Donna M. Hughes: “Women’s Rights and Political Islam”
Professor Hughes delivered the following lecture on October 23, 2007, as part of the University of Rhode Island College Republicans’ Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.
Thank you to the URI College Republicans for organizing this week of awareness about a major threat to world peace and freedom. Thank you for inviting me to speak about how this global political movement threatens women’s freedom and rights.
I’ll start out by addressing terms. There are a number of terms that are used to refer to the global political movement I want to talk about: Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, Islamo-fascism, Islamism, and Radical Islam.
I chose the term “political Islam,” a more neutral term, for the title of my talk, not because I think one can equivocate about this global threat, but to emphasize that we are talking about a political movement — a political movement based on selective interpretations of the Koran.
I am not talking about all of Islam or all Muslims. Although as with any political movement, it is built on particular traditions, culture, and views; otherwise the movement would have no appeal to the base from which the movement leaders want to draw their support. I am talking about a political movement with an ideology, goals, and methods for achieving their goals.
The term Islamic fundamentalism seems to imply that we are talking about a conservative or traditional practice of Islam. When I use the term, I am referring not to conservative or “fundamentalist” interpretation of Islam. I am referring to a political movement.
The term Islamic fascism clearly links the phenomenon that we are talking about to a political movement — fascism. Although, the goals of radical Islam are not exactly like those of Mussolini’s fascist movement, it evokes authoritarian political goal and differentiates the movement from a purely religious one. It does have a more harsh sound to it, and it doesn’t roll of the tongue very easily. The term Islamic fascism was coined by moderate Algerian Muslims who were under attack by Muslim extremists who wanted to impose Islamic or sharia law in Algeria. Helie Lucas, the founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, explains that Islamo-fascism means the “political forces working under the cover of religion in order to gain political power and to impose a theocracy … over democracy.”
Islamism is the word closest to what the advocates of this political movement use themselves. Islamism is not the same thing as Islam. Islamism, with an “ism” on the end connotes a political belief system, like feminism, communism, Nazism. And a supporter of Islamism is an Islamist, as in feminist or communist. This term is by far the easiest to use, but I am hesitant to use it:
- Because it is easily confused with Islam or someone who observes the Islamic faith, and
- I have Muslim, pro-women’s rights, pro-freedom supporters who consider themselves Islamists. They think that Islam is combatable with democracy. They support a type of political Islam that recognizes the rights and freedom of all people, and they are working to create such a state.
I will use all these terms in my talk. The important thing to remember is that I’m talking about a political movement, not a whole religion or all Muslims. I’m talking about a political movement with a set of beliefs and political goals, practices that put those beliefs into action, and methods that impose their rule and belief system on others, whether they are willing or not.
I want to tell you how I came to understand the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to women, girls, and their rights. This occurred long before 9/11. In 1994 to 1996, I worked as a lecturer at the University of Bradford in England. The city of Bradford has the largest population of Pakistanis outside of Pakistan. The loudest sound in the city was the call to prayers broadcast from the mosque on the edge of campus.
I learned that, after Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Religious Leader of Iran (i.e., religious dictator) issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British author Salman Rushdie, there were demonstrations in Bradford in support of the fatwa. Soon after I arrived in Bradford, a young Muslim woman was murdered. She was run down by a car driven by a family member as she was walking on the sidewalk to work. This was what is called an “honor killing,” in which women and girls are killed by family members for disobeying their fathers or for being too independent. She wanted freedom from an arranged marriage and rigid cultural constraints on her life as a woman.
I joined an organization called Women Against Fundamentalism. It was formed by mostly Muslim women of Asian descent after the fatwa to murder Rushdie. Its goal was to oppose the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in England and its threat women’s freedom.
At the University of Bradford, I was in charge of a women’s studies major. We had several Asian women, as the Pakistani and Indian women were called, on the course. I learned that all of them were being pressured to drop out of school and accept arranged marriages. They were guilt-tripped, threatened, and sometimes beaten. I soon realized that staying enrolled at the university was the only thing that helped them maintain a moderate level of freedom and independence. If they dropped out, they would be forced into marriage. A couple of the women couldn’t resist the constant pressure. They came to my office and told me they were dropping out of school and accepting their families’ plans for them. They tried to put a good face on it.
Some women were beaten by their families to force them out of school. I learned how common this was when I made inquiries on how we could help a frightened, exhausted young woman. The university maintained a set of rooms in the halls of residence for women who needed emergency shelter each semester.
On a regular basis, I saw the political campaigns of the Islamists. Groups such as Hizb ut-Tahir, which is now banned, had literature tables in the lobby of the building where I worked. I often stopped and picked up the pamphlets; I was particularly interested in what they said about women and women’s rights. Their goal was, and is, to unify all Muslim countries into one Islamic state ruled by Islamic or sharia law. They predicted that in the near future, they would take over the U.K. and turn it into an Islamic state.
Their literature stated that they would advance women’s rights by protecting them from the kind of harassment and violence that Western women are subjected to. Wearing the veil or hijab would protect them from sexual harassment and sexual assault. The political tracts stated that they respected women and would allow women to stay in the home and take care of their families, where they would be protected by their fathers, brothers, and husbands. These were not presented as choices for women, but their roles and destinies under Islamic rule.
I believe that people mean what they say and write about. I took the Islamists at their word. I showed the pamphlets to my colleagues, asking, “Have you read these things? Do you know what they say they are going to do?”
Two years ago, when the world learned that the suicide bombers on the London underground were from Leeds, a city just ten miles east of Bradford, I was not surprised, as some were, that the terrorists were home grown. I had read their literature ten years before.
In 1996, my education about Islamic fundamentalism expanded from the local level to the global when I met groups of Iranian exiles living in Europe, the U.S., and Canada. They were survivors of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which brought to power the first modern theocracy, which means rule by religious leaders. They supported a liberal interpretation of Islam, freedom, democracy, and rights for women. Many of them had been arrested for opposing the rise of Islamic fundamentalists to power in Iran. Some had been tortured. Many of them had friends and relatives who were executed by the Iranian regime.
For the past 11 years, I have continued to learn about Islamic fundamentalism from them and have supported their conferences for women’s rights, democracy, and freedom.
I learned from them what happens to women when religious fascists — a term used by my Iranian friends — come to power.
I have also learned about the fate of women under Islamic fundamentalism from groups like Women Living Under Muslim Laws and the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan.
Islamic Fascists Political Ideology and Practice
When Islamic fascists put their political ideology into practice, they use methods we call terrorism — the systematic targeting of civilian populations using violent means. The first place they exert their power is on the local level. I like to say that terrorism begins at home. The first victims are usually women and girls.
Islamic fundamentalist ideology rejects universal equality and rights as set out by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the basic principles and rights on which democracies are based. The Islamic fundamentalism ideology rejects liberalism, women’s rights, moderate and liberal interpretations and practices of Islam, and promotes discrimination against non-Muslim religious groups, particularly Jews. The political goal of Islamic fascists is to create a religious dictatorship, based on their version of sharia or religion-based law. They oppose democracy and the Western concept of freedom, claiming that Western democracies and laws are manmade, and only the laws of God, or sharia laws, are valid.
According to sharia law, Jews and other non-Muslims, such as Christians and Hindus, can only have secondary status as citizens. There is no freedom of religion. For example, under sharia law, if a Muslim converts to another faith, he or she can be punished by death.
Under Islamic fundamentalist ideology and law, men and women are not equal. Women are considered to be physically, emotionally, intellectually, and morally inferior to men.
Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women were not permitted to go to school or to work or to leave the house unless accompanied by a male relative and had to wear a burqa — a bag like garment that covers the whole body and has only a mesh opening to see out. In Iran, women are not permitted to run for president or be judges, because they are not emotionally capable of making decisions. Women and girls are not permitted freedom of movement or freedom of dress. They are required to wear the covering chosen by the religious leaders.
Women and girls are seen as morally weak and must be prevented from having contact with men who are not family members. Sexual misconduct, which can be an act as simple as a girl talking to or meeting a man from outside her family, is considered to be a violation of her family’s honor. The shame she has brought on the family can only be wiped out by killing her. This is the basis of “honor killings.”
In Iran, there are official “crimes against chastity,” which includes things such as having a baby without being married. For violations of these laws, a woman or girl can be flogged or even hanged. The most torturous form of punishment in Iran is stoning to death. Currently, eight women are imprisoned waiting to be stoned to death in Iran. This practice is not found in the Koran; it is a barbaric form of killing used centuries ago and brought into modern times by Islamic fundamentalists.
Under sharia law, all public facilities, such as hospitals, classrooms, and buses, are segregated. These laws make women officially second class citizens without equal rights. A Muslim, Iranian woman coined a name for this system: gender apartheid.
This kind of misogyny, or woman hating, is at the heart of Islamic fascists’ control of a population. If you suppress 50 percent of the population, and systemically punish violators by public stonings, hangings, and whippings, you can terrorize an entire population.
Is Christian Fundamentalism the Same as Islamic Fundamentalism?
Frequently, when I speak about Islamic fundamentalism, someone suggests that Muslims may have Islamic fundamentalism, but the U.S. has Christian fundamentalists. The implication being that they are the same. This equivalency is flawed thinking.
The U.S. is a democracy that guarantees fundamental freedoms and rights. The Christian Right is a political movement of conservative Christians. They may have political and social views and goals that you may not agree with, but they operate within a democratic framework. To influence policy and laws, they use their rights as citizens to form advocacy organizations, lobby, and vote. When adherents to these views resort to violence, such as the bombing of abortion clinics, it is treated as an act of violence, and the perpetrators are arrested and punished. And most leaders of Christian Right organizations condemn these acts of political violence.
I’ve never heard a Christian fundamentalist call for the takeover of the U.S. government by radical preachers or priests, or to have Christian or Biblical law replace the U.S. Constitution.
That’s the difference between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism: One respects democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms, and the democratic process; the other doesn’t, and its goal is to destroy democracy, freedom, and the democratic process.
Multiculturalism Versus Universalism
I want to talk about why this flawed equivalency between Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism has become so popular and why it seems to have become so hard to differentiate between oppressive political systems and practices and democratic political systems and liberal practices.
Today, advocacy for multiculturalism has replaced support for universalism. Universalism is based universal principles of human rights, equality, freedom, and democracy, as laid out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and, before that, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Other democracies have their own constitutions and founding sets of documents.
Today, these visions and commitments to universal equality among people have become secondary to advocacy for multiculturalism. Embedded in multicultural ideology is cultural relativism, the principle that all cultures are equal, must be respected, and cannot be criticized. Or if one does criticize another culture or religious practice, the speaker must immediately point out deficiencies in other cultures and religious practices, or at least those of his or her own, in this case, the U.S.
One cannot advocate for relative rights and freedoms without rejecting universal principles of freedom and rights. If you unconditionally accept and respect other cultural and religious practices, the first group that always loses is women. Most discriminatory attitudes and practices are based on culture, tradition, and religion. Women’s greatest hope for freedom and rights comes with the promotion of universal principles of freedom and rights, then women can claim their equality.
Today, I see students in class being fearful of discussing types of violence against women or the oppression of women. Although they may be horrified by honor killings or female genital mutilation, they feel they have to accept it because it’s someone else’s culture or religion. They think it is unacceptable to advocate for other women’s freedom and rights, because it might violate another cultures or religions, and that would be imposing their views on another culture or religion. While at first glance this may sound respectful, it has translated into remaining silent and accepting some of the worst human rights violations against women.
Following acceptance of multiculturalism, they withdraw into isolationism. If we must respect all other cultures and religious practices, then there is nothing to do about violations of women’s rights around the world. They often oppose any efforts to improve the lives of women in other countries. They justify this isolationism by saying they have enough work on women’s issues here at home and they should concentrate on that.
What Do Muslim Women Want?
Women join political movements. There are Muslim women who have joined the Islamic fundamentalists. There are women who voluntarily put on the hijab and support the oppression of other women.
There are probably some women who just want to be left in peace to live a quiet life.
But there are also women who want freedom and rights, who strongly reject Islamo-fascism, and who have organized to oppose Islamic fundamentalism.
I believe we have a responsibility to differentiate between Islamic fascist and pro-democracy groups. I don’t believe there is a moral equivalency between them. I don’t believe it is disrespectful to judge other systems and practices and to condemn human rights violations and the oppression of women. I don’t believe it is imperialistic to support other women’s struggles for freedom and rights.
I believe that rights come with responsibilities. The people in the room are among the freest in the world. I believe we have a responsibility to not turn our privileged backs on other women. I believe we have a responsibility to use our freedom and rights to help others. I believe we should be using our freedom of speech, our freedom of association, and our educations and access to communications technology to assist other women achieve the same set of rights and standard of well-being.
You can start by learning more about the conditions for women under sharia law. You can research how Islamic fundamentalism is spreading and the impact that is having on women. You can research different Muslim women’s groups. You can find out how to get involved in supporting different organizations.
I’ll end with a quote from Maryam Rajavi, a leader of the opposition against the theocracy in Iran. In a text entitled The Price of Freedom, she says:
The Iranian woman is today engaged in the most series, most difficult and most decisive battle of her destiny. … Women are the prime victims of oppression under the clerical regime and they have the highest explosive potential against the regime. The survival of the clerical regime is also intertwined with the suppression of women. … [Women] are humiliated and tortured every day, only because they are women. Yet they have never surrendered. They use every opportunity to voice their protest against the clerical regime and stage demonstrations.
And further, to those who think that Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week is intolerant, bigoted, and anti-Muslim, I will again return to The Price of Freedom by Maryam Rajavi, as she describes the process of liberation of women from Islamic fundamentalism:
One must, first and foremost, confront such a mentality, particularly in light of the fact that this interpretation or reactionary spell has a historical precedent for women. It is said that the situation of women has always been like this and that a must be grateful to anyone who offers her compassion and mercy. Only when you rebel against this trap and understand the futility of this spell, the deadlock is broken, the road becomes clear, and you take the next steps. I do believe that a woman’s emancipation begins the moment she breaks this spell and believes that rebellion and resistance against tyranny are her inalienable rights. It is from this moment that no power in the world can prevent the liberation of a woman who has decided to be free.
Donna M. Hughes is Professor & Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair of the University of Rhode Island’s Women’s Studies Program.