July 25, 2020
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I Say, Three Cheers For Ayaan

Even if she unfairly blames Islam for all atrocities on its women, hers is a significant voice on their behalf

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I Say, Three Cheers For Ayaan
I Say, Three Cheers For Ayaan
The Caged Virgin
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press (Simon & Schuster) Pages: 208; Rs: 595
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim by birth, is a daring woman. She has dared to raise questions despite knowing that a Mussalman is prohibited from raising any question on Islam. But these questions are hardly new. They have all been raised before at different times. Yet Ayaan’s questions come from a novel experience not shared by many. She wrote the script for the film Submission, for which Dutch director Theo Van Gogh died on Amsterdam’s roads. Before this, Salman Rushdie’s Japanese publisher was killed for committing the sin of publishing his books; even his Norwegian publisher was shot. But there’s a difference between Rushdie and Ayaan: Rushdie is a writer; he never declared jehad against Islam. Ayaan, on the other hand, dreams of abolishing all the misdeeds and terrorism that have arisen out of the faith.

Though born in sub-Saharan Africa, Ayaan’s seen, at very close quarters, the life of an immigrant Muslim community in a Western European nation. She entered politics while fighting the repression of women of her community and later became an MP. This marks her out from the usual anti-Islam activists, even from those born Muslim. Ayaan’s questions may not be new, but they need to be reiterated, especially by women, since Islam represses them the most.

But Ayaan’s problem is that she puts the burden of all traditional and patriarchal repression of women squarely on Islam. For her, Islam is responsible for child marriage, incest, purdah, the insistence on chastity, female foeticide, genital mutilation, honour killing and everything else. This, even according to a rabid anti-Islamist like me, is too much.

Ayaan believes these evils can be wiped out by getting rid of Islam. But what has religion got to do with it? All male-dominant societies, irrespective of their religion, torture women equally. Christian societies burned thousands of women alive before they built secular nations and introduced equal rights for men and women. Hindus have thrown young widows on their husbands’ pyres. Ayaan attacks Islamic societies for not being as liberal about pre-marital sex as Christian and Jewish ones. But surely conservative Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu societies are equally rigid on it.

It’s true that while most societies have marched towards progress, equality and egalitarianism, Muslim societies have not greatly succeeded in bringing about equality between men and women. Sadly, Muslim societies are still in darkness. The reasons vary in different Islamic countries. While the Muslim people’s ignorance, lack of education, power play and dictatorial behaviour are behind the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the Islamophobia of the Western world is no less responsible. America’s long-standing terrorism against Palestine and Iraq has now pushed Muslim youth into fundamentalism. There were once secular movements like the pan-nationalist movement in West Asia, led by atheist or secular Muslims, but they have all been crushed by Western conspiracies. While I do believe that Islam alone is not responsible for women’s problems, I also maintain that there is no need for Islam to live on. A secular nation and a secular education system will help build rational human beings in a scientific, taboo-free and healthy environment. To demolish anti-women beliefs and rituals, it’s important to shake the foundation of male-dominant societies.

For instance, there is a strict taboo in Muslim families on talking about birth control, abortion and sexual violence. But this is not related to Islam so much as to culture and customs. Ayaan talks about many such cultures and customs, which she feels are connected to religion. But they aren’t. Let’s take honour killing or female genital mutilation.

Traditionally, all male-dominant societies have used women’s bodies to grow the male family tree. Chastity belts were prevalent in ancient Europe to stop women from having a physical relationship with other males. Women were literally the property of men. This belief has transmitted into Islam and Judeo-Christian religions. Sexual acts outside marriage are prohibited in Islamic and Judeo-Christian ethical contexts, and are considered sinful. Offences against the virtue of chastity are most often perceived as fornication or adultery. Since all religions encourage male dominance, such sexist rules have found easy berth in religion. But female genital mutilation is a practice prevalent among the tribals of Africa. Amnesty International has clearly said that it is not a religious practice required by the Islamic faith. It has however become a "law by custom". Neither of the two main sources of Muslim law, the Quran and the Sunnah, mentions the practice, and most Islamic scholars agree that it is not a religious rite.

Ayaan says even honour killing is Islam’s problem. But it happens in Muslim societies due to backwardness and lack of education. The killing of people for sexual crimes has been prevalent since 1700 BC, before Islam. The code of Hammurabi focuses on the perception that a woman’s virginity belongs to her family. In Peru from 1200 BC to 1532 AD, alleged adulterers were punished by having their hands and feet tied to a wall. In ancient Roman times, the pater familias retained the right to kill an unmarried but sexually active daughter or adulterous wife. In ancient empires in Europe, Christian law punished crimes like adultery with stoning. Jewish law punished certain sexual misconduct for both men and women with capital punishment as approved by a court or Sanhedrin.

Amnesty sees honour killing as "the mere perception that a woman who contravenes the code of sexual behaviour damages honour. The regime of honour is unforgiving; women on whom suspicion’s fallen are not given a chance to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain by attacking the woman".

Because Islam allows cousin marriages, it’s said to accept incest. But this is prevalent among many other religions and cultures. Marriage between kin—between a maternal uncle and niece or cousins—is allowed in south Indian states like Andhra Pradesh as it is in Jewish, Islamic or Zoroastrian communities. Among Marathi communities such as the Marathas, Kunbis, Malis or Mahars, it’s common to have a brother’s daughter wed a sister’s son. Since the Arabs comprise many tribes, they have the most cousin marriages. This practice dates back to pre-Islamic times.

In many regions, communities live and grow for generations on local mores and rules, irrespective of the religion. The Bengali Muslims have more in common with the culture of the Bengali Hindus and not of the Arab Muslims. Religion and culture are two different things. Some religions have subsumed local cultures but the two are essentially different. It is not the fault of that religion to have adopted ancient, outdated customs but of the people to not have protested against that adoption and instead abide by anti-women traditions. Ayaan has very unreasonably put the blame of all the atrocities against women on Islam; her arguments are one-sided and adamant in many cases. But she has still managed to make vital points. She has stood by the immigrant Muslim women in the Netherlands and sought to help them. Her book can act as a guide to oppressed women, with its 10 guidelines for women wanting to leave their husbands.

The chapter ‘The need for reflection within Islam’ touched a chord in me and revived memories of being attacked by fundamentalists for having the same beliefs as Ayaan. The attacks continue. In any corner of the world, women who protest their oppression will always be torn to shreds by upholders of morals, traditions, patriarchy and religion. I say three cheers for Ayaan. For her courage to criticise Islam despite being born in a Muslim family. Women are so repressed and benumbed in an Islamic society that a fellow protester fills my heart with hope. Muslims must take the responsibility to enlighten the rest of their community and create a rational, scientific and secular society. The change has to come from within. Nobody can impose democracy from outside. Similarly, no one can impose women’s independence from outside. No nation can practice democracy without the right to free speech. Unless we get rid of the old, foul, wasted values and ignorance, we can’t move towards equality.

Male reformers are useless. To break the rigidity of Muslim society, and to reject Islam, we need thousands of angry women presently in the grip of the venomous snake of Islam. Once they hit back, how long can it sting?

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