Women under Jewish and Islamic Fundamentalism
This is the third installment of a six-part series, orignally posted at e-Bangladesh. The next episode will be posted tomorrow.
Episode - Three
There is a growing gap between secular and religious Jews in Israel, and there is a high degree of overlapping between positions on religion and the nation, observes Yuval-Davis (2004). In a very recent article O’Loughlin (2008) mentions that the Haredi sect has launched an aggressive campaign against the secular lifestyle of women in Jerusalem. Self-appointed moral guardians, dubbed the ’modesty police’ through Israel’s modern secular media, roaming through Jerusalem’s ultra-religious neighbourhoods, enforcing the voluminous and ever growing list of rabbinical laws such as the recent decree banning the sale of MP4 players.
Inside the Haredi neighbourhoods separation between the sexes is becoming increasingly strict. Husbands and wives socialise separately and during Jewish holidays men and women walk on opposite sides of the street. With the demographics skewed in their favour, government authorities are acquiescing to the growing demands of the ultra-orthodox. The transport ministry, has allowed operators to provide ’kosher’ or ’pure’ routes, where women are required to sit at the back and cannot board unless ‘appropriately’ dressed.
According to Menachem Friedman, a sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv (quoted in O’Loughlin (2008)), “They’ve built an imaginary idealistic world where everyone is pious.” Increasingly, Jewish women in Jerusalem are required to conform to that vision. Length of the skirt is increasingly being the test for the level and type of religiosity.
In a similar report, Glickman (2008) also shows that chastity guards, dress code, separate buses, and gender separation are becoming the growing phenomena in Israel. Based in the religious neighborhoods of Meah Shearim and Geula, the modesty squad has declared a crusade against violations of Halachic law and what it views as ’unchaste’ behaviour.
In fact, Jewish fundamentalism is campaigning for establishing the ‘moral life’ that leads to the basic inequalities between men and women in Orthodox Judaism: women are not counted as part of the Jewish ‘public’; they are not allowed to lead prayers, to become rabbis or judges or occupy any other public religious leadership position; their evidence is not acceptable in religious courts and they cannot – unlike men – obtain a divorce against their spouse’s will, even if their case is conceded to be just. In their prayers every morning, Jewish men say, ‘Bless Thee that did not make me a woman’. Women pray, ‘Bless Thee that made me according to Thy will’.
Orthodox Jews claim, however, that women’s position in Judaism is not inferior to that of men, rather different and equally important, since it focuses on the home and the bringing up of children. As the ideal Jewish man is a religious scholar, sitting and studying in the yeshiva all day, Jewish women are asked to become ‘superwomen’ – wives, mothers, and participants in the waged labour market – probably earlier than other women. For an example, when Yuval-Davis (2008) interviewed a Jewish woman on her hard work , she said, “Sometimes when I do the housework I get so fed up and say ‘Why can’t my husband do this?’ and then I say, ‘No, he’s not like other husbands who just come home and watch TV. He’s studying the Torah; he’s going to help bring the Messiah, so I’m building a Jewish home for us that will help bring the Messiah.” It’s not that she is not allowed to work – she may even be the main breadwinner because for the man, work is only second best; first best is to study the Torah and bring the Messiah.
In her research on Orthodox Jewish women and khozrot bitshuva (‘born again’ Orthodox women, often converted by various fundamentalist movements), Yuval-Davis found that many women found the Orthodox life style – which includes arranged marriage and tight communities – a source of security and empowerment. Among the settlers, although women could not become formal leaders, many of them spoke to the media and made bringing up as many children as possible in the frontline conditions of settlements in the Occupied Territories a fulfilling lifestyle. Yuval-Davis found (2008), “The children killed in cars going to and from the settlements are often seen as a necessary sacrifice, while the women produce more children to settle the land that God gave to the Jews.”
The ascendancy of political Islam since the 1960s and 1970s throughout the Muslim world has spawned a variety of ‘Islamist movements and activisms’. They range from those that engage in political violence (often referred to as ‘militant Islam’ or ‘jihadic Islam’) to those with peaceful but politicised missionary, proselytising and social reform projects (also known as ‘dakwah or da’awa’ Islamic movements) and also to those seeking complete social change or revolution through the establishment of an ‘Islamic state’. The use of Islam as a political ideology, and as a source of law and public policy within the context of these societies has had a particularly discriminatory and oppressive impact on women. (Othman, 2006). However, Othman (2006) puts forward the observation rightly, that religious extremism is not confined to Islam alone, but what is unique to Islam is that codified Islamic law or shari’ah prevails in almost all contemporary Muslim societies and in recent times there have been greater demands for more Muslim laws to be implemented in all areas of life. Unfortunately, the women’s codified Islamic laws in many of these countries are also problematic, being frequently contradictory to contemporary notions of rights and equal legal status of men and women. With global Islamic resurgence since the 1970s and 1980s throughout the Muslim world, most governments in most Muslim countries – whether modern or secular-oriented – all have to respond to these demands of their Muslim constituencies. The compromise made by these governments have allowed for more and more Muslim laws that are retrogressive for women to be adopted and implemented as shari’ah laws.
The examples of ‘honour killing’ in Pakistan, “fatwa” or the extreme violence on women in Taliban regime or the restriction on women’s free movement by imposing veils are well known. However, to understand fully how Muslim women’s human rights are constrained or opposed, detracted from or derailed, stymied and sometimes nullified by individuals, groups or parties in predominantly Muslim countries, Othman (2006) reviewed the ideologies, practices and politics of both state and non-state actors in Muslim states and societies, particularly with the question: What is the impact of Muslim politics and Islamic fundamentalism/extremism on women – woman’s body, rights, identity and status?
Despite significant regional and political differences among these movements, Islamist or fundamentalist groups have called for a return to more traditional norms for women, emphasising women’s roles in procreation, the adoption of “proper hijab” (the Islamic dress code), and submission to patriarchal values.
The first dramatic reversal in women’s rights took place during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which brought to power the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). To this day, strict government enforcement of the hijab and periodic rounding up, fines, and imprisonment of women on charges of “improper hijab” continue. Despite some compromises by the government in the areas of education, divorce and marriage law, and employment, Iranian women remain segregated in schools, on buses, and on beaches and are restricted in their choice of career, employment, and education. Polygamy, encouraged by the government, has increased among the urban middle classes. (Kian, 1995; Afray, 1999).
In Sudan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, and Lebanon, fundamentalist groups have either assumed control of the government and so have significant authority in imposing their views, or in opposition to the government. There have been frequent reports of human rights violations against Sudanese women since the National Islamic Front (NIF) assumed power in a coup d’état in 1989. With the process of Islamisation and Arabisation of Sudan, large numbers of women in the legal and medical professions, and in the civil service have either been barred from work or placed under severe restrictions. Women who do not observe proper hijab are periodically rounded up, and their names broadcast on radio to further shame and humiliate them. (Afray, 1999).
When the Afghan Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, their first decree was to close girls’ schools and force women to stay home from work. Women could not leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative, and then only with their bodies, including their faces, completely covered. The government forbade surgeons from operating on members of the opposite sex, and called for stoning as the penalty for adultery.
In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the 1991 election but was banned by the government in January 1992 and prevented from taking power. The FIS then unleashed a campaign of terror that killed over 50,000 residents, and targeted foreigners, those who attended French schools, feminists, and gays. The FIS vowed, if it came to power, to end women’s employment, to make sexual relations outside marriage punishable by death, and to enforce the hijab. Since January 1992 several hundred women have been assassinated by the fundamentalists for not wearing a head scarf, for wearing western clothing, for working alongside men, or for living without a male guardian in their own apartments. Many more have experienced the same for offences like teaching boys in school and running hair salons. The regime enacted the Family Code (1984) which allows men the right to divorce their wives for any reason, and to practice polygamy. (Bennoune, 1996).
In Malaysia, the more liberal customary Malay laws dealing with marriage, divorce, and child custody have been replaced by the Islamic Shafi’i laws that oppose family planning policies and call for punishment in cases of “wilful disobedience by a woman of any order lawfully given by her husband”. The covering or veiling of women and promoting a policy of gender segregation are the first two objectives of most Malaysian Islamic movements. An ‘Islamisation agenda’ was implemented under the administration of Dr. Mahathir Mohammad during his premiership (1981–2003). It was the BN (Barisan Nasional or National Front—a coalition party led by Dr. Mahathir’s party UMNO or United Malays National Organization) government’s need to legitimise itself with the majority Muslim constituents and in the context of its competition with the main opposition political party of PAS (Parti Islam seMalaysia), that its ‘Islamisation’ policies were formulated and implemented. As the contest for power between UMNO and PAS escalates, issues such as the Islamic state, enforcement of hudud law, discrimination against women, freedom of expression, freedom of and within religion and freedom from religion has now entered the public sphere and into the consciousness of many of Malaysian civil society organisations. This is another unique case for almost all the predominantly Islamic countries.
In Bangladesh, a state which was originated with the ideals of secularism and socialism during the early days of its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Islam was declared the state religion in 1988. The main two political parties make alliance with Islamic fundamentalist parties or alliances to get a victory in national elections and have to compromise with fundamentalist desires. The recent past caretaker government declared a draft of National Women Development Policy 2008 Though this draft had no very radical promises in it for women, the government had to postpone it against militant resistance from the Islamic fundamentalist groups.In their election menifesto, Awami League (2008) promised for the enactment of Women Development Policy 1997, which mentioned of equal right to inheritance and women’s right to buy land property of their own. But after almost two years of its power, the AL-led present government could not declare the policy yet, mainly in the fear of protest from religious zealots on inheritance issue, against Shariah Law.
Thus like other religious fundamentalisms, Islamic fundamentalism also view women’s primary or priority responsibilities are as care-givers, nurturers and service providers for the needs of the male members of her family. The most liberal form of this rhetoric claims that a woman may be allowed to fulfil other social aspirations only with the explicit permission of her husband. Such a position in women’s status and role is characteristic of most Islamic fundamentalists throughout the Muslim world.(Othama, 2006). This position, as Mernissi (1996) explains, is a position based on their widely held assumption that in Islam a woman is considered secondary and inferior or subordinate to men and therefore men are charged with the religious responsibility of protecting and taking care of her in everyway—her basic needs, her life, morality and chastity. Therefore a Muslim wife must be obedient and must not commit nushuz (rebellion of the wife against her Muslim husband’s authority). To be continued.