Opinion: Women Are Stand-in for All That Enrages

Islamic extremists dehumanize women, viewing them as symbols-temptress, goddess, child, mother-ruling out authentic rights, respect and parity for individuals.

Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)-Among the forces fueling terrorism among religious extremists is a terrifying rage against women. Women have become the symbol of all that seems “evil” about the West and modernism. In this worldview, women are not flesh-and-blood individuals with different talents, dreams and desires. They are merely tokens and must be treated all alike.

Evidence of this anger at women has surfaced all around us recently. Mohammed Atta, the terrorist who crashed one of the hijacked airliners into a World Trade Center tower, left instructions for his burial that included the dictate that no women ever be allowed to visit his grave.

And from inside Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, in recent days have come not just reports of the brutalization of women, but actual images, smuggled out via hidden camera. One chilling sequence of pictures, grainy black-and-white, showed several women, veiled head to toe, being driven onto a football field in Kabul and then dragged out of the truck and forced to kneel before a crowd of howling men. They were then shot in the head. Sources said the reasons were alleged adultery, prostitution or being related to the “wrong” people. Other pictures showed Taliban vice police beating a woman because her veil had slipped.

Are we seeing the future, as well as the past? Will economic and social forces now unleashed put at grave peril the gains women have made in much of the world? Radical versions of Islam are spreading rapidly through Africa. The Rev. Benjamin Kwashi, the Anglican bishop of Jos, a Nigerian city where 500 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians in September, told The New York Times:

“Islam is growing very fast. For many Africans, it makes more sense to reject America and Europe's secular values, a culture of selfishness and half-naked women, by embracing Islam.” Here, again, female sexuality is equated with all the failings of the West.

Citing Islamic Law, Nigerians Sentence Woman to Death by Stoning

Hard-line Islamic law was once totally unknown in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 114 million inhabitants. It has grown from one small Nigerian state in 1999 to a third of the country's 36 states today. In one such state, a teen-age girl was given 100 cane strokes for premarital sex; another woman has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

But such rage against women is not a hallmark of moderate Islam. In modern Muslim states, women serve in government, work as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen, and they are accorded civil rights.

As Malaysian journalist Zuraidah Ibrahim writes in the Straits-Times: “It is a mystery what strictures the Taliban go by when it dehumanizes women in this way. Women's rights to education and knowledge, financial independence and participation in public life are enshrined in Islam, in so many parts of the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad.”

But the puritanical, fanatical brand of Islamic fundamentalism embraced by Osama bin Laden appears to be racing through the Arab street and elsewhere around the world. In times of great upheaval, women become surrogates for society as a whole. The behavior of women becomes a stand-in for a host of issues, public and private. Family “honor” is one of the private issues.

A young man in his 20s in Jordan fatally shot his 16-year-old sister in the head because she had been a victim of rape, which had dishonored the family. The young man told a reporter, “Girls are like dishes.” If they break, they are useless, he explained.

Tendency to See Women as Collection of Myths Dehumanizes Them

To this young man, his sister was crockery. To others, the metaphors are grander. The tendency for women to be seen as a collection of myths-and the way in which this dehumanizes them-was a major part of the argument of American feminism. Back in the 1970s, Vivian Gornick wrote:

“I am not real to my civilization. I am not real to the culture that spawned me and made use of me. I am only a collection of myths. I am an existential stand-in. The idea of me is real-the temptress, the goddess, the child, the mother-but I am not real. The mythic proportions of women are recognizable and real; it is only the human dimensions that are patently false and will be denied to the death: our death.”

How appropriate those words would seem if uttered by an Afghan woman today.

Now, women have become the symbols of a clash between what New York Times columnist Tom Freidman calls the “Lexus and the Olive Tree,” the title of one of his books. It is the conflict of an emerging global capitalism in which modernity, capitalism and westernization compete with local custom, tradition and religion. The former promotes what media scholar Joshua Meyerowitz terms “no sense of place.”

The McDonald's on Main Street, USA, looks just like the McDonald's on Main Street, Singapore. Masses of people get instant information about Western cultures, so people all over the world drink Coke and see American movies. This force reduces the power of local political and religious leaders and of local culture and tradition. It also promotes equal roles for women and chips away at male domination.

But globalization also has winners and losers, and many see both Arab nations and Africa as being among the losers. Many regimes in the region are despotic and some corrupt, with the result that there are few democratic channels for dissent and disaffection. At the same time, as journalist-scholar Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek, the West and America seem unstoppable.

Disaffected Young Men Enraged by Unveiled Women in Public Places

“If you close the borders, America comes in through the mail. If you censor the mail, it appears in the fast food and faded jeans. If you ban the products, it seeps in through satellite television,” writes Zakaria.

At the same time, the Arab world is undergoing a youth explosion, with more than half the population under 25. Young men leave their villages to go to the cities and find, too often, underemployment and misery. And as Zakaria notes, “Most unsettlingly, they see women, unveiled and in public places, taking buses, eating in cafes and working alongside them.”

In Africa, the residue of colonialism and failed indigenous regimes has created poverty and a sense of dislocation, especially among men. To these disaffected young men, a bin Laden with his extravagant language about a great and pure Muslim world more noble than the one created by the infidels of the West has great appeal.

And in this scenario, women become, once again, not individuals but symbols. Freedom of women becomes the powerlessness of men. Women veiled from head to foot become the defeat of the West and all that is un-Islamic.

If the forces of a traditionalist, anti-modern brand of Islam prevail, the rights of women will be rolled back. Women fare poorly under strict religious regimes, because their subordination is somehow cast as divinely ordained. Many historians believe that men took control of religion in the ancient past as a way to rival women's powers to have children and reproduce life.

In Hunter-Gatherer Days, Women and Men Were Partners in Survival

In hunter-gatherer days, men and women were partners in survival, but as this way of life faded into a settled agricultural existence, male gods replaced the old harvest and mother goddesses, and women lost status. Historian Gerda Lerner writes, “By the time men began to symbolically order the universe and the relationship of humans to god, the subordination of women had become so completely accepted that it appeared ‘natural' both to men and women.”

So woman became to Aristotle the half-human who has more reason than a child or slave, but much less than a man. Eve became to Christians the symbol of the weak female, tempting men to evil. And to hijacker-terrorist Mohammed Atta, woman was the unclean creature who was forbidden to touch his corpse or visit his grave.

It's clear that the rights of women must be kept on the front burner in the post-Sept. 11 world. It's easy for women to be forgotten in time of upheaval and chaos. A chorus of voices, male and female, must be raised in both the West and the East to say that the human and political rights of women must not be trampled.

The hard-won rights of women-and those yet to be won-must not be subordinated. Not to a cleric's vision, a terrorist's dream-or to any young man's rage.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.