Tearing Off the Veil:
Women and Islamic Fundamentalism
"The day the l.M.F. says you cannot get a loan unless you repeal all the laws which justify aggression against women, believe me, we will have another planet."
As the influence of Islamic fundamentalism spreads, more and more women are fleeing its repressive laws - compelling Western nations to deal with such cruel traditions as forced marriages, honor killings, and "female circumcision." ANN LOUISE BARDACH discussed the plight of women in the world's fastest-growing religion with Muslims and non-Muslims in Africa, England, France, Canada, and the United States.
In April 1991, a 22-year-old Saudi student arrived at Montreal's Mirabel Airport and requested asylum on the unprecedented grounds of gender persecution. The woman, who has asked that she be identified only as Nada, told authorities that if Canada forced her to return to Saudi Arabia her life would be in danger. Her crime, she said, was walking outside her home without being fully veiled - that is, enveloped from head to toe in a black chador. Initially, Nada's request for asylum was rejected, Canadian officials being reluctant to believe that women in Saudi Arabia today live as second- or third-class citizens. They 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 and random searches by the mutawah, the dreaded religious police.
In January of this year, following an international outcry, Canadian immigration finally granted Nada's petition. However, it was made thunderously clear that this was an "exception." One Western official, who requested anonymity, put it this way: "Consider that there are one billion Muslims in the world, so we're talking hypothetically about 500 million women who might want out."
Though this is an absurd exaggeration of the problem, his meaning is unambiguous. As Islamic fundamentalists seize the power or the social agenda of one country after another, there has been a steady flight of the affluent and the educated as well as the poor. Although there are fundamentalists operating within virtually every religion, none have achieved the stunning political successes of their Islamic counterparts.
Even such countries as Egypt and Algeria, which have fiercely resisted the fundamentalists, have tightened the screws considerably in an attempt to mollify the religious right. While fundamentalist regimes restrict the rights of all, the greatest sufferers have been women.
By selectively interpreting the Koran, the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), and Sharia (a code of religious law), most Muslim countries have legalized polygamy and repudiation - whereby a man divorces his wife simply by announcing, "I divorce you." At the same time, they deny women the right to divorce, child custody, and any community property. The issue, of course, is not Islam - the world's fastest-growing religion - but fundamentalism, which uses Islam as a billy club. The mock slogan of fundamentalists, "One Vote, One Man, Once!" is no longer a joke; for many it's the grim reality.
In the heart of Provence in France is an ancient Gallic village known for its maze of ribbon- like cobblestone streets. No doubt many of its inhabitants would be surprised to learn that their sleepy town is also the international headquarters of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, a powerful advocacy group. Such is the sensitivity of its work that I have been asked not to disclose its exact location.
Much of the strength of W.L.U.M.L. flows from its formidable 54- year old founder, an Algerian named Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas. Dressed indifferently in baggy green sweat clothes, Helie-Lucas meets me for coffee at a local outdoor cafe. With her rosy complexion, pale blue eyes, and blunt mop of white hair, she looks more like a farmer's wife than a revolutionary. In sharp contrast to her friendly mien are her opinions - vehement, lucid, and uncompromising. First off, she is eager to make known her concern over the ever - increasing fundamentalist activity in all religions. However, she likens the last decade for Muslim women to "the Dark Ages. " Though she skillfully dodges personal questions, it is no coincidence that she arrived in France soon after Algeria's imposition of the Family Code. "In May 1984, we lost the right to marry whom we want, to divorce, and the custody of our children," she says, "while polygamy and repudiation for men were legalized. The Family Code is pure apartheid. It discriminates against half the population."
Helie-Lucas attributes much of the success of Islamic fundamentalism to a knee-jerk rejection of nearly a century of colonialism. The death of the U.S.S.R. and the systematic attacks on Leftist parties in general eliminated the only significant political opposition. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Africa, she says, "where the spread of Islam has been recent and rapid." The adoption of Islam as a religion is to some extent a rejection of the colonists and their Christianity, she explains, "and is quite a shocker" considering the dominant role of Arabs in the slave trade.
"Islamic fundamentalism is not a religious movement," Helie-Lucas says wearily, and I sense that she has made this argument hundreds of times, "it is a political movement. It is the extreme right wing using religion as a cover. Yes, it is a populist movement, which therefore gives it legitimacy. But we should never forget that Hitler was a populist. Hitler was elected. It is the Fascism of today." She points out the ongoing persecution, even murder, of Islamic scholars who dare to refute the party line. "Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was [executed] in the Sudan in 1985, and having one of his books in your house today will take you to your death," she says. (There have also been repeated attacks on secular writers critical of fundamentalism such as the Egyptian novelist Farag Fouda, who was gunned down while leaving his office in Cairo in 1992. This past May, the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout was murdered by "Muslim terrorists," according to the Algerian police.)
In fluent English, she rattles off some of the most heinous developments regarding women in the Muslim world:
**In 1990, Iraq issued a decree allowing men to kill their wives, daughters, or sisters for adultery.
**In Pakistan, the current penal laws stipulate stoning to death for adulteresses. Women who claim to be raped are often imprisoned for having committed zina, sex outside of marriage. To prove that a rape occurred, women must produce four male witnesses. Under the law, the testimony of a woman carries only half the weight of a man's. In rape cases, women's testimony carries no weight. Prior to these laws, an estimated 70 women were imprisoned in Pakistan. Presently, at least 6,000 women languish in jail.
**In India in 1986, Muslim women who had been divorced lost the right to receive alimony.
**Honor killings are not uncommon in parts of the Muslim world, and are rareIy prosecuted. Should a father believe that his wife or daughter has dishonored the family, it is his prerogative to punish - even kill - her.
Helie-Lucas relishes demonstrating the arbitrariness of the so-called Islamic laws. "In Algeria, contraception and abortion were banned because 'Islam forbids it' until the government realized that the population was exploding at more than 3.5 percent a year. Then they suddenly discovered a passage in the Koran," she says mockingly, "and legalized both. And in Africa the local mullahs make people believe that [female circumcision] is part and parcel of being a Muslim."
While some may view the disenfranchised women of Muslim countries as a pathetic adversary of the fundamentalists, Helie-Lucas cites a string of small but significant successes, won on a David and Goliath playing field. The first major victory for Women Living Under Muslim Laws came soon after Algeria instituted the Family Code, in 1984. "Three Algerian women were arrested for simply explaining to a group of illiterate women how the new laws affected them," says Helie-Lucas. For seven months the women were kept in jail, without any legal counsel. Through ferocious networking within the Islamic world, W.L.U.M.L. created sufficient embarrassment and pressure on the Algerian government, prompting them to release the women.
In the West, the group's most notable success was the case of a 20 year old student named Mansouria at the University of Toulouse, in France. In 1988, according to W.L.U.M.L., Mansouria fled from her family to a women's shelter to escape being sent back to Algeria for an arranged marriage. Her father and brothers visited her and persuaded her to step outside. Then they dragged her back to Algeria. When W.L.U.M.L. first notified French authorities of the kidnapping, they were met with total indifference. "I have it in writing from a minister that [the government] cannot interfere with Algerian internal affairs - as if the kidnapping did not take place in France!" fumes Helie-Lucas. In the meantime, Mansouria was kept prisoner in her family's home, according to W.L.U.M.L., drugged and beaten, and forced to marry a stranger. "The case was resolved by women, who located her in a city near Oran. It was like looking for a straw in a field," says Helie-Lucas. "They found a feminist lawyer and got a judge who pronounced an annulment of the marriage." Then she adds: "When there is any crime involving Algerians in France, they are prosecuted - except when the victim is a woman."
Helie-Lucas asks me if I have ever wondered about the lack of interest shown by the international community over the circumcision of some 90 million women. Did I hear about the Pakistani doctors who locked horns with the late general Mohammad Zia ul-Haq when he instituted a Sharia code that mandated the amputation of the hands of thieves? The doctors, says Helie-Lucas, "simply announced that they would refuse to perform the procedure. However, doctors in the Middle East, Africa, Italy, and even England have been known to perform female circumcisions, she says, on the grounds that it will be done properly. "When it comes to the sex of a woman, nobody saysa word. It's an interesting question," she muses. "Is the hand of a thief so much more valuable than the sex of a woman?"
A chilling development, according to Helie-Lucas, has been the spread of circumcision into countries and regions, which previously never practiced it. "In Sri Lanka, for instance, where they had a symbolic ceremony in which the knife was touching the sex of the girl, but not a drop of blood, women from fundamentalist groups are now asking for actual circumcision. Similarly in Malaysia, Indonesia. So under the banner of Islam, something which was local... ancient Egyptian, is now being spread as Islamic."
Linda Weil-Curiel, whose lovely sun-strewn office in Paris overlooks Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres, is France's premier crusader against female circumcision. "I am a defense lawyer for the victims - the silent victims, which are the babies," she explains to me, "but I work with the prosecutors."
I've come to talk to Weil-Curiel, a small, sparrowlike woman hovering near 50, about her role in the "circumcision trials" in Paris since 1988. "Do not use the word 'circumcision,'" she corrects me, "because it is very ambiguous. It's 'excision,' or 'F.G.M,' - female genital mutilation."
Weil-Curiel then provides a quick primer as the just how mutilating F.G.M. is. Performed on an estimated two million female children each year - ranging in age from infancy to adolescence - it takes one of three forms or, commonly, a gruesome combination of the three. Circumcision - the mildest form - is the removal of part of the clitoris. Excision is the cutting away of the clitoris and all of part of the vaginal lips. Infibulation, by far the most horrific procedure, involves the removal of all genital parts, followed by the sewing together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a pea-size opening for urine and blood. It is not uncommon for a child to hemorrhage to death, or to develop tetanus or septicemia, because of the crude, unhygienic tools used by some practitioners.
Most women who undergo the procedure develop secondary infections or painful, lifelong medical problems, and an estimated 20 percent die in childbirth. Moreover, F.G.M has been linked to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, due to the fact that intercourse following the procedure is invariably a bloody affair. Nevertheless, F.G.M. in one form or another, is practiced in more than 25 countries, primarily through the central belt of Africa, from Sengal to Somalia and as far north as Egypt. The operation flourishes in Yemen and Oman, and is common in Malaysia and Indonesia. While current adherents are primarily Muslim, F.G.M. goes back centuries in central Africa and Egypt, and in some societies, it has been practiced by Christians, animists, and Jews. In May, the World Health Organization adopted a resolution sponsored by several African Countries calling for the elimination of F.G.M.
In the mid-1980s, Weil-Curiel learned that the same barbarism practiced throughout much of Africa was being pursued with equal vigor about 15 minutes from her posh address. "An elderly woman who lived in the 11th Arrondissement, where Africans did not usually live," Weil-Curiel says, "wrote a letter to her landlady, telling her, 'I can't stay in this flat anymore. I can't bear the sounds of shrill cries of babies and the lines of African families waiting in the hallway.'" Alarmed and bewildered, the landlady notified the police, who quickly discovered that a Madame Hawa Guerewe was running an excision business out of her apartment.
Although the police initially investigated the situation in January 1985, her case is coming to trial only this year, because there was no follow-up. Several years later, a father rushed into an emergency room with his infant daughter, who was suffering from sever anemia due to hemorrhaging from F.G.M. "When the doctors interrogated the father," says Weil-Curiel, "he gave the name of Madame Guerewe. And this time the doctors called the police. Some don't, because they believe it is a cultural fact, even though the excision is a crime in France."
Weil-Curiel says it has been an uphill fight all the way, not only with indifferent doctors and cops but also with a very reluctant judiciary. She smiles, explaining that "because it was embarrassing, the judges did not know how to deal with it." Nor did the rest of the country. Weil-Curiel sys that the Socialists, fearful of inciting even more racism in France, tried to dodge the issue by turning the proverbial blind eye. "The didn't want to be called cultural imperialists," she said with rich sarcasm, "and the Conservatives - well, they simply didn't care. 'Who cares if the Africans butcher their children?' But the best way to stop racism is to treat the crimes of these people as firmly as we treat the crimes of French people, to say we welcome you to France, but you must respect French law."
Bordering on the surreal were the Dutch circumcision follies of last year. In their zeal to be politically correct, the Dutch seriously considered legalizing female circumcision in the Netherlands. "It had been suggested by some of our Muslim Somalian minority, and the idea was to provide a sanitary, safe environment and to allow only a nonmutilating form of the procedure," relates Sonja Zimmermann of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs with palpable embarrassment. "Of course, when they learned the actual situation, it was dropped."
The most resistant parties have been the Africans themselves, many of whom continue to cling to the mutilating practice. The most common defense, according to Weil-Curiel, is that, for a good Muslim, excision is a religious duty. In fact, the Koran offers no encouragement of the procedure. The strongest considerations involved are economic ones. Many Africans believe that unless females are excised no one will marry them, and they will therefore deprive their family of a dowry. Moreover, if an African woman is not married, she is commonly deemed worthless.
Defendants at the trials for F.G.M. according to Weil-Curiel, first mount a religious defense of being good Muslims, then protest their ignorance of its illegality. "Everybody knows," she scoff. "The day a sentence is pronounced, everybody knows what happened. They keep phoning each other. Even if they don't have a phone, or don't speak French. The news spreads back to Africa. Right away. We call it Radio Tom-Tom."
Weil-Curiel recounts the case of a young Malian woman prosecuted earlier this year. "When her baby was born, the doctor warned her, 'Do not excise this child. It is against French law, and it will have terrible effects upon her health.'" A month latter she brought her bleeding child back to the clinic. "She was infibulated," says Weil-Curiel. "Completely sewn, at one month old."
At the woman's trial, Weil-Curiel learned that the defendant was a niece of the infamous Madame Guerewe and was known to be excised herself. Nevertheless, the woman received only a one-year suspended jail term, a sentence which Weil-Curiel maintains is simply laughed at in the community. "As long as the law is not enforced," she says," it will not stop. You know, in China they said, 'Stop binding the feet of your children. Otherwise you will be shot.' That was it. Because probably a few parents were shot."
Weil-Curiel's greatest triumph was scoring a five-year sentence for a well known exciser named Aramata Keita following the death of a three-month-old infant. "The parents knew something was wrong," says Weil-Curiel, "because the child was bleeding so much. But when they called Madame Keita, she forbid them form going to the hospital, saying, 'Terrible things will happen to you.' The parents were terrified. Later, in a panic, the father called an ambulance. The doctor at the hospital who saw the baby went into shock," recalls Weil-Curiel, "because what he saw was essentially a large hole. The child bled to death." Eventually, the parents provided the police with the identity of the exciser. Currently, Keita is the only exciser behind bars in France.
In 1991, friends referred a young Malian girl named Aminata to Weil-Curiel. Aminata was seeking refugee status because, she claimed, if she were sent home she would be forcibly excised. "It is my interpretation of the Geneva convention that excision allows women to ask for refugee status," says Weil-Curiel. I won on principle, but did not win for Aminata, because of political reasons." Weil-Curiel leans forward and rolls her eyes. "Because Aminata means Africa and Africa means immigration. . . But they are wrong when they think immigration will be sudden and massive, because very few women find the courage or the help to leave their families or their country. So we should encourage those who have the guts to choose exile." Although Aminata, like Nada, has been granted residence on more neutral grounds, the relentless Weil-Curiel has now brought Aminata's case to the French Supreme Court, determined to create a judicial precedent for asylum based on sexual and gender persecution.
Perhaps the thorniest issue in French-Muslim relations is polygamy, a practice outlawed in the West, but legal in many Muslim countries, allwoing a man to have as many as four wives.
While French law recognizes only one wife, it recognizes all the children that the man has fathered. Hence, if each of the mans four wives has five children, all 20 children are entitled to the generous social benefits of France. "We call it the allocation de braguette," says Weil-Curiel with a smile, braguette meaning a man's fly. Perhaps most infuriating to the French is a popular immigration scam in which all four wives - using the name of the first wife - receive state services.
The good news, according to Weil-Curiel, is that more and more Muslim women in France are getting wise to the weak hand they've been dealt. "They discover that they have rights here," she says. "They start asking for divorces, and they learn that they can keep their children, that the children do not belong to the father. Not here."
Most of Great Britain's estimated 1.5 million Muslims are Pakistanis and Indians, who live in what were once the textile and manufacturing centers of England - Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester. "It's a very complex problem," explains Ahmed Jamal, an intensely focused filmmaker who was raised in Pakistan and now lives in London. "Some refugees are fleeing the problems at home, others are bringing them with them. Some of the problems stem from fundamentalism, but a lot is just tradition - what people believe being a good Muslim is, not what is in the Koran." As a result, in the last decade, virtually every Western country - from Sweden to Spain to the United States - has been confronted by a series of unfamiliar legal, medical, and ethical conundrums.
Jamal's recent film The Bounty Hunter triggered outrage and headlines when it has shown on British television. It documents the life and work of Tahir Mahmood, a 250-pound former cab driver from Huddersfield, who hunts down runaway wives and daughters. Many of the women are escaping physical or sexual abuse, others are trying to dodge arranged marriages, and some are just trying to finish high school.
A police investigation prompted by the film revealed that there was no British law on the books against bounty hunting. As for Mahmood, who was stunned by the public rebuke, saying he believed "he was a public servant of sorts," according to Jamal, "putting back together good Muslim families." Mahmood bragged that over the last three years he had captured more than 80 women, for roughly $7,000 a head. In the film, a father advises his son, "Don't do anything in front of these people. When you get her alone, you can kill her." Amazingly, the wife in this particular case did return, saying sheepishly, "The man who beats, you gives you love as well. It's better than living in sin."
Within a month, however, she ran off with another man, says Ulfat Riaz, an indefatigable 30-year-old women's activist, and mother of three, who runs a women's shelter in Bradford. Riaz tells me that her own arranged marriage turned out to be a happy one. "Everybody has an arranged marriage. Many are good ones. My parents are still in love," she says.
Riaz's sister Shamim Hussain, who worked for a Bradford doctor, claims there is a tremendous pressure on Pakistani women to produce sons. According to Hussain, local doctors will no longer reveal a baby's sex after amniocentesis testing, having learned that huge numbers of abortions were being done on female fetuses.
Riaz is apoplectic on the subject of Tahir Mahmood: "He says he took 78 girls home to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh last year. Does anyone know if they are alive today?" Riaz recalls a comment made to her at a recent women's conference. "This woman said to me, 'Isn't violence a part of your culture?' I was furious. I told her, 'Violence isn't part of any culture.'"
Driving by the Bradford police station, Riaz points out where hundreds of Muslims burned copies of The Satanic Verses and chanted for the death of Salman Rushdie. "Islam is used in a very negative manner by men in power," she says. "We have a woman at our refuge whose husband teaches Islam at the school! It's unbelievable." Riaz is flushed with feeling. "It was the Prophet's first wife who proposed to him! She, a woman, was the first convert to Islam! They're taking Islam backwards. They're taking out all the best bits."
Dr. Kalim Siddiqui is the West's nightmare. He's also a nightmare to many secular Muslims - and even devout ones. However, he does have a constituency, and its number is growing. A former editor at The Guardian, Siddiqui gained fame during the Rushdie scandal by urging Britain's Muslims to rally round the ayatolah's fatwa. Since then he's organized a group called the Muslim Parliament, a 150-seat assembly of his followers, but with only slim support from the Muslim community. A published "white paper" enumerates its goals: "a Muslim welfare state, a Muslim economy and a Muslim educational system," as well as the founding of an Islamic university, Muslim health centers, and a campaign to convert non-Muslims.
"The global ambitions of Islam," Siddiqui tells me on the phone from his home is Slough, near London, "are in conflict with the global ambitions of the West. Both the fundamentalists [and the West] want to use force to impose their will on the other. The roots of this conflict go back to the Crusades." Since then, according to Siddiqui, there has been a millennium of suspicion, fear, and paranoia on the part of the West regarding Muslims.
"The current revolution began in Iran," Siddiqui continues. "That was the first installment. And there are others in the pipeline, "he adds, alluding perhaps to Egypt and Algeria. With exception of Iran, he says, "all the countries on the Arab-Asian world are under occupation." When I inquire about the aspirations of moderate Muslims - the vast majority - he cuts me off. "There are no moderate Muslims," he says with annoyance. "Scratch them and you'll find a fundamentalist under every one of them. Unless they're the ruling elite of certain countries or they've been in the West so long they don't even know they're Muslims anymore."
Reportedly financed by Iran, Siddiqui faithfully mouths the Iranian party line. He denies that there has been widespread killing of Christians in the Sudan, thousands of Christians have been massacred in the South by those wanting an Islamic state. Regarding the Christian Copts in Egypt, Siddiqui says, " There is not a movement against the Copts except those that have sided with the government. Maybe one of two have been killed." In fact, hundreds of Copts have been killed.
Siddiqui advocates veiling and prohibiting gym classes in schools for Muslim girls. The chador and veiling, he says, save a woman from "being a sex symbol, as she is in the West."
"The stunning thing to me is that the strength of this movement comes just as much from the elite," says Geraldine Brooks, who has been covering the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal since 1987. "Its not just the illiterate, powerless, impoverished people. When I walk in the streets of Jordan - one of the more moderate countries - maybe one out of three women is veiled. But when you go to the university there, almost all of the women are wearing veils."
Mai Yamani, an Oxford anthropologist and the daughter of a former Saudi oil minister, who splits her time between London and Saudi Arabia, has taught at the university in Jidda in recent years. "I've lectured to many women there, and they simply memorize everything. Once, I asked for some analysis, and they were just terrified. They couldn't do it, because it's dangerous now for a woman to use her mind, or for anybody, really, to use their mind in Saudi Arabia."
Brooks, who is based in London, is finishing a book on women and Islam called The Prophet's Daughters. "I've been warned by one of the Hezbollah sheikhs that my title was unadvisable," she says with a wry smile. "I was talking to this sheikh because I needed his permission to interview his wife. The sheikhs never look at you directly, never make eye contact, because women are sinful, but when I told him the title of my book, he looked me right in the eye and said, "Maybe you should call it Daughters of Islam.' I said very politely that I liked my title better. 'In that case,' he said quite sternly, 'you better not make any mistakes.'" To the sheikh, "the Prophet's daughters" meant literally the daughters of Muhammad, not a metaphor for the women of Islam. "They take these things very literally," says Brooks.
The West seems incapable of understanding some of the concepts that govern much of the Muslim world, she says. Last December, a Sudanese man was tried in London for killing his wife after he found out she had had an affair. The jury, believing it was a crime of passion, gave the man a reduced manslaughter sentence. "What the jury didn't understand is that this was an honor killing," says Brooks. "He killed her not necessarily because she was his wife but because she was also his cousin. It was a premeditated honor killing."
"Every religion gets hijacked by certain special-interest groups at certain times," Rana Kabbani, a Syrian-born writer living in London, declares irritably. Kabbani is representative of many Muslims who seem reflexively defensive. It is a condition, she says, born out of being forever stereotyped and misunderstood. Kabbani is capable of summoning raw revolutionary fervor, as she did last year in an essay in The Guardian called "The Gender Jihad." "A Muslim reformation is in the making," she wrote passionately, "and it is Muslim women who are at its forefront... That is the jihad that calls out to us."
But when I ask Kabbani if she spoke out after the death sentence laid upon Salman Rushdie, she responds cautiously. "It became very difficult to say anything without instantly being part of the amazing anti-Muslim backlash that the whole thing occasioned," she says. "I found it terrifying... In a way, everybody was framed because of Khomenini's utterance... Suddenly you're guilty because you're a Muslim, unless you denounced everything about Islam totally... I have very great difficulty, being a Sunni Muslim from a tradition that considers there's really no intermediary between the human being and God. I have a great feeling of disapproval about the mullahs and interpreters. I just don't accept them at all."
Cameron Fyfe is a 38-year-old Scottish yuppie lawyer. The bread and butter of his firm, Ross, Harper and Murphy, in downtown Glasgow, comes from the British equivalent of "legal aid." Fyfe is flying high these days, having recently won an annulment for his client, Rafiq, on the unprecedented grounds that she had been forced into an arranged marriage when she was under the legal age.
Rafiq, who now lives with her three children in a grimy council flat in Glasgow, tells an amazing story. When she was 14, her father announced that he was taking her on a holiday to Pakistan. Shortly after their arrival in her family's village, she was told that she would be marrying her cousin. Following the ceremony, her father turned over his daughter's passport to her new husband and returned to Scotland. Rafiq's new home was "a mud hut with no electricity, gas, or running water." From day one her husband beat her.
Two years later, he decided to move his young family to Glasgow in hopes of making more money. When he finally got his own residence permit, he punched Rafiq in the face, screaming, she says, "This is the only reason I married you." The beatings became so grisly that neighbors finally called the police, who explained to the bewildered, battered girl that she could legally leave her husband.
During the three years it took to win her case, Rafiq became a pariah in Glasgow's Pakistani community. "Some people spat on me, others would cross the street if they saw me, and some one put an envelope filled with excrement in the letter slot of the door."
Rafiq is now a full-time college student in Glasgow who juggles two jobs at night, determined, she says, "to make a better life." However, she is panic-stricken by the possibility that her ex-husband will follow though on his threat to kidnap their children and take them back to Pakistan. In many Muslim countries, in the name of Sharia, child custody is awarded to men in the event of divorce or separation.
Such misery has created a boom business for Cameron Fyfe. "The parents think I'm the Antichrist," he says, "but the kids think I'm their hero." Currently, he has 10 more cases involving arranged marriages, including three in which the plaintiffs are men. "It's a lot of cases," he says, "considering the pressure the mosques and the families put on them."
His saddest case involves a young Pakistani man who was living contentedly with his Pakistani girlfriend in Glasgow. "His family tricked him into going to Pakistan, and once he was there, they took away his passport, and told him that if he didn't marry his cousin they would tell the police he committed some horrible crime. So he married his cousin, came home as fast as he could, and moved back in with his girlfriend, whom he married straightaway - refusing to honor the first marriage. The girlfriend is them kidnapped back to Pakistan and forced into her arranged marriage. My client flew to Karachi and finally found her village, but her family shot at him, nearly killing him. He came back here and is suing for an annulment of his first marriage, so that his marriage to his girlfriend could be valid - at least here." But can he find her? Fyfe shrugs. "Right now she's a missing person in Pakistan."
"London is the capital for the exiled Islamic community," explains Rose Issa, an art curator of Lebanese and Iranian extraction. "London is the first stop for the Third World. This is our capital." Some maintain residences in their native country as well as in the West, keeping a wary eye on developments at home; some are desperate to return to where they came from.
Belonging to the last category is Benazir Bhutto, the first woman elected to govern a Muslim country - only to be deposed by Islamic fundamentalists less than two years later. One of the striking paradoxes of Muslim counties has been the willingness of the people to elect women leaders when given the opportunity. Two and a half years after Bhutto's election, Bangladesh also elected a woman, Begum Khaleda Zia, as prime minister, and in June, Turkey chose Tansu Ciller to lead the country.
Bhutto agrees to speak with me at her sister's house in Knightsbridge. Since Bhutto was deposed in August 1990, she says, "there have been repeated assassination attempts on my mother, myself, my lawyer. Each time they announce that I'm dead or wounded."
According to Bhutto, the current regime has stripped non-Muslims of any significant voting rights and has systematically terrorized them with the new blasphemy laws. "Say I don't like somebody who is from a minority," explains Bhutto. "I call the police and say that they have blasphemed the Prophet, the Koran - whatever." Conviction for blasphemy is a mandatory death sentence, she says, and the law requires the testimony of only one Muslim. Hindus and Christians, says Bhutto, "live in fear of these laws." Actually, Muslims have just as much to fear from the blasphemy laws, as the noted writer and social reformer Akhter Hameed Khan learned recently. Last October, the 78-year-old Khan was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and arrested for defaming the Prophet and his son-in-law in a nursery rhyme Khan had written years earlier. His accuser, claimed Khan, was a disgruntled employee. Khan successfully fought the charges, only to be charged again by a Punjabi Mullah who accused him of blaspheming Muhammad for having said his "main inspiration has been Buddha." Khan denies giving the interview.
The new regime has legalized the infamous "blood money" laws, which, among other things, according to Bhutto, "means that women are forced to give up their inheritance money to brothers or to uncles." She also confirms reports of slavery in Pakistan today, saying, "There's a huge, thriving trade, importing girls from Bengal and selling them as slaves in Pakistan." However, when the fundamentalists want something, she says, they have no problem tinkering with the Koran, even when it comes to something as sacrosanct to Muslims as the prohibition of eating swine. "Now you can eat swine to survive," she says sarcastically. "The mullahs have introduced this whole hypocrisy. The Koran repeatedly says to beware the hypocrtie."
The success of fundamentalism, argues Bhutto, stems from two causes. First, it springs from an authentic "search for identity in an increasingly global village where all the messages come from the West... In the absence of the Cold War, when Muslims look out they see the Christian West. It is a reaction to preserve one's culture when other cultures have dominance." Second, she says, it is the monster child jointly created and funded by the West and the totalitarian regimes of the region to keep the Communists at bay. Political parties were largely banned, she notes. "To keep the clerics happy, the mosques were well funded. The mosque was allowed to become a place where people could gather. The clerics became very powerful, and they started a new doctrine, where the clerics knew what was best for everybody else."
Virtually every regime in the region which has played the religious card, she says - from Iran to Saudi Arabia - has seen it backfire, leaving the regime hostage to the religious right. In 1977, when Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, needed to appease the religious right, he outlawed gambling and alcohol. "Some people say that it opened the door at that time," she admits, "because, after that, General Zia came in and started Sharia [in alliance with] the Muslim Brotherhood."
The biggest "catastrophe" for the region, and perhaps the world, began, she says, when the C.l.A. decided to fund - to the tune of $3 billion - the most extreme right-wing Islamic groups in Afghanistan (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Party of God) to fight the Russians.
"The Muslim Brotherhood ran the training camps," she says, which were headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan, and which soon became the stomping grounds for the international fundamentalist set, including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Hezbollah, the Sudanese strongman Hassan al-Turabi, the outlawed Egyptian party Gamaa al-lslamiyya, and "the usual suspects" from Iran. "A lot of money was funneled through [the Brotherhood], and they siphoned off a lot of money. Now we have all these revolutionaries - bought and trained - and nowhere to go. Where could they go after Afghanistan?" (One place they went was the United States. Several of the suspects in the World Trade Center bombing in April are reportedly Afghan veterans trained in these camps, and their mentor, Sheikh Abdel Rahman, frequently held court in Peshawar.)
Still, Bhutto is hardly a radical - never mind a feminist. As prime minister, she was criticized for instituting only the barest of reforms for women. "I had a limited mandate," she says quickly, defensively. Even if she wins power again this year, she makes no promises for radical change. "One can only be as effective as one's majority." Nor does she have a problem about living in an Islamic state under a form of Sharia law. Her own arranged marriage, she says, is a happy one, despite rumors to the contrary. "I have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood - not with being Muslim, not with Sharia,'' she says. "Because it is making a political bid for power that will lead to the destruction of our society. Because it is based on apartheid."
"In Islam, the communion is direct between God and the individual. Any Muslim can lead the prayer. But throughout the Muslim world, you have clerics saying that Muslims don't know what's good for them. We have to tell Muslims which side of the bed to wake up on, how to brush their teeth, how to wear their clothes, how to look. They say a woman has to look down at the floor. But the Prophet said the best veil is the veil in the eyes. You don't have to look down. You have to look with good eyes. The Prophet himself married a working woman. She was 15 years older than him. She was a businesswoman. I mean, she was the first convert to Islam. He didn't want her to be in the kitchen. So why don't we learn from their examples?"
Demonizing the Muslim world and invoking the Green Peril (green being the color of Islam) as the successor to the Red Menace, says Bhutto, is not helpful. "Being frightened of fundamentalism is not going to get anywhere," she says, warning that it is ill-advised for the West to support the repression of democratic elections for whatever reasons. "Eventually, the fundamentalists will spend their force, because they have no social or economic programs. Eventually, people will be fed up and throw them off like they have colonialism.... That's why Iran is now trying to come back into the mainstream."
The United States has an estimated Muslim population of three to four million, of which more than a third are African-American converts. Although most of the female Muslim African refugees have undergone F.G.M. - commonly called circumcision here - there is not a single state or federal law banning the practice. In fact, excision was the basis of a courtroom soap opera played out in Atlanta, Georgia, last November. Ibrahim Yassin, a 27-year-old Somalian, asked the state of Georgia to annul his marriage on the grounds that he was unable to consummate his union with his 22-year-old Somalian wife, Sara, because she was infibulated. Somalian-born Dr. Asha Mohamud, who is based in Washington D.C., where she works for the Center for Population Options, says she testified that it was inconceivable that Yassin did not know that his wife had been circumcised, since "at least 98 percent of all Somalians are, while 80 percent are infibulated."
What was really at stake, according to the husband's lawyer, was a $300,000 jackpot that Yassin had won in the Florida lottery several months after his marriage in an Atlanta mosque. Following a week-long trial, the jury ruled that, in fact, consummation had occurred "Somali-style," and Yassin was compelled to share his winnings with his wife.
Dr. Joseph Tate, an Atlanta obstetrician-gynecologist who has de-infibulated (unsewn) seven African women now living in the United States, resents the American use of the word "circumcision" for these cases. "It is a complete misnomer," he says. "This is the equivalent of whacking off the entire penis." Catherine Hogan, who heads the Washington Metropolitan Alliance Against Female Genital Mutilation, believes that the practice is widespread in the United States. A major problem, is that no one advises refugees against it when they enter the country. "The I.N.S. tells all Muslim men that polygamy is illegal here," says Hogan, "but says nothing to the women about F.G.M. How can you charge someone with a crime if there isn't even a law against it, and you never warned them?"
Ash Mohamud is campaigning not only for a ban on F.G.M. in the United States but also for penalties for parents who take their daughters elsewhere to have the operation performed. "Every summer," she says, "people whisk their daughters to Africa to have it done. We need a law so the children can sue their parents." Currently, says Hogan, there is a frightening trend among some American doctors and even some feminists striving to be culturally correct. Hogan cites Dr. Luella Klein, chief of obstetrics at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, who has said it's a woman's prerogative whether she wants to be reinfibulated after pregnancy. Klein stated, "You must talk to the patient, and if she really wants to have this done, you need to support the patient's choice, even if you don't agree with it." "It doesn't matter that the patient wanted it done," retorts Dr. Tate. "Would you cut off someone's leg if they asked you? What's the difference?"
The American insistence on the separation of church and state - or mosque and state - defuses most of the problems and abuses seen in Islamic countries. However, among a small segment of American Muslims there is a resentment bordering on hostility toward any kind of scrutiny or criticism of Islam. When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a carefully balanced series on women and Islamic fundamentalism, it was besieged with letters accusing it of racism and Muslim-bashing. Deborah Scroggins, who wrote the series, says, "The paper received death threats and envelopes of soiled toilet paper even before publication." A former production executive of Cagney and Lacey, who has requested anonymity, had a similar experience when the show ran an episode about an "honor killing" in an Arab-American family. "We often adapted true stories, so we thought nothing of it," says the executive. "We were completely unprepared for the hate mail and threats we got. I think it scared the network from showing the episode in syndication."
The 1991 release of Not Without My Daughter, a film based on the true story of an American woman's heroic escape from her Iranian husband, occasioned the most chilling suppression. Movie theaters where the film played received threats, and its star, Sally Field, was forced to hire a bodyguard because of numerous death threats. Still, it is unclear whether such terrorist censorship is homegrown or orchestrated from abroad. Most observers believe that extremist elements have found nesting sites throughout the country and that they hide within unsuspecting Muslim communities. Whoever they are, their efforts have not been in vain. Movie studios and networks "avoid Muslim topics like the plague," says the executive, while the media, scrambling to be politically correct, has cranked out a plethora of feel-good features on Muslim culture, at the same time citing - erroneously - restrictions against women as part and parcel of Islamic law.
"We try to educate our own community about the true teachings of Islam," says Nahid Ansari, a member if the Muslim Women's League and the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, a progressive mosque. "Polygamy, for instance, is very misunderstood. It's true that the Prophet married eight times after his wife died, but these were political and humanitarian marriages - to unite all the warring tribes. One was Jewish and two were older widows. And he said that others should not take more than one wife unless he can treat them equally. . . It's appalling what goes on in the name of Islam. Our center," she says, with a strained laugh, "is on the fundamentalists' hit list. The Saudis have been trying to give us money, but we won't take it, because if we do, we can't criticize them."
"I am not a woman of ideas. I'm a storyteller," protests the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, whose claim to fame, "is writing the first sexually explicit novel in Arabic." Her experience with fundamentalism is firsthand. "My father was an orphan, and he was brought up by a sheikh, meaning a religious man, in his village. He had nobody, nothing, except religion. When I was eight years old, my father told me to cover my hair with the hijab, and I recall so clearly saying to him, 'Why did God create such a beautiful thing as hair only to tell us to cover it?'"
At 17, she persuaded her parents to allow her to study in Egypt. "It's very sad when I go to Egypt now," she says, "because this is where Huda Shaarawi became the first Muslim woman to take off the veil. In the 1920s. And here they are again, wearing the veil."
Al-Shaykh believes fundamentalism, at least in Lebanon, will fizzle and die with the resolution of the Palestinian problem. "I visited my mother recently, who lives in Beirut. Even now, in the same district where the Hezbollah is, you see girls wearing hot pants. It's surreal."
"I always look at Islamic fundamentalism in that it's coming into the vacuum of the political process," says Karma Nabulsi, 35, a striking woman who is an Oxford scholar and a former P.L.O. official. "There was a very interesting poll that showed that when there is movement within the peace process the support for Hamas [Palestinian fundamentalists] recedes, and when there is a cycle of despair and regression, the support for fundamentalism rises."
Like her colleague and friend, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, Nabulsi is a creature of arresting humanity. Although she likens the appeals of Islamic fundamentalism to "fast food" and "an infectious allergy," she is reluctant to make it her enemy. "We [the Palestinians] are going down the tubes anyway on so many levels. Not only do you not have a state, you are living under occupation. Islamic fundamentalism is not my fear. What? Because the fundamentalists are going to take away my right to go shopping? My fear is that my people aren't taken seriously."
However, should Hamas - which was supported for decades by the Israelis as a buffer against the P.L.O. - prevail, Nabulsi concedes, "of course it's a disaster for us as Palestinians," long regarded, along with the Bosnians, as the most secular Muslims. "If you try to break down the agenda of the fundamentalists or Hamas, they have no political platform. They're saying, 'We'll fix it instantly with religion' and that feels good."
I ask her how she musters the will to fight for the rights of a group like Hamas, who, should they triumph, have promised to purge women like Nabulsi and Ashrawi from leadership positions. "Because that's who I am," she says softly. "If I give that up, then who am l?"
The name repeated over and over again, like a mantra, as the bearer of the solution to the misogynist pickle of women and Islam is Fatima Mernissi. Unlike many of the Muslim intelligentsia, Mernissi is not in exile. If I want to see her, I discover, I have to go to Rabat, Morocco, where she teaches at the University Mohammed V. "There has been a terrible hemorrhage of educated women to the West, where they can flourish," she tells me over the phone in her songlike English, with an occasional French phrase. "I understand, but it is terrible. We must stay home."
A tall, grand woman, Mernissi is a blaze of color and jewelry at our first meeting, at a beachfront hotel outside Rabat. Her hair wrapped in a filmy red turban, her large expressive eyes lined in turquoise, she is the spirit of the souk. "I cannot live anywhere but here,'' she declares. "I am away more than three weeks and I am desperate for this," she says, waving toward the ocean. "Living here, I feel I can make sense." She lowers her voice. "So I am careful what I say. The state can stop me; they stopped The Veil and the Male Elite. [Regarded as Mernissi's masterpiece, it was banned in Morocco as well as throughout the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.] But I made such un grand scandale," she says, laughing, "that they've never bothered me again."
While Morocco's King Hassan is regarded as a fairly benign despot, he has been under increasing pressure from the religious right. When Latifa Jbabdi, a human-rights activist, gathered a million signatures endorsing the banning of polygamy and repudiation in Morocco, she was viciously attacked by fundamentalists. A powerful sheikh issued a fatwa calling for her death. The country - long regarded as among the more moderate in the Arab world - was stunned. The crisis was defused only when the king intervened. "He said basically that there was not to be any conflict between men and women in his country," relates Mernissi approvingly. "He made sure that the fatwa was rescinded, and made clear that the only person who would be issuing fatwas would be himself."
The author of five books on Islam admired for their original and scrupulous research, Mernissi is regarded by many as a pre-eminent Koranic scholar. A Muslim feminist may seem an oxymoron to some, but not to Mernissi, who describes herself as "the product of a lifetime of Koranic schools." "You find in the Koran hundreds of verses to support women's rights," she tells me, "and perhaps four or five that do not. [The fundamentalists] have seized upon those four and thrown away the rest."
Born in 1941 in Fez, she was educated entirely at Koranic schools, and spoke only Arabic until she was 20. Her mother and grandmother were both illiterate. After earning a degree in political science at University Mohammed V, she won a scholarship to the Sorbonne, and later received a doctoral degree in sociology from Brandeis University.
"So much of Islam is Judeo-Christianity. It's impossible to divorce them," says Mernissi by way of explaining the relative newness of her religion. "Islam is 600 years after Christ. Thousands of years after Judaism. Christ, Moses, Abraham - they are all in the Koran," she says between sips of coffee. "In the Mecca desert, these guys were really savage. There was no respect; you just robbed your neighbors, took their wives, killed - whatever. And along comes this guy Mohammed, who had this completely subversive idea about slaves, nonviolence, and women, of course. Saying that you cannot be violent against another. They were going to smash him. They tried. That's why he left Mecca for Medina."
Mohammed, says Mernissi, revolutionized life for women - granting them the right to divorce, the right to inherit, the right to have custody of their children in the event of divorce, the right to pray in the mosque, and the right to participate as fully in life as men. In Mernissi's latest book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, she documents the lives and reigns of 16 women who have mysteriously fallen out of recent Islamic history books, but who ruled from 1000 A.D. to 1800 as governors, sultanas, and queens throughout the Islamic world.
"Sharia law" she says, "does not exist in the Koran. It was created by man. There are only four or five laws in the Koran." Much willful misinterpretation, she says, stems from the Hadith, a four-volume encyclopedia believed to be the sayings and wisdom of the Prophet. But as Mernissi and others have pointed out, the Hadith - similar to the Gospels - was compiled long after Mohammed's death, and over a period of centuries. Moreover, some of the sources were known to have conflicting and oddly selective memories of their conversations with the Prophet. For instance, Abu Bakr, a disciple of Mohammed's, is said to have heard the Prophet say, "Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity," among other disparaging notions concerning women. "Abu Bakr must have had a fabulous memory," writes Mernissi in The Veil and the Male Elite, "because he recalled [this] a quarter of a century after the death of the Prophet."
One must be careful, warns Mernissi, to distinguish between what she calls Risala Islam - the true Islam of the Koran and the Prophet's intentions - and political Islam. Much of what is preached by fundamentalists today in the Middle East she refers to as "Petro-lslam." And the West, she avers, has no right to stand in judgment, having gone into business with most of the repressive Islamic states. "Misogyny is the key to the global economy," she declares. "If you have a king in Saudi Arabia, then [the West] is only dealing with one guy and his family - his club. He needs a symbol which says, 'I am a Muslim country.' That is the veiled woman. So if women are veiled, you can have whiskey, you can have whores, you can squander money, you can call foreigners in to run the place, you can treat other Muslims like shit. You can do all that, because you only need one symbol of the despotic tradition where half the population have no rights - the veiled woman. Now, if I were in the White House, I would want things to stay that way, because if you have democracy you are going to be dealing with many men and around 100 million Arab women. If you don't understand this, you don't understand why people are financing fundamentalism."
As for veiling, Mernissi says that the Koran puts no restrictions on how a woman should dress, but suggests "modesty for both men and women." The hijab, which Mernissi explains means "curtain" in Arabic, has nothing to do with women's wearing veils or chadors. It refers, she writes, to the curtain that Mohammed dropped outside his bedroom on the night of his marriage to his cousin Zaynab, to ensure privacy. While many Muslim women gasp with relief at the scholarship of Mernissi, others say it is irrelevant. "I'm very pleased that Fatima Mernissi can tell us that this nonsense is not in the Koran," says Helie-Lucas, "but that's not the point. What if it were? It would still be unacceptable. There are no excuses."
The flight of the affluent and the educated to the West, says Mernissi, has further fertilized the feeding grounds of fundamentalism, much of it homegrown at the universities. "The university in the Arab world has no link with the job market whatsoever," she says. She adds sarcastically, "They are now thinking about that. The upper class sends their daughters and sons to schools abroad. The ones sitting in the university here are the slum kids, the ones who in New York would be into drugs and throwing rocks." Suddenly she looks very sad. "What a pity that people don't see interviews with the little fundamentalist - the one who is not a terrorist but who is just a lost kid trying to give sense to his life. Fundamentalism tells him, 'You are O.K. You belong to a very old religion. It gives dignity.' And it is much better to have fundamentalism sweeping our cities than drugs. At least we can win them back later."
To her amazement, she says, she recently came across a U.N./UNICEF financed booklet for young girls. "One of the chapters, " she fumes, "is entitled 'Islam Wants You to Have a Lot of Babies.' The fundamentalists do not want us to make the connection between birth control and unemployment. After all, they thrive on poverty. One thing we all saw during the Iran-lraq War was the value of babies as cannon fodder. How despots don't hesitate to use their people for target practice."
I ask her whether the condition of Muslim women warrants intervention from the United Nations or the West. "The Muslim states have signed the United Nations charter, which prohibits discrimination against women," she says with some agitation. "They need only to enforce it. It's just like slavery. Slavery only stopped when they criminalized it." She does suggest, however, that the International Monetary Fund reconsider the terms of its loans to certain countries. "The day the l.M.F. says you cannot get a loan unless you repeal all the laws which justify aggression against women, believe me, we will have another planet."
It is near sunset, and we are walking along the beach. "I do not want to be an angry woman," Mernissi says "I fight very hard not to be an angry woman. It is such a waste." We pass a ragtag group of fishermen, men and boys, who scrounge along the shoreline from morning to night looking for mussels to sell for a pittance. As the sun melts into the Atlantic, one of the fishermen, his clothes wet and grimy, walks off by himself, turns toward Mecca, and bows to his knees. "I don't think we should say Islam," says Mernissi, "but Islams. Each person should have their own Islam - their own relationship with God. I think that's what Mohammed intended."