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Islamists' Rise Could Benefit Women's Rights

Middle Eastern observers often assume that the deterioration of women's rights in the region is directly linked to the political rise and popularity of Islamist parties in countries across the region.

But this guest author argues otherwise. Dr. Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Council's Women and Foreign Policy program, argues that the movement of these groups into mainstream politics is actually changing Islamist attitudes toward women.

At first glance, the continued strength of Islamist movements across the Middle East does not seem to bode well for women's rights in the region. Islamists' conservative, traditionalist values and narrow reading of religious texts often translate into policies that seek to limit women's public role, enshrine their legal inferiority and enforce gender segregation. Indeed, Islamists groups in various countries have taken a hard stand against reforming family laws in ways more favorable for women, resisted women's suffrage, and smeared local women's groups as puppets of an illegitimate Western agenda.

But something strange is happening on the way to the sharia court. As Islamist movements make the transition to mainstream political parties, they are increasingly recognizing the need to appeal to women as voters. They also are beginning to understand that their views on women are being closely watched by the broader society. To gain power through the ballot box, Islamist parties have to convince secular skeptics, both male and female, that they are ready to govern and have sensible policies to offer. Islamist policies that smack of creeping "Talibanization," or simply conflict with the reality of modern women's lives, alienate moderates.

Unlike earlier secular reformers, whose policies mostly reached an urban-bound elite, the Islamist groups of today have the ability to touch a much broader segment of society. Their embrace of more progressive policies towards women could unleash a true grassroots women's movement with enormous potential for change.

We are already seeing signs of this in Turkey where the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is arguably furthest along in becoming female-friendly. Despised by hard-core secularists for its attempts to overturn the ban on the headscarf in public places, the AKP has been accused of pushing women's rights backwards in Turkey. The AKP defends its headscarf stance on the grounds of personal freedom. It also deliberately appeals to women by prominently including women's rights in its legislative agenda --including passing laws that impose heavier penalties for rape and honor killings.

In many ways, the AKP's strong Islamic credentials allow the party to address culturally sensitive topics like honor killings more effectively than secular groups. In 2007, it launched a particularly controversial effort to have religious scholars reexamine hadiths - the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad - that have been harmful for women.

Not surprisingly, the AKP enjoys strong support from female voters, many of whom are secular. Without women, the AKP could not have won the 47% of the votes it did in the 2007 elections. Its Women's Wing is active in recruiting female candidates for parliamentary and local elections. With the success of the AKP in 2007, the percentage of women in parliament more than doubled (from 4.2% to 9.1%). The number of women in its central leadership is also high. The AKP began with an informal 20 percent quota for women in its party structure, and increased this to 30 percent in 2006 on the orders of Prime Minister Erdogan. Currently, the party is trying to enlist more women to run for mayor in towns across Turkey.

The position of women in conservative Islamist movements is more complicated. Conservative Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt are more dogmatic and traditionalist in their religious views and generally less accommodating towards women. Although the MB has consistently renounced the use of violence and has committed to work through the political system to bring about change, it is still banned as a political party in Egypt. Yet, it is the most organized and popular of the opposition groups in Egypt. Taking advantage of a political opening in Egypt in 2005, it ran candidates for election as "independents" and won 22% of the seats in parliament.

From its founding, the MB has maintained an uneasy stance towards women. Hassan al Banna, the group's founder, demanded strict segregation between the sexes. However, he also encouraged women to work (in socially appropriate fields) and to be educated. Other MB figures such as Sayyid al Qutb had much more overtly negative views of women.

Zainab al Ghazali was among the first women to actively support the MB. In the 1930s, she created a woman's organization closely tied with the MB. Al Ghazali embodied all the contradictions of the MB's stance towards women. She would simultaneously lecture women on the need to uphold conservative values while she herself defied all those traditions through her own activism. She even divorced her first husband when he refused to support her work.

Today, as the movement attempts to compete for the middle, it is trying to present a more modern face. An important part of this strategy is to defy its secular critics (who claim the MB will push women back to the stone age) by touting its "women-friendly" policies. They promise to promote the equality of men and women in society and allow women to take low-level positions within the party. They even ran a female candidate in 2005. On their website, the MB highlights all the rights that Islam affords women and condemns practices such as forced marriage.

Critics of the MB see such actions and words as insincere--nothing more than political window dressing. They point to the MB's first political platform, released in September 2007, which denied women (and Copts) the right to be president in Egypt as proof of the group's intolerance and narrow-mindedness. This clause in the platform created a wave of negative publicity for the MB and also triggered a heated debate within the movement itself. When I interviewed members of the MB several months ago in Cairo, there was an apparent break along generational lines. Younger members were upset by the exclusion of women and Copts. Not only did they feel it was an unnecessary provocation and one that tarnished the group's image, they also questioned the religious justification for the exclusion. Young bloggers and Islamic student organizers have continued to press the issue. In a sign of political maturity, the MB has posted on its website criticisms about the status of women within the organization's political structure, Egyptian society and Islam itself. MB members claim that if there were greater political openness in Egypt, the voice of moderates in the party would be much stronger.

At the far end of the political spectrum of Islamist movements are radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah that have refused to renounce violence, hew to narrow religious interpretations and position themselves as stridently anti-Western. These groups have an even more complicated relationship with women. Twenty years ago, Hamas was decidedly extremist in its approach to women, forbidding displays of women's pictures and condoning attacks on unveiled women. But in recent years, as it has competed politically, it has moderated its positions on women to appeal to more secular Palestinians and female voters. Hamas ran 13 female candidates in the 2006 elections.

As of yet, the increased presence of women in Hamas has not dulled the radical stance of the group. One of its women, Mariam Farhat - dubbed the "Mother of Martyrs" - successfully campaigned toting a gun and bragging about her three children she sent off on suicide missions. But all of the six women elected to parliament vowed to fight for women's rights. Some, like MP Huda Naeem, are trying to put forward more progressive interpretations of Islam and disentangle oppressive cultural traditions from the religion.

Will such efforts begin to chisel away at Hamas' extremism? The answer is almost certainly not in the short-term. But over the longer term, women's push for interpretations of Islam that accommodate an active role for them in society should encourage more moderate views on other fronts. What is clear is that important debates are taking place across the spectrum of Islamist groups about the role of women in society, and these debates hold the potential for a sea change in women's rights in the Middle East.

Dr. Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Council's Women and Foreign Policy program. Her work has appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Her forthcoming book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East, will be published by Random House in 2009.

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Comments (22)

abhab Author Profile Page:

Dayan corrects me thus:

“To ABHAB: You have not correctly quoted Qur’an 3:140 which states: If a wound has afflicted you, a wound like it has also afflicted the (disbelieving) people.”

I was talking about the verse that Muslims use to justify discriminating against non-Muslims in housing, employment etc. In some Quran translations it is 3:140 and in others it is 3:139. You should have been a bit more discriminating to know I was not discussing “wounds“. Conversely had you been more discriminating you would not be what you are now.

What follows is Abdullah Yosuf Ali translation of the preeminence verse.

"So lose not heart
Nor Fall into despair:
For ye must gain mastery
If ye are true in Faith."

Other translations from Muslim websites
'Surely God will never give preeminence to unbelievers over the true

“So do not weaken and do not grieve, and you will be superior if you are [true]

“Allah willed that no Unbeliever should have preeminence over a Believer.”

In my opinion this last translation is the closest to the original Arabic text.

Dayaan Author Profile Page:

To ADHAB: You have not correctly quoted Qur’an 3:140 which states: If a wound has afflicted you, a wound like it has also afflicted the (disbelieving) people. And We bring these days to men by turns, that Allah may know those who believe and take witnesses from among you. And Allah loves not the wrongdoers.

The commentator for my Qur’an translation states that this passage relates to the trials of every day life that affect all of humanity and that it is our response that is either positive or negative. Adversity either brings out our best qualities making us better people who are closer to God or adversity shows up our weaknesses and causes us to behave badly and go further away from God. To Muslims our life is either one of becoming closer to God or moving farther away. Hitler was raised as a Catholic (so was I; I am now Muslim), but no one would say he was an exemplar of the Christian Catholic faith; don’t judge Islam by what Muslims or Muslim governments do.

In addition, the Qur’an repeatedly states that men and women are equal creations of God and that both men and women are individually responsible for their own salvation. Governments, political entities, religious institutions and family members who deny a woman’s free will in matters of faith are denying a freedom which God granted to all of humanity and they are therefore acting against God.


It is apparent that you have not read either the Bible or the Qur’an in any detail or you would find a high degree of parallels. Since the trinity is never mentioned in the Bible, even the fact that the Qur’an denies Jesus’ divinity is in agreement. Jesus’ divinity was decided by the Nicene Council 300 years after Jesus crucifixion. The Council was heavily influenced by the pagan emperor Constantine (who only became a Christian on his deathbed presumably so that he could live as he wished and still get a ‘ticket to heaven’).


I have 4 English translations of the Qur’an, 4:34 does not advocate killing a disobedient wife or daughter. In fact, the obedience stated is obedience to God, not to the husband. This is a difficult Qur’an surah which contrasts sharply with modern conditions in America. There is a provenance to this surah which relates to the conditions of the times. The people were living in the midst of pagans and were likely new converts to Islam. What was a man supposed to do if his wife insisted on behaving wildly (in disobedience to God) when the man was wanted to embrace Islam? (This surah is an answer to this question). The Prophet Mohamed had a lot to say about this surah and he did not advocate abuse. He told his followers that men who hit or hurt their wives were among the worst of men and that women should look for the best of men to marry. The Qur’an gave women the right to divorce men who treated them badly; this was not a right that they had in pre-Islamic Arabia. The aim was to keep a marriage together if possible and the next surah 4:35 discusses who to seek as an arbitrator for the spouses: one from his people and one from hers.
There are two problems I see with this post: (1) Muslims don’t know the Qur’an very well and pervert the religion for personal or cultural reasons, and (2) the media misrepresents Islam and furthers the publics perception of the true nature of Islam.

As a Muslim American I would like to see honor killings prosecuted as the hate crimes that they are.

aia4 Author Profile Page:

The author makes some good points but doesn't give Hezbollah a fair shake in their efforts to promote women's rights. They have worked towards universal woman's education through high school and college and have begun running female candidates (despite the conflict with the sensibilities of many southern Shi'a in Lebanon). The clear point, however, is that political Islam is not the monolithic monster that some people perceive, including the many WaPost message board trolls you see whenever the topic of Islam comes up. There are many different forms of political Islam, from the AKP and muslim Malay parties to Hezbollah and Hamas to the very conservative Egyptian Brotherhood, which has confused African-Arab tribal culture and Islam in some instances, and to their own detriment.

The most important point that should be added is that any promotion of women's rights outside of the framework of Islam will be unsuccessful in all or most segments of most Islamic societies. There is ample room for the advocation of all the important aspects of women's rights (i.e., education, property rights, marital rights, etc) within the framework of Islam, via the clever and judicious use of hadith and the Qur'an. Much of the interpretive work has already been done by forward-thinking religious leaders (largely men), and all that remains is to develope mechanisms to promote and use these tools effectively. This has been recognized by women and progressive groups within Islamic societies to varying extents, with Malaysia as an example where women's groups have used Islamic law effectively to promote their rights (though work remains to be done). Efforts are also being made in other countries, with varying degrees of success.

As would be expected, in some cases, Islamic parties are largely reactionary, as with the MB in Egypt, whereas in others (Lebanon and Turkey), it is the Islamic-based parties opponents that are reactionary, with the muslim party representing the more progressive stances. There are analogous situations in Western societies - in the USA, religious groups work within the far right of the Republican party in a largely reactionary, comically nationalistic manner to obstruct civil rights progress and promote economic conservatism - analagous to the MB in Egypt. In Europe, however, most Christian parties are associated with economic liberalism and are considerably less strident in their opinions on social issues (like the AKP in Turkey), whereas their nationalist, often secular opponents are the more conservative reactionary political groupings.

As should be also clear, suppression of women's rights has greatly reduced the appeal of the MB in Egypt, which is why they have made efforts to combat that perception. Such parties will eventually reach the realization that women constitute a voting block that will be critical, and will modify their approach accordingly, to the benefit of women in Egypt. It cannot be stressed enough and is thus worth restating: any approach outside the framework of Islam will lack legitimacy and thus be ineffective.

nazirahmad2007gmailcom Author Profile Page:

the learned author is politician and unfortunately connected with as low AND CRIMINAL SUBJECT LIKE POLITICS.he has anylised the political concept of the countries where muslims are in majority but away from the true islamic rule.the comments mostly from our western brothern are far form the truth and hurting. it is not alone in the subject of women;s rights in islam; but; in other aspects where the islam has been touched by casual authors like russhdee the westerners have pumpered the hurtful comments without understanding the things in right perspective.for instance the athiests supported the rushdee even in contradiction to their own ideology.the athiests do not believe in God as such do not believe in satan. but when "satanic verses" appeared they all along supported rushdee just on the face of it that something hurting to muslims had been written. otherwise;something based on satanic concept ought to have not been acceptable to athiest much in the same way as Godly thing is not acceptable to them.nevertheless; polorised view overlook the islam the basic rights were given to the women which included their right to education; their right to marry of their choice; right to have home; childern and husband; right to have respect in society;etc.these rights were given to the women when entire europe was reeling under dark age. such rights continue. however; right to have open sex; right to have desert life instead of family life; right to go for abolition; right to keep silent when her male partner goes for homo-sex; right to have her nude pictures displayed on commercial adds; right to treat the women nothing but sex object is prohibited in all religions including chritanity; juduasim; and islam.with; without and inspite of present commecial/criminal role of politics these rights as mentioned in islam favouring women shall continue.a patient look at women;s rights is islam is neeed. thanks

Watcher1 Author Profile Page:

Gee, maybe we can expect the "Islamist's" new list of womens "rights" to include:
1. Anesthesia and a scalpel during clitorectomies in lieu of just being held down by female family members and hacked away at with broken glass or a rusty razor blade.
2. Being allowed to wear multi colored Bhurka's.
3. Being allowed to practice medicine.
4. Being allowed outside of their homes without a male family member.
5. Being allowed to walk down the street holding hands with their boyfriends without being raped and then stoned to death.
5a. If the girls are stoned to death the boyfriend doesn't get to throw stones too.
6. Waver of obligatory Bhurka wearing when attempting to flee a burning building.
7. Actual redress in a civil court after having been beaten by their husbands in a drunken rage over their goats eyes being overcooked.
8. Being allowed to learn how to read and write.
9. Being allowed to drive a car.
These are just of few, I'm sure there are many more that we haven't been told about....great religion Islam: so caring, so peaceful, cherishing their brides, comforting to their daughters, protective of their women, so, ahem, considerate of other points of view....

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:

Haroon1 stated:

It would be helpful if we debate issues intellectually with out quoting spiritual verses out of context to justify wrong conclusions.
The problem is not whether Adhab uses it within historical context, it is that many modern Muslims are using it in the context that he makes.

Salmon Rushdie wrote a great piece in the months following 9/11 when he broke down the Islam/West struggle as from the moderate Islamic view of view. Here is one such piece:

New York Times 2 November 2001

Yes, This Is About Islam

LONDON -- "This isn't about Islam." The world's leaders have been repeating this mantra for weeks, partly in the virtuous hope of deterring reprisal attacks on innocent Muslims living in the West, partly because if the United States is to maintain its coalition against terror it can't afford to suggest that Islam and terrorism are in any way related.

The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true. If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on the Taliban side?

Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander that "the Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with the oddly self-deprecating explanation offered by the Taliban leadership, among others, that Muslims could not have the technological know-how or organizational sophistication to pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-sports star turned politician, demand to be shown the evidence of Al Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a deaf ear to the self-incriminating statements of Al Qaeda's own spokesmen (there will be a rain of aircraft from the skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to live or work in tall buildings)?

Why all the talk about American military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not at the heart of the present discontents?

Of course this is "about Islam." The question is, what exactly does that mean? After all, most religious belief isn't very theological. Most Muslims are not profound Koranic analysts. For a vast number of "believing" Muslim men, "Islam" stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God — the fear more than the love, one suspects — but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of "their" women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing of modern society in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over — "Westoxicated" — by the liberal Western-style way of life.

Highly motivated organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the voices of Muslim women to be heard!) have been engaged over the last 30 years or so in growing radical political movements out of this mulch of "belief." These Islamists — we must get used to this word, "Islamists," meaning those who are engaged upon such political projects, and learn to distinguish it from the more general and politically neutral "Muslim" — include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the blood-soaked combatants of the Islamic Salvation Front and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Shiite revolutionaries of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is their great helper, and the fruit of their efforts is paranoia. This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, "infidels," for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world.

This is not wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's thesis about the clash of civilizations, for the simple reason that the Islamists' project is turned not only against the West and "the Jews," but also against their fellow Islamists. Whatever the public rhetoric, there's little love lost between the Taliban and Iranian regimes. Dissensions between Muslim nations run at least as deep, if not deeper, than those nations' resentment of the West.

Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that this self-exculpatory, paranoiac Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing a novel about power struggles in a fictionalized Pakistan, it was already de rigueur in the Muslim world to blame all its troubles on the West and, in particular, the United States. Then as now, some of these criticisms were well-founded; no room here to rehearse the geopolitics of the cold war and America's frequently damaging foreign policy "tilts," to use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's role in the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders and regimes. But I wanted then to ask a question that is no less important now: Suppose we say that the ills of our societies are not primarily America's fault, that we are to blame for our own failings? How would we understand them then? Might we not, by accepting our own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn to solve them for ourselves?

Many Muslims, as well as secularist analysts with roots in the Muslim world, are beginning to ask such questions now. In recent weeks Muslim voices have everywhere been raised against the obscurantist hijacking of their religion. Yesterday's hotheads (among them Yusuf Islam, a k a Cat Stevens) are improbably repackaging themselves as today's pussycats.

An Iraqi writer quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The disease that is in us, is from us." A British Muslim writes, "Islam has become its own enemy." A Lebanese friend, returning from Beirut, tells me that in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, public criticism of Islamism has become much more outspoken. Many commentators have spoken of the need for a Reformation in the Muslim world.

I'm reminded of the way noncommunist socialists used to distance themselves from the tyrannical socialism of the Soviets; nevertheless, the first stirrings of this counterproject are of great significance. If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these voices must be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak of another Islam, their personal, private faith.
The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern. The only aspect of modernity interesting to the terrorists is technology, which they see as a weapon that can be turned on its makers. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream.

dmlpearl Author Profile Page:

"The position of women in conservative Islamist movements is more complicated."

There's the rub. Highlighting the dealings of the AKP is hardly representative. Far more so is the stance of the Muslim Brotherhood - and that's hardly worth writing home about.

Haroon1 Author Profile Page:

It would be helpful if we debate issues intellectually with out quoting spiritual verses out of context to justify wrong conclusions.

The Quranic verse ADHAB quotes above,was revealed during a time when Muslims were oppressed for their faith by OTHER Arabs who did not share it yet. and God was promising them ultimate victory...that God will not indefinitely leave the believers in that position. Quran 3:140
Obviously we can not use this to support ADHABs claim that this stands for excluding non Muslims from Muslim political parties!

So while it is true that Muslim parties and their followers are indeed responsible for many human rights abuses and oppressive practices, I believe these can be debated without Quoting the Quran out of context.

owldog Author Profile Page:

This discussion shows the need for less bombs in the middles east and more peace corp, relief workers, and spreading of democratic principles through education and information, not from the barrel of a gun.

We complain about such violence, but the invasion and occupation of Iraq killed almost a 100,000 Iraqis and injured countless others, directly or indirectly. Saddam Hussein had to go somehow, but our using violence as a solution for problems is not a good example to the Arab culture.

Reformist Zionist Israel is an anachronism and paradox of modern life. Were she not an ethnocracy, fundamentally closed to ethnically non-Jewish "outsiders," (except for the much resented, exploited, and suppressed Arab citizens who withstood the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing) Israel could be a great, uplifting force in the region, even expanding and absorbing other States as the USA did in North America - that is, if Israel were a true democracy like the United States - but she is not.

Therefore, any part of the middle east that Israel possesses will become a Jewish Supremacy jurisdiction, and the native people will be suppressed and exploited.

This is why Israel's invasions and encroachments upon any Arab territory/State has been so vehemently resisted, rather than accepted as a positive step towards developing the economy and helping with modernization.

vivzig Author Profile Page:

Leaving aside foreign issues for a sec...

Killing of the sort described here is illegal in the US, regardless of motivation. Most killings are heat-of-the-moment affairs, although many perpetrators have post-hoc explanations involving infidelity, PTSD, rage disorder, or any other of the vocabularies of motive that we've generated over the years. It's how we explain our actions. It's how we justify the irrational.

Until we can demonstrate that "Islamic extremism" is in fact a CAUSAL explanation of the violence, this argument holds no water. Are the rates of domestic abuse, domestic killings, etc, HIGHER in American Muslim communities than in other similarly situated communities? We don't know this. Until we do, it makes a lot more sense to explain "honor killings" as "honor justifications" rather than attributing them as the sole cause of Muslim domestic violence. People don't mindlessly enact their "culture" if such a monolithic construct even exists.

Info54 Author Profile Page:

I applaud women in the Islamic world for their struggles against the imposition of heinous tribal and other customs onto the region and religion. However, we need a similar movement within Muslim communities in the US. Here’s a couple of stories from reputable national newspapers on “honor killings” perpetrated by Muslims in the US over the past year. And while it is true that men from other religions (and non-religious men), rape and murder women and girls, they do not use their religion as a justification. I understand that those in the Muslim community who justify “honor killings” are hijacking the religion. But the silent majority needs to challenge the views within their families and communities that lead to these crimes. This will speak louder than apologetics to the mainstream after the fact.


The Boston Globe

August 10, 2008 Sunday

`Honor' killing comes to the US


NO ONE knows just how many Muslim girls and women are murdered each year in the name of family "honor," since their deaths frequently go unreported and unpunished. The cases that do come to light are ghastly. "Women and young girls are set ablaze, strangled, shot at, clubbed, stabbed, tortured, axed, or stoned to death," a United Nations report noted in 2004. "Their bodies are found mutilated with their throat slit, or they are chopped into pieces and thrown in a ditch."
The report singled out as especially horrifying the honor killing in Pakistan of "a 16-year-old girl who was reportedly electrocuted to death after being drugged with sleeping pills and being tied to a wooden bed with iron chains." Her offense: marrying a boy from the wrong community. Countless others have lost their lives for refusing an arranged marriage, wearing Western-style clothing, having a boyfriend, or even being raped.
Recently, the Saudi human rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaidar wrote a scathing essay characterizing honor killings as a scourge peculiar to the "Greater Middle East," with its entrenched culture of misogyny and male supremacy. Her article was prompted by the lynching of 17-year-old Du'a al-Aswad, a Kurdish girl stoned to death by a mob of Iraqi men. (The essay has been translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, which also provides a link to a gruesome cellphone video of the lynching.) "From Pakistan and Afghanistan through Iran, the Middle East, and all the way to Morocco," Huwaidar wrote, "this entire part of the world [is full of] defeated and dejected men, whose only way to gain some sort of victory is by beating their women to death."
In the last few months, there have been news reports of a Jordanian man murdering his daughter "to cleanse the family's honor" after she kept leaving home without permission; another Jordanian, 22 years old, who gave the same reason - "family honor" - for killing his pregnant sister; a Saudi woman beaten and shot by her father after he discovered her having an online correspondence with a man on Facebook; and two Arab brothers in Israel, who strangled their sister after learning that she was involved in a romantic relationship.
But while honor killings may be more prevalent in the Middle East, no longer are they unknown in the West.
- In the Atlanta suburb of Jonesboro last month, a Pakistani immigrant allegedly strangled his 25-year-old daughter with a bungee cord because she was determined to end her arranged marriage and had gotten involved with a new man. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sandeela Kanwal's father, Chaudhry Rashid, "told police he is Muslim and that extramarital affairs and divorce are against his religion [and] that's why he killed her." In court last week, a detective quoted Rashid: "God will protect me. God is watching me. I strangled my daughter."
- In Upstate New York a few weeks earlier, Waheed Allah Mohammad, an immigrant from Afghanistan, was charged with attempted murder after repeatedly stabbing his 19-year-old sister. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that Mohammad was "infuriated because his younger sister was going to clubs, wearing immodest clothing, and planning to leave her family for a new life in New York City" - she was a "bad Muslim girl," he told sheriff's investigators.
- On New Year's Day in Irving, Texas, the bullet-riddled bodies of the Amin sisters - Sarah, 17, and Amina, 18 - were found in an abandoned taxi. Police issued an arrest warrant for their father, an Egyptian immigrant named Yaser Abdel Said, who had reportedly threatened to kill them upon learning that they had boyfriends. According to the Dallas Morning News, Yaser Said was given to "gun-waving rants about how Western culture was corrupting the chastity of his daughters."
Islamic religious tradition does not sanction honor killing, but it has long been accepted in many Muslim societies nonetheless. Perpetrators are typically punished lightly, if at all. In 2003, Jordan's parliament overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to impose harsher penalties for honor killings; Islamists objected on the grounds that more lenient punishments would violate religious traditions and damage Jordanian society. It is appalling that such lethally barbaric attitudes persist anywhere - all the more so now that the shame of honor killing has made its way here.

Was this an honor killing?

Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News editorial columnist

Motive of girls' killer matters more than you may think

09:35 AM CST on Sunday, January 13, 2008

Were Amina and Sarah Said, the Lewisville Muslim teenagers found shot to death in their father's taxi, victims of an honor killing? And would it really matter if they were?
It would, and you'd think a lot more people in the media would be exploring that question, particularly because their slayings have so much in common with the honor killing pattern we see in Muslim communities in the West and the Middle East.
True, the only person who can definitively answer the question, Yaser Abdel Said, is on the lam, pursued by police as a suspect in his daughters' deaths. And Mr. Said's teenage son, Islam, while apparently conceding that his father killed his sisters, denies that religion had anything to do with it.
Lewisville teens Sarah and Amina Yaser Said were buried in a Muslim cemetery in Denton. Police believe they were killed by their Egyptian-born father, who is on the run.
But several of the girls' friends told reporters that Mr. Said was furious at his daughters for having boyfriends and had threatened to kill them. The girls' great-aunt, Gail Gartrell – to whose house Patricia Said fled with her daughters out of fear of her husband – used the words "honor killing" to describe the murders.
"She ran with them," Ms. Gartrell told The Dallas Morning News, "because she knew he would carry out the threat."
If Mr. Said killed his children, is his motive significant? After all, domestic violence is found across religious, social and economic lines. Some would say that to speculate on whether Mr. Said's background – Egyptian immigrant and Muslim – played a key role in his daughters' slayings is merely to search for another reason to bash Muslims. One suspects that has a lot to do with the by-now routine media incuriosity when it comes to news stories that might reflect poorly on Islamic culture.
Yet news outlets are wrong to play down or ignore the honor killing angle, and here's why:
"Honor killing" is the term used to describe a practice in which one or more males kills a female relative who has, in their view, dishonored the family – usually by breaking a strict taboo governing sexual behavior or gender roles. To be sure, it is not a practice historically limited to Islamic societies, nor is there clear sanction for it in the Quran.
However, its Islamic proponents do cite this Quranic verse (4:34) in their defense:
Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and [as to] those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.
Honor killing enjoys significant support in some Muslim societies – and among some immigrant communities in the West. Last week, Jordanian authorities charged a man there with gunning down his unmarried 30-year-old daughter. He suspected her of dating and reportedly confessed to police that his homicidal act had "cleansed" his family's honor.
Several years ago, the Jordanian parliament voted down attempts by Jordanian women and human rights activists to end honor killing, which takes the lives of 20 to 30 Jordanian women each year. Parliament upheld lenient sentences for men guilty of honor killing as necessary to protect traditional Islamic social mores against Westernization. Human rights activists there complain that there is little political will to fight honor killings because the barbaric practice is so culturally entrenched.
The legitimacy of male violence against rebellious women is by no means an extreme view among Arab Muslims. A columnist in the Yemen Times last week argued that violence against women is sometimes necessary to "preserve the morals and principles with which Islam has honored us." In Arab culture, where honor is prized and female sexual purity exalted, a family can be cast out if a female member brings shame upon it. Traditionally, the only way to restore peace is through violence.
According to a Dallas Morning News report, Yaser Said was a rage-filled, troubled man. Almost 10 years ago, his wife and daughters told police he was molesting the girls; they later recanted. He was not faithful to his prayers or his mosque. He was, it appears, a sociopath obsessed with female purity and willing to use violence to enforce his will. This kind of man exists in every society. But Mr. Said comes from a shame/honor culture in which this form of sociopathy is not only tolerated but validated as a positive social value.
What's more, experts say that while educated, urbane Arab Muslims don't practice honor killing, they tend not to condemn it, either. And not all Muslims leave this barbaric code behind when they emigrate to the West. In two separate meetings with members of this newspaper's editorial board, Mohamed Elmougy, a prominent North Texas Muslim community leader and Egyptian immigrant, defended violence, even deadly violence, against women and homosexuals. Though the term "honor killing" did not come up in either discussion, Mr. Elmougy explained that violence against sexual outlaws is acceptable to defend the family and the social order.
"The way we view it, we don't look at it as violent," he said. "We look at it as a deterrent."
Well. When you have a community acculturated to the belief that women (and gays) who break taboos deserve to be beaten, even killed, out of some twisted concept of the common good, you can be sure there are innocent people enduring silent, anonymous suffering.
Rafia Zakaria, an American Muslim woman starting a legal defense fund for battered Muslim women, told The New York Times recently, that Muslims "are reluctant to look within to face their problems because it will substantiate the arguments demonizing them."
It would be preposterous to believe that all, or even most, Muslim men are wife-beating brutes. But it also would be irresponsible to ignore the cultural and religious teachings that create an environment in which females who don't behave as males command deserve to suffer.
And it would be immoral not to confront them.
The Said girls had a funeral at the Dallas Central Mosque. One imam talked about the primary importance of the family in Islam and of the responsibility parents have to keep their families strong. These are arguments used to justify honor killing.
But if a word against honor killing – or violence against women – was spoken in English at that service, no one heard it.

abhab Author Profile Page:

Ms. Coleman states:
“Younger( Muslim Brotherhood) members were upset by the exclusion of women and Copts. Not only did they feel it was an unnecessary provocation and one that tarnished the group's image, they also questioned the religious justification for the exclusion.”

Below is the religious justification for the exclusion of the non-Muslims
[Qu'ran 3:140]: 'Surely God will never give preeminence to unbelievers over the true believers.'
As for the exclusion of women, the quotes about their inferiority riddle the scriptures

theemergencyteacher Author Profile Page:

This is a fascinating piece. I really appreciate how it peels back the simplistic understanding we have in the West of a negative relationship between Islamic groups and women's rights. I would go further to point out two things: I believe the rise in prominence of women's rise is an early sign of the disintegration of extremist Islam. The women are (smartly) moving up within the Islamic system, rather than forcing the public to choose between Islam and women's rights.
The second point is that this demonstrates how democracy is a necessary ingredient to bringing forth equality among peoples. Without the pressure of the ballot box, I doubt these groups would give an inch to women. In that respect, the US deserves credit for promoting the ideals of democracy, mostly through example (I don't mean Bush's democracy-by-gun in Iraq! That only drove back women's rights.) Still, I doubt these countries would develop into democracies on their own any time soon, without the models available to them in the West. Enshallah Iraq will get there one day with a form of democracy that respects their traditions and cultural norms. After that happens, in perhaps 5-10 years, women there can get their rights back on the agenda.
The last point I'd like to make is to comment on the role of the internet in women's rights. I don't believe you'd see a moderate mass of female voters pushing for their rights if they didn't have the blogs, emails and exposure to the world by internet to inspire them with examples of 'how the rest of the world works.' Without the internet, these women live in darkness. The internet has shifted women's expectations and literally thrown off the veil of ignorance for women in cities in the Gulf Arab states as well as Baghdad, Cairo, Amman and to some extent, even Kabul. Another brilliant contribution by Jack Fairweather and Islam's advance, the best thing in the Post. It really encourages me to think of women's rights in the ME as a 10 or 20 year movement that is going slowly, but it's happening!
p.s. Any one interested further in this issue should dig up a piece by Coleman on Sharia law that ran 1 or 2 yrs ago in the Council of Foreign Relations magazine.

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:


Please reread my post carefully. I did not use the term 'honor killing' - I used the term 'honor.' While most 'honor killings' use family 'honor' as their excuse, those two concepts are not the same. Thank you.

dapeterseg Author Profile Page:

WestTexan: I would note that you are conflating two separate things, one being shari'a/Islamic law and the other being tribal/traditional mores. There's no place in Islamic law for "honor killings"--the honor killings that take place are a relic of the tribalism that many Muslims feel Islam was intended to replace.

Adultery (which is what honor killings are intended to avenge) is indeed strictly punished under Islamic law, but the punishment is intended to be imposed by a duly authorized court in accordance with evidentiary rules (four creditable witnesses). To reach that standard ought to be difficult (as one medieval scholar commented, you have to see adultery occurring like a "stick in a bottle"). I'll agree with you that Islamic legal rules about adultery still seem retrograde based on contemporary standards (although many states in the U.S. continue to provide for criminal penalties against adultery, even if they often go unenforced), but you can't say that everything Muslims (or people who call themselves Muslims) do is Islamic.

abhab Author Profile Page:

Usama pontificates:
“ Show how NYC can lead Gaza by example, NOT by ideological propaganda which serves to justify your rejection of God.”

I do not reject God. I do reject your ideology , which is attributed to a god by the name of Allah ,and which is in direct opposition to all the values I believe in, starting with freedom of religion and conscience down through gender equality and pluralism. Your Allah, according to your Quran, describes the non-Muslims as dogs, donkeys, monkeys, pigs and stupider than cattle. What kind of a Creator uses such demeaning examples to label His human creation, who are supposedly made in His own image? If a classroom teacher calls a student with any such adjectives he/she would be fired on the spot.

BeauTochs Author Profile Page:

So Usama1, are you saying you support the stoning deaths of the "adulterers," then?...

Usama1 is correct about very little. Their logic is all over the map, and they make all sorts of spurious assumptions. Friendly advice, Usama1, from someone who is neither a Bush supporter nor who has rejected God--merely the violence explicitly taught by the Koran (AND WHICH DOES NOT PARALLEL CHRISTIAN TEACHING): come back when you can make some sense and actually address Jeff-in-DC's comments (with which I agree wholeheartedly).

Congratulations, by the way, on YOUR television show, Jeff-in-DC...

WestTexan2008 Author Profile Page:

Usama1 is correct - many women are mistreated in the U.S. in violation of the law. Of course, under Sharia it wouldn't be considered mistreatment or a violation of the law. It would be a matter of 'honor.'

Usama1 Author Profile Page:

so Jeff, why dont you take care of the American girls who suffer under the hands of American men. In fact, why dont you solve the problems of Washington DC alone. Then you can go tell the rest of the world how you did it according to your SUPREME ways.

And Abhab, you too- solve your country's or city's problems by your superior, MODERN, ways. Women in positions of power doesn't mean anything. Prostitution and debauchery is spreading in so much that a recent study found youth are inspired to engage in premarital random sex by YOUR show Sex in the City- the show about sophisticated, modern professional women in the most powerful city in the world.

Meanwhile, tell me about NYC's sexual assault and domestic violence problems. Show how NYC can lead Gaza by example, NOT by ideological propaganda which serves to justify your rejection of God.

Usama1 Author Profile Page:

Jeff, perhaps 100s of 13 year old girls are sexually assaulted in America every year. Somalia is a collapsed state thanks to the evil greed and despicable Neo Con imperialism which inspired Bush to give the Ethiopian dictator the green light to invade Somalia and set up a puppet regime manned by warlord thugs. So as you support Bush, YOU are responsible for that girl's fate.
YOU denied the people the right to determine their own affairs and find balance and justice from within themselves, which they had under the grassroots movement of the United Islamic Courts regime.
Instead, you empowered corruption and tyranny with American airpower.
Somalia is NOW the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa, worse than the Congo which America is behind the Rwandan support for Congolese rebels, and the Darfur, which is also has foreign interference for economic interests.

abhab Author Profile Page:

Mr. Coleman says:

“But something strange is happening on the way to the sharia court. As Islamist movements make the transition to mainstream political parties, they are increasingly recognizing the need to appeal to women as voters.”

When the Islamists (Hamas) won the Palestinian elections few years ago, I assumed that those legislators coming from Gaza to the capital Ramallah would be indistinguishable from their Fatah colleagues. The sight of those bearded men accompanied by black shrouded female forms seemed out of place in that cosmopolitan vibrant progressive town. Not only they looked different but acted and thought differently that were soon sent packing back to their hole in Gaza City. This is , in my opinion, symbolic of how Islamists are viewed by their countrymen ;relics from a distant primitive past. Those beards and cloaks are indicative of a long bygone mentality that is not only demeaning to women but also to men by inferring they cannot be trusted to control their animal instincts when they see a female face .

jeff-in-dc Author Profile Page:

Can you imagine the Washington Post publishing an article 40 years ago that wrote that "White Supremacists Rise Could Benefit African-Americans"?

This article is an embarrassment to the inalienable human rights of equality and liberty declared by America's founders. The term "Islamist" should actually be "Islamic supremacist." That would help you recognize how grossly embarrassing such articles are. For shame.

A week after a 13 year old child is stoned to death by Islamic Supremacists with a crowd of 1000 watching, the Washington Post publishes "Islamists' Rise Could Benefit Women's Rights."

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.