Friday, May 25, 2007

Is Islam Bad for Women?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made a name for herself recently with her memoir, "Infidel". In it she describes growing up in Somalia to Muslim parents, undergoing ritual female genital mutilation and then, later, as an adult moving to Europe and becoming a critic of Islam. She first gained notice as the writer of the script for Theo van Gogh's film "Submission"--in which women's bodies were shown with verses from the Koran written upon them. Van Gogh was later brutally murdered and a death threat to Ali was nailed to his chest with a knife.

In this interview with Ali, she talks about Islam as a culture or civilization that is inherently violent and brutal towards women. For too long, she claims, the West has failed to call Islamic socieites on their immorality and abuse of human rights for fear of being racist or colonialist and warns that Muslims don't share that same good will toward the West. She calls for a kind of Enlightenment critique of Islamic culture from within--including a willingness to critique the Prophet as a provincial product of a tribal society whose teaching may not be compatible with a modern society.

The interview is good in asking Ali about her employment with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank that also employs the man who thought up the term "axis of evil" and others who seem to accept the "clash of civiliations" thesis, first made popular by Samuel Huntington.

Ali's views on Islam are challenged by this interview with Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. Mohammed argues that there is less freedom for women now in Iraq than there was under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Part of the reason is that Iraq had very progressive secular law under Hussein that gave women many rights and urban women, such as Mohammed, experienced quite a bit of personal liberty in terms of dress and lifestyle. All this changed with the new Iraqi constitution which gave a cornerstone to Islamic law.

Mohammed is just as critical about aspects of fundamentalist Islam as is Ali. However, Mohammed's account doesn't generalize to the entirety of Islamic culture--she points out that Islam can be compatible with a secular, pluralist state (as it was in Hussein's Iraq--even if there was not democracy) and even in some cases where there might be the beginnings of democratic rule (as in Kurdish Iraq), Islam is not necessarily a complete barrier.

Is it possbile to make judgments about cultures in the way that Ali does? Are some cultures "better" than others for women?

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8 Comments:

At 6:46 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

Joseph, I hope you're being rhetorical with that last question there. Of course some cultures treat women better than others. It would be dishonest to pretend they didn't.

Of course, I'd like to pretend the above isn't a judgment, but an assertion of fact. I think that little switch is where we run into problems, because I'm not sure I can really make the above statement as long as the presence of values necessitate judgment (better for whom, or in what sense? From what point of view?). Either that or I could just give up all pretenses at relativism and get really, really full of myself...

Also, how generalized Ali's comments appear is probably due to the vagaries of language and the interview format rather than any particular belief. She does say at several points in the interview that not all of Islam is bad, and that not all Muslims are bad. Rather, I think she's talking about a dominant culture, in the same way many Western feminists talk about patriarchy - yes, it's everywhere, but there are pockets of resistance and groups throughout history that defy oppression. 'Dominant culture' does not equal 'cultural uniformity', no matter what my TV says. Ali just doesn't use the language that many leftists - I hesitate to call it nuanced, but that's what comes to mind - that we would.

The best part of the interview for me was this:

Guernica: True or false: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a liberal?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Yes, but not liberal in the communist sense. Classical liberalism—John Stuart Mill.


That really goes a long way towards how she can work at AEI and call those folks a 'think tank' with a straight face, though since the folks at AEI seem to want to drag us back to a pre-Enlightenment state sometimes, I have to wonder how well she really knows them.

 
At 8:21 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

I'm not sure if the statement "Some cultures treat women better than others" is all that clear or valid. I'm open to hearing more about it. Lani Roberts has a great essay which argues for the global reach of patriarchy (you should ask her for it sometime--I heard her present it at a conference several years ago), suggesting that there are almost no human societies that don't, in some way, oppress women. I suppose we can talk about better or worse forms of oppression, or more or less severe forms, so perhaps some kind of measure is required for the discussion.

I'm not sure what to think of Ali. I saw her on an interview program a while back and she did come across as suggesting that Islam is bad for women and always has been. Moreover, it is a religion/culture that is inherently violent, in her view. So I don't know if she is so naive or secretly does agree with the kind of views esposed the people at AEI.

What is interesting to me whenever this kind of discussion takes place is a kind of connection being drawn between Arabs and Islam, as though Islam is only something that exists in the Arab world and the lack of democracy there supposedly shows the incompatibility of Islam to democracy. What about Asian experiences of Islam, such as in Indonesia? What can they tell us about Islam and other forms of government that are not oil-sheikdoms?

 
At 6:47 PM , Anonymous parisa said...

I've encountered Ali's writing and interviews a few times, and my impression is that she is someone who generalizes her own painful experiences onto all of Islam -- not to mention the cultural practices of certain ethnicities within Islam to all of it. It's not that she speaks untruths, but that the conclusions are clouded by what sound like terribly traumatic personal experiences.

I have encountered much the same thing with the people I have known who were raised Catholic, abused by priests with their parents in full collusion. They now cannot abide the thought of Christianity meaning anything other than utter hypocrisy and oppression. There are very rational arguments to be made for the fact that Christianity has been responsible for colonialism, continually new and devastating forms of oppression, and supporting the claims of people who will stop at nothing to increase their own personal wealth. The world is full of examples of it. But that does not mean it is the essence of Christianity, nor are Ali's claims about Islam the sum or the essence of Islam.

What is dangerous about Ali's speech is that she speaks with some authority as in "insider" to Islam to an audience that has little experience of Islam but what she tells them.

Religions are made up of people, pure and simple. Where we have people, we have human failings. Where we have cultures that have institutionalized those failings and codified them and found ways to lift them up as great goods, we have great evil. And often, more often than not, religious claims are built to justify them.

Religious texts and teachings are always subject to interpretation. I hope we live to see a day when the interpretations of those teachings that lead us toward compassion, inclusion, and justice and reconciliation might one day get the same kind of press the teachings of fear and hatred do. Lives of right relationship with themselves, one another and with the divine are what most people of faith in the world are trying to live, against terrible odds.

 
At 10:47 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

You know, I hear anthropology is the place to be if one wants to talk about the global reach of patriarchy - not that Lani is wrong, but that if anyone would know, it's an anthropologist. Something about having access to knowledge regarding a broader spectrum of cultures...

Does Ali really think that Islam is *inherently* bad and/or violent? If so, what is she doing talking about it? I would think that would give her credibility only with....folks like those at AEI. Aha.

 
At 12:39 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Parisa: Thank you for an insightful comment (as always!). I found this interview with Ali that makes me wonder sometimes if she isn't being coached to be a shock jock--

http://www.resetdoc.org/EN/Hirsi-ali-interview.php

 
At 9:35 AM , Blogger Candace said...

I think that people are afraid to critique other cultures because we don't even actively critique our own (most people, I'm talking about). When I was in Islamic Civ fall term I played devil's advocate and said "what right do we have to critique the treatment of women in Islam? We don't know their culture as well." Dr. Katz said that if we want to make social change, we absolutely should not be afraid to critique others on the basis of if they are treated humanely and if their humanity is being stripped away from them - patriarchy stretches out everywhere and I know Lani would back me up on that statement. Therefore, no culture is safe from feminist critique. Dennis is right that some cultures give women more freedom than others, however, no culture is truly free from criticism and we still have issues with how women are able to reach their full potential in their societies.

 
At 1:14 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Candace; I agree with you. If we really take the idea of human rights seriously, then we must be able to criticize other cultures, in addition to our own. I think you are right to suggest that the problem really is our own hesitancy to critique in general. If only we could teach in a way that shows how critique is an opportunity for progress (in Dewey's sense) rather than a personal attack on a person's weaknesses.

 
At 10:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parisa and others,
Islam is bad for women. I am an iranian woman living out of the country. Many and it is fair to say most muslims do not read their holly book. They go by what they are being told which makes it even more dangereous. when someone claims to be muslim ask them what they have read and about their books and laws, cause if they did read the books they would know that islam is very evil toward women such as stoning and beatings and laws to cover up their bodies as if their god given body is something to be ashamed of. People all around the world love and care and have potential to be good however in certain parts of the world they have unfortunately been brought up to believe that there is only one religion that is legitimate and that being islam (the evil religion that is bad to women and others) and that anyone who does not believe is evil!! Many muslims have killed and threatened to kill writers, film makers, anyone who expresses themselves and disagrees with islam gets threatened by muslims one way or another. Women should not entertain the thought that islam is good because eventually little by little your rights will be taken away by islam just like in iran and guess what you would not be able to write what you are writing now. take 9/11 as a warning, many didnt want to believe it could happen but it did. Keep being nice and accepting of islam and one day it too will take more of your freedom than you can imagine, maybe it will not be in your lifetime but it might be in the lifetime of our children, your daughters. Dont let the fight for women's rights that western women have gained be in vain by trusting islam and inching back to the dark ages it brings with it. islam was a religion, that is not compatible in modern day. Maybe islam could be ok if there was a international law that gave equal rights to women and militant nature of islam, however that would not work as i see it. also islam is a religion that brainwashes the followers since they are required to pray all day long at man intervals its not like the christian prayers you have to cover up if you are female before praying and face a certain direction and chant certain lines. please don't be too polite to islam its not polite to you. the film maker van goh of holland that produces Ali's film was murdered by a muslim who was living in holland just because of the film. so wake up please.

 

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