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The Prism


Letters To the Editor,

Seeing the Women's History Month section in The Prism (March), I began reading Samuel Cole's column, "Donning the Hijab (how not to be a sex object)." After extolling the advantages for women of wearing a hijab, which Cole described as "the long dress and veil worn by many Muslim women," he addressed the subject of violence against women, saying that "many Islamic women enjoy a level of protection and respect that is unheard of in the West."

What an intriguing comment. My interest took me through to Cole's last sentence, the content of which stopped me in my tracks. Speaking of a sister that adopted Islam as her religion, Cole stated "...she has adopted a culture where she is valued as an equal...for no other reason than that she is a woman."

I wondered if it could possibly be true. Picking up my copy of Women in the Material World, (Sierra Club, 1996), I read an interview conducted with an Islamic woman in Jordan. The interviewer asks the woman "What happens to unmarried girls in this country who get pregnant?" The mother answers, "In our society, a father can kill his daughter if this happens." Asked if she would support this tradition if her daughter became pregnant while unmarried, the woman responds, "Yes, we would kill her."

I found the answer chilling. But in fairness, Cole had mentioned Pakistan as one of the countries where such "protection and respect" were enjoyed. Seeking more information, I typed the topic Pakistani Women into the AltaVista internet search engine. Within minutes, I was looking at a page <http://www.ualberta.ca/~mupal/mupal/pacawom/> which had a section entitled "Reports on the Status of Women in Pakistan."

Opening an Amnesty International Report on Pakistan (1995), I read that "The laws which deny women's rights have long been identified. Now is the time to change them rather than talk about them." Women in Pakistan, says Amnesty, are "raped with impunity." Further, women have good reason to fear reporting a rape. Under the Zina Ordinance, the report explained, extra-martial intercourse is forbidden; thus, a rape victim who presses charges may be jailed for admitting involvement in extra-marital intercourse. Amnesty International states, "By bringing a charge of rape, a woman is taken to admit that unlawful sexual intercourse has taken place." Giving the example of a 15-year-old who brought charges of rape against two relatives, Amnesty says "In the absence of witness, the alleged rapists were acquitted." But the girl's pregnancy was "taken as evidence for unlawful sexual intercourse: she was sentenced to 100 lashes in public and ten years imprisonment. The punishment was later reduced to 10 lashes and three years' imprisonment."

Wishing for some positive news, but fearing the worst, I next opened the "Human Rights Watch on Pakistan" report. It mentioned "rape, sexual assault, beatings, abusive strip searches" of women prisoners by male guards. Finally, I read the U.S. State Department's "Report on Human Rights Abuses in Pakistan," which says that about 800 cases of rape were reported in the press in 1994 and that it's "estimated that less than one third of all rapes are reported to the police."

Having read all I could take for the moment, I shut off my computer. I'd wanted to believe Samuel Cole's saying that in countries "such as Egypt and Pakistan," that "it seems Muslim tradition alone protects the dignity of women"—but it doesn't seem to be true. It appears that whether women live in a Muslim or Judeo-Christian country, and whether or not they are wearing a hijab or other clothing, women are often not spared violence or oppression. It's a reality we should face squarely, so that we can try to work to change it, not only during Women's History Month, but every day.

Rene Caputo

Sam Cole replies:

Rene Caputo's portrayal of Islam is indeed the popular perception; surely it is difficult to follow the media's nightly horrific-world-events, or Amnesty International reports, without concluding that Islam is genuinely barbaric to women. But the paradox remains, 4 out of 5 American converts to this rapidly growing religion are women. What accounts for this peculiar attraction? According to literature, written by some of these women, one attraction is that Islam has less tolerance toward the commercialization of sex and therefore more closely couples femininity with personal dignity. From this also comes a decrease in sexual violence toward women.

Caputo differs and describes an interview with an Islamic woman in Jordan who explains that "in our society a father can kill his [unmarried] daughter if she becomes pregnant." I have no doubt that this is true. It is even probable that some of the motivation for this custom, however misguided, is the Qur'aanic injunction against extramarital relationships. And as Caputo also points out, this injunction is even supported by secular laws such as Pakistan's Zina Ordinance. Muslims, however, have no special patent on injunctions against extramarital sex. These exist also in the Old Testament (Lev 20:10) and have been supported by the secular laws of some non-Islamic States. Consider that in recent history it was legal for a husband in Texas to kill his wife caught in an extramarital relationship. And I am told by an attorney friend that even today a husband having this defense is unlikely to be convicted of murder. Let us at least agree that overly literal religious reasoning, and the unjust secular laws that sometimes support it, is found in many cultures, regardless of their dominant religions.

To further illustrate the oppressed position of Islamic women, Caputo quotes from an Amnesty International report which states that women in Pakistan are "raped with impunity." This statement seems to be sadly true...but only in its correct context. The full quote from the Amnesty International Report is: "Women continue to be subjected to arbitrary detention and torture, including rape, which police and other security personnel commit with virtual impunity." Here Amnesty International doesn't condemn the whole society, or even the Muslim tradition, but only the State's corrupt security service. Of course this by itself is a sufficiently serious problem for Pakistani women. It partly stems, as Caputo accurately points out, from Pakistan's Zina Ordinance which forces a woman who attempts to accuse a rapist into peril of the law.

In light of all this, Pakistan seems a dangerous place for women. Caputo refers us to a US State Department document on Human Rights Abuse in Pakistan which reports 800 cases of rape in 1994. The report further estimates this number to be only the tip of the iceberg: "...less than one third the total number of rapes." So the true total is probably greater than 2400, and breaks down to something in excess of 3.5 rapes per 100,000 Pakistani women (A United Nations report estimates the female population of Pakistan at 69,501,000). Yet terrible as this record is, it doesn't hold a candle to that of United States. Consider that the number of "reported" rapes in the US was 77 per 100,000 women (1995 Uniform Crime Reporting Index). These numbers will always be problematic, but on the surface they seem to establish a fascinating trend: A Pakistani Muslim woman, with virtually no legal protection from rape, indeed quite the opposite, is less likely to be raped than an American woman.

In Pakistan the security forces commit rape with impunity, and a Zina Ordinance confers a virtual immunity from prosecution to any would-be rapist. But despite this universal hunting-license to rape, Muslim women seem to be at least 20 times safer from rape than American women—whom are supposedly protected by laws against even sexual harassment, laws to which no one is immune from prosecution, even the President of the United States. What influence allows women to walk more safely through the alleys of Lahore, where rape seems essentially legal, than those of Los Angeles, where it is not? Muslims, at least, seem convinced that it is their Islamic tradition which discourages the commercialization of sex and the sexual objectification of women, and in so doing makes sexual violence toward women less permissible.

My point is not to defend a barbaric Pakistani government that condones the rape, torture, and murder of its own citizens. It is certain that in terms of equal rights for women, Pakistan remains under a rock. Moreover I agree with what I take to be Caputo's conclusion: that there is intolerable violence toward women in all cultures. But while ubiquitous violence toward women seems impervious to any law or amount of world pressure, it appears to languish within a tradition that refuses to condone the sexual objectification of women. And it declines even further in those Muslim communities where Islam has been successfully disconnected from primitive and fundamentalist influences, and where women are protected by both secular law and Islamic tradition. Perhaps this is the reason that 4 out of 5 American converts to Islam are women.


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