The Left Must Do More to Support Women in the Muslim World

The fact that women remain systemically disadvantaged in much of the West should be self-evident to anyone willing or inclined to give reality an honest appraisal. Gaps in earnings, wide-scale harassment of all varieties, and enduring social norms continue to plague women on a significant scale. These kinds of injustices matter and contemporary feminists have every right to be vociferous warriors in their attempts to reshape the status quo into a more equitable world.

Those genuinely motivated to alleviate the suffering of women — as opposed to those drawn to “social justice” as a political identity for less noble reasons — should be disturbed by an increasingly prevalent trend within the corridors of the liberal intelligentsia. As I hope to demonstrate, the disparate responses to the inequity of women in the west and the suffering of women through much of the Muslim world are both truly consequential and utterly astonishing.

While the impulse within the Left (disclosure: I consider myself a liberal, at least in the classical sense) to defend minority cultures from criticism is born of genuinely admirable intuitions, it can have an inimical effect on the very people they’re trying to protect when clung to dogmatically.

To be clear, my criticism of the Left should not suggest a drop of sympathy for those, generally residing on the Right, who seek to discriminate against Muslim people . I have none. As I will spell out elsewhere, there is a clear distinction between criticizing ideas and expressing bigotry against people. Cultures have no rights, but the people within them do. It should be clear that progress is synonymous with the death of many ‘traditional’ practices and anachronisms our species has treasured for centuries (think the heterosexual exclusivity of marriage, segregation, sati, animal sacrifice, trepanation etc.) Every keystroke, however strident, that appears in this essay rests upon a single premise: those who believe in basic human rights should assert them universally, and our failure to do so is at the expense of women and Muslim reformers throughout the world. [If you’re feeling agitated, you may want to read that again]

In characterizing the nature of the problem, it’s tempting to pull from the bottomless well of appalling anecdotes — the women in Iran imprisoned or stoned to death for the crime of being raped, the mangled faces of girls whose fathers thought an encounter with battery acid to be an appropriate response to a furtive glance at a local boy, the sex slaves of divine militias, or the more ordinary tales of women beaten for modest expressions of autonomy. While atrocities like those just listed appear virtually infinite in quantity, and offer a glimpse into a seemingly foreign universe we must ethically grapple with, they are too easily shrugged off as individual incidents not representative of larger society. As we will see, this is a claim that fails to survive scrutiny.

Switching to a wider lens only allows us to view this deplorable landscape more fully. Our eyes may fall upon Saudi Arabia where, as of this writing, 27.5 million of its citizens are prescribed to house arrest in the absence of male supervision, are forbidden from operating a car, and lack the right to choose clothing that doesn’t resemble a garbage bag (abaya). These are but a few of the prohibitions you can expect for the crime of lacking a Y chromosome, and only the ones enforced by the state (as opposed to the home.) While Saudi Arabia may be among the most energetic and shameless in enshrining the oppression of women into law, they are hardly anomalous in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.

We may be tempted to view these legal travesties as mere products of corrupt regimes animated entirely by other motivations, but the very notions underwriting these injustices often enjoy societal support on a massive scale. In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey investigating Muslim attitudes towards women in a number of societies. The findings were hardly encouraging. More than 80% of Muslims polled in Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and a number of South and South East Asian countries either “completely” or “mostly” agree that women must always obey their husbands. That figure jumps to more than 90% in Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. What’s worse, many notoriously conservative Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman would not allow their populations to be polled, suggesting that the picture being painted before us is potentially less terrifying than the reality it attempts to depict. Questions about whether women should be permitted to divorce their husbands, receive equal inheritance to their male relatives, or dress as they please invite similarly depressing responses.

It’s worth noting that the preceding analysis does not consider generic abuse or honor violence — explored here in an Amnesty International study, and documented by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in her forceful documentariesSaving Face and A Girl in the River, both Academy Award Winners — and other practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) that are also shockingly widespread throughout Africa and some parts of the Middle East. A recent UNICEF reportconcluded that FGM is “nearly universal among girls and women of reproductive age in Egypt,” with “nearly universal” meaning 87%. While neither FGM nor Honor Killings originate in Islamic scriptures, their continued prevalence within some regions of the Muslim world suggest that the paranoia surrounding female sexuality has made these barbaric practices resilient.

Based on a report by UNICEF, titled “Female Genital Mutilation: A Global Concern”

If you suspect that these women are more or less content to suffer these atrocities in deference to their own cultural norms, consider that, by some estimates, several thousand Afghan women a year would rather burn themselves alive than endure further abuse.

As noted by an article in the International Journal of Burns and Trauma, accessible through the NIH, “Forms of violence against women in Afghanistan include Bad and Badal, along with the practice of exchanging girls for cattle or material goods. [The] majority of self immolation victims had attempted to kill themselves as a result of violence in the family.” Afghanistan’s own Ministry of Public Health echoed this sentiment in a report released in September 2014, “Gender-based violence is among the main causes for women’s suicides and self-immolation. According to research, the most common reason for self-immolation is forced or child marriage.” The Ministry’s report concluded that the country’s depraved misogyny had produced “4136 cases of self-immolation from 30 provinces” since the beginning of the year.

Is this a status quo we can tolerate, much less respect? And yet institutions as austere and credible as The New York Times have expressed no compunction in asserting the mere acknowledgement of this suffering to be, to use the fashionable term, “problematic.” In describing, and clearly endorsing, the prevailing position of intersectional feminists, Bina Shah states that, to such enlightened thinkers, those of us in the West have (emphasis mine) “willfully misrepresented the plight of Afghan women.” Shah then quotes Spogmai Akseer’s spectacular claim that the common portrayal of Afghan women as victims “has served only to justify an imperialist invasion disguised as a humanitarian rescue mission.” It would seem no moral concern is uncontaminated by the diabolical tentacles of Western Imperialism. Such conspiratorial hysteria would be hilarious were it not so dangerous.

These statistics may not be perfect, but they reveal, undeniably, that massivenumbers of people in the Islamic world — whatever the margin of error — have attitudes toward women that demand our ill-concealed dismay and harshest condemnation. While our supply of moral outrage is perpetually lacking for the Muslim world, we spare no opportunity to set loose our virtuous fury within the West. No conceivable perpetrator is spared the righteous sword of our moral superiority. That is, as long as he fits our carefully selected profile.

A Left Eye Blind

If you have an appetite for absurdity, consider the case of Matt Taylor. Along with his NASA collaborators, Taylor, a British project scientist, succeeded in landing a module on a comet 300 million miles away from earth. What could possiblyovershadow this astounding feat of ingenuity, which some have called one of the greatest technological achievements in human history?

A bowling shirt, apparently.

You can witness Taylor’s offensive monstrosity of a shirt here.

If you’ve spent any time lurking the halls of social media, the mechanics of the subsequent fallout leave little to the imagination. Predictably, a deranged digital lynch mob descended upon the poor geek, with many calling (through frothing mouths) for Taylor to lose his job. Yes, a man who played a pivotal role in landing something on a comet, should be forcibly removed from his life’s work because he wore a campy, ridiculous shirt with a few bikini-clad cartoons. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the shirt was worn at the insistence of a friend who created it — a friend who happens to be female.

I’m not saying that any criticism of Taylor’s choice in shirt is unfounded. Yes, perhaps it would be wiser to wear something less conspicuous given our important efforts to promote greater participation among females in science, and the pseudo-Hawaiian orgy of colors is an atrocity of taste if nothing else. Rational people can have these conversations. The perversity worth recognizing is the breathtaking lack of proportionality — the kilotons of venomous ink unleashed toward the least malicious “oppressor” of female rights conceivable, a fact made all too evident by his traumatized, weeping apology.

While valiant Social Justice Warriors mount another head to their trophy case of destroyed reputations, the unrelenting misery inflicted upon tens of millions of women throughout the Islamic world is reliably met with platitudes and silence. This sort of deluded thinking exists in open defiance to rudimentary logic, compassion, and integrity. For such a thorough perversion of one’s moral intuitions to take hold in the brain, it must surely be beaten into shape by external forces, like the dogmatic commitment not to offend the cultures of our neighbors, no matter the cost.

The Left’s flimsy response to the plight of Muslim women is surely born of understandable causes. In an increasingly polarized political environment that has re-energized xenophobic attitudes and anti-Muslim bigotry, the impulse not to criticize individual cultures and the specific, well-subscribed doctrines that luxuriate within them may seem like an exercise in measured wisdom. But the Left must recognize that its own righteous motivations, too, can be susceptible to distortions in thinking — the sort that render us paralyzed when confronted with uncomfortable truths.

If you care about the rights of women and the quality of their lives — really care about them — then you must recognize that the status quo in much of the Islamic World is absolutely intolerable, especially for women.

Liberals cannot let right-wing bigots be the only ones capable of stringing together two sentences that make sense on this topic, because the latter will use this reality to oppress Muslims. The failure of the Left to examine this issue honestly ensures the lack of reasonable alternatives to the xenophobia of the Right.

Again, one can criticize beliefs without harboring animus towards whole groups ofpeople. This seems to be a riddle depressingly few people can wrap their head around. Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist extremist turned counter-extremist and Muslim reformer, crystallizes this distinction with his maxim, “No idea is above scrutiny, just as no people are beneath dignity.”

The battle to defend minorities against harassment and bigotry is a war well-worth fighting, but we can’t overlook the minorities within minorities while waging it : the liberal Muslims who do want to challenge their faith and transform it into a true ”religion of peace,” the women who don’t want to wear a hijab or participate in the proud ancient tradition of having their husband selected for them under threat of violence or disowning. These people exist, and they’re among the most important people inhabiting our world at this moment in history.

They are worth defending.