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Is Islam Really Stuck in the 12th Century on Women's Rights?

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
Posted on March 8, 2008, 

Before 9/11/01, the media relegated stories about women in Islamic societies to page B27, below the fold. Ever since 9/12/01, those same stories have screamed from the front pages in 100-point type. The shift in discourse coincided with the launch of Bush's global "War on Terror," when various hawks began using the plight of women in Islam to illustrate the supposed perfidy of our "enemies," and to justify a series of military "interventions" -- invasions -- by Western powers.

In the United States, there's now an almost universally held belief that most women in Islamic societies face wretched persecution and that Islam itself is wholly to blame. But there's scant empirical evidence to support the claim -- mostly, we're treated to detailed reports of horrific abuses in theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the fact that just six-tenths of a percent of the Muslim world live in those two countries. If you ask average Americans how they came to their beliefs about how badly women suffer in Islamic societies, most will reply that "everyone knows it."

But I've seen no empirical data to suggest that an Islamic majority itself correlates with the subordination of women better than other co-variables like economic development, women's ability to serve in government, a political culture that values the rule of law or access to higher education. In other words, you can use a comparison of women's status in Saudi Arabia and Sweden to make an intellectually weak argument for Western superiority, but there's little support for the notion that women living in "traditional" Islamic cultures enjoy a lower social status than those in orthodox Christian, Jewish or Hindu communities, to name a few examples. Think of the perfectly backwards Eastern Orthodox Church, the largest Christian communion in the world. Or consider the country where women may be brutalized more terribly than in any other, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is 70 percent Christian and 10 percent Muslim. Or go to Utah, where tens of thousands of Mormon fundamentalists believe that women are literally the property of their fathers or husbands. Of course, Mormon fundamentalists are the exception that proves the endless benevolence and equality of the West, while whatever despicable caricature of justice perpetrated on a woman by the House of Saud is breathlessly recounted as emblematic of Islamic culture as a whole.

Comparing the "Muslim world" to the rest of the world poses an intellectual problem — how does one even look at the role of Islam in a society, specifically, rather than dozens of other variables that might influence women's outcomes?

I'd expect, for example, the structure of a country's economy to play a far greater role in determining women's status than the religion of its people. There's quite a bit of research showing that in service and manufacturing economies -- those of wealthier states -- women enjoy a great deal of personal freedom and autonomy, civil and political rights and access to higher education. That's because of the high value of their labor outside the home, in the workforce. Women earning their own bread out in the working world demand, and require, full political rights and legal protections. In poorer economies, most of which have large agricultural sectors and many of which rely on extractive enterprises -- oil, mining, etc. -- women tend to suffer a much lower social status, because their labor is more valuable coerced and sequestered close to home. That's a structural, rather than a "Clash of Civilizations" explanation of women's varying outcomes in different countries. It's the latter view that I find little evidence to support.

None of this is a defense of Islam, or women's place within it -- I have little love for religion, any religion, and certainly no desire to defend any religious rites or customs. It's about our loose definitions of the problem and tendency to idealize the "liberal" West.

March 8 is International Women's Day, and a new global opinion poll was released to mark the occasion. The results will no doubt come as a surprise to many …

According to a new poll of 16 nations from around the world, there is a widespread consensus that it is important for "women to have full equality of rights," and most say it is very important. This is true in Muslim countries as well as Western countries.

In nearly all countries, most people perceive that in their lifetime women have gained greater equality. Nonetheless, large majorities would like their government and the United Nations to take an active role in preventing discrimination.

Support for equal rights is robust in all Muslim countries. Large majorities say it is important in Iran (78%), Azerbaijan (85%), Egypt (90%), Indonesia (91%), Turkey (91%) and the Palestinian territories (93%).

That's no surprise to me, but I wouldn't have bought into the "Yellow Peril" or "Communist Menace" narratives of earlier generations either. The U.S. political class did not suddenly develop an abiding concern for women's equality in a vacuum. Like the promotion of human rights during the Cold War, there is a geopolitical goal being served. The United States has been in a state of permanent war since the 1940s -- when not in a "hot" (real) war, we are, as a society, still under a constant cloud of threat, and our political leaders are all too happy to advance that narrative as long as it plays well politically. But it's not enough to simply be under some ill-defined "threat" from ordinary rivals -- that would just be basic geopolitics -- we're in a permanent fight for our very existence from forces that are wholly pernicious and bent on nothing less than our total destruction.

That's become a central aspect of American political culture. We had a seamless transition from World War II to Cold War to Drug War to War on Terror, and in every instance, the unadulterated evil of our opponents has been a consistent theme, as has been our ability to turn a blind eye to the same offenses when perpetrated by the United States or our allies.

And now our existential enemies are the spooky brown people of the Muslim world, with their frightening and alien habits and supposed tendency towards "Islamofascism." The problem with that storyline is clear: the Western, predominantly Christian world has far more economic and political influence than the "Muslim world" -- much of which escaped the yoke of colonialism just in the past 50-75 years -- and, more significantly, it has hundreds of thousands of troops on the soil of several predominantly Muslim countries, whereas the reverse does not obtain. In other words, the "threat" of an Islamic takeover of the West is as realistic as the threat of my sweet grandmother beating the Hell out of Mike Tyson.

Enter the endless -- and relatively recent -- fascination with the plight of women in Islamic societies. The complete perfidy of Islam -- its supposed backwardness, slavish fundamentalism, brutality against the weak and, especially, expansionist tendencies -- is necessary for (and perfectly suited to) the global war-on-whatever narrative, and therefore, I suggest, worthy of special scrutiny.

Consider for a moment the "Islam is stuck in the 12th century" narrative so popular now in the mainstream discourse -- a narrative for which women's civic participation is deemed a vital benchmark. The problem isn't that Islam is being described unfairly, the problem lies with the implication that the "West" made so much progress in the 13th century. The truth is that universal suffrage came to Iran in 1979, five years before women in Liechtenstein got the vote. It came to Bahrain in 2002, 12 years after the Swiss Supreme Court ordered the stubborn Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden to accept women's suffrage. Portuguese women got the vote in 1976, Swiss women in 1971 -- both in my lifetime -- and in my baby-boomer mother's lifetime, women in Italy, Belgium and Japan first got the franchise.

As far as women's political participation goes, parts of the Muslim world -- no, it's not monolithic -- are a few decades, not centuries, behind parts of the West. Is there evidence that the Islamic world is "stuck"? Not at all; in this young century, suffrage has been extended to women in Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. Active women's rights movements exist in every country on the planet; women were never given rights anywhere without a fight.

And when comparing apples and apples -- among economically developed Western democracies -- the United States has very little standing to criticize anyone else about the status of women. We rank 71st in the world in terms of the proportion of women serving in our legislature, with just 16 percent. That's significantly worse not only than the European countries, it's also a poorer showing than Sudan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan.

According to the Wall Street Journal, women with similar experience and qualifications earn 16 percent less than their male counterparts worldwide; in the United States, the gender "earnings gap" is 22 percent. A study by researchers at the University of California found that women occupied only 11 percent of the seats on corporate boards in the oh-so-progressive state of California and held about one in 12 executive jobs. And, as I've written before, while the American economy has seen enormous benefits from large numbers of women entering the work force, our corporate culture has done far less than just about every other country -- including supposedly "backward" states -- to adapt to today's work force:

According to Harvard's Project on Global Working Families, the United States is one of only five countries out of 168 studied that doesn't mandate some form of paid maternal leave. The only other advanced economy among those five was Australia's, where women are guaranteed an entire year of unpaid leave. That puts the United States -- the wealthiest nation on the planet -- in the company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. 

So you may have come a long way, Western Baby, but you're not there yet, or even close.

The bottom line here is that increasing women's civic, political and economic participation is a good fight, and an incredibly significant one. Focusing primarily on the status of women in Islamic countries to rid ourselves of the stigma of our own inequalities or to justify Western hegemony over the rest of the world is not.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.


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