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Becoming a Feminist in Baghdad By: Steven Vincent
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, January 12, 2004

I have not left after me any chance of turmoil more injurious to men than the harm done to men because of women. 
-- the Prophet Mohammad
I never considered myself a feminist. 

Yes, I parroted the usual pro-woman mantras about "choice," or "equal pay for equal work," mostly because I knew that sophisticated women expected that from men.  But privately, "women's lib" always made me feel defensive and I sought to avoid the topic if I could.  Besides, as a freelance journalist, I wondered: where, exactly, were the advantages I enjoyed as a member of the oppressive patriarchy?

Then I went to Iraq.  During my five weeks "in country" this fall, I witnessed a social, political and humanitarian disaster consume Iraqi women.  Frightened by rampant crime, bullied by religious fundamentalism, pressured by increasing tribalism, they are losing their rights and freedoms before the eyes of the world.  It's an unnerving spectacle, like watching people fall prey to a police state-but in Iraq's case, the despotism consists not of storm troopers and fuehrers, but customs, traditions and beliefs that command the hearts and minds of millions of people, including their victims.

that I didn't know what to expect: in 2000, I traveled through Iran with my wife-who, like Iranian women, was forced to observe hejab, or the Islamic custom of veiling female bodies.  And my post-9-11 interest in Afghanistan's Taliban introduced me to anti-feminist Islamic law, or shari'a.  But what I hadn't considered was the centrality of women's rights in the war against Islamofascism.  It seems obvious now:  if America democratizes Iraq, we will gain a huge victory against our enemies.  But democracy is unthinkable without the emancipation of Iraqi women.  As Abdul Mashtak, a director of the Baghdad-based National Association for Human Rights, told me, "Women are our most underdeveloped resource.  If Iraq is to create a new society, women must be equal partners with men."

I didn't grasp Mashtak's point right away.  Instead, I watched women walk in searing Baghdad heat wrapped in black robes, read that the female illiteracy rate is skyrocketing, with 35 percent of girls now dropping out of school, listened to men describe women as if they were little more than delivery systems for male heirs-all with journalistic (or was it masculine?) detachment.  It wasn't until the issue hit me personally that I awoke.  One night, weary of Iraq's all-male environment, I went to the Al-Hamra Hotel, a well-known hang-out for Westerners.  There, in the outdoor courtyard, I took a seat near a table where two American women were conversing.  During the course of their conversation, I was startled when the pair burst out laughing at some shared comment-and I realized that, during my entire time in Iraq, I had not heard a woman laugh.  Not in a free and unguarded manner, at any rate.  The sound of female laughter struck me like music-a wonderful sound I'd taken for granted in the States, but which now seemed more precious, more worth defending, in Iraq and at home, than anything I'd heard before.  At once, my "objectivity" vanished:  I became a feminist warrior.

I don't mean to sound naïve, or possessed with the outrage of the newly-converted.  Endorsing feminism for Iraq is a huge proposition. Once you link women's rights with the country's democratization, it's a short step to connecting the issue with freedom throughout the entire Middle East-and, by extension, victory in the war against terror.  In this context, cultural mores take on enormous significance:  no longer an exotic foreign custom, hejab now appears as fundamentalist's weapon that oppresses women and retards the spread of democracy.  Even more unacceptable are "honor killings"- the tradition of murdering females who have somehow disgraced their families.  (I am writing this essay in Amman, Jordan, where a 22 year-old man just received a suspended one-year prison sentence for brutally killing his sister because she persisted in leaving home without parental permission.)  In short, what befalls Middle Eastern women affects the security of America.

Oddly enough, I'm feeling isolated in my neo-con feminism.  I'm sure I'll sooner hear NOW President Kim Gandy discuss Michael Waltrip's chances in the Daytona 500 than Rumsfeld & Co. denounce honor killings or shari'a.  Not only because the right maintains a reflexive opposition to feminism, but, more importantly, Shi'a Muslims represent some 65 percent of Iraq's population.  As Ahmed Darwish al-Kinani-head of the Baghdad-based Islamic Iraqi Movement, told me, "Islam is specific on men's authority: man leads and woman follows.  Under shari'a women are treated like precious gems in a jewel box."  When I asked the cleric what would happen if Iraq's new constitution violated shari'a by endorsing women's rights, al-Kinani looked unhappy.  "Then there could be violence."  Will the White House push gender equality and risk alienating a crucial component of Iraqi society?  I doubt it.

Leftists are of little help, either.  Although they denounce Middle Eastern sexism, they rarely posit the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as pro-feminist.  Instead, they profess a multiculturalism that renders them incapable of criticizing foreign customs or conceding that sometimes, America has a better way.  One afternoon in Baghdad, I lunched with some peace activists who vehemently condemned the U.S. occupation of Iraq.  When I asked why they didn't similarly denounce the sexism of Iraqi society, one woman snapped, "Feminism has done much to damage the American family.  Do we want to wish that on this country?" 

There are, of course, more cogent objections to affirming gender equality in the Middle East.  One, championed by multiculturalists, asks: Who are we to judge another way of life?  But when legislators force women to live in bags and courts excuse femicide-or when in 2002, Saudi religious police prevented 15 girls from fleeing a burning building because they weren't wearing veils-basic moral sense compels us to judge these cultures as deficient.  Another argument claims that hejab allows Muslim women to feel freer than Westerners by shifting male emphasis from women's appearance to their personalities.  But as Hegel noted, for someone to possess true freedom, feeling free is not enough:  she must be free-in a social, political, culture and psychological sense.  When, during my trip to Iran, I asked a woman if hejab "liberated" her, she scoffed:  "Imagine the government telling you that you can never feel the sun on your arms and legs-would you think you were free?"

More serious is the contention that women's second-tier status is too deeply ingrained in Middle Eastern cultures.  Statistic support this claim:  a Gallup poll taken in September, for example, revealed that 72 percent of Baghdadi men and 67 percent of the women believe that women "should follow more traditional/conservative roles than they did before the invasion."  Given this regressive desire, observers argue, it is folly to think that feminism will soon take root in the Middle East-and dangerously counterproductive to force the issue.

But are we sure?  Cultures frequently exhibit self-reflective transformation-witness the former militarized countries of Japan and Germany.  In the United States, attitudes toward race, the environment and smoking changed 180 degrees in one generation.  More to the point, the misogyny in the Middle East is so irrational, so debilitating to the nations in the region, that one senses it is no longer politically or historically sustainable.  When even Saudi Arabia is contemplating offering physical education classes to girls, change is in the wind. 

Call it a Damascene-or rather, Baghdadi-conversion, but it now seems clear to me that the womens' issue is the Achilles heel of Islamic states.  More than military force, economic sanctions, and homeland security, gender equality is one of the most potent weapons we have against the breeding grounds of terrorism.  We should push the issue hard, maintaining a solid commitment to Western civilization's concept of secular human rights, while appealing to the Islamic notion of Taqarub, or peaceful coexistence with nonbelievers, including feminists. Or to put it another way, if conservatives in America surmount their allergy to feminism and liberals their allegiance to multiculturalism, we may yet see the veil of theocratic despotism lift from Damascus to Riyadh, and beyond.

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