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No More Harems: The Hidden History of Muslim and Ex-Muslim Feminism

Revealing the 19th and early 20th century women who emerged from sex slavery to fight for universal human rights and inspire today's generation of freedom fighters.

by
Phyllis Chesler

Bio

October 4, 2011 - 10:00 am

Tunisia’s Minister for Women’s Affairs, Lilia Labidi

I love Muslim and ex-Muslim feminist women. They are so earthy, womanly, passionate, knowledgeable, beautiful, and eloquent — so emotionally present, so incredibly brave. Smitten? I guess I am, I always have been — ever since I began moving in Muslim circles 50 years ago.

Take Tunisia’s minister for women’s affairs. Amidst the mayhem and madness, Lilia Labidi just up and walked out of the United Nations meeting. Unlike Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was “waxing enthusiastic about the success of the Arab uprisings,” Labidi’s “giddy exposure to the UN rapidly dissipated. Her own appeal to the gathering (of powerful women presidents and secretary of states) for help in consolidating gains for women in Tunisia elicited little reaction.”

And so, Labidi decided to go home. She said: “I cannot live here in such luxury,” and she noted that her $700.00 a day cost of staying in New York “would be better spent on a project for rural women.” Labidi was offended, frustrated, that the entire UN seemed to care only about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and had absolutely no interest in the needs of women, neither in Tunisia nor anywhere else.

Labidi, a professor of anthropology and clinical psychology, may be the only honest diplomat in the joint.

We are in the midst of an Islamic and ex-Muslim feminist uprising. Some names are known to Westerners: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nonie Darwish, Irshad Manji, Azar Nafisi, Taslima Nasrin, Asra Q. Nomani, Wafa Sultan — grave, elegant, impish, and fiery spirits who live in exile from their countries, communities, families, or even faith.

These heroic feminists have been systematically demonized as “racists” and “Islamophobes.” Yes, even those whose skin colors may be brown, black, or olive; some are still religious Muslims but most  are secularists, atheists, or apostates. These are high crimes according to Shari’a law. CAIR and the Muslim Student Association have stalked Darwish on campus. They are doing so right now in regard to her upcoming lecture on October 5th at George Mason School of Law in Virginia. Once Darwish’s appearance has been announced, CAIR has been known to bombard the campus group to either disinvite her or to cut into her time by having another speaker appear simultaneously to rebut her points about Islam’s relationship to women and jihad.

Some of these women are theatrical divas, starring in the stories of their own lives which they tell to rapt audiences again and again. In exile, they write books and articles and deliver stunning speeches. Some have begun to create foundations and organizations which are meant to go beyond personal stories, beyond collective trauma, to inform, console, and act as role models for other endangered Muslim women.

Many more such heroes have risen up. They are not yet known to us in the West: Ida Lichter, in Muslim Women Reformers, has written the biographies of more than 100 such “inspiring voices,” mainly female, but also male, from 23 Muslim countries and from Israel, the (disputed) Palestinian territories, the United States, and France.

Many of these vibrant voices are the heirs to an indigenous historical Muslim feminism as well as the heirs to western First and Second Wave feminism. They are my heirs in terms of my commitment to universal human rights and specifically to women’s rights. They are not “multicultural relativists.”

Nonie Darwish

On September 19, 2011, three Canadian Muslim women: Natasha Fatah, Marina Nemat, and Raheel Raza, spoke in Toronto at a panel titled: “Islamism’s war against women.”  The event was organized by Meryle Kates and moderated by Barbara Kay.

The audience overflowed the space. Yet, the Canadian mainstream media (Globe and Mail, Toronto Star) did not cover the panel. The National Post had a brief editorial which described something of what the women said:

Journalist and activist Raheel Raza argued that the legal code known as sharia has no basis in religion –but rather is a political artifice created as a means to leverage the Islamic faith into a tool for totalitarians and misogynists. Marina Nemat, an Iranian-Canadian woman who was tortured at Tehran’s Evin prison as a teenager, described how Iran’s revolutionaries exploited Islamist fervor to transform her pluralistic, cosmopolitan nation into a medieval prison state. Finally, broadcaster/activist Natasha Fatah lamented that even now, and even in Canada, we often are blind to Islamism’s true face: In the name of “tolerance,” we permit the sort of degradation of Muslim girls women that would be completely unacceptable if perpetrated against whites.

Canada — the country which prides itself on its “multiculturalism” — is, therefore, also the country in which honor-related violence (normalized daughter and wife beating, forced veiling, forced arranged marriage, serious punishment for “westernizing”) also exists. Honor killings — cold-blooded family executions, mainly of young daughters, but also of wives and sisters — flourish in Canada. True, the perpetrator is tried and often convicted. His accessories rarely are. And the cultures which mandate such crimes continue. Their victims are all Canadian citizens who were born in Canada but to immigrant parents.

For example, in the last twelve years, Canada has had more than twelve high-profile honor killing victims: Farah Khan (1999), Jaswinder Kaur (2000), Amandeep Singh Atwal (2003), Khatera Sidiqui and Feroz Mangal (2006), Aqsa Parvez (2006), Rona Amir Mohammed, Geeti, Sahar, and Zainab Shafi (2009)  Shaher Bano Shahdady (2011), Ravinder Bhangu (2011). The perpetrators are mainly Pakistanis but they are also Afghans.Two cases were Sikh-on-Sikh crimes, the rest (80%) were Muslim-on-Muslim crimes.

Iranian-Canadian lawyer Homa Arjomand

According to Iranian-Canadian lawyer Homa Arjomand (who led the fight against the imposition of Shari’a law in Canada’s Ontario province but who was unable to speak at the 9/19 conference in Toronto), Canada’s “multi-culturalist” policies are endangering Canadian female citizens who are Muslims or whose parents came from countries like Pakistan or Afghanistan.

For example, Arjomand describes one of her current cases, that of “Farideh,” a Pakistani-Canadian who was born and who grew up in Canada, but who was never allowed to have a non-Muslim friend, even though she attended public school as well as an Islamic school. Farideh “never participated in any of the school’s activities, never attended any field trip, never went to a movie theatre, never wore pink, red, or purple colored clothes even though those were her favorite colors.” Her family did not allow her to finish the eighth grade. Her Pakistani-Canadian family sent their daughter back to Pakistan in an arranged, polygamous marriage. Farideh was the second wife.

Farideh described being “pushed, pulled, grabbed, slapped, punched, kicked [and] having objects thrown at her” by her husband on a daily basis. While she was breastfeeding, her husband chained her to the ground, without food and water, for long hours. In addition, her husband brutally and repeatedly raped her, knocked out two of her front teeth, and broke her nose. Nine years later, Farideh was allowed to return to Canada to see her dying mother. Despite enormous obstacles and great danger (her own family will probably honor kill her, she will probably lose custody of her Pakistani-born children), Farideh, now in her mid-twenties, refuses to return to her abuser. And she refuses to sign off on the paperwork that would allow him to join her in Canada, probably along with his first wife and their children.

According to Arjomand, there is precious little Canadian law can do to help Farideh retain custody of her children who were born in Pakistan and who are seen as the property of their father and his family. Canadian law did not prevent her parents from forcing her into a polygamous marriage when she was still a child. Finally, Canada may not have the resources to protect Farideh from her “honor” avenging family by placing her within a surrogate extended family; nothing less will do.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, western travelers to the Middle East found that western audiences were eager to learn about Arab and Muslim history, geography, warriors, customs, family relationships, clothing, cooking, and, of course, about harems. Today, westerners are castigated as politically incorrect “racists” and “Orientalists” if they pursue this subject; those who do so are marginalized, demonized, and usually censored.

However, no true feminist or humanitarian can remain silent about Islamic gender apartheid, not when the barbarism has become extremely barbaric in the East and has also invaded the West.

Raheel Raza

In 2009, in Rome, at a G8 meeting where I presented my preliminary findings on honor killings, I had the honor of bonding with a group of Muslim feminists, both religious and secular, over our many shared concerns. They told me that they had felt “abandoned” by Western feminists who refused to take a stand on issues such as honor killing, forced veiling, the subordination of women — lest they be considered “racists” or “Islamophobes.” Many of these women were wearing hijab (headscarves) and they were all fearless, energized, and fabulously feminist.

Sometime after the conference, I interviewed Turkish-German feminist Seyran Ates, whom I had met at the Rome conference. Seyran’s work on behalf of Muslim women has earned her the hatred of Muslim male (and female) Islamists. In 1984, she was shot three times for providing legal counsel to abused Muslim girls; her client, a 15 year old, was murdered. Seyran expressed her dismay that, in addition to being preyed upon by Muslim fundamentalists, western leftists and feminists had discredited her work:

Phyllis, they call me a racist and an Islamophobe, too — and I am a religious Muslim.

Like Arjomand, I, too, could not go to the Toronto panel. But I sent a speech, to be read aloud or to be distributed to the panelists. Here is what I wrote:

Natasha Fatah

Hello from New York City you fabulous women! My gratitude to both Meryle Kates and Barbara Kay for allowing me to join you, even briefly, from afar.

You — Natasha Fatah, Marina Nemat, and Raheel Raza — are the true heirs to a visionary and indigenous Muslim feminism which once opposed the face veil, polygamy, purdah, child marriage, arranged marriage, female illiteracy, female domestic servitude, and honor related violence, including honor killings.

This means that you are the heirs of 19th century Egyptian feminist Aisha Taymour, who was born in 1840, 19th century Lebanese feminist Zaynab Fawwaz, who was born in the 1850s, and of course the late 19th-early 20th century Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’raoui.

In addition, at this moment in history, you are also the standard bearers and heirs of Second Wave feminism, western-style, which once also believed in universal human rights and universal women’s rights, freedom of speech, the separation of religion and state, women’s religious rights — and her right not to practice any religion at all; a western-style feminism which should now be opposing gender and religious apartheid both in the west and in Muslim countries but which has been reluctant to do so.

Feminist Hawk. Artwork by Bosch Fawstin.

Alas, many of my western “postmodern” feminist daughters and granddaughters have betrayed their feminist ideals. They have become Stalinized and “Palestinianized,” and are now invested in what they call “multi-cultural relativism,” “anti-racism,” and  “post-colonialism.” Thus, they are far more concerned with the rights of barbarian cultures to treat women and children in barbarically misogynist ways lest they, the politically correct feminists, be demonized as “racists” or “Islamophobes.” Their false concern about “racism” has trumped their concern about sexism. This means that they have abandoned formerly colonized women of color, especially in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities in the West, to their Islamist fate. As you know, they have supported Western governmental policies of “multi-cultural relativism” with the same results.

Mid-nineteenth century Muslim feminists, even those who were shut up in harems (Taymour, Fawwaz) or forced into marriage at the age of 13 (Sha’raoui), knew enough to oppose the veil — both the face and body covering, even the head covering. Many western feminists, academics especially, praise the Veil as a liberatory choice, an act of resistance, even an important religious right.

In my view, they are misunderstanding what freedom is, what a free choice is, what prisons are really like. In this instance they are viewing a movable prison — the burqa, the chadary, the face veil, the heavy head, shoulder and body coverings as…comfortable, useful for “bad hair days,” perhaps even “sexy.” This reminds me of how certain Victorian-era European women who were forced to wear uncomfortable corset stays viewed the bored, listless, and illiterate female inhabitants in Turkish and Egyptian harems as somehow “free,” or at least enviable because they were allowed to wear loose clothing.

Marina Nemat

I am sure you know your own heroes, but nevertheless, let us now sing their praises together. Aisha Taymour was born in Cairo in 1840 and even though she was born, lived, and died in a harem, she spent her entire life writing fierce poetry against the veil. And she did so in Arabic, French, and Persian.

Zaynab Fawwaz was born in the 1850s and began life as a domestic in a small village. Through a series of strategic marriages she managed to become a well known literary figure in Beirut and Cairo intellectual circles. Behind high walls, she still managed to inundate the Arab media with poems and articles which opposed purdah and the veil. She viewed them as “major obstacles to Muslim greatness” and believed these customs accounted for the “mediocre performance” of Muslims when facing “Western colonial armies.”

Huda Sha’raoui was forced into marriage and seclusion when she was thirteen. Nevertheless, as she became important in the Egyptian fight against British colonialism, she discarded her veil and began to influence legislation which raised the legal age of marriage for girls to sixteen. In 1922, after Egyptian nationalism won the day, Sha’raoui was incensed that the new constitution did not allow women to vote and she fought and won that right.

Huda would weep if she saw how women have been deeply veiled in Egypt and how Islamist forces have taken over — dare I say, colonized? — the Egyptian state. She would be amazed at all the Muslim girls and women living in the west who are veiling too, wearing the suffocating, hot, and heavy totalitarian and fascist flag of Islamism on their heads, faces, and bodies as they walk behind men who are perfectly comfortable in light, modern clothing.

My dear sisters: The hour is late. The body count of female honor killing victims in the west is a mainly Muslim body count. Aqsa Pervez, in Canada, was lured home by her mother and honor murdered by her father for being too Canadian, too western, and for refusing to veil properly enough. Based on my research, the highest torture rate of honor killing victims is not in Pakistan, but in Europe. When Muslim girls and women seek to assimilate, modernize, reject lives of utter subordination, an example must be set so that other Muslim girls and women will not do so.

I have had the honor and the privilege of submitting affidavits to courts when such potential honor killing victims seek asylum, not only in the west, but in Canada and the United States. Europe is not necessarily safe for them.

I have spoken too long.I wish I could be with you. I look forward to the video or the transcript of what you all have to say. I hope we will all meet sometime soon.

Islamic gender apartheid is a human rights violation and cannot be justified in the name of cultural relativism, tolerance, anti-racism, diversity, or political correctness. As long as Islamist groups continue to deny, minimize, or obfuscate the problem, and government and police officials accept their inaccurate versions of reality, women will continue to be killed for honor in the West.

The battle for women’s rights is central to the battle for Europe and for western values. It is a necessary part of true democracy, along with freedom of religion, tolerance for homosexuals, and freedom of dissent. Here, then, is exactly where the greatest battle of the twenty-first century is joined.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of 14 books and an emerita professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies. She once lived in Kabul, Afghanistan. She may be reached through her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.
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