Yes: They hate us. It must be said.
Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.
An overfed, wealthy, rich, white, older, conservative male makes for a convenient face of sexism for the Gloria Allreds and Jane Fondas of the world. But for most women of the world, sexism manifests itself as something far worse than unwelcome, ungentlemanly comments directed their way. Obsessing over name-calling trivializes sexism as a matter of mere words. In truly patriarchal societies, sexism means murder, genital mutilation, forced marriage, and other sanctioned oppression.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that three million girls undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) annually. The organization reports, “The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among migrants from these areas.” This is another way of saying that the barbaric practice roughly corresponds to locations where Islam dominates. But, of course, WHO never mentions Islam in its February fact sheet on the 140 million cases of FGM.
There is a war on women. It doesn’t involve Catholic schools obstinately refusing to pay for the contraception of their students or the right of thirty-year-old women not to be called rude names. Honor killings, spousal rape, female genital mutilation, polygamy, and the veil are proof that this war on women is very real. Ironically, Rush Limbaugh regularly uses his program to inveigh against those waging this war on women. But the activists busy accusing Limbaugh of orchestrating a war on women haven’t bothered to highlight this very real war on women.
No one underestimates the challenges of helping women become equal participants in a civil society only recently concocted. But allowing progress to recede shouldn’t be an option. Recent negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban, in which women’s rights could be diluted, should have all of us worried.
It is too bad, meanwhile, that we are restricted in these discussions by terminology that rings of cliche. “Women’s rights” sounds too much like debates about abortion and subsidized day care. What we’re really talking about is basic human rights. The freedom to work, to make decisions about one’s own life, to seek an education and to be safe to walk on the streets without a male escort. To be fully human, in other words.
Anything less is terrorism by another name. The insanity that sends jihadists to rain hell on civilized nations is the same that stones women to death for failing to comply with primitive norms of behavior.