Often when we hear the words Islam and Women, we perhaps imagine a burqa, hijab or niqab. Women in the Middle East are treated poorly: this is undeniable. Nevertheless, more interestingly, debate has been sparked on whether this is down to Islam and the misogyny that some argue is deep-rooted in the faith, or down to other factors.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is known for generating the most controversy amongst Muslims in the modern-day world as she denounces Islam for its intolerance and its incompatibility with liberal values, looks to tackle this issue with her books on women and Islam. Ayaan’s history makes her comments even more interesting. As a child she was forced into genital mutilation, then sought asylum in the Netherlands after escaping an arranged marriage, and now has been so threatened by extremists that she doesn’t go anywhere without security. While some call her an Islamophobe, she calls herself an infidel. But, her comments on the deep-rooted sexism in the Middle East and its roots with Islam are what make her such a fascinating character.
Her book, Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, showcase her views. She claims immigration from Muslim countries as the reason for the erosion of the rights of European women. Islamic men, who only know gender-segregated lives, immigrate to these Western societies. They are still attached to the ideals of their previous society where women’s modesty is legislated or where women’s only identity is shared with their husbands—she cites the German judge who released an accused rapist on the grounds he did not understand western women self-determination because he was a migrant. This is typical of her oversimplification of issues: she dismisses the often-common excuses like anti-immigration laws that create hostile environments for migrants, poverty, housing, and the segregation of religions that exist in many communities despite these all being perfectly valid and explainable causes of this failure to assimilate, but also being more plausible causes.
Many of her statistics are carefully picked to present false narratives that suggest Arab and Islamic countries are at fault for the erosion of women rights. She conveniently ignores that we also see many misogynistic practises present in majority Christian countries like the Central African Republic, South Africa and even much of South Asia. The Atlantic’s Max Fisher pointed out how in Tunisia, a misogynistic country in Ayaan’s eyes, 27% of its legislature are women, far surpassing the US’s 17%. Sexism in the Middle East is not an exclusive issue that belongs only to Muslim dominated countries; Western societies have struggled with sexism too. Reproductive healthcare in American is still under threat despite 48 years passing since the Supreme Court case of Roe vs Wade which legalised abortion. In both 2019 and 2020, ‘heartbeat’ bills which looked to ban abortion at 6 weeks were tried out. Many women do not even know they are pregnant at 6 weeks and doctors are threatened with an ‘abortion murder’ charge if they carry out abortions. These laws were endorsed by former President Donald Trump and set a dangerous precedent on the extent to which the state can interfere with the rights of women. It sends a message to the rest of the world that the country meant to be the land of the free is invading the rights of its own citizens. While some might use religion to defend these laws, revolutions, the enlightenment, Supreme Court cases and many other historic events were meant to separate religion from the political arena and liberate these women. Religion as an excuse is simply not good enough.
A 2018 report from The Guardian found 4 women every day were murdered in Brazil. Data collected by the IPEA’s Atlas report found that every 2 hours in Brazil a woman was murdered. Globally 12 million girls get married before 18: that’s 33,000 a day. The US still doesn’t provide any form of paid maternity leave. These statistics are also cherry-picked to present a narrative I want, just like Ayaan’s where. Perhaps therefore misogyny is not an Islamic problem. To say that there is no problem in the Islamic world with women’s rights are wrong, but to suggest it is exclusive to Islamic countries would be just as wrong. The point is that misogynistic cultures are widespread, from in free lands like the US to South America or South Asia amongst others. Inequality between men and women is an issue, which some say would persist whether people do or do not accept that there are inherent differences between men and women. This isn’t an Islamic problem: this is a universal problem. Liberal Countries face this, Arab countries face this and Asian countries face this: everyone does.
The 2011 World Economic Forum on national gender gaps have the bottom 25 countries as Arab countries. Many South Asian and African countries rank higher. Nonetheless, sexism is not a distinct Islamic problem like Ayaan’s book would have us believe. To put Islam at the forefront of sexism would be very wrong. As is the case for most issues, there are a multitude of reasons why sexism perpetuates. To put it simply, the erosion of women rights is not a problem only Muslim and Arab countries are confronted with, but one that is evident globally. Gender-segregated societies that are present are obviously wrong, but that misses the point. Women should be liberated in these countries, and as the issue is fought by Muslim women, women are slowly but surely becoming more liberated. One day, it is my hope that we will see a free society where men and women are truly equal all over the world.