WOMEN OF THE VEIL // The Hidden faces of Islam
2 August 1992
ASADABAD, Afghanistan – There were women who broke the rules in this stronghold of Islamic freedom fighters.
One was a 14-year-old girl who six months ago refused to marry the man of her parents’ choice. Her brother executed her with his Kalashnikov rifle.
Another was a teenager who recently ran away with a boy. Family elders took three days to track them down in the mountains. The boy’s father shot his son in the head. The girl’s father flogged her to death.
Toj Bibi whispers these tales while sitting cross-legged on her floor. She has never broken the rules.
At the age of 30, Toj Bibi can count on one hand the number of times a year her husband permits her to leave the four mud walls surrounding his house. Only in his company. Even then, only to visit relatives, to attend a wedding or to go to a funeral.
She has never spoken to a man outside her immediate family. On the rare occasion when she does leave her courtyard, she sees the world through a 2-by-5 inch eyehole of mesh netting in the tent-like garment, called a chadri, that covers her from head to toe.
Toj Bibi has been pregnant nearly every year since she was married at 15. Six sons and four daughters survived. She fears her husband may take a second wife or even divorce her if she does not have more children.
She knows it is not like this for women everywhere. But what can we do? These are our customs, our religion,” she said. “We can only wait for death.”
Until last month, the cruel traditions that confine Toj Bibi did not have the force of law even in Afghanistan, one of the most remote countries in the world. In the capital, Kabul, women wore blue jeans. They went to school and held jobs alongside men. But these small freedoms ended when Islamic rebels overthrew the Communist government after 14 years of civil war.
The victorious guerrilla factions have agreed on few things. But they have agreed that it will be a crime for women in Kabul to appear in public with any part of their body uncovered except their hands, feet and faces, and that the Koran, the Islamic holy book, will be the law of the land.
In imposing their fundamentalist vision of Islam on women, the Afghan guerrillas are at the forefront of a political movement with ambitions far beyond the mountains of their country.
From the gaudy mosques of the Indian subcontinent to the shadeless deserts of North Africa, Islamic fundamentalists are fighting to keep half a billion Muslim women in legal bondage to men.
Islamic fundamentalists speak dozens of languages and come from hundreds of ethnic groups in more than 30 nations. They include men and women. They are a movement that targets economic and social injustice in societies still emerging from feudalism.
The fundamentalists argue that the Islamic world’s troubles began when Muslims strayed from Islamic law. Worst of all, they say, are Western-inspired efforts to put the relationship between the sexes on a more equal footing.
“If the man and the woman are equal, women become like men and men become like women,” said Ali Bulac, an Islamic theorist in Istanbul, Turkey. “The modern women are not women. They are alienated from the natural way of women. They have begun to look at the world from a man’s perspective and they want to do what men do.
“The whole world will die from this modernism,” he said.
With the demise of communism, Islamic fundamentalism has become the only major international rallying point for opposition to the West. And what drives the fury, in part, is the fear that the Western emphasis on individual rights is destroying Islamic family values.
People across a wide swath of the Middle East face a paradox between the goals of democracy and those of women’s rights.
For if free and fair elections were held, Islamic fundamentalists would stand a good chance of winning in many countries. And in those nations where the fundamentalists have actually taken power, they have restored or maintained rigid Islamic law, called sharia, which severely restricts women’s freedom. In other countries, they have stiffened resistance to change.
o In Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Islamic regimes rule it illegal for a woman to travel without the written permission of her male guardian.
o In Iran, a woman can be arrested if caught alone with a man outside her family.
o In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front party won democratic elections this year, in part by proposing to ban women from working with men.
o In Kuwait, fundamentalists have helped block the emir from carrying out a promise he made at the time of the Persian Gulf war to give women the vote.
o In Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and Egypt, family law has been revised to restore men’s unilateral and unqualified right to divorce and polygamy.
In all Muslim countries, including the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, women have come under increased social pressure to use the veil. Iranian, Saudi and Sudanese women face criminal penalties if they fail to cover themselves.
Like democracy itself, feminism grew out of Western values that in many cases are at odds with traditional Islamic political thinking.
In Mideast nations that have recognized human rights, the liberty of women becomes one of the first casualties of an Islamic counterrevolution.
Within living memory, well-to-do women in every Muslim country lived like Toj Bibi, hidden behind veils and high walls.
Not until the beginning of this century were they released by reformers who enacted laws designed to improve the status of women. These reformers introduced education for girls, and in many cases tried to relax the rigid segregation of women.
In 13 years since Iran’s Islamic revolution, Muslim radicals have reversed many such gains.
When Islamic governments come to power, dealing with “sexual anarchy” is much easier than coping with extremes of wealth and poverty, ethnic hatreds and illiteracy.
“Women divert attention from the real problems,” said Hina Jilani, a Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist in Lahore, the ancient royal residence of India’s Mogul conquerors.
As a result, women are losing legal rights in Islamic countries as rapidly as the rest of the world seems to be coming around to the notion that women ought to have more control over their lives.
“Whatever we had hoped for in the ’60s and the ’70s has been reversed,” Jilani said. “Ten years of my life have gone toward resisting discrimination against women, and we have not been able to go forward at all.”
From the time of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century, much of Islamic political theory has seen the enforcement of divine law as the only truly legitimate function of government.
Strict religious traditionalism is not unique to Islam, of course, and Islamic fundamentalists are not alone in focusing on women.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church and fundamentalist Protestants have led the fight against abortion in Ireland, Poland and the United States. Orthodox Jewish groups have defaced billboards in Israel because they pictured scantily dressed women.
But what is unique about Islamic fundamentalism are its political aims.
“No law. No constitution. Only the laws of God and the Koran,” chanted Algeria’s victorious radicals during this year’s elections.
“The Koran is regarded by Muslims as immutable and unchangeable, not metaphorically or symbolically, but literally,” said Rafiq Zakaria, an Islamic scholar. “There is no human partnership in the Koran: It is all of God. And what is of God cannot be changed by man.”
Mohammed was more than a religious teacher. He was the head of a family and the first Muslim ruler. When God told Mohammed how to set up the first Islamic state, he did not leave out women. The family is the cornerstone of the social system outlined in the Koran and thus sharia. From the start, it was an authoritarian vision.
“You can never be truly democratic when your society is based on something with which there can be no dissent,” said Jilani, the Pakistani lawyer.
“The people would like Islamic laws enforced,” said Sayid Museral Khayoum, 45, of his fellow villagers in Jalalpuraranya, Pakistan. “They are Muslims.”
Nothing about the rise of Islamic radicals demanding the enforcement of a 7th century religious code is more baffling to Westerners than the spectacle of educated women preaching an ideology that consigns them to a position of official inferiority.
Turkey’s civil code gives Gulsen Ataswer and Yildiz Tanrisever, two middle-aged female gynecologists, rights women have not won in any other part of the Islamic world.
But the doctors say they would prefer to live under an updated version of the same laws that bind Toj Bibi in Afghanistan.
Straddled on the divide between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is culturally as distant from Asadabad as Rome, the ancient capital of Western Christendom, is from small-town America.
If Istanbul’s soaring minarets recall its past as Muslim Constantinople, the crown jewel of the Ottoman Empire and 400 years of Islamic civilization, its glass skyscrapers beckon toward a future as the Muslim world’s only secular democracy.
Both doctors are married, with children. Though most Turks dress in ordinary European clothes, these women wear the head-scarves and dark, loose coats that are the uniform of modern Islam.
Their plain, broad faces shine with idealism as they describe a life ruled by God.
Like Islamic society, the Islamic family is hierarchical, they said. As men are legally subordinate to God, women are to men, and younger people are to older people. Like the head of the ideal Islamic state, the head of the ideal Muslim family has one job: to apply sharia.
The Koran says women must obey men because God has made men superior and because men spend their wealth to provide for women. If women disobey, men have the right to beat them – in moderation, of course.
Ataswer and Tanrisever do not see this as unjust. Men and women are equally valuable to God. It is simply that God gives them different rights and responsibilities on Earth.
Since men must support women financially, they inherit twice as much property. Since women are irrational, their testimony counts for half of a man’s in court. They may not testify at all in the most serious cases.
Orthodox Muslims of both sexes rationalize this division of power by arguing that men are better at reasoning than women, who are dominated by their emotions. They concede that women gain reason as they grow older and pass menopause.
“Every society, every organization has a hierarchy,” said Tanrisever. Americans don’t mind obeying their president, do they? It doesn’t hurt their pride to obey their bosses at work, right?”
Muslim women feel the same way about their husbands, she said. “You accept it. It doesn’t mean he is better than you.”
Since men are more rational than women, the Koran gives them the right to divorce whenever they like and for whatever reason they choose. Women, on the other hand, have to go to court and prove they have been ill-treated to get a divorce.
If the religious code of sharia provides the legal structure of the ideal Islamic society, concepts of honor and shame that revolve around sexuality are the emotional fuel that propels it.
In the mind of militant Islam, uncontrolled sexuality is the cause of a variety of social evils, including prostitution, unwed mothers, absent fathers, crime, AIDS and the abandonment of old people.
Like many Americans, Muslims believe that women are the chief victims of rape and adultery, of sexual harassment and illegitimate pregnancies. But while Americans tend to see greater female independence as a solution, the trend among Muslims is to see female independence as the problem.
To a Westerner, the Muslim fear of rampant sexual hedonism might seem unwarranted. But the anxiety is so real and so powerful to traditional Muslims that not only sharia but a whole system of Islamic ethics and identity turns on it.
When Ataswer talks about the specter of “sexual anarchy,” the kindly lines around her eyes and mouth grow taunt. “Our century is drowning in eroticism,” she warned. “The most important thing is to stop this erotic bomb!”
The honor of women depends on their modesty and chastity. The honor of men depends on the sexual conduct of the women under their control, their wives, their sisters and their daughter.
“Men in our country honor the ladies,” said Shershan Hussein, an Afghan rebel commander. “That is why they protect them. If they did not protect the ladies, maybe they would have to kill them.”
The belief that there can be no innocent relations between unrelated men and women, and the fear of irresistable desires lurking just below the surface, affect a wide range of activities and situations:
In Saudi Arabia, it means that men are afraid that women would use the right to drive to engage in secret love trysts.
In Sudan, Somalia and Egypt, it means every well-meaning Muslim mother has her daughter’s clitoris cut off.
In Kuwait, it means that the wife of a wealthy man can dress up in $10,000 worth of Paris haute couture, but she cannot have her photograph taken without her husband’s permission.
Many Islamic fundamentalists have adopted at least the trappings of Western democracy. The Iranian Islamic Republic has a constitution and an elected Parliament. Likewise, today’s Islamic fundamentalists favor education for women, and few outside Afghanistan would advocate a return to the strict segregation of the past.
And in Afghanistan, where official efforts to improve the status of women helped spark three popular rebellions in this century, it might be that Islamic radicals can help women.
Shahla Haeri, an Iranian-born Harvard University anthropologist who studies Islamic women, takes this position sometimes with friends who have lived under the ayatollahs.
Haeri also suggests that the only way to destroy the dream of a perfect Islamic government is to let people try to elect one. But her Iranian friends disagree. They say that by the time people realize the Islamic solution is a mirage, it will be too late to throw the fundamentalists out.
“They get very angry,” she said. “They tell me, `Shahla, you don’t understand these people. Once they get in power, there is no second chance. It’s the end of democracy and the end of women, too.’ “