"Islam? Perfectly compatible with Women Rights"
“Do you know what our first president George Washington said, writing to the Quakers about why he was not going to require them to perform military service? ‘The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness’. Well, I wish I saw more of this delicacy and tenderness in Europe today”. According to the famous political philosopher Martha Craven Nussbaum, “it’s just appalling that nations want to ban wearing of traditional Islamic dress”. Religion, and in particular Islam, says Nussbaum, is compatible not only with democracy but also with women rights (see the Indian case). What’s really wrong are Western stereotypes about Muslims and the so (badly) called “Islamic world”.
In your reflections on human capacities, you underline the importance of a correct and harmonic physical and psychical development and of the possibility for the individual to express his ideas and emotions in a free and open way. Well, if even in the rich West women suffer from restrictions of different kind, don’t you think that these rights are systematically denied to women in the Islamic world?
I think that there is no such thing as “the Islamic world,” and thus no such thing as “a way” to be a woman in it. There are many types of Muslims, and, like Christians and Jews, they find many different ways to be women within their traditions. My Muslim friends in India do not fit any single stereotype – and why should one expect them to? – any more than do my Buddhist or Hindu friends. I think that in all religions there are people who want to live a traditional life and people who want to be part of modernity, and we ought to make room for both and show both equal respect. When I go to the traditional Jewish neighborhood of Boston, called Brookline (as I have recently done, to buy Passover gifts), I see many women living a traditional Orthodox life (and that does not mean that they are not lawyers and doctors and so forth, more or less everyone in Brookline is a lawyer or a doctor!), but of course there are also people like me, whose version of Judaism is Enlightenment-based and modern. We can respect one another, and we do.
However, you can’t deny that there are often tragic cases which show a dramatic tension between Islamic religion and women condition. Some intellectuals, for example Ayaan Hirsi Ali, argue that Islam is not compatible with women’s rights.
As a long-time expert on India, I want to point out to you that the three largest Islamic nations in the world are Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. There are about as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan, although of course in India they are a minority. It happens that I have recently written a book about Hindu-Muslim tensions in India, so I know a lot about this issue (the book is called The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, and it is coming out in April). There have recently been two significant studies of the situation of Muslims in India: one commissioned by the government, and one, focused on women, done by two first-rate social scientists (the leader being Zoya Hasan of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is now also a member of the government’s Minorities Commission). Both surveys find that Muslims are disproportionately poor and that they suffer from a variety of types of discrimination. However, the condition of Muslim women is not worse, on balance, than the condition of Hindu women in each region: in other words, the pertinent variations are regional rather than religion-based. Muslim women are very strong advocates of education for their daughters, and in many cases the fact that their boys face discrimination in employment has led to a greater emphasis on education for girls.
The case of India seems to puncture all the common Western stereotypes about Islam.
These Muslims are often very devout, and we ought to remember that an extremely religious Muslim, Maulana Azad, was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s chief allies, and an early leader of the Congress Party. But they do not interpret their religion, on balance, in a way that makes women second-class citizens. Indeed, at the time of independence the people who protested most vociferously against laws raising marital age and so forth were traditional Hindus. Women face inequalities in every religion in India, but they have fully equal rights as citizens, and there is a united front of both men and women, across all religions in fighting for sex equality against repressive custom. There is no reason to think that Muslims are more against women’s equality than Hindus and Christians and Parsis. All religions contain sexist people. Christian women in India won the right to divorce on grounds of cruelty only in 2001, well after all the other religions had that right.
Are you arguing that the problem is not Islamic religion, but its use?
Exactly. What we see in some nations, then, is not Islam itself, but a politicized version of Islam that is not a necessary interpretation of those religious texts. That point has been made repeatedly by dissidents in the societies in which this politicized version of Islam is influential, such as Shiran Ebadi and Akbar Ganji in Iran. Both are devout Muslims, and both insist, with convincing argument, that there is nothing in their sex-equal democratic proposals that is incompatible with Islam. Unfortunately, people in the West often don’t know much about Islam, so they equate the entire religion with a politicized version of it that they happen to hear about. As for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, maybe she ought to have moved to India rather than the Usa: surely she’d have a lot better chance of playing a leading role in political or intellectual life there, as a woman, than in the Usa. We might also mention Bangladesh, a democracy where 85 percent are Muslims and women (both Muslim) lead both of the two main political parties.
I’d like anyway to insist with you about the compatibility of Islam and democracy. You surely know that level of the tension has recently increased, after the Islamic virulent attacks to western writers and movies directors. There has also been a recent dispute, which you perhaps heard about, between Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash on a side and Pascal Bruckner and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the other: Buruma and Garton Ash arguing that there can be a liberal Islam, Bruckner and Hirsi Ali rejecting this possibility. According to you, is there a chance for Islam to become democratic? And how to reconcile universal rights and cultural and religious diversities?
Well I’ve already answered that question. People who doubt this should go live in India for a while. As for the European debate, I think that it is predicated on the assumption that being a good democratic citizen means accepting the norms and behaviour patterns of the majority. But why should we think this? Perhaps a good democracy is one where people express themselves in their own way, and still live with one another on terms of equal respect. I’m just finishing a book on the Usa tradition on the topic of religious liberty, and I think for once that there is something to be said in favour of the traditions of my own nation. Namely, people who are different from the norm not only get scrupulous fairness under law, which even John Locke advocated, they also get what is called rights of “accommodation”, namely, they do not have to observe certain laws that burden their conscience, unless there is a “compelling state interest”. In other words, if you are a Jew and you receive a subpoena to testify in court on a Saturday, you may refuse without legal penalty. If you are a Roman Catholic priest and you are testifying under oath in a criminal trial, you may refuse to divulge information you heard in the confessional, without paying any legal penalty. If your religion forbids military service, you are exempt from military conscription, and you don’t have to go to jail for your conscientious refusal. And: if your religion requires the use of illegal drugs in sacred ceremonies, you may be exempt from the drug laws in that context. I believe that this tradition of “accommodation” expresses a spirit of equal respect for minorities living in a majority world. Writing to the Quakers about why he was not going to require them to perform military service, our first president George Washington says, “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness”. I wish I saw more of this delicacy and tenderness in Europe today.
Can you explain better this assumption?
I think it’s just appalling that nations want to ban wearing of traditional Islamic dress. The claim that veiled women on the street pose a security risk is really quite comic (I’ve written in a Dutch newspaper about this): we deal all the time with people whose faces are covered, from surgeons and dentists to Chicagoans out in the freezing snow and ice. And nobody suggests that this is a security risk, until some stranger whose religion seems unfamiliar wants to do the same thing for religious reasons! To take a related example, the state of New Jersey made a rule that no police officer could have a beard, and they fired some Muslim police officers because they would not shave off their beards. Now of course they said that this was some sort of big discipline and security issue, but it turned out that they had already allowed some policemen with skin conditions to keep their beards. So, rightly and properly, the Usa Court of Appeals said that they had to reinstate the Muslim officers and allow them to keep their beards. People love homogeneity, but law has to speak up for the rights of the different.