Selling Out Our Veiled Sisters
Independent Women's Forum, Washington, D.C. July 2004
Last week, the Independent Women's Forum, a right-leaning U.S. non-profit group, published a list of 25 prominent women in the new Iraq. Pre-Saddam Hussein, Iraq had been one of the Middle East's most forward-looking countries, one of the first to grant women the vote. Under Saddam, not only was voting a joke, but women were habitually imprisoned, raped and tortured. Some even were hanged by their own feet during menstruation, so they became "poisoned by the infection generated by their own blood," according to Affra al- Barak, who spent seven years in an Iraqi prison and now runs a free clinic in Baghdad.
Today, women hold the following portfolios in the Iraqi Interim Government: Agriculture, Environment, Immigration, Labour, Municipalities and Public Works, and, of course, Women's Affairs. When Iraq holds free elections, 25% of the seats in the new Parliament will be held by women. Voters will be guarded by more than 100,000 U.S. and allied soldiers. Canadian soldiers will not be there.
In Afghanistan right now, as groups of Afghani women travel around the country registering female voters, U.S. soldiers are running interference, defending their rights. The Taliban, of course, are not interested in women voting.
Do "mainstream" feminists even comment on these changes, much less praise the U.S. government for its work? Crashing silence from their hundreds of publications.
The disconnect between Western feminists and Middle Eastern women has been critical. The Beijing Women's conference of 1995 identified the Middle East as the region most in need of attention. Just virtuous bloviating, as it turns out.
Since then, the situation has deteriorated. The 2003 Cairo Conference on Violence and Arab Women found that the doctrine of aib, Arabic for shame, brands women who forsake the home for the workplace. More and more, Arab women are veiling, from 20% in Lebanon and Syria to 80% in Iraq and Kuwait. Women living on their own are outcast. Fifty percent are illiterate. Men can divorce women on a whim, but when women choose divorce, it takes years. If granted, she typically must give up her dowry, children and most of her possessions.
Honour killings, whereby women are killed by members of their family for being raped or marrying against parents' wishes, are still punished lightly, if at all. Islamist groups in Algeria and other Arab nations rape and kidnap women, and no action is taken by the government.
Pre-9/11, like every other sentient Western female, I received e- mail after e-mail urging me to pressure "our government" to do something about the plight of women under the Taliban. Well, guess what: Something was done. But As Neil Boyd describes in Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality, the hard left stance of feminism precludes acknowledgement. Instead: BUSH LIED! ILLEGAL WAR!! PEACE NOW!!!
The history behind this disconnect is revealed by an extraordinary memoir. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, which has sat on the New York Times bestseller list for most of this year, last week at number one, is a brutally frank account of what happened when Islamists took over Iran. Nafisi's father was the youngest mayor of Tehran, and his family descended from poets and intellectuals. Nafisi, who was educated in the United States, was a Leftist who worked to get the Shah thrown out of power, and in 1979, went home to celebrate the fruits of the revolution she'd helped create -- to watch, for the next 20 years, as friend after colleague after acquaintance after family member was arrested, tortured and assassinated.
A turning point arrived for her when a highly respected woman judge was put in a sack and stoned to death by government thugs. The melding of the hard Communist left with religious extremists had created one of the most brutal governments in history. This was a regime bent on replacing your own thoughts with theirs. If you resisted, you were killed. A pair of pink socks peeking out from under a chador meant arrest, imprisonment, and if the guards were so inclined, death.
"My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that was created when our past was stolen from us," Nafisi says. "Yet we had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen, and the wind they had never felt on their own faces. This generation had no past."
Nafisi's architect husband regrets his early, thoughtless hard- left activism. We'll live with this guilt for the rest of our lives, he tells her, as they finally make their plans to leave their beloved country. Western feminism will live with that guilt too.