for women in Islam is hotly contested, and bound to cause violent arguments for
years to come, judging from an explosive debate between four powerful Muslim
women, and one celebrated Muslim reformer — human rights activist Ayaan
Hirsi Ali — at the Women in the World New York summit on Thursday.
with the opening question by Indian moderator Barkha Dutt, the sparks
flew: “Why are you picking only on Islam?” was Dutt’s provocative prompt to
Hirsi Ali, author of Heretic. The Somali-born, Dutch-American academic, who
lives under Fatwas for her condemnation of Sharia law, faced off with a fellow
Somali, women’s activist and Sharia-defender Hibaaq Osman, who continued
the fiery exchange offstage.
remained tense but civil before the audience. “I embrace Muslims but I reject
Islamic law because it’s totalitarian, because it’s bigoted and especially
bigoted against women,” Hirsi Ali insisted in her opening remarks.
law becomes the law of the land, you have a male guardian, child marriage…you
will be disinherited and if you are raped it’s your fault, and you will get
stoned to death. I reject Islamic law because it is inherently hostile to
applause from the packed Lincoln Centre theatre, Hirsi Ali added: “We will not
defeat and we will not eradicate these practices unless we talk about the
principle, and the principle is enshrined in the Islamic law of Sharia.”
satisfy the moderator, Barkha Dutt, who retorted: “Isn’t religion inherently
misogynistic? To me coming from a so-called third world country, I find it shocking
that America debates abortion.”
Hibaaq Osman and Barkha Dutt (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the
quickly jumped in to agree that misogyny is common to all religions, but made a
case for tackling Islam, the subject at hand: “Please keep the topic because we
only have thirty minutes”.
Langhi, co-founder and director of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, a key
problem is the tendency to resort to what she called reductionist and
simplistic views of Sharia, and the belief that Islam is inherently misogynist.
such thing as Islamic law – there’s something called Sharia. It’s the dynamic
process–it has to be contextualized.”
claimed Hirsi Ali shares the same views that radical Islamists share on Sharia.
it is a set law, whereas Sharia has developed over time and space. It has no
set position on divorce and marriage and that explains why we have diverse
schools of legal thought.”
did not relent, and decried the “betrayal of Muslim women” who have an
education and have been able to emancipate themselves from Islamic law, then
insist that Islamic law “is not what it is and we don’t understand it.”
information age, she said, it is possible to see what Islamic law looks like
for women. In Saudia Arabia, for example, women are not allowed to drive, and
are “subjected to every humiliation you can think of.” The same was true in
Iran, under Ayatollah Khomeini, who reduced the age of marriage to 9, Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali draws a distinction between Islam
as a doctrine and Muslims.
Ali assertion that most enraged Osman was her reference to the Prophet
Mohammed: “They say the Prophet Mohammed took Aisha when she was 6 and had sex
when she was 9. That is Sharia law.”
“insult” to the Prophet prompted a visceral reaction from Osman, who began
shouting and gesturing that Hirsi Ali “did not make sense.”
we have to go to war with Islam. That was shocking … the fact you said we have
to defeat Islam militarily — you surrendered your credibility. I am surprised
you are saying those things. Those who claim to be able to reform society have
to be in that society.”
held her ground, and the unintelligible shouting of the panel members only
subsided after the intervention of moderator Dutt, who grabbed the arm of
Osman, sitting next to her, and turned to the audience to remark: “None of
these women are oppressed by their religion.”
Pandith, Indian-born American and a former State Department official who is an
adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed there is
great diversity in Islam, saying the religion is “not a monolith.”
travel and talk to Muslim youth, you hear many different voices about what it
means to be a woman. Muslim millennial do not want to be pigeonholed as one
thing. It is important that this audience understands and respects diversity
for Islam,” she stressed.
a billion Muslims under the age of 30… and for them it is critical we don’t
politicize their population.”
said many young Muslim women and men are pushing back against the ideology of
the Islamic State and other “non-state actors” who are using the name of Islam
“to manipulate religion.”
that, in her work, she “saw vibrant young diverse Muslim millennial females —
they do not want to be held back by discourse in the media, by a victim
mentality. They want to tell their own stories. Twenty and thirty something…
are taking back the narrative about what it means to be a moderate or female
Muslim and what it means to unpack that in a global modern era, as a digital
Pandith, the expression of identity meant many things. “It is not just whether
you’re veiling or not.”
her incendiary comments about Islam being a “nihilistic cult of death,” Hirsi
Ali responded that she had always made a distinction between Islam as a
doctrine and Muslim believers.
latest book, Heretic, she writes about a growing number of Muslims who reject
some of the most basic doctrine of the religion from the inside, and are
fighting for women’s rights.
not to declare a war on Muslims. I embrace Muslims. I reject everything that is
argument for Muslim reform angered panellists Langhi and Osman.
to be informed as to what Islam is, and it is not monolithic,” said Langhi.
need to reform is Muslim minds — Muslim’s interpretations, not Islam. That’s a
refused to counter the demand for internal reform, insisting there was nothing
Islamic about the Islamic State, and that Islam “rejects killing innocent
people.” In her view, human rights do not supercede religious rights. “No,
absolutely not, Islam gives you all the rights of the women you need,” she said
to loud gasps from the audience.
returned to the growing number of reformist Muslims who are no longer willing
to lay the blame for their “internal philosophical affairs on the Zionists or
the American media”.
understand they need to compete with the Islamists…and they are pushing back.
We need to acknowledge their fight, which is a dangerous fight…The people who
disagree with you, they want to kill you — they want to kill me. I don’t want
to kill them. The power of the word is going to win, but we have to protect
that freedom of speech from allegations of Islamophobia, from silencing people
and, ultimately, from violence”.