Inspiring voices against oppression.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Ida Lichter, an Australian psychiatrist who was based in London for many years. She became interested in the Muslim women's reform movement after the events of 9/11, and while she lived in a part of London characterized by a large migrant population and increasing Islamization. She is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression.
FP: Ida Lichter, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Let’s begin with what inspired you to write this book.
Lichter: The events of 9/11 created a huge publicity coup for Islamists. At the same time, voices of Muslim women activists were drowned out and further weakened when Middle Eastern countries shut down many dissident websites and blogs. In order to amplify the voices of reformers and bring them into the public domain, a book seemed necessary.
These activists are modern suffragettes. If empowered, they could provide a major social, political and economic resource for their societies.
I also felt inspired and humbled by the courage and sacrifice of those who were killed by misogynist Islamists and my book is dedicated to these heroines.
FP: How can Muslim women reformers be classified by ideology and geography?
Lichter: They are not a homogeneous group and many are still fledgling activists. Some are secular but the majority identify as practicing Muslims. The secular group rejects Sharia law in favor of civil law and a few, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan and Taslima Nasreen, reject Islam outright. These women suffer death threats, and are often branded American or Zionist agents and traitors.
In the religious group, Islamic feminists claim women’s rights can be provided within the framework of Islamic law. In general, they blame the culture of male-dominated tribalism and patriarchy for distorting authentic Islam and giving rise to sharia-legislated discrimination.
The greatest activity in women’s reform has emerged in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
FP: What are some of the impacts of patriarchy and tribalism on Muslim societies?
Lichter: Control of women through marriage safeguards tribal property, family honor, inheritance and lineage. As men’s self-worth is linked to controlling the sexual behaviour of female kin, “honor killings” and domestic violence tend to be excused. In rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, women are also treated as collateral to settle family and tribal disputes.
Discrimination against girls is ingrained, as boys are favored over girls from birth, and receive better care, education and material goods. Social turmoil or fitna is ascribed to women, who are deemed temptresses capable of jeopardizing community stability, or even causing political corruption.
FP: What changes are Muslim women reformers trying to achieve?
Lichter: Reformers are trying to overturn discriminatory Sharia laws like lenient sentencing for “honor killings,” stoning to death for adultery, polygamy, child marriage, temporary marriage, unilateral divorce, and inequality regarding custody, citizenship, inheritance and ‘blood money' - the compensation paid by a murderer to the family of the victim. Under Islamic law, payment for the death of a man is twice that of a woman.
Women want freedom to choose their clothing, abolition of male guardianship, and in Saudi Arabia, the right to vote and drive a car.
Some reformers believe education is the best antidote to the ideologies of jihadism, takfir (accusing other Muslims of heresy) and fighting the infidels, and educated women are less likely to provide a role model of the submissive, fearful woman or be cowed into indoctrinating children.
FP: How are women reformers attempting to achieve reform and what successes have they had?
Lichter: Collectively, Muslim women reformers are rising up, even though many are lone voices and their organizations are new.
The majority want to change discriminatory legislation by making changes within Islam, reclaiming the rights they believe women were originally granted in the Koran.
Some have turned to theology and ijtihad (critical thinking within Islam), supporting their claims by reinterpreting discriminatory texts, emphasizing egalitarian ones, and placing meaning in a historical context. Certain exegesis requires selecting gender-sensitive meaning for words, for example, in the well-known passage that justifies domestic violence, women scholars chose “go away” for idrib, a word with 24 meanings, and commonly translated as “beat.”
Canadian Muslim woman reformer, Irshad Manji, is a major proponent of ijtihad.
Most of the major legislative reforms to date have taken place in North Africa, through lobbying by women’s groups and the encouragement of successive dictators and ruling monarchs. In Tunisia, polygamy was abolished, as was unilateral, arbitrary divorce, which could only be granted in a court of law. More reforms, like harsh punishment for domestic violence, were achieved during the government of former president Ben Ali.
Under the new constitution in Afghanistan, women can aspire to political leadership, and in Bamyan province, Habiba Sarabi is the first female governor. In parliament, women are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) and members of parliament like Massouda Jalal, Suraya Parlika, Malalai Joya, Sima Samar and Shukria Barakzai have all promoted women’s rights.
In Afghanistan, major issues are basic medical services and security. Only about 15% of women are literate and most NGOs run literacy programs.
Women dissidents in Iran have been arrested and jailed while participating in the One Million Signatures Campaign against discriminatory laws, and street demonstrations that provided a vanguard for the post-election reform rallies in June 2009 and inspiration for the “Arab Spring.”
Iranian lawyer Shadi Sadr led the Campaign to Stop Stoning Forever. Using the Internet to draw world attention to this issue, she saved several people from stoning. Many reformers have circumvented censorship through cyber journalism but in July 2008, the regime passed a law allowing the death penalty for “online crimes.”
Most Saudi women reformers are journalists and media activists who analyze and critique the country’s institutionalized gender discrimination. Wajeha Al-Huwaider and her colleagues protested against the guardian laws, using the slogan: "Treat Us Like Adult Citizens - Or We'll Leave the Country." She also demonstrated against the ban on women driving, and made clever use of YouTube in her campaigns against oppression of women and child marriage.
In Egypt, reformers campaigned successfully to ban female circumcision, although the Muslim Brotherhood claimed this was “tantamount to promoting vice” and pandering to the West.
Pakistani attorney Asma Jahangir devoted herself to defending victims of rape against the Hudood Laws that placed rape and adultery under the crime of zina, or illicit sexual relations. (A woman is raped or gang-raped every few hours in Pakistan). If rape victims did not present four male witnesses, they risked punishment for adultery. Eventually, the laws were changed under President Musharraf in 2006.
The South-East Asia region has emerged as an important centre for reform. Indonesian women have a tradition of Islamic learning in female boarding schools or pesantrens, where organizations like Rahima teach pluralism, tolerance and progressive interpretations of the Koran and Islamic law.
In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar and her organization, Sisters in Islam, were successful in repealing amendments to family law that would have facilitated polygamy and divorce for men. In February 2009, Anwar launched Musawah, an international movement to end discrimination and violence against women in Muslim societies.
In the United States, American academic, Amina Wadud, led the first mixed-gender congregation for Friday prayers in New York. Wadud believes the number of reformist Muslim women is approaching a critical mass.
Amongst European reform organizations, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats) was founded by French/Algerian politician Fadela Amara to provide shelters and assistance for victims of violence and gang rapes in France’s Muslim housing areas. The Safra Project was established to protect lesbian rights of Muslims in the U.K.
FP: Describe the obstacles that Muslim women reformers face.
Lichter: Major difficulties exist in many countries where freedom of speech, assembly and association are restricted. Islamist forces also act to obstruct women in politics. When Rola Dashti and her colleagues ran for parliament in Kuwait, they were branded blasphemous, anti-patriotic agents of the West, promoting promiscuity, divorce and homosexuality.
Activists are hindered by reactionary Wahhabi ideology sponsored by Saudi oil wealth, and seeded around the world in schools and institutes of higher learning. U.N. resolutions against defaming religions also aim to silence dissidents.
Reformers have received little recognition or support by the U.S. Administration. In his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, President Obama supported education for women but ignored the destruction of girls’ schools by the Taliban and failed to mention other violations of women’s human rights.
Some reformers believe their greatest impediment to progress is cultural relativism, causing most Western feminists to keep silent.
FP: Chances of success?
Lichter: Many activists are highly motivated in the knowledge they have much to gain if reform takes hold and much to lose if extremists expand their influence. In this mission, they are beginning to co-opt an increasing number of sympathetic Muslim men.
We are in the midst of great upheaval in the Middle East, and the outcome for women’s rights is unknown. In Egypt, women are in the forefront for democratic change but they face a society that has become increasingly Islamized, and a culture of endemic sexual harassment, where even fully covered women are preyed upon in the public space.
The history of women in Algeria and Iran has shown that women’s rights are easily sidelined, and during the current transitional periods of government, feminists will need to champion these rights as a valid litmus test for democratic reform.
Forestalling the use of sharia family law as a bargaining tool is a particularly serious issue for the women of Afghanistan, who are threatened by the Taliban.
An end to Iran as Islamic role model could be pivotal for long-term change. According to Iranian/British academic, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, the Iranian women’s movement will eventually achieve reform: “There’s so much tension and energy there now. It will be a flood.”
And women need assistance. According to Algerian feminist Khalida Messaoudi: “In order to secure women’s rights, we need a democratic international of women - otherwise we have absolutely no chance of conquering this beast.”
These are historic times for Muslim women who are rejecting male domination and pursuing a momentous revision of centuries-old patriarchy. The battle for their empowerment will continue to be a dominant 21st century challenge and one of the critical social issues of our time.
FP: Ida Lichter, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.