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Muslim Women: Respected or Abused ?

This is the second part of a five-part series on Perspectives Within Islam. It includes the views of Somali born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist and outspoken critic of Muslim fundamentalism. Hirsi Ali was recently interviewed by VOA's Carolyn Weaver. Additional information is provided by William Eagle.

Controversial critic of Islamic fundamentalism Ayaan Hirsi Ali says she is dedicated to fighting the view that the text of the Koran is more important than human life.

The Somali-born feminist and former Dutch parliamentarian is the daughter of a faction leader and dissident politician. When she was a child, her grandmother insisted that she undergo the traditional practice of female circumcision. In 1992, her family forced her into marriage and Hirsi Ali fled to The Netherlands. Last year, she moved to the United States.

She has also produced the screenplay for the film “Submission,” which criticized Islam’s treatment of women. The film’s director, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered by what the European press called an Islamic extremist. Hirsi Ali said she wrote “Submission” to highlight the harsh reality of the treatment of women in Islam.

As an example, she said that the Koran has a verse that says, “God tells husbands, ‘When you fear misconduct, warn your wives, leave them alone in bed, and beat them…beat disobedient wives.’” She said the purpose of the film was to take “verses like those and [write them] on women’s bodies, actresses, who then depicted the image of a woman who was beaten, one who was raped” in order to “show…what it looks like.”

Hirsi Ali said the man who killed the film’s director was driven to murder “because he thought the verse [in the Koran] was so holy…and they were written on a surface so low: women. And that was such an insult to God and to the Koran that the man who directed and who made this should be killed.”

Hirsi Ali talked with VOA’s Carolyn Weaver about her interpretation of Islam and how it differed from the fundamentalist view. Weaver asked her if she thought the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed should be taken literally or metaphorically.

By way of explanation, Hirsi Ali said that the Prophet’s marriage to a nine-year-old child might be acceptable in the context of 7th century morality, but added that that morality was not appropriate today. She said that subscription to a tradition such as that was today considered an inhuman practice, and that was why she was asking for “equal moral standards.”

Some critics say Hirsi Ali exaggerates the relationship between religious verse and violence against women.

In an editorial for Al-Jazeerah television, Somali essayist Yasmin Maxamuud writes “Does Ms. Hirsi know women around the globe are abused and suffer the wrath of society’s social ills, but only Muslim women are accused of going through such abuse with the blessing of their religion ?”

“Islam,” she continues, “is the first religion that gave women equal rights through inheritance, marriage, law and equality to men in the eyes of God, while Jewish and Christian women were still considered inferior to men because they were considered the originators of sin and property of their husbands.”

Nur Dogan Hamercu of the Turkish group Milli Gorus in Amsterdam told VOA Koranic verses regarding the age of marriage and wife beating must be understood in the context of 7th century morality.

“Marrying a nine-year-old girl ? Let’s look at Europe – kings used to marry many women and the average age of the girl they married was not at all like it is today,” he said.

Dogan rejects a literal interpretation of the sacred texts in favor of studying what he says is the example set by the Prophet Muhammed, who he says stayed faithful to his first wife for the twenty-year duration of their marriage. Only afterward did he marry other women. And, he says, the marriage of the Prophet to nine-year-old Aisha was undertaken, in his view, for political reasons – to bring peace to the different factions of the Muslim community at the time. Some Muslim scholars say their marriage was not consummated until after she had physically matured.

South African Muslim scholar Farid Esack, who was the chairman of South Africa’s Gender Equality Commission, told VOA that he interprets the verse allowing wife beating as a challenge to Muslims to work to improve the quality of a relationship so it never reaches a violent stage. He says,however, that violence between men and women is never acceptable.

He also says Islam has traditionally encouraged respect for women. For example, he says the Prophet Muhammed encouraged the birth of a girl child to be celebrated in a similar way to the birth of a boy. He says prior to these teachings, the arrival of a girl was seen as bad luck, and sometimes unwanted newborns were killed.

Esack blames Muslim men for using the Koran to justify their own privileges. In the 7th century, he says, “Islam was exemplary for what it meant for women. But throughout the world today, whenever Islam is invoked it’s as a way of regulating society, and the effect of that has been to curtail the rights of women.” He says men “latch on to (certain) dimensions of Islam and happily abandon the more egalitarian spirit of the texts.”

Esack and Dogan also say Hirsi Ali has conflated rituals from her own culture in Somalia –like female circumcision – with Islam. Both say early marriage for girls and female circumcision are not issues for Muslims in Turkey, Europe, or South Africa. And, other scholars say while the Koran acknowledges female circumcision in some cultures, it does not mandate the practice.

However, South African scholar Farid Esack does agree with Hirsi Ali on at least one point: he would reject the violent application of a sacred text rather than take a human life.