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The militiaman was speaking anonymously to an Israeli newspaper, so you might contest the authenticity of the interview, were it not that the use of rape as a weapon of repression is hardly a secret. Refugees who fled Iran as the ayatollahs installed their theocracy, have described the "weddings" in painful detail. When a physician examined the body of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist the mullahs arrested and murdered, he found unmistakable evidence that they had not stopped at torturing her. Not a true secret, then, rather a secret in plain view, which observers look through rather than see. 

Instead, they prefer to concentrate on the works of Karen Armstrong, a former nun, who has been beatified by the intelligentsia rather than the Vatican. Nothing infuriates Benson and Stangroom's critics so much as their demolition of Armstrong's startling claim that the "emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet's heart" by showing that the surviving accounts of his life tell of Muhammad consummating a marriage to a nine-year-old girl, and taking a slave girl as a concubine. (The arguments about Armstrong's evasions would be of historical interest only if in both Yemen and Iran, Islamists had not been inspired by his example and reduced the age of consent for girls to nine on taking power.) The response of the Sunday Times to Does God Hate Women? was truly sinister. "An academic book about religious attitudes to women is to be published this week," the paper reported, "despite concerns it could cause a backlash among Muslims because it criticises the prophet Muhammad for taking a nine-year-old girl as his third wife. Such assertions could invoke the ire of some Muslims."

No irate Muslim had contacted the reporter to warn of a "backlash". She had not seen threats against Benson and Stangroom in online chatrooms. The Sunday Times invented a scandal where none existed and was unconcerned that it might provoke attacks on the authors. In a dismal sign of our nervous times, their panicked publisher responded by calling in an "ecumenical adviser", to assess whether the book's launch should go ahead.

There is a danger of generalising from the particular fury the media have directed at Benson and Stangroom. So I should say that I do not need to be told that religion comes in many forms, not all of them onerous. I accept unreservedly that religion can be, as Marx said, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions". Clearly, many liberal-minded people would not have joined the critics in shouting down Benson and Stangroom; they would have whole-heartedly agreed that the repression of women must be opposed in all circumstances. Excellent journalists at the BBC, Independent, Guardian, Observer and Sunday Times produce powerful reports about female genital mutilation and "honour killings" based on the work of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or the Centre for Social Cohesion. Police officers and social workers work hard to combat abuse, while development agencies insist that the surest way to reduce poverty is to educate women.

But look on the bright side for too long, and you will be blinded by the sun. For all the qualifications, the stubborn fact remains that mainstream opinion does not consider the oppression of women a pressing concern when it is done in the name of culture or religion, particularly in the name of once-subordinate cultures and religions. The misogyny they generate does not move hearts or stir passions. Governments that stifle half their populations do not face boycotts or demonstrations outside their embassies, motions of condemnation at international conferences or opprobrium in everyday political discourse.

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September 18th, 2009
8:09 PM
Good article. Pity the book's actually written badly. And I hope Hitchens isn't your hero, Cohen. You write far better than he does already.

M Sacks
September 18th, 2009
7:09 AM
In Judaism we make women shave their heads and wear wigs. They have no rights over property and we can have affairs with goyim because they are classed as non-human.

September 16th, 2009
4:09 PM
"I accept that this may seem an odd thing to wish for, but what the world needs now is an uncompromisingly militant feminist movement." Aye! Liberals and "progressives" are starting to act suspiciously as they did in the 20's

September 9th, 2009
9:09 PM
Just as the middle classes ferment revolutions, it takes a man to write about feminism. Or perhaps this article wouldn't be taken seriously if it were written by a woman? Well done anyway...good piece...

September 9th, 2009
11:09 AM
Well said Nick Cohen! The fear of being thought racist for attacking customs and attitudes which are by any other standard profoundly inhumane is one the deserves the most vigorous opposition.

Andy D
September 8th, 2009
11:09 PM
Nick, when are you going to give evidence for your very serious accusations against Nick Davies? if you can't, when will you withdraw them?

September 8th, 2009
10:09 AM
Just a thought, but might Stangroom and Benson's book not have been so widely criticised because it isn't actually a very good piece of work and was lucky to even get reviewed where it did, being as it is yet another anti-religion book written by unqualified bloggers - no reviews AT ALL in the right-wing press including Standpoint, after all. Having flicked through it in a shop, it seems that the accusations of clunkiness and poverty of argument are pretty much spot-on, as are those of Benson being a fundamentalist - it's pretty hard to deny, and I note that Nick Cohen doesn't actually do so, but instead claims that such accusations are lazy. And Buruma and Garton Ash are justified in their claims about hirsi Ali. She *is* an enlightenment fundamentalist, self-confessedly, and she *is* an absolutist. notwithstanding how badly she was treated in her earlier life, her views on Islam are pretty hardcore to say the least - calling it an intrinsically violent religion and claiming that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant because of the influence of Mohammad, for instance, views that i understand a lot of standpoint's readers share but which are intensely debatable at best and I sincerely doubt that Cohen would agree with them - at least in print.

September 7th, 2009
11:09 AM
Stating that the English police, in an English country, cannot interfere to prevent illegal domestic violence because ‘we haven't got the right to impose our values on another culture' is just one more example of NewSpeak. While claiming that Birmingham or Luton is 'another culture' is downright stupid and inexcusable.

September 7th, 2009
9:09 AM
There's something patronising about the implication that nothing is being done by women within the areas and countries concerned, so it is up to their Western sisters to show the way. No mention of for example Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini's recent book "Murder in the Name of Honour", which received much coverage in the British print media and on eg BBc Radio 4's Woman's Hour. In Iraq, there are many courageous Iraq feminists working in conditions of tremendous danger to fight the injustices suffered by women: one side-effect of the war in Iraq has been a sharp deterioration in the status and conditions of women. The issues around Iraqi women are examined in detail in the work of the Iraqi SOAS academic Nadje Sadig al-Ali including the books "Iraqi Women" and "What Kind of Liberation?" (the last written with Nicola Pratt). The Iraqi woman filmmaker Maysoun Pachachi has also been working hard to empower Iraqi women through training them in filmmaking to record their lives. Egyptian feminist and medical doctor Nawal Sadawi has for years campaigned against female genital mutilation. There are feisty women working in every country to fight the oppression of women. Issues of child brides being forced into marriage, and of the punitive attitude towards rape victims, are regularly covered in the media and condemned in countries including Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There is a massive tussle going on within all these socities, and women, and a good many men, are far from passive acceptors when it comes to violations of women's rights. the 2005 UNDP Arab Human Development Report, researched and written by a large team of Arabs, male and female, was on women's empowerment, and like the other AHDRs was highly critical of the status quo.

September 5th, 2009
6:09 PM
Sue - your comment unfortunately ignores the actual ugly truth. It is not the regimes that enforce the subjugation of women. It's islam, the teachings of islam and the hadith.

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