The Women of Islam

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Students at Gulhane Military Medical Academy in Ankara, Turkey

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Beatings are not the worst of female suffering. Each year hundreds of Muslim women die in "honor killings"-- murders by husbands or male relatives of women suspected of disobedience, usually a sexual indiscretion or marriage against the family's wishes. Typically, the killers are punished lightly, if at all. In Jordan a man who slays his wife or a close relative after catching her in the act of adultery is exempt from punishment. If the situation only suggests illicit sex, he gets a reduced sentence. The Jordanian royal family has made the rare move of condemning honor killings, but the government, fearful of offending conservatives, has not put its weight behind a proposal to repeal laws that grant leniency for killers. Jordan's Islamic Action Front, a powerful political party, has issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying the proposal would "destroy our Islamic, social and family values by stripping men of their humanity when they surprise their wives or female relatives committing adultery."

Honor killings are an example of a practice that is commonly associated with Islam but actually has broader roots. It is based in medieval tribal culture, in which a family's authority, and ultimately its survival, was tightly linked to its honor. Arab Christians have been known to carry out honor killings. However, Muslim perpetrators often claim their crimes are justified by harsh Islamic penalties, including death for adultery. And so religious and cultural customs become confused.

Female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation, is another case in point. It involves removing part or all of a girl's clitoris and labia in an effort to reduce female sexual desire and thereby preserve chastity. FGM is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and in Egypt, with scattered cases in Asia and other parts of the Middle East. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 140 million girls and women have undergone the procedure. Some Muslims believe it is mandated by Islam, but the practice predates Muhammad and is also common among some Christian communities.

Sexual anxiety lies at the heart of many Islamic strictures on women. They are required to cover their bodies--in varying degrees in different places--for fear they might arouse the lust of men other than their husbands. The Koran instructs women to "guard their modesty," not to "display their beauty and ornaments" and to "draw their veils." Saudi women typically don a billowy black cloak called an abaya, along with a black scarf and veil over the face; morality police enforce the dress code by striking errant women with sticks. The women of Iran and Sudan can expose the face but must cover the hair and the neck.

In most Islamic countries, coverings are technically optional. Some women, including some feminists, wear them because they like them. They find that the veil liberates them from unwanted gazes and hassles from men. But many Muslim women feel cultural and family pressure to cover themselves. Recently a Muslim fundamentalist group in the Indian province of Kashmir demanded that women start wearing veils. When the call was ignored, hooligans threw acid in the faces of uncovered women.

Limits placed on the movement of Muslim women, the jobs they can hold and their interactions with men are also rooted in fears of unchaste behavior. The Taliban took these controls to an extreme, but the Saudis are also harsh, imposing on women some of the tightest restrictions on personal and civil freedoms anywhere in the world. Saudi women are not allowed to drive. They are effectively forbidden education in fields such as engineering and law. They can teach and provide medical care to other women but are denied almost all other government jobs. Thousands have entered private business, but they must work segregated from men and in practice are barred from advancement.

Though Iran is remembered in the West mostly for its repressive ayatullahs, women there enjoy a relatively high degree of liberty. Iranian women drive cars, buy and sell property, run their own businesses, vote and hold public office. In most Muslim countries tradition keeps ordinary women at home and off the street, but Iran's avenues are crowded with women day and night. They make up 25% of the work force, a third of all government employees and 54% of college students. Still, Iranian women are--like women in much of the Arab world--forbidden to travel overseas without the permission of their husband or father, though the rule is rarely enforced in Iran.

Gender reforms are slow and hard-fought. In 1999 the Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, issued a decree for the first time giving women the right to vote in and stand for election to the Kuwaiti parliament, the only lively Arab legislature in the Persian Gulf. Conservatives in parliament, however, blocked its implementation. In addition, the legislature has voted to segregate the sexes at Kuwait University. Morocco's government has proposed giving women more marriage and property rights and a primary role in developmental efforts, but fundamentalists are resisting the measures.

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