- Published on Monday, 28 May 2012 06:59
Honor killings, female genital mutilation, and most recently marriage rape laws: What do all of these practices have in common? With the proliferation of books and articles on the rights abuses suffered by Muslim women, one would think these practices are exclusive to Islam. Mona el Tahawy's, “Why They Hate Us”, in Foreign Policy’s recent issue, and the ensuing Twitter-storm that ensued is a recent example. It illustrates the media's insatiable appetite for fixating on the plight of Muslim women — as though it is somehow uniquely worse and disconnected from worldwide struggles around gender equity and social justice.
When I was nineteen, three men sexually assaulted me. It happened to take place in Jordan where I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There was no penetration, so technically not rape, but nonetheless traumatic. At the time, the easiest explanation was to believe that there was something inherent to Islam or Arab culture that caused men to “hate” women. It turned my identity as a Muslim-American into a contradiction. My Muslim half represented the “bad” patriarchal side and my American side embodied the “good” progressive half.
A year later, I started working for a domestic violence organization on the West Coast. Our clients were diverse and didn't fit into the neat black-and-white boxes I had come up with in Jordan. Victims were not all Muslim women or from poor communities where abuse is expected. And not all perpetrators were men. Sometimes it was other women or female household members who inflicted harm. I discovered that violence against women had less to do with culture, religion or economic status, and more to do with power and control. Even within the United States, which I considered my refuge from a misogynistic Middle East, I was disturbed to discover roughly one in four women are reportedly raped annually.
The media coverage around marriage rape laws is an interesting example of this urge to over-fixate on Muslim-majority countries as the primary perpetrators of patriarchal barbarity. The marriage rape law absolves men from rape if they marry their victim. Based on mainstream media coverage, one would think this law stems from a deep-rooted Islamic tradition. A closer look may surprise you. Marriage rape laws, like legislation around honor crimes, are not unique to Muslim-majority countries. According to a UNICEF report, “In 12 Latin American countries, a rapist can be exonerated if he offers to marry the victim and she accepts. In one country, Costa Rica, he can be exonerated even if she refuses his offer.” In fact, a marriage rape law in Morocco which allows a rapist to marry his victim if she is a minor to avoid prosecution, article 475, is based in part on French penal code that was brought to North Africa under colonial rule. Should there be a movement to reform and abolish such an indefensible law condoning a heinous act of violence? Without question.
However, the problem with linking gender-based violence to a particular culture or region of the world is that it obscures reality and offers easy explanations. When you attribute patriarchy, for example, as a “Muslim” problem, you detract from the fact that the mistreatment of women is a global epidemic. To further complicate the issue, the pretext for intervention in Muslim-majority countries is predicated on the liberation of its women. We have heard about “lifting the veil” off of Afghan women or “empowering Iraqi women” — narratives used over and over again to justify today's military occupations. Gayatri Spivak summarized British feminists taking up the cause of Indian women to condone colonial intervention as: “White women saving brown women from brown men.”
For there to be sustainable social change around women's issues in the region, mainstream media needs to fine-tune its narrative away from gender-based violence as being uniquely Muslim to mundanely global. Only then, can transnational networks of grassroots solidarity that include men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, meaningfully take shape.By Qamar Arastu, Aslan Media Contributor