June 04, 2006
Muslim Women as Victims - Lalami's "Missionary Position"
[Crossposted from The Lounsbury]
In a rather longish piece in the American Leftist dinosaur paper, The Nation, expatriate Moroccan author Laila Lalami takes a whack at one of eerie's favourite topics, Muslim Victim Women Reformers in an arty entitled "The Missionary Position".
While I am not normally inclined to read such things as The Nation, the highlighting by The Arabist were enough to induce a read.
I cannot say that I am a fan of such hackneyed phrases as "supporters of empire", above all when used seriously, but what can I expect out of literary types?
Otherwise, it's a good essay.
Let me take the female circumcision part re Hirsi Ali:
Hirsi Ali is aware that the practice predates Islam, but, she maintains, "these existing local practices were spread by Islam." According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa by Animists, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as by Ethiopian Jews, sometimes in collusion with individual representatives of the faiths. For instance, the US State Department report on FGM reveals that some Coptic Christian priests "refuse to baptize girls who have not undergone one of the procedures." And yet Hirsi Ali does not blame Animism, Christianity or Judaism for FGM, or accuse these belief systems of spreading it. With Islam, however, such accusations are acceptable.
A few years ago, Hirsi Ali proposed a bill in the Dutch Parliament that would require young girls from immigrant communities to undergo a vaginal exam once a year as a way to insure that the parents do not practice FGM. The suggestion is all the more interesting when one considers that the vast majority of Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands are from Turkey and Morocco, where FGM is unheard of. But there is a personal reason for this passionate stance: When Hirsi Ali was 5 years old, her grandmother had the procedure performed on her, without her father's knowledge or approval. The experience marked Hirsi Ali profoundly, and the fervor and determination she brings to the fight against this horrifying practice are utterly laudable. By making inaccurate statements like the one quoted above, however, she muddies the issues and alienates the very people who would have the religious standing in the community to make this practice disappear.
For myself, that is the core of the whole problem (the Pious Middle problem as I like to style it).
On the other hand there are some weak points, more by omission, e.g. in relationship to sweeping and inaccurate claims by Hirsi Ali:
It might come as news to Arab, African and Asian novelists of the Muslim persuasion that their fiction is merely an excuse to proselytize. Is the reader seriously expected to believe that the work of Orhan Pamuk promotes the observance of religion? Or that the texts of Assia Djebbar, Tahar Djaout, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdellatif Laabi, Kamal Ghitani, Nawal Al-Saadawi, Ahdaf Soueif, Alifa Rifaat, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ghassan Kanafani, Nuruddin Farah, Tayeb Salih, Kateb Yacine, Mahmoud Darwish, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Tariq Ali advocate religious morality?
As one may guess few to none of the cited authors might be accused of sinning against the great God Secularism, but citing names that are a bit obscure (to say the least) outside literary circles is a bit limpish. Understandable perhaps for space reasons, but limpish. Regardless, I think someone should sit Ms Hirsi Ali Magaan down with Tahar Ben Jelloun's works .... the conccept of proselytising is not the first to come to mind, that is to be sure.
More generally, Lalami points out something that myself and my more (ahem) practised colleagues have pointed out again and again, that the Manjii and Hirsi Ali style denunciations of Islam tend to be stunningly poorly informed such that they are not terribly credible except to, well readers without very much knowledge about the religion (whether Muslim or not), e.g.
In numerous passages of the book, however, Hirsi Ali demonstrates precisely that she doesn't know what she is talking about. Take her statement on abortion: "According to Islam, an extramarital pregnancy brings great shame on the family, but you can still redeem yourself in the eyes of Allah. Abortion, though, the killing of an innocent baby, is a deadly sin, for which there is no forgiveness." But abortion is not universally disallowed in Islam, simply because there is not a uniform position about the issue. In the Hanbali, Shafii and Hanafi schools in Sunni Islam, for instance, abortion before the fetus has developed into a human being (what is called "ensoulment") is, in fact, permissible. Scholars differ on the lengths of time "ensoulment" takes, with definitions as narrow as forty days and as broad as 120 days (i.e., the first trimester). All schools of thought allow abortion if the pregnancy is liable to cause medical harm to the mother.
One is not going to be terribly influential within Muslim circles if one rants on without at least a solid basis of knowledge (or mistakes one's East African practices for universal). Quite the contrary, one is going to get written off and ignored by most (but perhaps the object of useful media inducing death threats from the looney tune fringes, who it must be admitted, do act on their foaming at the mouth idiocy).
It's fun, I may add, to quote the shallow jump-on-the-plea-to-the-holocaust train from Majii
In discussing World War II, for instance, she writes, "Let's be straight about what else happened during the Nazi years: Muslim complicity in the Holocaust." Here she trots out the story of Haj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem who visited Berlin as a guest of Hitler and approved of his genocidal agenda. But how do we move from one cleric with authority in one congregation to "Muslim complicity"? And if it turns out that there are individual Muslims who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, do we then get to talk about "Muslim resistance" to the Holocaust? After all, Abdol-Hossein Sardari, head of the consular section of the Iranian embassy under the Vichy government, succeeded in convincing the Nazis that Iranian Jews were not Semites, thus saving their lives. He went a step further and issued 500 Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews in France. Similarly, the Sultan of Morocco flatly refused to hand Moroccan Jews over to the Vichy government that ruled his country. But people such as these do not fit the paradigm of Muslim backwardness and outright evil, and so they go unmentioned.
Well, not much to add to that.
Finally, on her conclusion:
So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women--and men--in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women's rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women's organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn't this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?
Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women's lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire. These women have become a politicized class, prevented by edicts and bombs from taking charge of their own destinies. The time has come for the pawns to be queened.
Building empire doesn't seem convincing to me, but what does convince is the issue of nationalist reaction, which is very real. Given the background Lalami comes from, I expect her hostility towards the Islamist parties, but don't share it entirely.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
There is some really fantastic material in this piece, particularly on the similarities between Manji's and Hirsi Ali's upbringing.
In fact, I read somewhere that partway through Hirsi Ali's religious schooling, an Iranian teacher showed up and began to implement a more hateful curriculum (odd that a Shia was teaching a Sunni class, but regardless). In the same vein, Manji's alleged chador-wearing (peculiarly Iranian, as it seemed to me that most subcon Twelvers wore jilbab-type outfits, if they wore anything beyond hijab at all) perhaps indicates more Iranian influence during her formative years. I believe Raf mentioned that she was once an admirer of Khomeini. Fits with the Revolution timelines too.
In any case, Lalami's article supports my general argument that these women are taking revenge on Islam for acts perpetrated by their respective communities. Misdirected anger in place of real analysis.
Ah, I must write that second installment.
Posted by: eerie at June 5, 2006 11:31 AM
Here's a good piece on the whole debate by a well-known writer who seems to have been reading Aqoul...
Posted by: SP at June 9, 2006 03:28 PM