Are we letting down our Muslim sisters?

Liberian activist and joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.

Liberian activist and joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.

There is nothing like the power, energy and warmth of a good female pow-wow.   This weekend’s ‘All About Women’ festival at the Sydney Opera House was a luminous example.  I felt lifted, upheld and stimulated by the intellect of the women on and off stage.  Yet there were a few moments where I wondered if we western women often sound like, well how do I put this?  Spoilt whingers?

There we were pondering how to be brave, how to juggle and whether men could be feminists while millions of women in the world suffer gross injustice.  As Somali refugee turned politician and polemicist Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out, ‘in the west it’s safe to say ‘piss off’ to misogynists, if we did that where I came from we’d be raped or locked up’.

To answer my own question, I don’t believe we are whinging.  We still have much to campaign against with sexual and domestic violence needing to be at the top of that agenda.  We should still battle for equal pay and equal representation in positions of power and influence.

Somali refugee turned politician and polemicist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Somali refugee turned politician and polemicist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo: Getty Images

Yet Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right when she says ‘the liberation of women is like a vast unfinished house; the west wing is fairly complete but the east wing is worse than unfinished; it’s falling into ruin’.  For Hirsi Ali, this house is full of the shallow graves of nameless girls, trapped in poverty, treated as property, beaten, hidden, uneducated, stoned and genitally mutilated.


Hirsi Ali accuses westerners of  ‘toxic appeasement’ where we stay silent about the abuse of other women and do nothing for them. In her book ‘Nomad’, she calls on us to make these women our first priority; to develop a new kind of feminism that stops focusing on ‘creature comforts such as the glass ceiling’ and instead, attends to our sisters in greatest need.

Ayaan focuses mainly on Islamic women saying her old faith codifies their subjugation.  She illustrates that old maxim there’s no zealot like a convert.  Yet Muslim women are not the only women who suffer from pronounced inequality.  Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee pays homage to Hirsi Ali for giving her the confidence to speak out about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in her predominantly Christian country.  Yet she challenges her ‘African sister’ on issues of faith believing it’s important to reform from within.  It was powerful to see two women respectfully disagree.  And it was wonderful to see two African women work on this together.

Because, the fact is, it’s fraught with problems for western women to charge in like Supergirl on a white horse to rescue their non-western sisters.  We are justifiably nervous about being accused of racism and neo colonialism.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali dismisses such concerns.  She believes multiculturalism is merely well intentioned paternalism, racism and apartheid.    In ‘Nomad’ she actually argues that western society is

better and we should let tribal societies lose their culture.

I disagree.  I think Australia is a successful multicultural society that respects most cultural practices but draws the line at those that abuse human rights.  We have done the right thing outlawing FGM, applying the full force of the law to honour killings and criminalising forced marriage.

Ayaan doesn’t make clear what this new type of feminism looks like. Perhaps it’s not for her to say as she’s a divisive figure and tends to polarize debate.  This should not be a fight against Islam, or faith.  It’s a fight for women’s rights.  As a guide to the way to go, I look again to Mayweh Gbowee.   In her quest for peace in Liberia she empowered women to fight for justice and freedom within their own communities.  Gbowee gathered women at churches and mosques rallying them to help stop the violence that was destroying their children.  She worked across religious and ethnic lines.

While I don’t follow a religion I feel it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to take away faith and culture.  We should perhaps focus most on helping those who reform from within.  Only they understand the complexity and subtlety of how change can proceed.

We can’t control the minds of those who come to our country.  At times I can understand the distaste for our decadence, our overly sexualized society and our focus on money and the individual.  But there should be clear communication of what will be accepted and what won’t.  Treatment of women should be at the top of that list.

Seeing it as a debate between sexism and racism doesn’t help the issue.

I’m not sure one type of feminism can work for all women.  But obviously education and empowerment is key.  Our governments should enforce laws that require girls to go to school.  We should educate women on their rights and help mothers bring up children who respect those freedoms. We should consider setting up special shelters for those escaping forced marriage or at risk of honour killings.  We should pursue prosecutions on such infringements on the rights of girls.

In terms of women in other lands, again, alliances are vital. Ayaan suggests that the Catholic Church offers aid and help in Islamic countries and talks about conditional aid.  I find this disconcerting. A young woman at the Opera House admonished the audience for not attending local protests against the stoning of Iranian women.  Many squirmed as they saw her point.  We need to hear the voices of women fighting for social justice all over the world and think deeply about how to help them.

It’s uncomfortable stuff.  Yet I’m interested in your ideas.