With recent new good news, I’m updating a past post and expressing my thanks, first, that only a very small part of the world lives under the Taliban, and second, that a young girl now has a new nose.
The August 9, 2010 cover of Time shocked the world as an 18 year old Afghani named Aisha gazed from behind her mutilated nose. Punishment for running away from home. Aisha had run away because she feared she would die from her in-laws’ abuse.
Eventually discovered, a Taliban-run court ordered her nose and ears be cut off, declaring she must be made an example. This was effectively a death sentence, since it was assumed she would bleed to death.
A death sentence? For running away? From people who might kill you?
Her husband took her to a mountain clearing where he slashed Aisha and left her to die.
Yet she lived. After passing out from pain, she eventually awoke, choking on her own blood. Then Aisha summoned her strength and crawled to her grandfather’s house. Fortunately, her father managed to get her to an American medical facility.
Alive but disfigured, sympathy arose around the world, and the non-profit Grossman Burn Center in California has now fitted her with a prosthetic nose. They are hoping to eventually do reconstructive surgery.
The Taliban tell their people that women’s rights are a Western concept that breaks away from Islamic teaching. But the Quran says nothing of cutting away ears and noses, and leaving girls and women to die. Early Islam actually had a feminist air.
I’ve often thought that if Asian women had gained the vote before their American sisters, the powers that be would warn us away from rejecting our religion and our culture.
Is it really a loss of culture or “religion” that is feared? Or do these men just worry that women might gain equal footing?
Meanwhile, beware: Don’t reject the culture that mutilates you body, mind and soul.
A version of this article was originally published August 3, 2010.
Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Did Women Create Burqa Culture? Early Islam’s Feminist Air
Cultural Relativism: Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?
“Burqa bans” are arising throughout Europe, with France voting their approval this past Tuesday. But many are concerned that the prohibitions limit the individual rights of Muslims.
First, the garment itself limits individual rights – women’s. Second, to what extent is the burqa wearer exercising actual choice? Finally, is a ban the best way to go?
Let’s start with the question of women’s choice.
When a society’s way of seeing becomes our own – even when it harms us – the belief is “internalized.” My interest in this phenomenon was sparked by my upbringing. In the early years of the feminist movement women from my church were bused to various conventions to vote down things like equal pay for equal work. I spent afternoons listening to women in my church talk about keeping battered women’s shelters from opening. They were against women receiving priesthood authority, and they were for male leadership in the home.
I didn’t understand why they worked so hard to disempower themselves, their daughters, and other women. But people don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture. It’s simply what you do. So choice disappears.
The same phenomenon arises in other settings. Saudi women say they don’t want to vote or drive. Many 19th Century American women didn’t want the vote, either. In North Africa women defend the genital mutilations that kill and cripple them.
Burqas limit women’s autonomy and power. Yet some women voluntarily don them, keeping with their culture.
Burqas – or niqabs (face coverings) – prevent wearers from gaining driver’s licenses when they are strictly worn, since identity can’t be confirmed via picture ID. When a city or village lacks public transportation it is hard to get around without a car. That makes it tough to get a job.
Even with transportation it’s not easy finding work in a facemask. The mask seems dehumanizing and eerie, as does the subjugation it represents.
But ethnocentrism is thought weightier than sexism. “Isms” that affect men seem more important than those that affect women – even when women are harmed, as when a female German judge denied a Muslim woman’s appeal for divorce, claiming that being beaten was part of her culture.
Did women have equal power to create the cultures that harm them?
Some women do resist, but feel pressured, as one of my Muslim students told me when we discussed the matter of covering.
But bans may not be the best way to deal with burqas or niqabs. Bans can backfire since people cling more tightly to their groups when they feel persecuted. As restrictions go into effect more women might actually embrace the burqas that limit them.
A better way may lie in creating conversation so that different cultures can consider a variety of perspectives. I am sure that Westerners and Muslims can learn from each other and our different ways of seeing.
The founders of three great religions, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed (in order of appearance) were remarkably feminist in their leanings. In the month of Ramadan I would like to explore the feminist air of early Islam.
For centuries Muslim women enjoyed greater rights than most women in the world. The Koran gives women the right to work and to own property. Mohammed abolished female infanticide, slavery, and a widow’s obligation to marry her husband’s brother. Indeed, women were given the right to give their consent to marry.
Some things that look sexist today were a great step forward at the time. Women could become heir to one third of what a male inherited. (Since men’s role was to support women they were given extra help.) Muslim women were able to inherit much sooner than their Western sisters.
Islamic men are also allowed to marry up to four wives, and each wife must be treated equally. Doesn’t sound too heavenly to our ears, but this was progress from a time when men could marry as many women as they wanted.
Even the most problematic scripture in the Koran was an improvement. Chapter 4 verse 34 reads, “As for those women whose rebellion you justly fear, admonish them first; then leave their beds; then beat them.” This scripture actually gave women some protection against abuse in that men were cautioned against battering as the first response.
Some Islamic feminists note that there are other definitions for the word “daraba,” than “to beat,” one of which is “to go away.” Something to think about.
With early feminist beginnings it is not surprising that one of the largest, most egalitarian and peaceful societies is West Sumatra, Indonesia.
Yet over time the religion has become increasingly patriarchal in most corners of the world.
In what is claimed “countering Westernization,” Islamic states have kept busy restricting women’s rights, sometimes going against the Koran, as when the Taliban took away women’s right to work, or when the right to consent to marriage is ignored.
As one Islamic feminist put it, “Islam needs to go back to its progressive 7th century roots if it is to move forward into the 21st century.”
Asra Q. Nomani. “A Gender Jihad for Islam’s Future.” The Washington Post. November 6, 2005
Neil MacFarquhar. “Translation of Koran Verse Spurs Debate.” San Jose Mercury News. March 25, 2007. (Originally published in the New York Times.)
This week’s cover of Time shows an 18 year old Afghani named Aisha gazing from behind her mutilated nose. Punishment for running away from home. She left because she feared she would die from her in-laws’ abuse.
Eventually discovered, a Taliban-run court issued what was in effect a death sentence. For simply running away? From abuse and possible death?
Declaring she must be made an example, the Taliban ordered her nose and ears cut off.
Her husband took her to a mountain clearing where her brother-in-law held her down as her spouse slashed Aisha and left her to die.
Yet she lived. After passing out from pain, she eventually awoke, choking on her own blood. Aisha summoned her strength and crawled to her grandfather’s house. Fortunately, her father managed to get her to an American medical facility.
The Taliban tell their people that women’s rights are a Western concept that breaks away from Islamic teaching. (Though the Quran says nothing of cutting away ears or noses, and leaving relatives to die.)
I’ve often thought that if Asian women had gained the vote before American women, the powers that be would warn us away from rejecting our religion or our culture.
Is it really a loss of culture or “religion” that is feared? Or do these men just worry that women will gain equal footing?
Meantime, beware: Don’t reject the culture that mutilates you body, mind and soul.
When I ask my students what they think of this, they nod in agreement.
A young Pakistani man was accused of having an affair with a high-status woman. As punishment, a tribal council chose to gang rape his older sister. They kidnapped her, took turns raping her, and then forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers. Her next duty was clear. Sexually impure, she was expected to commit suicide.
But it’s not just Pakistan. Right here in America slavery was once “Southern culture.” So should Northerners complain? States rights, and all.
Or… must we be Nazis to can criticize them?
In each of these instances one group benefitted by hurting a less powerful group. The Pakistani men danced for joy as they gang raped the girl. After these rapes the men weren’t punished, the girls were. Plantation owners exploited slaves, who worked for free. Meanwhile, Nazis acquired the assets of the Jews.
And were women and men, black and white, Jew and Nazi equally powerful in creating these cultures?
Cultural relativism provides a useful perspective, unless someone is being exploited and hurt. I’m not a moral relativist.
Studies show that even very young children have a rudimentary sense of justice. It is based on whether one person is hurting another. Researchers showed babies a figure struggling to climb. One figure tried to help it and another tried to hinder it. Babies as young as six months old preferred the helper over the hinderer. Eight-month-olds preferred those who punished a hinderer over those who were nice to it.
When I take issue with matters like “honor killings” in which girls are murdered by their families to remove the stain of sexual impurity — which stems from being with a male without chaperone, having sex outside of marriage, or being raped, I’m sometimes told: You can’t judge one culture by another. You’re imposing Western values. You’ve simply internalized your own culture.
Or, non-Western patriarchal men warn women that they are rejecting their culture (one that weakens them). And everyone backs down.
Yet these women are harmed in the worst way by the murders. And did women have equal voice in creating a culture that punishes them more than men?
Meanwhile, Islamic feminists voice frustration with Western fears of offending.
I’m in sync with cultural relativism, unless someone is being hurt. But when it comes to communicating that message, it’s best to have a dialogue instead of a lecture. Surely we can learn something from them, too.
Here is a thought provoking comment from a reader in response to my post: The Burqa: Limiting Women’s Power and Autonomy
I am a typical American woman. I was born and raised LDS in the Intermountain West and now live in Texas. I own a burqa. I have worn it out numerous times, mostly as a way to see how it feels to be out and about and not be seen as a face or body. I felt so self conscious that I dont think I was able to fully appreciate the experience. Because I live in a culture that values youth and beauty and where people don’t hesitate to judge you by your appearance I have often wished that there was a neutralizing agent, like a burqa, that could help dissipate those judgments. Kind of like what a school uniform is to clothing in a school, of course the burqa being an extreme form of that.
As European countries step up to ban the burqa, many protesters don’t understand that the burqa is neither a religious requirement nor a simple cultural costume. The burqa is about limiting women’s autonomy and power.
The Koran only asks women to be modest and to veil their breasts (24:30 31).
If the burqa is not a religious requirement, how did it arise? Let’s take a look at how covering affects women in the countries in which it is law, which points to its intent.
In Saudi Arabia women cannot drive because they cannot get a driver’s license (no face picture for identity purposes).
Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdul Mohsin al-Abaican recently declared that women should give breast milk to their male drivers so that they can symbolically become their sons. Not sure that this means breastfeeding, which would neither enhance modesty nor separate the sexes. But it would keep non-lactating women from driving. (Or could they feed their drivers formula?) Women who cannot afford drivers are pretty much doomed to stay close to home.
Reflecting their lack of power, Saudi women make up only 5% of the workforce. Maybe it’s hard to get to work when you can’t drive? This low number reflects a social norm that women’s place is in the home, leaving the larger society largely safe from their influence.
In Afghanistan, women political candidates cannot speak or give speeches face-to-face in mixed company. If there is enough money for campaign posters, a burqa amidst men’s faces would certainly stand out, I suppose. But it would look very odd. Meanwhile, the bulk of Taliban-style culture is designed to limit women’s power, whether keeping them from venturing outside the house or keeping them from education and work.
The Burqa is not a fashion statement. It is not a religious requirement. It is not really about morality. Why should free societies support the lack of freedom and power that the burqa was intended to create?