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Trevor Blake: NOW and Muslim Women, 19 December 2007

Previously, in Where Are You Now? and NOW and Sharia, I asked why the National Association of Women had made no comment about a woman who was sentenced to 200 lashes by an Islamic court for the crime of being outside unaccompanied by a male relative (this after she was gang raped). After global protest, none of it from NOW, the King of Saudi Arabia gave her a pardon. As far as I know, NOW continues to remain silent on her fate. But NOW has (as of 19 December 2007) placed a link to Muslim Women: Damsels in Distress? by Soumaya Ghannoushi on their Web site. NOW precedes the link with a disclaimer reading “NOW recognizes the importance of the information conveyed in the links below, but does not necessarily endorse the content.” Weak praise offered after others fought their fight for them.

From Ghannoushi’s essay:

It seems that Muslim women – particularly those living in western capitals- are destined to remain besieged by two debilitating discourses, which though different in appearance, are one in essence. The first of these is conservative and exclusionist, sentencing Muslim women to a life of childbearing and rearing, lived out in the narrow confines of their homes at the mercy of fathers, brothers, and husbands. Revolving around notions of sexual purity and family honour, it appeals to religion for justification and legitimisation. The other is a ‘liberation’ discourse that vows to break Muslim woman’s bondage and free her of the oppressive yoke of an aggressive, patriarchical, and backward society. She is a mass of powerlessness and enslavement; the embodiment of seclusion, silence, and invisibility. Her only hope of deliverance from the cave of veiling and isolation lies in the benevolent intervention of this force of emancipation. It will save her from her hellishly miserable and bleak existence, to the promised heaven of enlightenment and progress. It is a game of binaries that pits one stereotype against another: the wretched caged female Muslim victim and her ruthless jailer society against an idealised ‘west’ that is the epitome of enlightenment, rationalism, and freedom. Those escapees who leave the herd are held up as living testimonies to the arduousness of transition from the twilights of tribe, religion and tradition, to the dawn of reason, individualism, and liberation.

I suggest that there is a world of difference between the West and the Muslim world, and that it is not at all ‘one in essence.’ Even if I were to grant in full Ghannoushi’s claim that women in the West are patronized, this is not the same at all as women being stoned to death, having their genitals mutilated, or being subject to honor killings – all part of the Muslim day to day world. If Ghannoushi can’t tell the difference between being belittled and being beheaded, let her try both on for size and see if direct experience counts for more than abstract politics. Or perhaps Ghannoushi might care to comment on how Nazia and her husband Mumtaz celebrated Eid ul Adha, the Islamic ritual of sacrifice, this past week. Is there a difference between what Nazia experienced and, say, a woman getting passed by in a promotion for a job due to her gender? I say yes, Ghannoushi says no. In their cultural relativism and abstract politics, Ghannoushi and NOW have a hands-off policy of women getting their hands cut off.

NOW has lost any standing it may have once had as an advocate of women’s rights.