Sometimes, I despair of ever being able to convey the disdain for women that one may encounter in the Muslim world.
First, many Americans and Europeans simply do not want to believe it; they absolutely refuse to surrender their belief that all people are both “good” and the “same.” Some westerners do not think it is politically correct, or even polite to say so–especially if people really are “different.” Thus, for both reasons, westerners will deny the extent to which most women are despised, feared, controlled, and punished in the Muslim world. Some westerners also say: “Women are oppressed here as well. It’s racist to single out an entire culture and people for the ways in which women are mistreated everywhere.”
Many Muslims, who live both in the West and in Muslim lands, will deny, outright, that Muslim women are mistreated. First, precisely because this is true, they are well trained to deny it–it is shameful to say so; doing so, disgraces and endangers the family and the Muslim nation. Also, most people are trained not to “see” that which is normalized all around them.
Some time ago, I met with a small group of charming, heartbreakingly sophisticated, educated, assimilated, modern, secular Muslims. They drank, they smoke, they danced with members of the opposite (and of the same sex), they did not limit their friendships to Muslims-only, they were divorced men and women. From an Islamic/Islamist view, they were mighty sinners, maybe even “heretics.” Of course, I loved them, they were so cosmopolitan.
Nevertheless, they hotly denied that honor killings exist because, in their circles, they had neither seen nor heard of any such thing. In their experience, most Muslims are tolerant and fun-loving. They glided over the facts of polygamy and child marriage because, in their lives, it was a very rare occurrence. They viewed America as the greatest “terrorist” power and sympathized with Islamic terrorists who had been “driven to terrorism because they’d seen either their parents or their children murdered or maimed;” they believed that Islam had been “far kinder to Jews than Christianity had ever been.” As for Muslim dissidents and feminists? “They are only a handful of people whom the West rewards for generalizing from their own bad experiences. What they are saying is not true for most Muslims.”
Trust me, I more than held my own in this discussion but, emotionally and intellectually, it exhausted me. These are the “good” Muslims. They are not personally violent, they do not sponsor violence, they move easily in both the Western and Eastern worlds, and yet, their knowledge base is restricted to their own experience and to the mainstream media in the West which encourages precisely such beliefs. Perhaps they are also part of an alarmingly selfish generation which relates everything back to themselves and lacks compassion for others who are not like them.
I have recently spoken to a number of people who have been in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Their stories of life in a war zone match some of my own stories of long ago in Kabul, Afghanistan long before the Khomeini revolution, the Soviet invasion, and the rise of the Taliban. Here is a tale that pre-dates any twentieth century colonial or imperial invasion of Afghanistan, that took place when Kabul was just entering a peaceful and modern period that would last for nearly two decades.
I had asked to visit a maternity hospital and was having tea with the doctor-in-charge. Suddenly, a man, wearing a turban and a long, quilted coat barged in. The doctor spoke to him very brusquely, with annoyance. “You brought your wife here too late. The baby is already dead. Your wife–not long, maybe a few hours more.” The doctor turned to me and said: “These provincials always come when it’s too late.”
And then both the man and the doctor were yelling at each other. I assumed that the man wanted the doctor to go and save his wife. Not so. The man was refusing to pay any hospital fees because not only would he have to pay for his wife’s and child’s burial, he would now have to buy another wife to cook for him and take care of his other children. And where, in the name of Allah, did the doctor think he’d be able to get that kind of money? He’d already paid for a car to transport his wife all the way from their village.”
Today, there are far many more examples of women being held in disdain in that beautiful, treacherous country. Denying that this is so, blaming the foreign invaders, is surely as great a problem as is the deadly disdain itself.