Originally published March 22 2006
As we marked another International Women’s Day this month, commemorations took place around the world. In the West, the feminist movement held its own events to honor the occasion.
Here in San Francisco, a group called the Radical Women honored International Women’s Day with a March 11 “Tribute to Sister Resisters.” These included a “playwright, actor, and model for ‘Women en Large: Images of Fat Nudes,’” an “abortion advocate,” a “labor and anti-war feminist poet” and a “retired socialist feminist educator and revolutionary writer.” ?In other words, the same old tired ‘60s model ad nauseam.
Meanwhile, the real radical women in the world go largely unremarked by the feminist movement. Today’s true heroines are those who do battle with the gender apartheid, violence and oppression practiced against women in the Muslim world. There, women face not just phantom infringements to their civil rights and perceived slights to their sensitivities, but threats to their lives. With the call for reform in the Muslim world come the inevitable requirements of round-the-clock security.
Arab American psychologist Dr. Wafa Sultan is the latest to enter such dangerous waters.
Ever since Sultan took part in a debate on Al-Jazeera with Algerian Islamist cleric Ahmad bin Muhammad in February, the world has been riveted.
The two debated Islamic teachings and terrorism. But instead of the usual excuses, Sultan offered moral clarity. She blasted the Muslim world for being mired in a “medieval” mentality and she dubbed the war on terror not simply a clash of civilizations but “a clash between civilization and backwardness … between barbarity and rationality … between human rights on the one hand and the violation of these rights on the other, between those who treat women like beasts and those who treat them like human beings.”
Debate a Hit on Web
Sultan exhorted fellow Muslims to reject this mind-set and join modernity. She also urged Muslims to free themselves from the shackles of anti-Semitism. Perhaps most stunningly, she compared the behavior of Jews and Muslims in the face of oppression. She said, “The Jews have come from tragedy and forced the world to respect them with their knowledge, not with their terror.”
Thanks to the Middle East Media Research Institute, which makes Arab media available for a wider audience at its Web site MEMRI.org, the Al-Jazeera debate received over 3 million hits. Sultan went on to do an interview with Rabbi Tovia Singer on Israel National Radio and eventually became the subject of extensive media attention, including from CNN and the New York Times. ?Her frank appraisal of the problems in Islam has had a huge impact on audiences starving for such voices of sanity.
But along with the acclaim have come numerous death threats and the need for additional security. Sultan was denounced as a “heretic” by the cleric with whom she debated on Al-Jazeera, and he later dubbed her “more dangerous to Islam than the Danish cartoons,” thereby unwittingly providing a glimpse into the very mind-set Sultan criticized.
Unfortunately, the New York Times article did not help matters by tipping off Sultan’s potential enemies to the Los Angeles suburb in which she and her husband reside, as well as other personal information. A blog called Neocon Express has since started a campaign to get a number of private security firms to donate equipment and services for Sultan’s protection.
Religious Beliefs Re-Examined
Born in Syria to a middle-class family and raised a Muslim, Wafa Sultan began to reexamine her religious beliefs after a traumatic incident. A respected medical school professor was murdered before her eyes by two Muslim Brotherhood members shouting “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!). Eventually, she became a secularist and started writing for the Arab American Web site Anneqed.com. ? She became a strong critic of the intolerance and violence increasingly associated with the Muslim world. She also tackled the taboo subject of Muslim anti-Semitism, rejecting the hatred with which she had been indoctrinated as a child.
Sultan is now working on a book that she says “is going to turn the Islamic world upside down.” Indeed, such upheaval is needed now more than ever. If one woman can have such a great impact, think what hundreds, thousands or even millions could do.
But Wafa Sultan is by no means the first Arab woman to tackle Islamic intolerance. Lebanese Christian journalist Brigitte Gabriel has traveled the world sharing her experiences of persecution at the hands of Islamists in Lebanon. She and her family eventually found refuge in Israel, where she underwent an epiphany and, like Wafa Sultan, rejected the anti-Semitism she had grown up with.
Gabriel has since become a staunch defender of Israel on American college campuses and a powerful voice for restoring Arab-Jewish relations. Now living in the United States, Gabriel founded the American Congress for Truth, an organization devoted to providing information about the Middle East conflict and the dangers of “Islamic totalitarianism.” ?
Nonie Darwish is another Arab woman who has sought to bridge the gap with Israel as well as defend America’s battle against Islamic terrorism. A former Muslim born and raised in Cairo and the Gaza Strip who later converted to Christianity, Darwish has lived in the United States for more than 25 years. In addition to writing articles and speaking in public, Darwish set up the Web site ArabsforIsrael.com. ?
Darwish routinely calls upon her own background to tackle the problems associated with the Muslim world. As she put it in a recent article, “Hundreds of millions of other Muslims also have been raised with the same hatred of the West and Israel as a way to distract from the failings of their leaders.”
Irshad Manji is also a woman worth recognizing. A refugee of Pakistani descent from Uganda, Muslim journalist and activist Manji grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. She went on to pursue an impressive career, which now includes being a visiting fellow with the International Security Studies program at Yale University.
Double Dose of Intolerance
But it is her forays into critiquing Islam that have garnered Manji the most attention. As a lesbian, she faces a double dose of intolerance within Muslim culture, but she has never backed down. Instead, she founded the Web site Muslim-Refusenik.com and authored the groundbreaking book “The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.”
More recently, Manji joined Salman Rushdie and 10 other journalists, writers and public intellectuals in signing the “Manifesto of 12: Together Facing a New Totalitarianism,” a “call for resistance to religious totalitarianism.” ?This show of solidarity came in response to a specific death threat from an Islamic Web site in Britain frequented by radicals.
Another signatory to the manifesto and one of the bravest of the bunch is Ayan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia and raised a Muslim, Hirsi Ali escaped from an arranged marriage and made her way to Holland. Embodying the immigrant success story, she eventually became a member of Parliament.
From the very beginning, Hirsi Ali set out to expose the oppression of women in Muslim culture in a society that tended to look the other way due to the self-censorship of multiculturalism. A longtime critic of the practice of genital mutilation in Muslim North Africa, Hirsi Ali also collaborated with the late Theo Van Gogh on the taboo-shattering film “Submission.”
For daring to address the oppression of Muslim women, Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist and Hirsi Ali was threatened in note left attached to his body. She was forced to temporarily go into hiding and has employed round-the-clock bodyguards ever since. But far from being cowed by those who would seek to silence her, Hirsi Ali has continued her quest to bring Muslim women’s rights into the spotlight. ?
Fallaci Recognized Dangers
Lest it be thought that only Middle Eastern women have tackled Islam, Western women have also chosen to speak out. ?One of them is Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist, war correspondent and author who now resides in New York.
Although fiercely independent, Fallaci leaned leftward in the early days of her journalistic career. Yet she recognized the dangers of Islamic aggression early on. Her epic novel “Inshallah,” which told the bloody story of the Lebanese civil war, opened with the 1983 Hezbollah suicide bombing that killed 400 American and French marines.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on her adopted home, Fallaci, shaken to the core, penned “The Rage and the Pride,” a blistering statement on the collision between the West and the Muslim world. ?The second book in what promises to be a trilogy, “The Force and the Reason” expounds on the Islamic demographic and cultural takeover of Europe. For daring to express such opinions, Fallaci has received death threats and is currently being sued in Italy for “defaming Islam.”
Instead of coming to her defense, the left has largely rejected Fallaci for her criticism of Muslim culture. Her opponents are fond of dismissing her work by labeling her a “racist.”
Indeed, if one is searching for Fallaci’s books in one of San Francisco’s venerable institutions of leftist intellectualism, City Lights Bookstore, one is likely to be disappointed. It seems City Lights has banned Fallaci’s books because, in the words of a bookstore clerk, they “don’t carry books by fascists.” For a career spent fighting fascism, Fallaci has now been labeled a fascist. Perhaps City Lights, once a bastion of Beats and banned books, should look in the mirror.
Chesler’s Break With Movement
Another woman who broke from the crowd to take on Muslim culture is professor, author and activist Phyllis Chesler. Chesler was a prominent figure in the American feminist movement, but when she began to reject the anti-Americanism and anti-Israel sentiment that had subsumed her colleagues, she was cast out of the garden. Chesler has since become one of the feminist movement’s strongest critics and her latest book, “The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom,” is a searing indictment of her former cohorts.
Chesler also provides a powerful voice in the battle against Islamic sexism. As described in her latest book in a chapter titled “My Afghan Captivity,” Chesler learned through personal experience that all was not well for women in the Muslim world. Having married her college sweetheart, a young Muslim man originally from Afghanistan whom she believed to be moderate, she received a rude awakening. When they visited his family in Afghanistan, she was suddenly shrouded in a veil, had her passport confiscated and was turned into a virtual prisoner. Only with outside help was she able to escape and get back to the United States. She has since devoted herself to exposing such uncomfortable truths, even if the feminist movement doesn’t want to hear them. ?
In addition to the brave women referenced above, there is another group that deserves mention. While some merely talk the talk, it is the women warriors of the U.S. military who are on the front lines bringing justice to the Muslim world. They face challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, but this does not diminish their accomplishments. If just one girls’ school is reopened, one woman goes back to work, one burka is discarded or one stoning is prevented, we have made a concrete difference in the lives of Muslim women. Restoring freedoms and providing medical care, humanitarian aid and protection, women in the military are the true feminists. So are the valiant men who work and fight alongside them.
Unfortunately, one will rarely catch a self-proclaimed feminist willing to admit as much. To do so would be to acknowledge that the United States can be a force for good, and this must be avoided at all costs, even at the expense of women’s rights. What they don’t seem to realize is that the war they oppose is a battle against the very forces of fascism they routinely decry.
The oppression of women in Muslim culture and the threat it poses to women’s rights all over the world is clearly the next frontier for the feminist movement. Either feminists will rise to the occasion or be rendered meaningless by their hypocrisy.