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Women and Islam

Women and Islam

Richard Reeves - April 18, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- As many teachers of history and journalism do, I show my students "The Battle of Algiers," not because it is one of the great films, which it is, but because it is a good way to begin talking about the cultural clash between Islam and the West.

The film, made in 1966, ends in 1960, two years before the French left its greatest North African possession and the country of Algeria became independent. If you remember the ending -- and the movie was not easy to see here as we marched into or against Vietnam -- it showed an Algerian crowd emerging from fog and tear gas to taunt French soldiers, shouting for freedom and independence. The final shot is of a young Muslim girl dancing and wildly twirling her head scarf in the air.

The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Marxist, talks about that ending in the most recent DVD edition, saying that he used it because he thought the next phase of Islamic development would be liberalized Muslim attitudes toward women. He was a disappointed man by that time. Algeria, in fact, had gone through a civil war and fundamentalist rebellion in which educated women were deliberately targeted and killed in a barbaric drive to keep them in their place.

It happened that the day after my students at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California talked about those issues, a front-page headline in The New York Times read:

"Afghan Women Defy Convention, and Crowds, to Protest New Law on Home Life"

Dexter Filkins, the Times correspondent in Kabul, wrote:

"'Get out of here, you whores!' the men shouted. 'Get out!'"

The Afghan women, only 300 of them, who suffered for years under the whippings and stonings of the Taliban, were in the streets because the new American-backed government of Hamid Karzai was trying to keep some of them under control with laws rather than sticks and stones. Both houses of Parliament passed and Karzai signed the Home Life Law, declaring that women must fulfill the sexual desires of their husbands and are prohibited from working or going to school without male permission.

To make such restrictions more confusing in Western minds, the Home Life Law applies only to Shiite families, who constitute 20 percent of Afghanistan's population.

From our perspective, the issue is called "modernization"; modern societies require the skill and brains of women. I once talked about all that with the leader of Pakistan, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, a key figure in that country's stumble toward fundamentalism.

"We want modernization and all the things it can bring to the masses," he told me. "What we don't want is our women forced out of their privacy. That is the thing we don't want. And pop music and jazz, that kind of thing."

Shortly after that conversation, I watched an Afghan elder named Malik Haji Tur Gal scatter the women waiting to be treated by foreign doctors at a refugee camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, shouting: "I would rather see them die than be corrupted by these males who call themselves doctors."

Ironically, since the military defeat of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria -- banned after it began to win local elections -- that country may be the place where women have had the most freedom in the last 15 years. More than half the country's high school and university students are now women. Others do everything from teaching and journalism to managing the railroads.

Is that the future? What we call modernization is a far future, I would guess. Islam, the word, means "submission," submission to God. But in most of the Muslim world, males have made the faith revolve around the submission of women to men. That is the clash of cultures.

 

Richard Reeves

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