The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, May 9, 2014

Weaponizing Women

It’s Much Worse than Any War on Women

Baseball and English language-mangling legend Yogi Berra was once asked why he no longer patronized Ruggeri’s, a well-known St. Louis restaurant.  Yogi replied, “The place is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore.”   After reading the second dozen set of columns/articles bewailing why nobody is writing about the kidnapped Nigerianschoolgirls, I think I better understand what he meant.

The girls in question are from northern Nigeria.  They were abducted from a government run school featuring Western-style education by a group called Boko Haram.  The group’s name translates as "Western education is forbidden."  It is particularly hostile to the education of women.  It has threatened to sell the girls or have them married to its members before allowing them to be retrieved.
A Muslim woman endures caning as
punishment under sharia law.

In light of the growing outrage, Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson defended his government’s efforts to date and vowed to do more to find the girls.  For his part, President Obama called the abductions "outrageous" and "heartbreaking'' and sent experts and other assistance.

Boko Haram has a long history of violence, particularly since 2009, when an attempted government crackdown resulted in the arrest and subsequent execution of the group’s founder, Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf.  The group’s actual name for itself is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which is Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."  It has killed thousands of Christians and Muslims in an attempt to bring strict Islamic law to all of Nigeria.

The usual caveat by authorities is that Boko Haram is an extremist group whose views do not reflect mainstream Islam.  There is even some hesitancy to label them a terrorist organization.  However, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fellow of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Boko Haram in its goals and methods is in fact all too representative.”  She goes on to condemn “Baffled Westerners, who these days seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as ‘Islamophobes’ than to stand up for women's most basic rights.”

Proponents of Islam like to point out the rights granted to women in the Qur'an and by the prophet Muhammad were a vast improvement in comparison to the situation of women in Arabia prior to the advent of Islam.  Most historians agree this is true but some note, “After the Prophet's death the condition of women in Islam began to decline and revert back to pre-Islamic norms.”

There is no question that women often suffer disproportionally in contemporary Islamic communities under traditional sharia law, even those lacking extremist groups.  Recently, a twenty-five year old widow in Banda Aceh, Indonesia was invaded in her home and gang raped by a group of five men because she allegedly was having an affair with a married man.  The Jakarta Globe reports the rapists then dragged the woman to the Wilayatul Hisbah or sharia police.

Most of us would view this woman as a victim and survivor requiring healing and compassion.  However, Ibrahim Latif, a regional sharia official, insists the woman and her lover should both be publicly beaten nine strokes with a cane for the crime of adultery.  He did not see the woman’s brutal rape as extenuating circumstances but he did concede the rapists also warranted nine strokes with a cane for their actions.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports other cases from the region.  In 2010, three sharia policemen raped a twenty-year-old university student after they found her riding a motorcycle with her boyfriend.  In 2012, a sixteen-year-old girl hanged herself after sharia police published her full name in local media and scolded her for acting “like a prostitute” with friends at a concert.

This week, Malala Yousafzai announced her solidarity with the abducted Nigerian girls.  Yousafzai is the Pakistani teenager who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, also for attending a Western school for girls.

The problem is that an attack on Islam will do nothing to help the girls and simply enflame passions against the West.   More to the point, Islam is not the only – or even the primary – institution that should be targeted for action in countries like Nigeria and Indonesia.  Instead, it is the secular governments of these countries that need to be held more accountable.

To be clear, these governments are not in league with extremists but they have been notoriously passive.  In Nigeria, the BBC reports long-standing tensions between the Muslim-dominated north and Christian-centric south.  “Many Muslim families still refuse to send their children to government-run ‘Western schools,’ a problem compounded by the ruling elite which does not see education as a priority.”  In Indonesia, Ismail Hasani, a scholar at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University explains, “When we talk about law [here], we talk about three different systems that are not clearly delineated – common law, sharia law and national law. There is no boundary.” 

Lauren Wolfe, Director of Women Under Siege project in New York, recently penned an op/ed piece in the Winnipeg Free Press in which she argues, “Crimes against women and girls are not only commonplace, but they go ignored, unprosecuted and unreported by the international media every single day, especially when they occur in the global south . . . Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized.  It is targeting society's most defenseless and fetishized.”  Hires Ali makes the same point in her Journal piece.   “Where governments are weak, corrupt or nonexistent, the message of Boko Haram and its counterparts is especially compelling.”

Attacks against women serve an even more sinister end.  Rape and other crimes against women are often devastating not only to the victims but to the other members, male and female, within their families and communities.  Muslim extremists are not merely waging literal war on women but using women as weapons against any who will not accept their version of "pure" Islam.  

While boundaries between different religions, cultures, and nationalities are worthy of respect, there are certain concepts of basic dignity that are universal.  Fair treatment of women, especially the most young and vulnerable, is one of them.  Governments everywhere must take a stand to protect their citizens rather than protecting themselves from political displeasure by groups within that citizenry.  Currently, we paradoxically state, much like Yogi Berra, the problem is so important that nobody does anything about it. 

Outrage we got.  What we need is action.