Thursday, 20 August 2009

Abusing Women and Islam

By MONA ELTAHAWY in The New York Times
Published: August 14, 2009

July, hot and usually slow for many of us, was a month of humiliation and pain for 164 Muslim women sentenced to a public flogging for “crimes” as varied and absurd as wearing trousers in public to having sex outside of marriage in countries as far afield as the Maldives, Sudan and Malaysia,

The most famous of those 164 is Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese journalist who was among 13 women arrested by police at a Khartoum cafĂ© on July 3 and charged with violating the country’s “decency laws” by wearing trousers.

Ten of those women accepted a fine and flogging but Ms. Hussein and two others contested the charges, which they’re now fighting in court. The Sudanese regime barred her from traveling to Lebanon earlier this week to give a television interview on her trial, which resumes on Sept. 7.

It’s bizarre to use the word “lucky” to describe a woman facing 40 lashes for wearing trousers, but by virtue of her position and clout, that’s exactly what Ms. Hussein is. She is also brave and defiant: Ms. Hussein resigned her position as press officer for the United Nations, which could have earned her immunity from the charges, to stand trial.

And most importantly she is a Muslim woman who knows that a flogging for wearing trousers is sheer and utter nonsense; she has said she was ready to “receive (even) 40,000 lashes” if that’s what it takes to abolish the law.

Not so lucky have been the thousands of other Sudanese women — Muslim and non-Muslim southern Sudanese women. They have served as the whipping girls for the Sudanese regime’s cheap game of flogging women to show off its “Islamic principles.”

The International Criminal Court has indicted President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. His janjaweed allies in Darfur have been accused of rape. Trousers are “indecent” but rape is just another reminder of how useful women’s bodies are in conveying the message.

Mr. Bashir is an unabashed dictator. How then to explain the silence of the Maldives’ liberally-inclined President Mohamed Nasheed at the flogging sentences handed out to 150 of his countrywomen in July for extramarital sex?

It’s depressingly simple. To appease Islamists he needs for his ruling coalition, he offers up the easiest chips to bargain with — women. Ruling according to “Islamic law,” courts in the Maldives sentenced about 50 men along with those 150 women to flogging.

Why is the ratio of women-to-men to be flogged 3-to-1? Men can escape a flogging for extramarital sex just by denying the charges. Women who become pregnant after the sex find their babies used as evidence against them. According to official statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration, the Maldives sentenced a total of 184 people to flogging in 2006 — 146 were women.

Claims that courts in the Maldives rule according to “Islamic law” are hollow at best and at worst a moral offense to the justice and compassion that we are taught are central pillars of Islam. The Maldives no longer cuts off the hands of thieves. Instead, it pours its zeal for “Islamic law” into flogging, a punishment that seems to be designed to torment mostly women.

If you want to know what a public flogging is like, search online for a video showing the Talban flogging a screaming woman in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

For the faint of heart, there is Amnesty International’s description from the Maldives of the public flogging of an 18-year-old woman on July 5. She received 100 lashes after being accused of having sex with two men outside of marriage. Local journalists reported the woman fainted after receiving the lashes. The court ruled the woman’s pregnancy was proof of her guilt; the men involved in the case were acquitted, Amnesty said.

Also on July 5, an “Islamic court” in Malaysia sentenced a Muslim woman to be flogged with a rattan cane for having a beer with her husband in a nightclub.

As Zainah Anwar, a Muslim Malaysian feminist who is project director of Musawah, the global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family, reminded her country’s authorities, “Neither the Koran nor the Hadith [sayings of Prophet Muhammad] prescribes any form of punishment for drinking alcohol ... Islamic teachings emphasize forgiveness, compassion and positive personal transformation. So why punish in the first instance?”

Flogging is a cruel and inhuman punishment that is banned by international law and conventions like the one against torture, to which the majority of countries in the world are signatories.

It is time for the international community to take away the pass to the international club from countries that duck out of their international obligations under the pretext of “cultural or religious” reservations. One hundred and sixty-four women were sentenced to flogging in July alone. Where is the outrage?

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born commentator on Arab and Muslim issues.

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