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Islamic world unleashes the demons of misogyny

October 27, 2012


Roya Hakakian

A child holds aloft a photo of Malala Yousafzai during a protest in Karachi over her shooting by the Taliban. Photo: AFP

THE targeting of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl shot this month by a Pakistani Taliban assassin, brought back memories of my teenage years in Tehran, where theocratic zealots were similarly in control. The words of the Taliban's chief spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, had a chillingly familiar echo in my ears. A bullet had Malala's name on it, he explained to the news media, because ''she has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it''. He also called her ''the symbol of the infidels and obscenity''.

The zealots of my era, circa 1982, prowled Tehran's streets in khaki-coloured Toyota four-wheel-drives and stopped girls and women of all stripes, ages and ethnicities, warning them if their scarves had slipped back. On good days, rather than arrest and haul us away, they would only scold: ''Our men are being martyred by Saddam to protect your virtue.''

Iran's war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq was then in its second year; it was begun by the ambitious Iraqi dictator, who harboured expansionist dreams. But in the course of daily life in Iran, where harassment of women was reaching a fever pitch, the war was not over land or resources, but the honour of the nation's women.

The war with Iraq was not even the one the country was told to gird itself against. The bigger, bloodier but ultimately triumphant jihad was yet to come, Ayatollah Khomeini reminded us. It would be against ''world-devouring'' US imperialism and its proxies, the ''blood-sucking Zionists''; they were at the root of all the world's evil. That all-out war, forever looming, has never come. But the war on women has been raging ever since.


At the school gates every morning, we were greeted by our own Taliban, members of the the morality unit, in charge of ''preventing vice and promoting virtue''. They rubbed the face of my rosy-cheeked classmate to the point of bleeding to make sure she was not wearing rouge and pulled at the long eyelashes of another to see if they were real. We missed months of math that year because schools were newly segregated by gender and there were not enough trained female instructors in the country to teach in the girls-only classrooms. Two months before the end of the year, a few of us signed up for private lessons given by a man who stared at the ceiling while teaching, lest he violate segregation laws by looking at us.

The burning effigies of Uncle Sam, and the inflammatory rhetoric against modernity and the West, had done their work. The world cringed and turned away from Iran. Just then, the age of marriage was lowered to nine; the weight of a woman's testimony in a criminal trial was halved against a man's; divorce, abortion, inheritance and custody rights were slashed; several academic careers were banned to women; and the Islamic dress code was reinstituted. Public spaces in Tehran, including buses, were segregated by gender, and the faithful's fists pumped into the air, punctuating Friday prayers with ''death to America'' chants.

Credit for the discovery of this wicked double helix - the pairing of dramatic acts of anti-Americanism with an insidious assault on women, which subsequently infiltrated the DNA of fundamentalists throughout the region - goes to Ayatollah Khomeini. Early in his long career, he gave speech after speech about the ''toxic'' influence of the Pahlavi monarchy on the nation's family values - the ayatollah's euphemism for the growing freedoms of women under the shah. But Khomeini's anti-feminist diatribe did not catch the public's imagination. What catapulted him to national stature began with his fiery criticism of a 1964 decree that gave diplomatic immunity to non-diplomatic US personnel working in Iran.

By 1978, when his journeys through exile landed him in France, he no longer sounded like his misogynist self of a decade earlier. Now Khomeini cast himself as a nationalist in the image of Mahatma Gandhi, fighting the foreign powers that were plundering his motherland. His anti-Americanism lifted him to nationwide leadership, and he set to work on his earlier agenda. Days after his arrival in Tehran in February 1979, he issued an order to abolish women's freedom in dress and to bring back the mandatory hijab.

Two factors have since veiled the Western perspective on the region: the first is the expression of anti-Americanism, which sends the rejected American psyche into a downward spiral of introspection over feckless US policies and leads to inaction. The second is the use of Islam as a wall of privacy, behind which oppressors act with impunity. Both factors function as a disguise. Behind them, where women are concerned, all the seemingly unbridgeable divides merge seamlessly to connect Sunni Saudi Arabia to Shiite Iran.

Thus far, the Arab Spring has brought a severe frost to women's rights. In Libya, women are grossly under-represented in the new government. In Egypt, the image of a female protester, her blue bra exposed as she was dragged through the streets of Cairo in December 2011, has become a new symbol of brutality against women. The March 2012 acquittal of a military doctor accused of carrying out virginity tests on female detainees attests to the prevalence of state-sponsored violence towards women. In Tunisia, the rise of the Islamist Ennahda party has come with alarming public displays of intolerance for freedom of speech. In the new draft constitution, a woman is defined as the ''complement with the man in the family''.

These pressures will inevitably lead to acts of rebellion. In the Semnan region of Iran a few weeks ago, a cleric was passing two women, and reportedly told one to cover her head better. The woman, punching him to the ground, told him to cover his eyes.

Western politicians can apologise for crooked policies and retreat into passivity for fear of committing new errors. Yet none will change the elemental facts. The notion of an Islamic democracy is merely another euphemism for turning women into lesser citizens, and it ought to be deemed as unjust and anti-democratic as America before the end of racial segregation. ''Terrorism'' is only one manifestation of the evil that the world hopes to root out from the region where part-time terrorists have always been full-time chauvinists.

The real enemy is misogyny. Malala Yousafzai is not just a teenager in Pakistan's Swat Valley but a victim of the greatest apartheid of our time, and a wounded warrior in feminism's newest front line.

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Replies to This Discussion

She does make a very strong point. How can you aspire to a democracy half of the population is treated like second class citizens or worse? It is apartheid alright. There can of course be democracies in majority Islamic countries but that is only if there is separation of church and state. Well, perhaps I'm contradicting myself, because that would be a secular country, even if the majority of inhabitants practiced Islam.

I think separation of church and state is needed for democracy and equality, but a lot of, maybe even most democracies don't have separation of church and state.

Israel's claim to separation of church and state is political satire.

The woman who knocked the cleric on his ass telling him to cover his eyes after he told her to cover her head better deserves an award.

All I know is in Israel you can mock religion, they have parties like this,  When I can openly mock politicians, openly mock political parties, and openly mock religion in arab countries I will reconsider my stance on Israel. Do not take this as a note to giving the zionists a free pass to be dicks.

You might find the following worth reading.

Women under oppressive regimes: Women and religious fundamentalism.

Egypts Women Rebel Against Harassment

CAIRO, Nov 1 2012 (IPS) - Egyptian bullies who sexually harass women in the streets, often taking advantage of mob situations and the anonymity these provide, are getting a taste of their own medicine – and they don’t like it.

Due to the plague of sexual harassment, which the Egyptian authorities have appeared unwilling to address hitherto, Egyptian women have been taking matters into their own hands by organising anti-sexual harassment campaigns. And their efforts are being supported by the growing number of young Egyptian men who have formed anti-harassment squads.

A young Egyptian man, dressed in faded blue jeans, his hair fashionably slicked with gel into a spike hairdo, is suddenly surrounded by a group of Egyptian men dressed in fluorescent green jackets emblazoned with anti-sexual harassment logos.

Several of the anti-harassment squad put the startled young man into a headlock. He is then lightly slapped on both sides of his face which leave huge black grease marks making him stand out from the crowd. After a verbal dressing-down for his sexual misconduct his particulars are recorded and he is then released, as a crowd of curious onlookers gather around the highly embarrassed youth.

This is just one of many cases that have been documented and videoed recently in downtown Cairo. Some of the detained men were already marked with mercurochrome which was sprayed at them by young women carrying water pistols filled with the liquid as well as tear gas.

On Sunday Egyptian police and the minister of the interior reported arresting 172 men on charges of sexual harassment and assault during the first two days of Eid Al Adha, one of Islam’s holiest holidays which began on Friday. The majority of arrests took place in Cairo but arrests were also made in other parts of the country.

More here

I'm glad that they did it.. They have to..

Because sexual harassment is not only disgusting and shameful but uncivilized behavior! and I really hope for the Egyptian government to take action and set a law against it..

reminds me of that episode of the 70s show when they form squads(feminists) they end in picking on Eric because they thought he was sexually harassing Dawna(they were making out and his elbow pulled out hair(she yelled, ow, stop that)....

LOL! I imagined that! funny :)


I do wish we could bring back flogging.


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