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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 19 May 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Ultimate Sacrifice of Honour for Gender Equality: Naked Protests by Arab Ladies-A New Arab Spring


By Rashid Samnakay, New Age Islam

May 19, 2013

Women have adopted the method of ‘baring-it-all’ in public since ancient times to protest against all sorts of issues they felt important. Legend has it that an upright noble Lady Godiva in eleventh century England felt so strongly that she took up the challenge to ride naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry to protest against her husband’s oppressive taxes imposed on the poor. However the husband commanded all to remain indoors and shut windows and doors for the event.

God then punished Peeping Tom with blindness for dishonouring the Lady’s modesty!

Since biblical times then mankind has been dishonoured with nudity for disobedience!

In the West, the human form is considered of aesthetic value, in paintings and sculptures. This is the case with the beautiful and modest equestrian paintings and statue to commemorate the moral courage of the noble Lady in Coventry.

Today the Victorian puritan moral standards of modesty in the West has slipped into oblivion and the expression “excuse me madam your slip is showing” is not even in vocabulary, as no female wears the slip now.

The baring of human body against all sorts of issues is common place in European demonstrations today.

But in the East, secrecy of female body is considered one of the most precious of values. Hence sacrifice of this value is the ultimate price to be paid -or betrayed- at the altar of ‘male honour’. Hence in many communities the betrayal of female modesty inflames the male complex of superiority when violated. The widely publicised acts of honour-killing and violence on women in Muslim world in particular, is common news, and it is self-deception to deny it!

What then drove the Arab ladies this Spring in April to demonstrate nude and pay such a heavy price of honour that was seen by the whole world, to demand gender equality and human rights.

On few occasions even religiously clad women and activists around the Muslim world came out in support and protested against their oppression by men.

It was a significant event but largely ignored by Muslim media and the Muslims world. The protest, trying to expose the oppression of female in human society round the globe—not just the Muslim world, is a glaring fact that cannot be ignored, and should not be.

The cultures, norms and practices have the added immutable edicts of religions that have driven the fair sex to adopt such risky modes of protest. To add to their misery the religious leadership and its custodianship happens to be the sole prerogative of the male. So the women find themselves in strait-jacket!

To any sane, sensitive and morally upright human being, this mode of protest must quite rightly be repugnant and abhorrent. Yet it is the same sane, sensitive and morally upright society that the protest by ladies; themselves from decent families, was directed towards. It was expected by them that gentlemen and gentle-society would feel strongly to act en-masse to assist in redressing the appalling condition of women in their countries.

In the prevailing climate of agitation for political freedom—the Arab-spring of the people power—it was expected to decisively implement many changes, including gender equality but as it turned out, it almost came to nothing.

Having said that, politically this immutability shows some signs of cracks in the so called ‘glass ceiling’ in the Muslim world also. Pakistan, Turkey, and currently Bangladesh were among the pioneers with Sri Lanka in the lead in this respect. But apart from Bangladesh today, it appears that it was only tokenism when compared to the lead taken by other nations now.

However a few examples of political ministerial positions do exist in Muslim world. But that may just be because of the inescapable global influence.

Yet in these countries too there are still ministries for ‘equal opportunity’, ‘anti-discrimination’ and ‘women’s affair’ to address the existing inequality. It is recognised in secular societies that there is lot more to be done to demolish the glass ceiling for females.

The protests by Arab women were primarily directed against the religious extremism and bigotry of Muslim society in particular.

At the extreme, the male in order to protect his honour has thrust the major responsibility on the shoulders of the female gender keeping them ‘hooded ‘so to speak, for his own moral protection. This religious dress mode for women is despised in enlightened society and is sarcastically dubbed as shuttlecock, thief-of-Baghdad and ninjas, among others.

Then also the most effective tool employed is to restrict “public space” for women. The almost non-existent educational facilities for them, under the aegis of religions are just one example in many majority Muslim countries. In some of these countries existing girl-schools are closing down by droves!

To add to the complexity, educated, enlightened, and even Western Muslim women say that the religious attire is their ‘comfort zone’, they feel ‘protected and safe’ in that anonymity.

How to reconcile such opposites except to ask them—“protected from whom?”Of course it is a rhetorical question as the answer is self-evident considering what is happening round the world.

The exponential increase in reported incidence of rape, gang rape, abductions and imprisonment, whether actual or because of more and more females are now emboldened to report in many countries, is cause for alarm for all.

But in many Muslim countries reporting of rape in itself is fraught with extreme danger as the victim herself is mostly locked up and condemned to stoning to death under religious laws. Though the male perpetrator(s) of the crime roams the streets unmolested, as is common knowledge!

The authorities in many cases have abrogated their responsibility towards this heinous male crime hence, the fear of females and withdrawal behind the curtain, even by those who are expected and are able to lead the way to equality from the front.

Is there any other choice left for the oppressed half of population which feels so frustrated in such societies as to ‘sacrifice it all ‘in this form of protest? Obviously no! For the exit doors are barred with many taboos; political, social, economic, educational. Just to name a few.

The authorities are duty bound to correct this situation of the oppression in the community; particularly of the females; who paradoxically are touted in Muslim religious traditions as the cradle of nation and that the heaven lay under mother’s feet. Yet it is of no consequence to them that the same mother who, however, happens to be the oppressed female! Herein lays the greatest contradiction between preaching and practice.  A religious fraud!

It is time to take stock of the situation and take appropriate action to redress it. Only the so called authorities, if they could feel as strongly as the Arab ladies can initiate the legal, educational and progressive processes for the masses mindset to change. Churches and priests will never do that. It is not in their hands to let go their God given male superiority (1) as they see it!

1)-al Quran 4-32, ar-rijaaluqawwamunaa’ lalnisaa—taken as being ordained that ‘Men have superiority over women ‘or that ‘men are ordained to be guardian of women’.

A regular contributor to New Age Islam, Rashid Samnakay is An Australian-Indian retired Engineer