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Giving away faithlessness
... by putting forth grand questions about religion

December 4, 2001
The Iranian

Darya Allen-Attar has put forward some interesting questions, inviting all to respond ["Questions of faith and freedom"]. While I do not believe that I have all the answers, or the right answers, I would like to hazard the risk and throw in my two cents worth, hoping that others may hurl their pearl.

The questions Darya is asking have to do with Islam. Why is the expression of a deep and abiding faith in God, and the commitment to living a moral life tantamount to living a life full of restrictions for women in so many Islamic countries? What do restrictions on women really have to do with living a life in accordance with the will of Allah? Can women ever live a faithful life in Islam with rights and restrictions, equal to those imposed on men? Will Moslem men ever be able to organize societies that are free of oppression for all? Etc...

Big questions, all, but haven't we heard them countless times at dinner parties and lecture halls or read them in books and articles? The underlying theory, or at least the impression that I get on hearing these questions, seems to be that there is one Islam, one brand of Islamic culture and one kind of Moslem man.

This assumption is so simplistic that leaves me no option but to construct one of my own, namely that people who put these questions forth, especially women, aren't really after an answer but would like to provoke their audience to enter a dialogue or brain-storming session at the end of which everyone reaches the conclusion that yes, Islam that has been practiced so far is bad and that construction of a new brand, or a new reading of it is in order. Which is fine, as long as one realizes the scope of the inquiry, and doesn't come to the table with overblown expectations.

Ironic is that by putting forth these grand questions people accomplish little more than giving away their own faithlessness, because these types of questions are always asked by people who either don't believe in God or do not believe in the religion that Mohammad brought. Or if they believe in Islam, theirs is an ineffective use of Islam, something that should be kept to oneself and not preached about. You never hear a devout Moslem wondering "Why do Islamic societies prescribe restrictions on women, and why do these women abide by them?"

A brief overview of the varied customs of the "Islamic World" (and nothing like female circumcision in Africa can crystallize the point) reveals the rather mundane truth that many misogynistic practices have indeed a solid footing in the sexual politics of those societies, and have nothing to do with Islam.

From the Central African "Islamic" cultures practicing the horrific ritual of female circumcision to Islamic cultures in Asia where women have reached the highest positions of government service and industry, Islam has always been a tool in the hands of politicians to condemn or endorse concepts that promote their status. Those who seek to keep women down in Central Africa would have the world understand that circumcision is the tradition of Mohammad himself and what they are doing to little girls is nothing short of what Allah ordained.

But the irony becomes apparent in those African countries such as Egypt where the official religion is the kind of Islam that prohibits female circumcision, yet in the southern areas of the country the ceremony is performed with zeal. And in those Central African nations that have long converted to Christianity, yet practice female circumcision with the same fervor as their Moslem neighbors.

The only resolution I can think of is that in the final analysis, female circumcision and mutilation seems to be the preferred way of female oppression in some societies, just as, say, women not having the voting rights has in countries such as Kuwait. Or can anyone be sure that women in China have it better just because Islam is not practiced in their society?

Following the same logic, as little benefit as I see in adopting Islamic codes and laws or trying to adapt them to the modern world, I hesitate to pronounce Islam the culprit in the same way that I would hesitate to pronounce any religion as responsible for holding women back. The condition that women are in is the result of thousands of years of oppression and although they have made gains in the past century or so, a long and treacherous road is ahead of them in the third world.

I recognize two factors helping women in this struggle, namely their own resolve and commitment and, secondly, camaraderie and cooperation of far-sighted and enlightened men.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Massud Alemi

By Massud Alemi

Alemi's features index


Questions of faith and freedom
Does the exercise of power by a woman make her a prostitute?
By Darya Allen-Attar

Darke maa shodan
Traditional vs. modern notions of marriage
By Maral Karimi

Making sense of faith and culture
Women turn the most patriarchal elements of shari'a law to their advantage
By Fereydoun Safizadeh

Second class
The legal status of Iranian women
By Mehrangiz Kar

The women we wanted to be
A simple recounting --- and nothing else
By Laleh Khalili

Right to choose
First protests against mandatory hijab
Compiled by Pedram Missaghi


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