unless you repeal all the laws which justify aggression against women, believe me, we will have another planet."

It is near sunset, and we are walking along the beach. "I do not want to be an angry woman," Mernissi says "I fight very hard not to be an angry woman. It is such a waste." We pass a ragtag group of fishermen,' men and boys, who scrounge along the shoreline from morning to night looking for mussels to sell for a pittance. As the sun melts into the Atlantic, one of them, his clothes wet and grimy, walks off by himself, turns toward Mecca, and bows to his knees. "I don't think we should say Islam," says Mernissi, "but Islams. Each person should have their own Islam - their own relationship with God. I think that's what Muhammad intended."

By Ann Louise Bardach
August 1993