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The West Must Stand with Muslim Feminists Against Sexual Violence

The West Must Stand with Muslim Feminists Against Sexual Violence

I was recently asked to advise a young Arab Muslim woman on her doctoral dissertation. Her work concerned violence against women–honor killings in particular. I said it would be my “honor” to do so. However, this feminist, from a wealthy family, made the mistake of announcing her intentions to her family. They–her husband, father, brothers–stopped her and gave her a choice: Leave graduate school or work on another subject entirely. (I am purposely not identifying the country she lives in).

 

The message is clear: Exposing the crime is shameful–not the crime itself. If an Arab or a Muslim writes about normalized sexual and physical violence against women, gays, and political dissidents, with some exceptions, he or she risks severe punishment, even death.

 

Ironically, a similarly intense kind of censorship also currently exists in the Western academic world. Families are not enforcing tribal values; the professors are. Last week, I heard from another doctoral student based in Europe, who risks losing many years of work if she does not follow a party line position against Israel. No Ph.D–or she must positively cite anti-Israel sources such as  Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler. It does not seem to matter that the dissertation is not about the Middle East.

 

We live at a time when people, including our presumed intellectual leaders, demand that everyone salute one flag, in one voice, and avoid any and all thought crimes lest they be shunned by everyone they know. Here, I am talking about the once and future Free World.

 

This reality makes the heroism on the ground in Muslim countries all the more praise-worthy. 

 

For example, late last week, in Tunis, Tunisia, activists, both men and women, staged a silent march to protest the honor killing of a 13 year old girl by her father. Her crime? She was walking home from school with a male classmate. He burned her alive.

 

We have all seen the enormous violence against women in India among both Hindus and Muslims. Women are gang-raped to death; women are sexually harassed constantly; they are also, heartbreakingly, raped and hung from trees. The level of barbaric misogyny is stunning, surreal. And yet, simultaneously, a Muslim women’s organization in India has just demanded a complete ban on polygamy and child marriages.


The draft law proposed stipulates that a Muslim marriage should be solemnised only when the bride is at least 18 years old and the groom 21. Further, there should be ‘an unambiguous consent’ by both, and neither of them should have a living spouse. Polygamous marriage should be strictly prohibited and marriages should be compulsorily registered, payment of maintenance to the wife and children must be made mandatory during the marriage, or in the event of separation and divorce.” 

 

Similarly, we have seen the male mobs in Cairo strip and gang-rape any woman, almost to death, who dares to support President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi or who dares to simply walk out in public. Even if she is “properly” veiled, the Islamist imams have empowered men to view her as “fresh meat,” prey, there to be to devoured by men.

 

And yet, President al-Sisi made a point of visiting the hospital bedside of just such a victim of a rape spree in Tahrir Square–and so far, seven men have been arrested for having sexually assaulted up to fifty women.

 

Despite the potential danger involved, Egyptian-American journalist, Mona Eltahawy, has just penned an op-ed piece (dateline, Cairo), in which she recounts her own sexual assault at the hands of the Egyptian police and insists that such police violence against women existed under the Muslim Brotherhood and still exists under President Al-Sisi. She writes: “It does not matter where you stand on Egypt’s political spectrum; if you are a woman your body is not safe. We need a comprehensive campaign that tackles sexual violence.”

 

I note that in her Bio, she is the author of a forthcoming book “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.” I read this title and sighed.

 

Six years ago, my friend, the German-Turkish feminist lawyer, Seyran Ates, wrote a book: “Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution.” And then she called and asked whether she could stay with me in New York City. I immediately agreed. She told me that the Berlin (!) police had told her to leave town for “for a while.” And so she did. Ates had nearly been assassinated for her work with Turkish immigrant women; one of her clients was shot dead and Seyran had to spend years in Rehab.

 

Seyran, who has a large and supportive family and who lives in the West, decided that it might be necessary to keep a low profile and work on other, less dangerous projects for the time being.

 

We are all connected. The barbarism that is raging in the Middle East and Central Asia is also here. We read about it, we view it online. Muslims have turned Malmo into the rape capital of Sweden but it is not politically correct to say so. More and more immigrant girls who live in Sweden are genitally mutilated. Interestingly, the newspaper fails to tell us what nationalities or religions are involved in perpetrating what is a crime in Sweden.

 

If those who live in such barbarous regions are standing against such violence, why are we in the West afraid to at least join them in condemning it?

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