The sixteen year old was “too modern” for her fundamentalist Muslim family. She craved forbidden North American freedoms which, if practiced, would shame her immigrant family. The struggle over this issue was hot and abusive. The girl was continually attacked and closely monitored. Her own sisters envied and hated her not only because she was allowed to attend school but because her choice of modern dress could harm their own young daughters’ future marriage chances.
I am not talking about Toronto’s Aqsa Parvez who was just slaughtered by her father (may she rest in peace), but about another sixteen year old: Palestina Isa, who was honor-murdered by her father and her mother in St. Louis Missouri on November 5, 1989. Palestina (“Tina”) was murdered with primal ferocity. The forensic pathologist reported “thirteen wounds, six of them mortal. The worst one plunged into her chest wall, breaking her sternum and ribs and piercing her heart. A second gash ripped her left lung. Her liver had been slashed five times fatally.” Her breasts had been punctured seven times.
Ellen Harris wrote an important book about this one case: Guarding the Secrets: Palestinian Terrorism and a Father’s Murder of His Too-American Daughter. Palestina was clearly being physically abused at home. She attended school with visible bruises. She asked for help. She got none. The only reason her parents were prosecuted and sentenced was this: Her father, Zein Isa, was under federal surveillance. Why? Because he was a member of the Palestinian Abu Nidal terrorist group. Thus, the jury got to hear the horrendous twenty minute murder on tape and convicted her parents.
In case anyone has forgotten: At one time, the Abu Nidal group had been classified by the American government as the “most vicious terrorist group in the world.” On Christmas Eve, 1985, they were responsible for the simultaneous attacks at the El Al counters in the airports in Rome and Vienna in which 18 people died and 101 were injured. In 1986, they attacked an Israeli bus on the West Bank; they also attacked a group of Sephardic Jews as they prayed in a synagogue in Istanbul, machine-gunning 22 worshippers to death and then killing themselves.
Back then–and even more so today–Islamist terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism means that women will be savagely restricted and even more savagely punished if they stray, even a millimeter, even by accident, from the laws and customs of Islamic gender apartheid.
Back to St Louis. Zein Isa’s second wife (a first wife lived on the West Bank), was Palestina’s mother. She held her daughter down while her husband slaughtered her as if she were an animal–as if she were a woman who had provoked her own murder. Indeed, her parents never showed any remorse. Zein Isa told the police that she “deserved it, that she attacked me.”
In each instance, with a few exceptions, most western intellectuals, including liberals, leftists, and feminists, remained uneasily silent. They feared they would be viewed as “racists” or as “Islamophobes” if they criticized such Muslim customs. They said that such barbarism was mainly due to historical colonialism and imperialism; that the bikini is as exploitative as the burqua; that western moralism or intervention would only make things worse for women.
The West has not intervened in Iran–and yet as of yesterday, in addition to being stoned and publicly hung when they allege rape, Iranian women have just been forbidden to wear boots (!) and hats. (Not modest enough). The West has not intervened in Saudi Arabia–and yet a young woman who was gang-raped has also been stripped of her lawyer and sentenced to two hundred lashes. (Let’s not forget the awful case of the Saudi High School girls who were pushed back into their burning schoolhouse because, in their rush to escape, they had forgotten to put on their black sheets). The West has not intervened in Egypt–and yet, at the end of Ramadan, a mob of a thousand men indulged in an episode of “sexual wilding” in which they randomly attacked women on the street.
True, in Iraq, where the West has most definitely intervened, forty women were recently slaughtered and their bodies dumped because they refused to veil. And female police officers have just been ordered to turn over their guns to their male counterparts. But this might also be due to the Iranian and Saudi influence.
Just this morning, I was contacted by a young North American professor. When she spoke up for Muslim women, other feminists attacked her as “racist.” A kind friend slipped her The Death of Feminism. She wrote to thank me for writing it and to ask me for advice. Her quandary: She wants to assign the book to her class but fears that doing so might end her career. Here is what I wrote:
“While your career concerns are crucial, we are also talking about the end of western civilization and the mortal peril faced by Muslim women. I would suggest taking the risk–but perhaps you might talk about it to your superiors (not to your peers) and the way to present this book is in terms of the importance of tolerance and true intellectual diversity. We now have an opportunity to put our feminist ideals and analyses into vigorous practice when it comes to Muslim immigrants and to women in Muslim countries. In the name of this slaughtered Toronto sixteen year old–if for no other reason–the “good” people have got to take a stand against Islamic gender apartheid. ”
Below, please find an edited version of our correspondence which she has allowed me to publish.
Dear Dr. Chesler:
In January 2008 I will be teaching a Masters level course at X University. It is my first experience teaching in a university. In the course of developing my thoughts and syllabus a friend lent me The Death of Feminism. The book has expanded my thinking and given me words for another “problem with no name”. I feel it will be instrumental in my teaching students how to think.
I have had two recent experiences where I have been shut down by other feminists for launching a critique of Islam and of women wearing headscarves. I have been called naive, and racism has been implied, despite 22 yrs on the front line as a most outspoken feminist and defender of women’s rights and equality rights. So I thank you for your book. I have given it to the head of the X Department at my university; this dept used to be quite feminist in perspective and now it is LEFT LEFT LEFT.
Greetings! Thanks for your kind words about this book and for embarking on a personal campaign to spread some of its ideas. How did you learn about this book? There has been a concerted effort to bury news of it by the mainstream media and by feminists with major media connections.
Thank you for taking the time to respond.
I couldn’t agree more… (but) putting your book on my reading list would get me into big trouble. How powerful is this silencing and these accusations of racism. I am not sure, as a new teacher, I could handle the uproar that will ensue if I put your book on my list. Your book I worry would end my career before it’s started. I am not generally a wimp but I have to be strategic, don’t you think? I am thinking maybe I could use the ideas, or excerpts from the book…? Any thoughts? Is the book being used in any university? Do you think I am a coward? Isn’t this ridiculous, insane, intolerable, to even have this conversation, to have to fear for my career (and my life, let’s be clear) for putting a book on a course outline? Shades of Satanic Verses. This is how I feel. Like an infidel.
I’m sure you are following the case of the 16 yr old Toronto-area girl Aqsa Parvez who was strangled to death this week by her father for being “too western”. I wept reading this in yesterday’s paper. Talk about being martyred. Her death is causing a real stir here; a very brave woman from a Muslim women’s organization spoke on TV last night about how rampant this ideology is and how the Imaans here are feeding it.
(I was attacked and ostracized by other feminists when I challenged a very liberal approach to the problem of battering in the Muslim community. The speaker said that such batterers needed to be taught that Allah and the Koran do not demand the beating of women. I said it was more complicated than that). Well Phyllis you could hear a pin drop in that room. Not a single person, many of whom were feminists and long-time activists and have known me and my work for 22 years, agreed with me or came to my support. I was alone, felt I was being seen as racist and it was very traumatic. So I went for tea and moral support to a clear thinking feminist friend. She said, “This is exactly what Phyllis Chesler is talking about in The Death of Feminism” and went upstairs and got the book.
The Death of Feminism has affected me powerfully. Unfortunately it is rare that a book really moves one’s thinking along. I have never understood why people resist having their minds stretched. I am really appreciative of your hard work and hard thinking and gutsy writing t’ords a better world for women and for all. Clearly you have paid a heavy price. The price of leadership I guess, though one does not expect to be crucified by one’s own community. That hurts.