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.

48 comments

  • An entire article which manages to criticise the catholic church fails to mention new wave feminism's standpoint on the effects of Sharia law on Muslim women?

    "I’m not sure one type of feminism can work for all women."

    ....interesting point, which women are excluded from feminism?

    Commenter
    SmallTalk
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 8:31AM
    • "We should perhaps focus most on helping those who reform from within. Only they understand the complexity and subtlety of how change can proceed"

      Yes.

      Commenter
      Melissa
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 8:40AM
      • Thanks for bringing this topic to the fore. What can a white 30 something year old Mother of 3 young kids do to help? Is attending a rally enough? My husband works with Football United a soccer program aimed at helping refugee kids assimilate and belong. Refuge girls who live in Sydney, often from Sudan are routinely not allowed to get involved with playing the game. And its not parents stopping them often, its brothers and uncles and aunts because parents were raped and killed in front of them back in Africa. Is it wrong to impose my view that these girls should be free to enjoy playing soccer when clearly that is against custom, tradition and culture. Is it wrong to dilute a culture for what I perceive as a "better" environment for my Sudanese sisters.

        Commenter
        Rachael
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 8:43AM
        • What a tough dilemma. When I see how football (soccer) has allowed my daughter to develop in so many ways, I can't help but feel that no matter how culturally gauche it may be to persist in providing opportunities for girls, this can be a means to enrich the girls' lives.

          "Bend it like Beckham" is the definitive case of football challenging cultural norms and providing a catalyst for positive change. But you are obviously a sensitive person who wants to do the right thing, and in this case, it would appear that there is no 100% "right" option ;-(

          Commenter
          Nogbad
          Location
          On the touchline
          Date and time
          April 09, 2013, 10:49AM
      • Don't lump Muslim women as if they have lack of freedom & opressed. It all depends on culture not just religion. Countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan & Indonesia had women as heads of government long before Australia or the US for that matter. The governor of the central bank in Muslim Malaysia is a woman. How women are treated depends on the culture & customs they live in don't blame Islam. Ayann Hirsi Ali was generalising - she's actully talking about how the Somalis treat women which is different to how Indonesian Muslims treat women.

        Commenter
        Jay
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 9:00AM
        • I think you are generalizing. All the female leaders you mentioned were privileged and were daughters of ex-Prime ministers or Presidents.Benazir was Daughter of Bhutto. Same with Bangladeshi Prime ministers. The Malaysian Central Bank head is daughter of Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz. Just having two or three women as head doesn't mean the women are treated well.

          Commenter
          Valgerd
          Date and time
          April 09, 2013, 11:19AM
        • @Valgerd Even in Western societies, women leaders come from privilaged backgrounds. The above blogger's point is not to generalise how Muslim women are treated. You seem to be the one trying to generalise that Muslim women everywhere are treated the same regardless of their cultures. Having been to Indonesia and Malaysia I don't see women being treated harshly but can't say the same about some other Muslim countries

          Commenter
          Sam
          Date and time
          April 09, 2013, 1:02PM
        • I would suggest the examples you cite are remarkably fortunate women who have succeeded in spite of their religious/cultural backgrounds (the two words are interchangeable).

          Commenter
          MSMB
          Date and time
          April 09, 2013, 2:25PM
      • I found it a bit hard to begin to get involved with feminism in Australia even as a white cisgendered able bodied woman. I was concerned whether I'd be getting it right. I read articles from people of different backgrounds and experience to my own, but have so far not really got into issues that don't directly affect me so much.

        What holds me back? Definitely a fear of appearing racist or neo-colonialist, and also just not knowing how to start.

        I'm working on it though, and that is a start.

        Commenter
        Marie
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 9:07AM
        • The mere fact that you refer to Muslim females as "sisters" suggest that this factor alone is sufficient to act in a common cause. I too am puzzled by the reluctance of Western feminists to act on this issue. However, this failure to act is not restricted to religious issues. The disgusting celebrations of the death of Margaret Thatcher - one of the most formidable and strong women of the 20th century - and the failure of feminists to criticise this misogyny for what it is, is evidence that feminists need to conduct much introspection before extending their cause.

          Commenter
          Ben C of Canberra
          Date and time
          April 09, 2013, 9:24AM

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