In the name of Islam - Women are being abused, even mutilated
by Ann Louise Bardach
Readers' Digest, March 1994

In April 1991, a 22-year-old Saudi woman arrived at Montreal's Mirabel Airport and requested asylum on the ground of "gender-related persecution." She told authorities that if Canada forced her to return to Saudi Arabia, her life would be in danger. Her crime? Walking outside her home without being enveloped from head to toe in a black chador.

Initially, the woman's request was rejected. Canadian officials were apparently reluctant to believe that women in Saudi Arabia today live as third-class citizens. In fact, they do: Saudi women are not allowed to drive, to marry whom they want or to travel without written permission from a male guardian, and they are the target of frequent searches by the Mutawwai'in, dreaded religious police.

Following an outcry, Canada finally granted the woman asylum. However, some people feared that the decision would lead to an influx of women asylum-seekers. One official commented, "There are one billion Muslims in the world, so we're talking hypothetically about 500 million who might want out."

As Islamic fundamentalists seize the social agenda of one country after another, women have been the greatest sufferers. By selectively interpreting the Koran, Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) and Shariah (a code of religious law), regimes in certain Muslim countries have severely restricted the rights of women. Many have legalised polygamy and repudiation - whereby a man divorces his wife simply by announcing, "I divorce you." At the same time they have denied women the right to divorce, child custody and community property.

Under the banner of Islam, (although it is not Islamic in origin) female circumcision, more accurately defined at female genital mutilation (F.G.M.) has flourished in many countries. Algerian Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas, founder of the French-based advocacy group Women Living Under Islamic Laws, likens the past decade for Muslim women to the Dark Ages. She rattles off some of the most heinous developments regarding women in the Muslim world: -

In 1990, Iraq issued a decree effectively allowing women to kill their wives, daughters or sisters for adultery. -

In Pakistan, current penal laws stipulate stoning to death as the maximum penalty for murder. Unlike man, however, an accused woman is not allowed to testify on her own behalf. Women who claim to have been raped are often imprisoned for committing 'zina', sex outside marriage. In maximum-sentence rape cases, women's testimonies carry no weight. They must produce four adult, pious, male Muslims who actually witnessed the crime. An estimated 2000 women languish in Pakistani jails under ordinances governing such crimes as 'zina'. -

In certain parts of the Muslim world, "honor killings" - in wish a father kills a wife or daughter believed to have dishonoured a family - are not uncommon.

"Search for Identity." The issue is not Islam - the world's fastest growing religion - but extremist fundamentalism, which uses Islam as a billy club. "In Islam, the communion is direct between God and the individual," says Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan. "But throughout the Muslim world, you have clerics saying that Muslims don't know what's good for them. They say a woman has to look down at the floor. But the Prophet said the best veils is the veil in the eyes."

According to Fatima Mernissi, a Koranic scholar and Moroccan sociologist specialising in women's issues and Islam, the Prophet Mohammed revolutionized life for women in the 7th century - granting them access to the mosque, full participation in public affairs and the right to inherit property. As for veiling, the Koran makes no requirement that women veil their faces, but suggests modesty for both men and women.

The success of fundamentalism, says Bhutto, is twofold. First, it springs from the "search for identity in an increasingly global village where all the messages from the Christian West. It is a reaction to preserve one's culture when other cultures have dominance." Second, she says, it was created to keep communists at bay. "Political parties largely banned," she says. "The mosque was allowed to become a place where people could gather, and the clerics became very powerful. They started a new doctrine, where they knew what was best for everybody else."

"Islamic fundamentalism is a political movement, not a religious movement," Helie-Lucas declares. "It's the extreme right wing using religion as a cover. It is the fascism of today."

Last May, the World Health Organisation adopted a resolution sponsored by several African countries calling for the elimination of female genital mutilation, which is performed on an estimated two million children each year, ranging in age from infancy to adolescence.

Although F.G.M. is practised in both Islamic and non-Islamic cultures, many African Muslim communities that do perform the procedure cite religion as a reason. F.G.M. takes one of the three forms. Sunna circumcision - the mildest form is the removal of all or part of the clitoris. Excision is the cutting away of the clitoris and all or part of the inner vaginal lips. Infibulation involves the removal of the clitoris, the inner vaginal lips and part of the outer vaginal lips, followed by the sewing together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a pea-size opening for urine and blood.

Because of the crude, unhygienic tools used by practitioners, it is not uncommon for a child to develop tetanus or septicemia. Many females who undergo the procedure develop secondary infections or painful, lifelong medical problems.

F.G.M. is practiced in more than 30 countries, primarily through the central belt of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia and as far north as Egypt. Despite the belief that it is a religious duty, in fact, the Koran offers no encouragement of the procedure.

Arrange Marriages. Catherine Hogan, who heads the Washington Metropolitan Alliance against Female Genital Mutilation, believes that F.G.M. is being performed in the United States. A major problem, she says, is that no one advises African refugees against it when they enter the country. In fact, there is no state or federal law that specifically bans the practice. "The U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service tells all Muslim men that polygamy is illegal here," says Hogan, "but says nothing to women about F.G.M. How can you charge someone with a crime if there isn't even a law against it, and you never warned them?

But not all American doctors, or even all feminists, stand united against the practice. A few argue that the decision to be re-sutured after pregnancy should be left to the woman herself.

"It doesn't matter that the patient wants it done," counters Dr. Joseph Tate, an Atlanta obstetrician and gynecologist. "Would you cut off someone's leg if she asked you?"

In the past decade, the West has been confronted with a series of unfamiliar legal, medical and ethical problems, says Ahmed Jamal, a London film maker who was raised in Pakistan. His recent British TV film documented the career of Tahir Mahmood, a former cabdriver from Huddersfield, England, which tracks down runaway wives and daughters. Some of them were escaping physical abuse or were trying to dodge arranged marriages.

The film triggered public outrage, which stunned Mahmood. He believed that "he was a public servant of sorts, putting back together good Muslim families," says Jamal.

Scottish lawyer Cameron Fyfe represents Muslim clients forced into arranged marriages. In October 1992 he won an annulment for one woman on the ground that she had been forced into marriage when she was under the legal age.

The woman, who now lives with her three children in Glasgow, was 14 when her father announced that he was taking her on a vacation to Pakistan. Shortly after their arrival, she was told that she would be marrying her cousin. Following the ceremony, her father turned over her passport to the new husband and returned to Scotland. The teen-age bride's new home was a hut with no electricity, gas, or running water, and from the first day her husband beat her.

Two years later, he moved his young family to Glasgow in the hope of making more money. When he finally got his own residence permit, he punched his wife in the face, screaming, she says, "This is the only reason I married you." The beating became so grisly that neighbours finally called the police, who explained to the bewildered, battered girl that she could legally leave her husband.

During the three years it took to win her case, the woman became the pariah of Glasgow's Pakistani community. "Some people spat on me, others would cross the street if they saw me," she says.

Attempted Censorship. In the United States as well, among a small segment of American Muslims there is a resentment bordering on hostility toward any kind of scrutiny or criticism of Islam. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a series on women and Islamic fundamentalism, it was besieged with letter accusing it of racism and Muslim-bashing.

The 1991 release of "Not Without My Daughter", a film based on the true story of an American woman's escape from her Iranian husband, occasioned chilling attempts at suppression. Movie theatres where the film played received threats. It is unclear whether such censorship is homegrown or orchestrated from abroad.

Most observers believe that fundamentalist extremists have found nesting sites throughout the country, and that they hide within unsuspecting Muslim communities. Meanwhile, the bewildered media, scrambling to be politically correct, have cranked out a plethora of feel-good features on Muslim culture. At the same time they erroneously imply that restrictions against women are part and parcel of Islamic law.

"We try to educate our own community about the true teachings of Islam," says Nahid Ansari, a board member of the Muslim Women's League and a member of the Islamic Centre of Southern California in Los Angeles. "It's appalling what goes on in the name of Islam."

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