Quranic verse 4:34:
“Allah has made men superior to women because men spend their wealth to support them. Therefore, virtuous women are obedient, and they are to guard their unseen parts as Allah has guarded them. As for women whom you fear will rebel, admonish them first, and then send them to a separate bed, and then BEAT them. But if they are obedient after that, then do nothing further; surely Allah is exalted and great!”
In a modern civil society like ours most people are treated fairly well. Of course there are some injustices. But the average citizen is treated with respect and dignity. And most of us are robust enough to encounter the occasional slight without it unduly ruffling our feathers.
Sometimes in our efforts to ensure that we don’t discriminate or unduly offend, we provide a platform for those who want to be victims and for their own personal ends contrive to be victims. We have a prime minister who, when is criticised, runs to the defence of misogyny. And then there are the indigenous activists that take offence regarding remarks about the colour of their skin. Or we announce a Royal Commission into pedophilia and immediately out of the closets emerge many keen to assert their victimhood and claim monetary compensation.
Misogyny as we will shortly see is a terrible affliction on human society and I would never seek to defend it. Racism is equally abhorrent and I would decry any attempts to denigrate anybody on the basis of race. But the confected offence of the indigenous apologists in our capital cities has never made an iota of difference to those suffering the deprivations common in our remote indigenous communities. And as for pedophilia, it is difficult to imagine anything more odious than adults taking advantage of children for sexual gratification. But I wonder if a Royal Commission is more motivated by a government seeking to be populist rather than having real concerns for the victims and how the vulnerable might be better protected in the future.
And surely there are real victims in our society. It is important that we protect the vulnerable and recognise and learn from our failures to do so. But as usual I would say that our efforts to make people more resilient bear greater rewards than our efforts to protect them from slights either real or imagined.
But in our world there occasionally arise such travesties of justice and abrogation of morality and fairness that we impugn our own humanity by ignoring them. I believe that the treatment of women in Afghanistan (and in some of the other less enlightened Muslim communities) is a case in point. The intervention of America and her allies into Afghanistan seems doomed to failure. However, if nothing else, it gave some support for a time to the elevation in that society of women to be more than men’s chattels.
Whilst we rail against the edicts of fundamentalist Islam that puts inordinate restrictions on women, it is easy to forget that even in Western society women’s rights have only been recognised in the last one hundred years. Law and social convention were stacked against women. Even in the West men conspired to keep women in a servile and second-class status. Bishop John Shelby Spong reminds us that “in biblical days women were defined as property, which enabled men to justify polygamy – for surely it was a man’s right to ‘own’ as many women as his wealth would allow.”
This inferior status of women is evidenced in the fact until recent times those entering into a marriage contract were not treated equally. Historically, a woman had to take a vow of obedience to her husband at the time of marriage. This is still an expectation in most Muslim marriages.
It would be nice to believe that we now know better than that. I suspect most of us in Australian society do. But there is still in our community men who act as though their wives and partners are less than human. Fortunately that is a minority and our social conventions act against them. But in some Muslim societies many men still treat their women as chattels and their social conventions support such aberrant behaviour. And Afghanistan seems to provide the most vivid examples. According to an article by Marja Abi-Habib in the Wall Street Journal there is a litany of injustices carried out against women in Afghanistan including such travesties as these:
1. A fourteen year old girl imprisoned for adultery after being raped by her adult cousin who remains a free man.
2. The Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s government funded supreme religious authority, decreed that husbands were allowed to beat their wives if they showed disobedience.
3. Women have been stoned for alleged adultery (whereas males participating in the adultery are seldom punished).
4. A young woman, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for promoting the education of young women.
5. Women who flee an abusive life are pursued by family members and harmed (sometimes killed) for “dishonouring” the family.
6. The Taliban destroy schools and intimidate young women who seek education.
7. Women can be punished for something as trivial as leaving their place of abode without appropriate male accompaniment.
Such obscenities are not confined to Afghanistan. An article by Ann Louise Bardach related the following:
• Saudi women are not allowed to drive, to marry whom they want or to travel without written permission from a male guardian, and they are the target of frequent searches by the Mutawwai’in, the dreaded religious police.
[Ali Al-Ahmed, Director of the Saudi Institute reported to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Jun 4, 2002: “Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents women from driving, studying law and engineering, directly selling or buying property, attending court (even when accused of murder), and showing their faces in public.”]
• In 1990, Iraq issued a decree effectively allowing men to kill their wives, daughters or sisters for adultery.
• In Pakistan, current penal laws stipulate stoning to death as the maximum penalty for murder. Women have been stoned to death for confected cases of adultery or sexual promiscuity. Unlike men, however, an accused woman is not allowed to testify on her own behalf. Women who claim to have been raped are often imprisoned for committing ‘zina’, sex outside marriage. In maximum-sentence rape cases, women’s testimonies carry no weight. They must produce four adult, pious, male Muslims who actually witnessed the crime. An estimated 2000 women languish in Pakistani jails under ordinances governing such crimes as ‘zina’.
Add to this is the appalling practice of “honour killing”. Countries where the law allow men to kill female relatives include:
• Jordan: Part of article 340 of the Penal Code states that “he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty.”
• Syria: Article 548 states that “He who catches his wife or one of his ascendants [sic], descendants or sister committing adultery (flagrante delicto) or illegitimate sexual acts with another and he killed or injured one or both of them benefits from an exemption of penalty.”
• Morocco: Article 418 of the Penal Code states “Murder, injury and beating are excusable if they are committed by a husband on his wife as well as the accomplice at the moment in which he surprises them in the act of adultery.”
Then there is of course the issue of genital mutilation. It is sometimes euphemistically called “female circumcision”. Male circumcision (not that I am recommending it) involves the removal of the front part of the prepuce, the male foreskin. From all accounts it is not very painful and doesn’t interfere significantly in the ability to perform the normal sexual functions. Female genital mutilation is abhorrent. It normally removes all or part of the clitoris; it generally removes the inner vaginal lips (which might be considered equivalent to male circumcision) but in its most extreme form involves the sewing together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a pea-size opening for the discharge of urine and blood. That is a truly abhorrent practice which is banned in Australia compelling some Muslim families to take their daughters overseas to have the procedure carried out.
On top of all this we have the added indignity of arranged marriages. Muslim women are often compelled to marry those to whom their parents (most probably the father, given the unequal power status) desire them to be wedded to. Sometimes the “brides” are mere children.
You might have also seen the debate in the newspapers some time ago about whether it should be allowable for Muslims in Australia to be able to follow the dictates of Sharia law which provides that daughters should only be allowed half the entitlements to the inheritance of a deceased parents that sons are.
Now all that I have described above – that is misogyny in the true sense of the word (recent definitional modifications by the Macquarie Dictionary not withstanding)!
What society can succeed in the long term when 50% of its citizens can have no meaningful contribution to its governance? What debased values might a society have where its principal nurturers and carers have no voice? What injustices follow when the disempowered women of a society are punished for the sexual misconduct of their menfolk?
Our society is not perfect, but we have made great inroads into the issues of inequality and discrimination. We are largely, with minor exceptions, a tolerant and inclusive society and embrace pluralism, sexual differences and wide and divergent opinions.
It is gratifying to see that we have now a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General and recently a female premier. It is difficult to argue that people are being held out of significant positions because of their gender.
(It must be said that I would have been happier if our first female prime minister had made a greater positive impact in office. But I would be the last to argue her deficiencies are gender related.)
It is pleasing to me that our womenfolk now have greater choices and are not unduly inhibited in becoming lawyers, pilots, miners, Prime Ministers, doctors or most anything they wish. But it is a concern to me that those who choose to be primarily mothers, housewives, carers, or whatever, are consistently undervalued in their contribution to our society.
I suppose a measure of our success in creating a tolerant, liberal democracy is indicated by the movement of refugees. There is an enormous wave of refugees seeking to relocate to Australia. How many Australians are fleeing our shores to embrace Islamist fundamentalism? People traffickers would have slim pickings if their value proposition was built around relocating women to Afghanistan!
I would suggest that if we are to progress the cause of egalitarianism and seek to protect those who are unjustly treated (and not just pander to those who are somehow slighted by minor or imaginary indignities) then we should be seeking to ameliorate the circumstances of the women instanced above. Those complaining about misogyny in Australia are complaining about mild irritants. In contrast the women of Afghanistan and similar societies are trying to cope with a malignant cancer.