Every time I despair of the way women are treated in Muslim countries—and the few syllables Western leaders and op-ed columnists expend on their humiliations, mutilations, harassments, and, yes, murders—I turn to the Web site of Mona Eltahawy. Eltahawy spent her formative years in Egypt and Saudi Arabia:
A couple of years after I stopped visiting, a horrific fire broke out in a school in Mecca, home to the Muslim world’s holiest site. Fifteen girls burned to death because morality police standing outside the school wouldn’t let them out of the burning building. Why? Because they weren’t wearing headscarves and abayas, the black cloaks that girls and women must wear in public in Saudi Arabia.
And here is Eltahawy on a girl’s lot in Egypt:
When I was only four years old and still living in Cairo, a man exposed himself to me as I stood on a balcony at my family’s, and gestured for me to come down. At 15, I was groped as I was performing the rites of the hajj pilgrimage at Mecca, the holiest site for Muslims. Every part of my body was covered except for my face and hands. I’d never been groped before and burst into tears, but I was too ashamed to explain to my family what had happened.
To anyone who, like me, has lived in a Muslim nation, none of this behavior is either singular or surprising. It is the way men in most Islamic nations prefer things to be. We can talk forever about the nature of culture versus faith: how ancient rites and practices like the circumcision of girls (85 percent of all Egyptian girls have endured this procedure), or the tradition of keeping women ignorant and housebound, can corrupt a religion that never intended for these things to happen.
But it is no coincidence that women who must submit to Sharia law find themselves in a very bad place, wherever those women and those places happen to be. This includes France, where only last year a court in Lille upheld the right of a Muslim man to hold fast to his faith and annul his marriage when he discovered his bride was not a virgin. And it includes Germany, where in Berlin in 2005 there were eight murders of young women of Turkish origin, executed by members of their own families. And Australia, where, after a group of unveiled Muslim women were raped, the succinct Mufti Taj al-Din al-Hilali explained away the crime as an attack on “uncovered meat.” And it includes the United Kingdom, where Scotland Yard has probed 109 suspicious deaths of women, also likely slaughtered by relatives. Islam is an easy rider: it travels everywhere and often brings with it a lot of baggage.
Bet let’s start with Islam as it affects women in their home countries. Last year, in a poll of 2,000 Egyptian men, 62 percent admitted harassing women: an activity most of those interviewed insisted was not really their fault as their advances, however intemperate and offensive to their victims, had after all been provoked by the women themselves.
Nor is this sort of harassment confined to Islamic women in Islamic nations. Western women who find themselves in the Middle East come in for their own fair share of daily insults, owing to their double deficit as women and foreigners. Every step outside the home or hotel is an invitation to a carefully directed barrage of verbal assaults, their components familiar and unvarying: vulgar and offensive remarks, leers and snickers, the occasional shove, all accompanied by grins of triumph. When I lived in Egypt, everyone in Cairo avidly watched the television series Dallas, and as a result became expert on the sexual habits of American women. And not simply expert, but unrepentantly predatory. After all, these were women whose husbands and brothers would not reflexively massacre those who insulted them.
Thus it was that my Egyptian experience marked the only time in my life when the acquisition of the rudiments of a foreign language, far from making life more comfortable, actually ignited rage. The more Arabic we learned, the more xenophobic and sexually explicit trash talk we understood. There was a lot of it around (except, significantly, when we were escorted by our husbands).
The U.S. embassy had determined in its unofficial way that whatever harassment we “dependents” (as they liked to call us) encountered was entirely our fault. Wearing jeans, our national costume—the Yankee version of the galabeyah, you might say—was, we were told by our countrymen, nothing less than a provocative act. (I don’t mean to imply that a callous indifference to the barrage of insults that daily came our way was universal. When a group of us begged an Arabic teacher for help in parrying those taunts, he was quite sympathetic. From him we learned a string of useful remarks to fling at our tormentors, all of which involved, inevitably, abusing the reputations of their mothers.)
That’s the way it was in Cairo—and still is. Local women are of such negligible importance that they can be viewed as prey. On the other hand, foreign women are in a wholly different category: wild and yet easy, so menacing and just plain available they are invariably treated as prey. The foreigner without a murderous uncle by her side or a veil over her face is a communal dish.
Yes, there are ways of protecting oneself, short of sticking one’s head in a niqab. Whenever I walked three blocks to the dry cleaners, my arms piled high with my husband’s suits and shirts, I was left strictly alone. No nasty or vulgar remarks. Uxorious duties evidently served as a shield, gave me a role (that of servitude) that set me apart from another howaga, the Arabic word for “foreigner.” It was only on the way back from the cleaners, when I was empty-handed—free and unburdened—that perfect strangers considered me a target. In other words—and here is a telling paradox of life in much of the Islamic world—whatever devout Muslims are religiously prohibited from doing to women (and there are plenty of strictures listed in the Koran: a man must lower his gaze in the presence of a woman, for instance, and also guard her chastity) is in practice resolutely ignored, all the more so when it comes to foreigners.
Why bother to observe prohibitions on a group so manifestly inferior? Eltahawy complains bitterly that the donning of the hijab, which she as an observant Muslim used to do, actually procures no real measure of safety for the wearer. “I was groped so many times that whenever I passed a group of men, I’d place my bag between me and them,” she writes. But not wearing the hijab or a veil in Egypt is the sure sign of a foreigner—a word that has become synonymous with “slut.” “I was at a conference just recently which was attended by both Egyptians and Americans,” Eltahawy recalls. “One researcher showed us clips from an Egyptian documentary in which men were interviewed: and it was always the same reaction from the men. ‘The Western woman is always easy prey. . . . All they want is sex . . .’”
But there is a difference between the reactions of Egyptian and foreign women to the casual, indeed inevitable, harassment of the streets: “It’s been found by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights that foreign women are more willing to talk about it,” Eltahawy informs me. “Whereas Egyptian women mostly will not, because of their sense of shame.”
Why such emphasis on how foreign women are treated in Islamic nations? After all, most of us, on finding ourselves in a hostile environment, are merely inconvenienced. We can do what I and so many others did. We leave. But there are the other Western women who cannot.
You don’t have to watch a rerun of Not Without My Daughter, the harrowing story of Betty Mahmoody, who accompanied her Iranian-born husband back to his native country for what she was assured would be a two-week visit, to understand the possible consequences of such a venture. Mahmoody’s eighteen months of virtual house arrest under the vigilant gaze of her doctor husband and his relatives, her escape with her daughter on foot and on horseback are known to us only because her flight was successful. Had it not been, her account would have likely been buried with the rest of her.
Consider the case of Monica Stowers, an American who married a young Saudi she met at the University of Dallas, and with whom she had two children in Texas. In 1983, the young family packed up and moved to Riyadh. There Stowers discovered her husband had another wife he had forgotten to mention. After announcing her decision to return to the U.S. with her small children, she came in for another surprise: Saudi courts gave custody of the children to the father (Stowers was Christian). She went home alone.
Undeterred, in 1990 she returned to Saudi Arabia, gathered her children, and brought them to the U.S. Embassy. At which point, as The Wall Street Journal reported well over a decade later, embassy Marines were summoned to expel the family from the premises. The Saudi authorities had an even more effective solution: they arrested Stowers. She left the country. But at 12 years old, her daughter was still languishing in Saudi Arabia, married off to a cousin.
Why would a Western woman forgo the security and freedom of her home country and relocate with a Muslim husband to an Islamic nation? For an answer, I phoned the feminist author Phyllis Chesler, who has written on the subject. “There is a self-destructiveness in this attraction, a temptation on the part of some women to go to a place where they have servants; or maybe a large extended family that might be wealthier than the one you were born into, or the idea that you yourself might go there and bring change and evolution to a backward country,” says Chesler. “You might say there are horrible things that happen to Muslim women in Muslim countries, and that’s true. But the Muslim woman expects it, she’s used to it—it’s terrible but it is something she already knows about. That is not the case with the foreign or Western wife in a Muslim country.”
Chesler speaks from authority. Forty-five years ago, she married her college boyfriend, a Muslim from Afghanistan, and followed him home to Kabul. (When I ask why she ever consented to such a radical displacement, there is for the first time in Chesler’s narrative a quiet pause. Finally: “It’s a question I haven’t always been able to answer. We were kindred spirits—also he was the first man I ever slept with. We both loved film, foreign films, and he wanted to go into the field. We were bohemians. I trusted him.”)
Here is what happened to her in Kabul—and it’s essential to remember this occurred decades before the Taliban made life for women completely intolerable. Chesler’s American passport was confiscated at the airport: she never saw it again. Her young “bohemian” husband became, as she notes, “another person”: cold and distant, a sometime defender of polygamy (his father, to Chesler’s surprise, had three wives) and champion of the veil. Chesler quickly discovered that “Afghans mistrusted foreign wives”—and her walks around the city, invariably barefaced and without the long coat or gloves urged on her by her in-laws, made her the target of lewd advances and crude insults. When she fled to the American embassy, “the Marines would bring me back home every time,” she recalls. “I was the wife of a foreign national. I had lost my citizenship.”
Her in-laws were deeply unhappy with their son’s decision to bring home an American bride. She lived in perpetual fear that she might become, as her husband intended her to be, pregnant. That would have been the end of the narrative, for, as Chesler points out: “You’re then going to be trapped in the country you’re in forever because you’re carrying Muslim property. The child.”
When her mother-in-law quietly stopped boiling her drinking water, Chesler developed hepatitis. She weighed 90 pounds on her arrival back in New York City. Her father-in-law, delighted to be rid of her, paid for her ticket home. Because of her experience, the occasional young American woman who is thinking of marrying a Muslim with an urge to return to his own country visits Chesler for advice. And she tells them what she knows: “This man you love will change overnight before your eyes. You will live but you will wish you were dead.”
It is, of course, the women who don’t get to fly home to New York—or indeed leave any airport without their husbands’ consent—who truly deserve international attention. And yet these are the very women our Western politicians, media outlets, and academicians barely acknowledge because, as I was constantly advised by European and American diplomats in both Egypt and also the Sudan when I visited, “We have no right to pass judgment on the customs and mores of other countries.”
Here are just a few of those customs and mores: in Turkey, a nation often cited as “moderate,” wife beating is so common that 69 percent of all female health workers polled (and almost 85 percent of all male health workers) said that violence against women was in certain instances excusable. In April, a new epidemiological study in the European Journal of Public Health revealed that one out of every five homicides in Pakistan is the result of a so-called honor killing. And in Mauritania, the age-old practice of force-feeding young girls—a life-threatening process that is intended to make them round and therefore “marriageable”—has seen a renaissance. Girls as young as five are herded into “fattening farms.” Those who resist are tortured.
It was only when our steadfast ally Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed legislation legalizing the rape of his country’s wives by their husbands that a powerful Western leader actually expressed a view on the subject. “I think this law is abhorrent,” President Barack Obama acknowledged when queried at a press conference in Strasbourg, France. Yet, our president had to be asked about the rape-facilitation law before daring to venture an opinion. Nor is he alone in his bashfulness. All over the world, Western leaders have proven uncommonly demure on the subject of women in Islamic countries. On March 22, for instance, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, and usually no slouch at voicing indignation, found himself in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at a formal luncheon. This, on the precise day that a group of 35 Saudi clerics urged their government to ban all women from appearing on television or in newspapers.
What was Kouchner’s response to this extraordinary clerical plea? In a press conference, he remarked mildly that he actually had one. He had sat at the luncheon between a Saudi surgeon and a Saudi journalist, both women—and, as he learned, neither was allowed by Saudi law to drive. “I find that bizarre,” he concluded. But the restriction of a woman’s legitimate movements—her inability to, say, leave the house unaccompanied by a male relation or visit someone else’s, her thwarted dreams of driving or braving the heat in garments that allow her skin to breathe—none of these deprivations are really bizarre. They are quite normal.
Accounting for exactly why it is that Islamic countries (or even countries like India, with large Islamic populations) are those that demonstrate the most antipathy toward their female citizens is no straightforward task. On the one hand, Bernard Lewis is correct when he writes that “Islam as a religion and as a culture should not be blamed for the tribal customs of some of the peoples who adopted it.” On the other, the Koran is fairly specific about the value of a woman. An Islamic man may accumulate up to four of her kind in marriage—and may divorce any or all of these wives swiftly and without offering a syllable of justification. In court a woman’s testimony is worth exactly half of that of a man. In matters of inheritance among siblings, the Koran insists that “the male [must get] twice the share of the female.” And finally—although of all the passages this is the one that provokes the most controversy—there are many Muslims who conclude that the Koran permits a man to beat his wife.
“Well, that’s Verse 4:34, and it can be interpreted different ways,” Hussein Rashid, a professor of religion and political Islam at Hofstra University, demurs. “The verb that is used for hit or beat can also mean ‘to break off’ or divorce someone.” This judicious interpretation of the most incendiary Koranic passage provokes laughter when I repeat it to the Somali-born firebrand Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Allah, she observes, “is absolutely brilliant except when He is speaking about the rights of women—then Allah gets all muddled up, doesn’t really mean what He says, and becomes a very confused God.” In fact, Hirsi Ali continues, “that the husband has the right to beat his wife is in the Koran. That a woman has to dress a certain way is in the Koran, that she must stay in the house is also there. And on it goes.”
And everywhere it goes. Sharia travels without a wrinkle on its burqa. It is no small irony these days that those fortunate countries where women have fought, passionately and at great cost, for equal rights—Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, for instance—have become home to certain Muslim immigrants who continue to violate the rights of women, abetted frequently by both the silence of the authorities and an abashed press. Why this silence? One of the least savory consequences of a colonial past is guilt: an insidious remorse that transmutes itself into a persistent reluctance to criticize publicly those who have now themselves taken on the role of oppressor—even against those who happen to oppress, openly and without shame, within the borders of liberal nations. “You hear people talking about the need to ‘respect’ other cultures. You want me to respect this awful behavior?” Eltahawy says.
These impassioned protests generally elicit a well-rehearsed litany. That you can’t lump all Muslim males together. Or blame an entire religion for the excesses of certain of its practitioners (as the scholarly Hussein Rashid tells me: “Islam doesn’t speak. Muslims do”). That in certain parts of the world, a few lucky women from prosperous families do manage to achieve exalted positions. Some are even permitted by indulgent fathers to go to college or pursue certain approved careers.
Such a charmed place, I was assured a few years ago as I made preparations to travel on assignment, was Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. It is ruled by Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, whose accession to power and promises of democracy were hailed by Western leaders. Around the time of my visit, Bahrain even ratified something called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—a law, it would turn out, every bit as awkward and unpromising as its name. Nonetheless, I was assured by friends that once there, my movements would be as unfettered as they might be in, say, Paris or Sydney.
So it was with honest amazement that my first night there I found myself accosted in the lobby of my Bahrain hotel by a formidable hotel guard. “You were looking for?” he asked. A restaurant, I replied. I glanced around and sure enough, there it was, on my right, a brightly lit hotel restaurant, packed with men. I thought maybe what the request needed was some innocent embellishment: A hamburger, I added. And a Coca-Cola.
“You would be very much more comfortable ordering that meal from your room,” he replied, blocking my path.
Some days later, I found myself, with considerable relief, at Bahrain International Airport, directed after a serious and hostile frisking, to a waiting lounge. It was really a pleasant place: soft couches for the men, and in the middle, reserved exclusively for women, as a large sign proclaimed in two languages, by far the most comfortable area: a luxurious enclosure piled high with beautiful silk cushions. These were placed close to each other so the women could chat quietly. It was kind of a gallant form of Sharia, I decided: yes, you are secluded from the gaze of famished men, the enclosure seemed to suggest, but in a sumptuous environment reserved especially for you. Edging the enclosure were silk drapes, intended to be drawn to protect the modesty of the occupants.
Except that the drapes were thrown wide open. No need for modesty or seclusion, not on that day. On the plump silk cushions intended exclusively for female travelers, only men were sitting and chatting, drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches. No man looked up. No one thought to move: to gesture me into the haven intended for modest women. In fact, aside from me, exiled by these invaders from the only place in the airport lounge that the Kingdom of Bahrain thought I should sit, there were, as far as the eye could see, no women hoping to travel anywhere.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.