Sex and shame and barter

November 3, 2004 at 9:28 pm | In yulelogStories | 7 Comments

What do we have in common? Dutch filmmaker and writer Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam on Nov.2 by a Muslim fundamentalist who didn’t like how van Gogh depicted the treatment women under Islam in his film Submission. Within days of the film’s August airing on Dutch television, van Gogh received death threats and had to accept police protection. What numerous newsreports have downplayed or left out — and what The Toronto Star (to its credit) did report here — is that van Gogh’s film was based on a script by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is only too familiar with serious threats on her life. She has been forced to go into hiding on several occasions in the past two years, and is presumably under police protection right now. Ali’s part is critically important, for van Gogh’s murder has a history rooted in male violence against women. Theo van Gogh‘s assassination by a fundamentalist zealot should highlight a problem faced by women the world over. It’s a problem that most especially affects, first, women who live in societies ruled by men who revel in misogynistic paranoia typically dressed up as religion; and, second, women who have moved to the west from misogynist societies, but who fail to get the proactive protection (i.e., guaranteed legal rights) they need to thrive in western societies. Western politicians, propounding the holy grail of multiculturalism without clearly understanding what it was in our societies that allowed us to move to a position that allows us to accept multiculturalism, try to appear inclusive and tolerant. However, addressing violence against women entails going head-to-head with some very sacred cows; it means defending certain ideals which might discomfit those whose conception of multiculturalism resembles the supermarket aisle — a bit of this, a bit of that. Instead of standing up to those who abuse what emancipation, individual liberty, and human rights should mean, the shopper mumbles something about “respecting” other traditions. Of course, he finds it especially easy to mumble when it’s just women who are being beaten, raped, sold off into “arrangements,” ritually mutilated, and kept prisoner. Violence against women passing as religious or tribal “custom” or “tradition” is easy to ignore. One simply “rationalises” the oppression as a practice we should be “tolerant” of.

That’s when we need iconoclasts who can come along to rattle a cage or two. That’s what van Gogh did. That’s why he got killed, and that’s why Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to live with threats to her life. What Ali wants is integration of Muslim women into Dutch society. What she instead witnesses is women being kept prisoners in a ghetto that calls itself Religion, and that endorses systematic mistreatment of women. She knows whereof she speaks: born in Mogadishu, she underwent genital mutilation as a child, fled Somalia’s civil war with her family to Saudi Arabia (where she was virtually a prisoner in her own home), Ethiopia, and Kenya. When her father tried, in 1992, to force her into an arranged marriage with a cousin living in Canada, she ran away en route, deplaning in Germany to take a train to Holland. There she worked her way into Dutch society, jobbing as a cleaner and, after she mastered Dutch, studying political science at university. She initially joined the Labour Party, but became disillusioned by their wishy-washy multicultural stance on the problem she has now dedicated herself to solving as a member of the Dutch parliament: the oppression of women, especially Muslim women, who come to the west with their families, but who remain imprisoned in Islamic and tribal customs completely at odds with all the rights that women in western societies have fought for and won. Why should they continue to live without those freedoms if they are recognised legal immigrants in their new countries?

[Ali has pressed] for the emancipation of Muslim women and document[ed] how thousands, living even here, were subjected to beatings, incest and emotional and sexual abuse.

To the surprise of many, she became a leading voice condemning the government’s support for multiculturalism, programs costing millions of dollars a year that she considers misplaced because they help keep Muslim women isolated from Dutch society.

Then Ms. Hirsi Ali, 32 [in 2002], began receiving hate mail, anonymous messages calling her a traitor to Islam and a slut. On several Web sites, other Muslims said she deserved to be knifed and shot. Explicit death threats by telephone soon followed. The police told her to change homes and the mayor of Amsterdam sent bodyguards. She tried living in hiding. Finally, last month, she became a refugee again, fleeing the Netherlands.

“I had to speak up,” she said, in a telephone interview from her hiding place, “because most spokesmen for Muslims are men and they deny or belittle the enormous problems of Muslim women locked up in their Dutch homes.”

Her ordeal has caused an outcry in the Netherlands, a country already uneasy with its recent waves of immigrants and asylum seekers, now representing almost 10 percent of the population. Many Dutch see the threats as an intolerable assault on the country’s democratic principles. The threats have also intensified a fierce debate — one that can be heard these days across Europe — about what moral values and rules of behavior immigrants should be expected to share.

“I’ve made people so angry because I’m talking from the inside, from direct knowledge,” she said. “It’s seen as treason. I’m considered an apostate and that’s worse than an atheist.”
She was shocked when, as a university student, she held a job as an interpreter for Dutch immigration and social workers and discovered hidden “suffering on a terrible scale” among Muslim women even in the Netherlands. She entered safe houses for women and girls, most of them Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, who had run away from domestic violence or forced marriages. Many had secret abortions.

“Sexual abuse in the family causes the most pain because the trust is violated on all levels,” she said. “The father or the uncle say nothing, nor do the mother and the sisters. It happens regularly — the incest, the beatings, the abortions. Girls commit suicide. But no one says anything. And social workers are sworn to professional secrecy.

More than 100 women a year have surgery to “restore” their virginity, she estimates in her published work. While only 10 percent of the population is non-Dutch, this group accounts for more than 60 percent of abortions, “because the Muslim girls are kept ignorant,” she said. Three out of five Moroccan-Dutch girls — Moroccans are among the largest immigrant groups — are forced to marry young men from villages back home, to keep them under control, she said.

A year or so ago, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s case might not have attracted so much attention. But the mood in the Netherlands, as in much of Europe, changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In the month that followed, there was an unheard of backlash against the nearly one million Muslims living in the Netherlands, with more than 70 attacks against mosques. Sept. 11 also gave politicians licence to vent brewing animosities.

Among them was Pim Fortuyn, a maverick gay politician who was killed in May, apparently by an animal rights activist. He said out loud what had long been considered racist and politically incorrect — for example, that conservative Muslim clerics were undermining certain Dutch values like acceptance of homosexuality and the equality of men and women.

What Mr. Fortuyn did on the right, Ms. Hirsi Ali has done on the left. Many in the Labor Party, where she worked on immigration issues, were shocked when she told reporters that Mr. Fortuyn was right in calling Islam “backward.”

“At the very least Islam is facing backward and it has failed to provide a moral framework for our time,” she said in one conversation. “If the West wants to help modernize Islam, it should invest in women because they educate the children.”

To do this, she argues for drastic changes in Dutch immigration policy. The government, she says, should impose Dutch law on men who beat their wives and daughters, even if the Muslim clergy say it is permissible. It should also end teaching the immigrants in their own language and stop paying for the more than 700 Islamic clubs, most of which, she said, “are run by deeply conservative men and they perpetuate the segregation of women.”

Her views, and the death threats, have divided Muslims, who account for most immigrants here. Almost 20 Muslim associations have condemned the threats, but at the same time faulted her for criticizing Islam. Hafid Bouazza, a Dutch-Moroccan author who in the past has received letters saying he will burn in hell for his writing, said the threats were shocking. “No criticism of Islam is accepted from women,” he said. “Muslim women are particularly vulnerable.” [More…]

Sex + money = power. Men who want power try to subjugate women in order to control their sexuality. From the latter derive many things, including lineage, inheritance, legalities concerning wealth distribution, and so on, as well as direct threats or boons to the economic security of the household. That is, nubile girls must be kept “under control” (the means ranging from various moral platitudes to outright incarceration) because their sexuality brings either benefit or catastrophe to the household. If they have sex with the proper people (“good” boys who marry them, arranged husbands, etc.), their nubility, attractiveness, and fecundity will contribute to the overall health of the household body. If the girl’s sexuality is “shameful,” on the other hand — that is, if her fecundity results in illegitimate births that plunge either the girl or her family into social and financial disgrace, if she brings the “wrong” boy home, if she “uses herself up” so that “good” boys will never be interested in her, if she doesn’t do what her father or mother want when they arrange a marriage for her (in which her nubility and fecundity is literally a market value), then her sexuality is a liability. Shame is thus intimately connected to household economy. Shame on you if what you do brings us to rack and ruin. In the bigger picture, it is impossible to separate sex and money, simply impossible. One of the most vicious ways men have of ensuring their control and power over female sexuality is religion. That’s what Ali is pointing at, and that’s why her life is threatened by religious men who can’t stand hearing what she has to say, and that’s why Theo van Gogh was killed. Ali is right when she says that investing in women is crucial for all societies if we want human emancipation to proceed apace. Currently, women continue to collude actively in their own oppression, typically because of economic (money, again) reasons. That’s why a mother and her sister will pin a 4 or 5 year old girl to the floor of a filthy lady witch doctor’s hut, sit on her legs and arms as the cutter butchers the girl’s genitalia, oblivious to her screams of pain. Why do they do it, these women? Because if the girl isn’t cut, she won’t …find a husband. If she doesn’t find a husband, she will herself be condemned to being destitute and she will be useless because she won’t be putting her fecundity in the service of a patriarch/ household. That’s why women collude to lock girls up, keep them under veils, because if they appear “immodest,” they won’t find husbands. Repeat after me: if they don’t find a husband, the girl will be a burden to her family, she will be useless, etc. etc. That’s why women (mothers) collude in keeping their daughters stupid and uneducated, because a girl who is smarter and more educated than her intended husband (if she gets that far) will end up scaring him off, and, repeat after me: if a girl scares off her intended and is left husband-less, she will be a drag on society. Ali is also not making friends among the multi-culti set, but really, it’s about time more people spoke out. Here in Canada, we’ve come uncomfortably close to accepting Sharia law in Ontario:

“I came here to escape Sharia,” one woman told me. “Under it, a woman is worth half a man. He can divorce her and she has no rights.”

Another woman who was tortured in Iran told me the very word Sharia made her shiver. To her it is synonymous with a brutal form of authoritarianism, which discriminates against women.

These Iranian exiles are creating a considerable PR problem for Mr Ali and his supporters.

But there are women who speak out in support of Sharia too. [Ready? Now we meet the collaborateurs…]

In Mr Ali’s front room, he introduced me to eloquent and educated Muslim women who accept that Sharia has a bad name because of how it has been interpreted. [The collaborateurs come from an academic set that has studied, but hasn’t experienced reality in all its messy permutations.]

“This is a chance for us to develop a progressive and tolerant form of Sharia, one that is consistent with 21st Century notions of gender equality,” so a female PHD student told me. [I have a PhD, but at least I stuck to irrelevant things like art history; this Phd student, on the other hand, wants to intervene in the lives of the poor and oppressed, as well as those who thought they would find a level of safety guaranteed by law in this country. Help!]

“But how do you get round the fact that women do not have the same rights as men?” I asked.

“Well, they could,” said the PHD student. “I think women should be able to get as much as men out of a divorce.” [Do I hear the sound of money???]

Mr Ali wants the Sharia courts to be used to negotiate pre-nuptial agreements, putting women in the driving seat. [Yes, I do.]

“But inheritance law is unfair,” I said, “women always get less than men.”

“That is because women’s outgoings [sic] are less than men’s as the man must always support every woman in his family, so it is fair he gets more,” I was told by a chorus of female voices. [Sure, and let’s pin the girl to the floor and operate….] [More…]

This is a violation of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it’s absurd that, under the guise of “tolerance,” we should allow men to exempt some women from the rights and freedoms guaranteed all women in Canada. That’s the injustice that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is fighting against in Holland, too, when she calls for the full integration of immigrant groups into their new societies, and when she demands that Sharia law should not be allowed to operate in the Netherlands. Now, here’s the big bonus question: what group endorsed the attempt to allow Sharia law in Canada? Lawyers? Marketers? Housewives? Cardealershipowners? Nope. Just a religious group, B’nai Brith. And the evangelicals probably aren’t far behind. Ladies, watch your backs. You are meat for sale, especially for the patriarchs. I posted a follow-up entry on Nov.4, link here, and another on December 10/04 here.

A post-election message for progressives

November 3, 2004 at 3:17 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, just sent around the following encouraging email to subscribers. I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’m taking the liberty to quote it here in full. (Emphases added by me):

Dear IPS friends,
My colleagues at IPS and I have been meeting for weeks with allies around the country to prepare action plans in the event of a Kerry win, a Bush win, or no clear winner. Today, as I send you this version, I want you to know that we at IPS share the profound disappointment that the progressive goals of achieving equality and fairness here and around the world appear much farther away. However, experience has taught us all that appearances can be deceiving.

It is important that we realize at this moment all that we have achieved, and all that is still possible. Many of us poured ourselves into unprecedented efforts to reinvigorate democracy in this country. The participation on Tuesday was phenomenal. The continued mobilization and strengthening of these progressive forces will halt the expansion of the Patriot Act, stop the war, and bring the many fights of these past four years to a new stage.

While we may all need some time to recover, we progressives must get back on our feet quickly. For one thing, we owe it to the global anti-war majority to continue to do what we can to end the suffering in Iraq as quickly as possible and prevent future pre-emptive wars. We will send along details of the peace movement’s plans in the next week, along with what you can do.

I would like to invite your engagement with IPS over the next few months to work on broader collective agendas for the progressive movement in these difficult times.

In addition, we offer a few hopeful lessons from history to help guide us through this difficult period.

� Progressives Can End a 2nd-term Republican President’s War. After Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, progressives recovered from their demoralization to fight the U.S. government’s secret war of arming the contras in Nicaragua and supporting human rights atrocities throughout Central America. Iraq is a different scenario, but we can still take heart and learn from the U.S.-Central America solidarity work that exposed illegal U.S. activities and their brutal consequences and ultimately prevailed by forcing a change in policy. � Victory in Disguise? Barry Goldwater suffered a resounding defeat when he ran for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but his campaign spawned a conservative movement that eventually gained control of the Republican Party and elected Ronald Reagan in 1980. Progressives should see the buzz surrounding Dean, Kucinich, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton during the primary season and the excitement generated by MoveOn and other creative new groups as the foundation for a similar takeover by progressives. � People Power Can Trump Presidential Power. As Howard Zinn has put it, “What matters is not who is sitting in the White House but who is sitting in.” Example: In 1970, President Nixon supported the Occupational Safety and Health Act, widely considered the most important pro-worker legislation of the last 50 years. It didn’t happen because Nixon loved labor unions, but because union power was strong. Progressives should redouble their support of the economic justice, peace, and environmental movements that can make real change.

� Re-election Does Not Ensure Success. As President Bush enters his second term, he faces a quagmire in Iraq and skyrocketing fiscal and trade deficits at home that will likely doom his administration. Remember that Nixon was re-elected in 1972 by a far bigger margin than Bush (61-38 percent), yet within a year he was being impeached for offenses committed in his first term.

In the past two and a half years, millions of people have taken democracy in their own hands, demanding to be heard in the voting booths and in the streets. This is the heart and soul of this country and it will be the heart and soul of the defense of our rights and liberties in the months to come. Across the world, millions more joined in protest. At IPS, we stand with these movements for peace, justice, and the environment, and we will be there with our research, our willingness to convene and build bridges among progressives, and our support.


John Cavanagh

PS. Send us your ideas and please join us in the months to come as we work to refine ideas for moving forward.

PPS. We held a town hall forum today live on Washington’s WPFW radio in which many more analyses of the elections and strategies for going forward were discussed. If you missed it, it will be available on our website at by late this afternoon.

It’s a theocracy

November 3, 2004 at 8:10 am | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

I know a Canadian school administrator here in Victoria, very intelligent, who has dual US-Canadian citizenship through his American mother, and who generally supports Bush. (He’s funny that way, I guess.) A few weeks ago he left me dumbstruck when he said that he thought the US was a theocracy like Iran. I’m an atheist in the sense that I’m highly critical of any man-made monotheistic and paternalistic religion. The thought of some Big Guy Creator “behind it all” just makes me laugh — or weep, but more on that in another entry. I don’t know what this man’s religious preferences are, but I’m almost certain that he’s inclined to my p.o.v. Hence I was really floored by his comment. “What do you mean?” I wanted to know. “Well,” he replied, “it’s impossible for anyone who doesn’t constantly proclaim his faith in God to get elected to anything in the US.”

I think he’s right. I can’t think of any successful candidates who tell voters that they’re atheists or don’t care about religion or think religion has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to hold office. Any candidate who does that is shooting himself in the foot. In that sense, the US is a theocracy: Christian, increasingly fundamentalist Christian, with some rigid Conservative and Orthodox Jewish elements thrown in. Judeo-Christian theocracy, in effect. You have to tell voters that there is a god in heaven who looks just like grandpa, otherwise the voters will think you’re the devil’s spawn. Nor does it matter that you don’t believe in the devil, because they do.

It’s sickening. And dangerous.

My Canadian friend with the dual citizenship from his American mother also seemed surprised when I contradicted him on his assertion that creationism is taught in all American schools. He’s a school administrator, he consults with people from all over the country and abroad, yet his perception was that evolution had been thrown out in all American schools. That’s how bad it is, that’s how America is perceived by others. When I told him that separation of church and state was still the law, he didn’t want to believe me. I told him that Brookline, Massachusetts (where I used to live) forbade the display of Christmas creches on public property, proof of separation of church and state. Alas, I have no idea what the picture looks like in other states, other jurisdictions.

And that gets us to the electoral results map (here‘s one link, although you probably have your own). A tiny universe in the Northeast, a tiny group of states around the old rust belt (with Ohio as the New Florida), and a strip of three states on the Left Coast appended by Hawaii: those’re the states that don’t support Bush. Every other state inbetween this border — which people in those other states probably wouldn’t call a border, but a fringe — every other state voted for Bush. And this time around we can’t even say that Bush didn’t really have a popular mandate. Oh no, yesterday’s voter turnout was huge, it was the biggest in memory, and Bush garnered huge popular support. To claim otherwise would be like saying that the Germans didn’t really elect Hitler. Americans have elected Bush — and no, I’m not optimistic enough to think that Ohio will at the 11th hour go to Kerry.

I lived in that tiny universe in the Northeast, I now live on the West (Left) Coast (albeit Canadian) — I have no conception of what the vast majority of Americans in all those other states is really about. I thought I had some idea, but the divide between us — the atheist and the God-fearing — is too wide. My administrator friend has a clearer idea of what America is all about: it’s a theocracy, and there really is no separation of church and state because only church-goers can get elected to state office. (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”)

The electoral results maps tell a story of a country on its way to complete religious dementia. The lubricant between those who already live in that world and those who don’t is, as usual, money. The religious pray for more of it, but the others in those not-Bush areas are equally beholden to it. They’ll play along because who is going to put their sorry ass on the line to fight both “god” and the mighty dollar?

Jefferson, that brave atheist, must be spinning in his grave today.

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