|On 9 December 2010 a Sudanese woman was the victim of 40 lashes by a police officer in execution of his duties. Her crime was wearing pants inside the traditional long dress covering the pants. An audience of male observers were laughing while the woman was crying in a public display of how Sharia Law is enforced.|
Such lashings are daily occurrences and designed to teach women to “behave” in accordance with Sharia law, which means dressing properly, behaving properly, speaking properly, and of course more serious punishment reserved for adultery or running a brothel. The Sudanese judiciary is investigating the incident that dramatizes the medieval treatment of women.
This incident has sparked a great deal of revulsion around the world as it should have. The question is why focus on this case and not the larger issue of the rights of women in all “traditional” societies, Islamic or not, pro-West and not, suffering under barbaric treatment in the name of tradition, religion, and archaic laws?
This is a complex topic that cannot be covered in a few lines. There are a couple of thousand books dealing with women and Islam, and many thousands of articles, mostly written by westerners or western-educated Muslims living in the west.
There is the core issue of course of the degree to which Sharia law reflects the Quran, which was very progressive toward women for its time, far more humane than anything the Eastern of Western Christians had in the Middle Ages. To the degree that the law reflects Hadith, (sayings of the Prophet) collections of writings from 8th and 9th century dealing mostly with legal aspects of the faith, there is substantial criticism by critics of the treatment of women in Islamic countries.
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in my view remains the classic study in understanding gender relations in a historical context and against the background of a given culture (in its broadest possible context that includes religion) and class system. While the entire world should express in every method possible outrage at barbaric treatment of women in traditional societies, it is also important to consider cultural relativism.
It is not possible to apply the same criteria of gender relations in contemporary Sweden and Norway as in contemporary Afghanistan and Sudan. Islamic feminism may not be acceptable as “real feminism” to Western feminists, but it is a form of feminism suitable for the cultural settings of Muslim countries and a step toward humane treatment of women.
The totality of traditions, institutions, and social structure of the countries in comparison are very different, not merely the domain of gender relations.
The sense of social harmony and social justice in Islamic countries is not the same as it is in the secular West that has undergone Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, intellectual revolutions that helped societies make the great leap forward from religious-based traditionalism rooted in patriarchy to secularism that only recently permitted human rights to include assertion of female identity. After all, Europeans under traditionalist religious-based cultures tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of women not only as part of the witchcraft craze, but also as infants to avoid the burden of dowry and in pursuit of male heirs to carry on the patriarchical tradition.
While the legal system can change rapidly to permit for humane treatment of women in traditional societies, cultural and social changes are hardly something that can change overnight. It is also true that the treatment of women in Islamic societies has been used by the West to stigmatize countries with which the West has an antagonistic relationship in this epoch of terrorism that the West identifies with Islam. The treatment of women in a friendly Muslim country like Saudi Arabia is almost never an issue. By contrast, the same incident is front and center in western governments and press if the Muslim country, let us say Iran, is overtly anti-Western.
The antagonistic US (and European) antagonistic relationship with Muslim countries since the collapse of the Communist bloc makes it very difficult for the West to preach to Islamic nations rights of women as an integral part of human rights. Nevertheless, it is difficult to defend the extraordinarily harsh treatment of women in a number of Islamic countries that rigidly apply Sharia law largely for political and cultural reasons than as an observance to religious tradition.
To watch a young lady beaten in public, crying as she seems in horrible pain, humiliated by lashings and to simply not feel disgust at the absurdity of the barbarian legal system that permits such treatment of a human being is inhuman. While solutions for a society’s unjust institutions cannot be imposed from the outside, in the age of instant communications networks that link the entire world, it is difficult to hide the inhuman treatment of women justified by laws devised in the 8th and 9th century.
Finally, there is something disturbing when the world expresses outrage about a Chinese dissident who receives the Nobel Peace Prize and he is the subject of so much public sympathy, while countless of women daily, some victims of brutal legal practices others of human trafficking receive very little sympathy and then only when it is politically advantageous to the West to do so.
Raising the awareness level of women’s rights on a global scale is a first step. The United Nations, NGOs and private organizations have the proper role to advocate for women than any government, least of all any Western government currently at war with Islamic nations. There are many such organizations and they are easily accessible on the web, always seeking public support in any manner that it can be offered.