A blog by Barry Edelson

200 Lashes

You've Still Got a Long
Way to Go, Baby

In the few years since 9/11, it has been difficult to observe even the most basic aspects of our society and culture without being keenly aware of how almost everything we do is viewed with contempt by our enemies. Our forms of entertainment, our attitudes about relationships and sexuality, the role of government in everyday life, and the pluralistic nature of our society are all affronts to religiously inspired radicals. The mere appearance of a woman on television without her hair being covered, for example, is viewed by some Islamic extremists as not only a symbol of moral depravity, but a rationale for the destruction of our entire civilization. One can easily imagine what they think when they see Condi Rice shaking the hand of some Arab leader.

What is truly an affront is the way in which many Muslim religious leaders often compare the degradation of Western women through prostitution and pornography with the reverence with which women are allegedly held in Muslim societies on account of their "virtue". It is of course sheer nonsense to suggest that (a) prostitution and pornography are non-existent in Muslim countries, or that Muslim men are immune from participating in these vices when they travel abroad, and (b) that these ills represent the sum total of the female experience in Europe and America. Whatever the Muslim equivalent of placing a woman on a pedestal might be, it is no less objectionable or oppressive as the comparable rationales men in the West formerly employed for treating women as so much property.

Western women themselves have historically been among the most vocal defenders of their own subjugation (does not Phyllis Schlaffley still walk among us?). But the consent of the enslaved does not justify slavery. It is deeply disturbing to hear young French Muslim girls ardently defending their right to wear the hijab in school as a matter of personal "choice". Not long ago in our own country, women felt compelled to defend the free choice they made to become wives and mothers; a perfectly laudable choice, to be sure, but it's not as though the enormous range of career opportunities now available to them was always there for the taking. Tucked away on a bookshelf we still have an old board game called "What Shall I Be?" in which girls got to consider exactly six career paths: teacher, nurse, airline stewardess, ballerina, actress and charm school (in other words, housewife). This was a mere 30 years ago.

If Muslim girls truly want to cover their heads, it's a free country (less so in France, where such displays of religious faith are outlawed in state-run schools). But let us please dispense with the fiction that a girl raised in a devout household is genuinely free to make her own decision on such a matter. True, she may be free to risk exile from her family and community if she "chooses" not to follow the dictates of faith and tradition, but that hardly counts as an expression of religious liberty.

In much of the Arab Muslim world, such an escape is not even an option. In 2006, a 19-year-old Saudi woman (a Shi'a) was gang-raped by a group of men (Sunnis) after being found alone in a car with a man who was unrelated to her.

The consent of the enslaved
does not justify slavery.

The rapists received jail sentences, and the young woman, despite being the victim of the only actual crime committed in this case, was sentenced to receive 90 lashes. The woman's husband knew about the encounter and defended his wife's behavior (the woman only met the other man, a former boyfriend, to retrieve a photograph of herself and thereby protect her spouse). But this did not sway the judge who was, after all, only doing his duty under the law of Islam. And it gets worse: when her lawyer protested the sentence, his license to practice law was taken away and his client's sentence was increased to 200 lashes: a punishment, if carried out, that could very well kill her.

It would seem that even many Saudis, who are ordinarily defensive about the ways of their medieval kingdom, are disturbed by this case. Some would argue that the mere fact that many people are outraged and can express their opinions publicly shows that this most reactionary of Sunni states is not the monolith it often seems to be, but a complex society with many conflicting forces at play. The latter point is undoubtedly true; we tend to be ignorant of the nuances of distant cultures. However, official state policy, including the application of Islamic law, is every bit as rigid, backwards and inhumane as this case shows it to be. Cooler heads may indeed prevail, and the young woman may ultimately have her sentence reduced, but an arbitrary act of compassion under the pressure of forceful international and domestic opinion does nothing to alter the underlying reality that women in Saudi Arabia, as in much of the Islamic world, still live in the virtuous state of virtual slavery.

In the morally muddled West, simplistic notions of tolerance often obscure the viciousness with which other societies enforce their mores. What right have we, ask the multiculturally obtuse, to impose "our" views on other people? As though anyone who is truly free would ever opt for bondage. By this reasoning, there can be no argument against polygamy, child brides or infibulation, all of which are long-held customs in various parts of the world. If we are not permitted to judge these practices according to our own understanding of what is right, then our sense of morality is utterly worthless.

One feels compelled to ask one of these articulate young French Muslim girls, who are so passionate about their religious freedom, what they think about their sister in Saudi Arabia and the barbaric sentence passed down upon her head. Just another story overblown by the non-Muslim media to make Islam "look bad"? Moreover, there are many in our own country who ought to be shaken by the shoulders until they awaken from their self-imposed moral stupor and recognize an oppressive society when they see one. Surely we must defend liberty at home at all times and whatever the cost because there are those, even in our own government, who would carelessly take it away. But defending a woman's right to degrade herself by wearing the clothes of oppression is a misbegotten way to make the world a freer place—or to protect us from enemies who care nothing for our feeble expressions of tolerance.

December 16, 2007

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