Thursday, August 24, 2006

Muslim sisters need our help

Pamela Bone, The Australian:
IN Tehran in June, several thousand people held a peaceful demonstration calling for legal changes that would give a woman's testimony in court equal value to a man's. The demonstrators, most of them women, were attacked with tear gas and beaten with batons by men and women from Iran's State Security Forces, according to Amnesty International.

Iranian women may not travel without their husband's permission but they are allowed to wield a truncheon against other women.

Do you think women in Western countries marched in solidarity with the Iranian women demonstrators? Of course not. Do you think there are posters and graffiti at universities condemning the Iranian President? Of course not. You know, without needing to go there, that any graffiti at universities will be condemning George W. Bush, not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (I concede Bush is easier to spell.) READ MORE

You know, before you get there, that at the Melbourne Writers Festival starting this weekend the principal hate figures are going to be Bush and John Howard. You know there will be many sympathetic references to David Hicks but probably none to Ashraf Kolhari, an Iranian mother of four who has been in jail for five years for allegedly having sex outside marriage and, until last week, who was under sentence of death by stoning.

Thank goddess, as they used to say: a few Western feminists have begun to wonder why women who once marched for women's rights are marching alongside people who would take away even the most basic of those rights.

The latest is Sarah Baxter, a former Greenham Common protester, who in Britain's The Sunday Times had this to say about a recent demonstration in London calling for a ceasefire in Lebanon: "Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched alongside banners proclaiming 'We are all Hezbollah now', and Muslim extremists chanting, 'Oh Jew, the army of Mohammed will return'.

"I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder to shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups whose views on women make Western patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic."

Another old feminist, Phyllis Chesler (she is my age, so I may call her old), is the author of The Death of Feminism, published last year. In her book, Chesler, who lived in Afghanistan for a time before she managed to flee the country and her Afghan husband, wrote: "I fear that the 'peace and love' crowd in the West refuses to understand how Islamism endangers our values and our lives, beginning with our commitment to women's rights and human rights."

Feminism is not quite dead, however. The execution of Kolhari was stopped after a petition gathered thousands of signatures from human rights activists in Iran and across the world, including more than 5000 from the Feminist Majority Foundation in the US.

Yet in Canada it took an Iranian exile, Homa Arjomand, to lead the fight to stop sharia courts being established there; she did so with almost zero support from Anglo-Canadian feminists and academics. Named Canadian Humanist of the Year, she's now running a campaign to stop honour killings. In Canada? "In Canada we are not witnessing honour killing much simply because in Canada women and young girls who are not submissive are taken to their home countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Nigeria, and there they are being murdered by the male member of the family or a hit man," Arjomand said in a speech earlier this year. "And the (Canadian) state is not obligated to protect the individual citizens who were forced to leave Canada by the head of the family."

The question is why so many Western feminists do not speak out about the cruelty that blights the lives of millions of women in Islamic countries and would do the same to women everywhere else should the Islamists succeed in their stated aim of creating a worldwide caliphate. "On the defining issue of our times, the rise of Islamic extremism, what is left of the sisterhood has almost nothing to say," Baxter writes. Says Chesler: "Women's studies programs should have been the first to sound the alarm. They did not."

The reason, as writer Fay Weldon has said, is that these days racism is a much worse sin than sexism: a consequence, perhaps, of the success of the women's movement in the West. Women who would speak out don't because of a (justified) fear that they will be branded racists. Chesler has been ostracised by many of her old friends in the women's movement. It has been said she has become paranoid or gone mad or, worse, turned right-wing.

Well, maybe poor Sarah has turned right-wing, too. And Fay, and Homa, and me. We've all become paranoid and right-wing.

To say Bush is not the wise statesman the world needs is a large understatement. Of course women are entitled to oppose US foreign policy or to consider Israel's response to Hezbollah attacks disproportionate. Yes, the prolonged detention of Hicks without trial goes against standards of democracy. Yes, we must be vigilant, in fighting the war on terrorism, that we do not lose sight of the values we are supposedly protecting. Of course we must criticise our own.

But when we criticise only our own, when we talk only about the present and past crimes of Western societies, doesn't this give comfort and encouragement to the suicide bombers?

Neither US foreign policy nor colonialism or imperialism is to blame for a legal system that stipulates women guilty of adultery are to be buried up to their chests and stoned to death, as in Iran. It is their culture, or at least the culture as defined by the old men running the place, that is to blame. Hate Bush if you want, but please understand that your enemy's enemies are not necessarily your friends.

It seems inconceivable that we could lose this war against terrorism. But if we do, the consequences will be awful. And they will be worse for women, for the women in the generations that will follow us. We have to fight not against Muslims but against Islamic extremism. Don't expect left-wing men to help. They're full of "I'm not scared" bravado. Don't expect all Muslim women to want to be in the fight. There have always been women who oppose rights for women. (Remember the petition, from women, against Australian women getting the vote?) But the least we can do is let the brave Muslim women who are pushing for reforms know they have our support when they want it.

Most of us 1970s feminists are grandmothers now. Lifelong socialist and humanist that I am, if fighting to prevent the possibility that my granddaughters - our granddaughters - will one day be forced to wear a burka makes me right-wing, then right-wing is the label I'll have to wear.

Pamela Bone is author of Up We Grew (Melbourne University Publishing, 2005) and is writing a book on dealing with cancer.