As Muslim women suffer, feminists avert their gaze

Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, an angry Khartoum journalist who works for the UN in Sudan, has started a campaign against shariah law by elevating a local police matter into an international embarrassment:

She’s invited the world to witness her judicial flogging, thus making her case part of the struggle between religious traditionalists and independent women–a struggle that now may encompass the quadruple murder that was revealed a world away, in Kingston, Ont., on Thursday.

In Khartoum, the General Discipline Police Authority patrols the streets, charged with maintaining shariah standards of public decency. Recently it raided a restaurant and arrested 13 women, including al-Hussein, for the crime of … wearing trousers.

Since 1991, that’s been a violation of the Sudanese criminal code. More precisely, it is classified as a violation of public morality. While erratically enforced, the rule is serious enough to carry a penalty of 40 lashes. Ten of the women arrested with al-Hussein pleaded guilty and received a reduced sentence of 10 lashes. But al-Hussein and two others demanded their day in court and al-Hussein decided to provoke a scandal by distributing 500 personal invitations to her trial. She expects to be found guilty (she won’t be allowed a lawyer or a chance to speak), so she informed her guests that they’ll also be expected at her flogging.

The French government has condemned the law, and in Cairo the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has launched a campaign to defend al-Hussein and the others. ANHRI also protested a suit brought by the police against another journalist, Amal Habbani, for an article praising al-Hussein ( "A Case of-Subduing a Woman’s Body"). The police claim that the mere act of defending female pants-wearing also violates General Discipline.

When stories such as al-Hussein’s flash around the world, there’s usually a missing element: The feminist movement rarely becomes part of the narrative. The rise of shariah law constitutes the major global change in women’s status during this era, yet Western feminists remain pathetically silent.

Feminist journalists like to speculate about the future of activism among women today, but you can leaf through a fat sheaf of their articles without encountering a mention of Muslim women. Feminist professors, for their part, show even less interest. Trolling through the 40-page program of the European Conference on Politics and Gender, held in Belfast last winter, I found feminist scholars (from Europe, the United States and Canada) dealing with women’s political opportunities, the implications for women of new medical technology, the politics of fashion and even women’s response to climate change. What I couldn’t find was even one lecture or discussion devoted to so-called "honour killing." Nor was there any mention of the thousands upon thousands of women routinely flogged, raped, imprisoned or stoned to death, often with the tacit or explicit agreement of Islamic governments.

The recent Kingston murders –in which a Quebec couple stand accused of killing their three daughters (and the man’s first wife) because, according to one relative, the daughters had adopted disgracefully Western habits –apparently demonstrate that the oppression of women can be imported into countries where it has no support in law. Honour killing, far from being an isolated remnant of a primitive past, seems to be increasingly widespread.

Ayse Onal, a leading Turkish journalist, says in her book, Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed, that in Turkey alone honour killings average about one a day — 1,806 were reported in the period between 2000 and 2005, a number I found astonishing. The justifications for this crime, passed by word of mouth, apparently encourage young men and boys to consider it appropriate punishment for even trivial offences of females. Onal quotes a 14-year-old boy who slit his 16-year-old sister’s throat in the public market of the town of Urfa. Asked if he was remorseful, he explained that she had been "going about in cafes" and he had cleansed his dignity by killing her. Sentenced to 10 years, he served 34 months. (The use of brothers to commit the vile deed is a particularly horrible aspect of honour killings. In the Kingston murders, it is worth noting, one of those arrested was the alleged killers’ 18-year-old son.)

Once in a while, a few women in the West notice. On Monday, Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger in the United States, suggested that women everywhere should stand up for al-Hussein. She called the silence of women’s movements "scandalous, shameful, complicit in the horrible suppression of women in Islam." But more typical is the feminist blog of Deborah Kate, who acknowledges that feminists have been accused of ignoring Muslim women. Kate comes out against stoning, enforced marriage, female circumcision, etc., and wonders idly whether countries guilty of crimes against women deserve sanctions like those levelled at South Africa in its apartheid days. No, she decides, exhibiting the fondness for fashionable moral relativism that is now epidemic in feminist circles, "I realize I cannot force my version of feminism upon non-Western women."

In Sudan, Lubna Ahmed Al-Hussein has declared, "I am fighting for all women." But in our world, not all of them understand or care.

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