‘What do Muslim women want? It is not for a non-Muslim man to say. But I can confidently say what most of them do not want’
Man’s inhumanity to woman is perennial and ubiquitous. The murder of female journalists in the former Soviet Union still causes little more than embarrassment to Russian leaders. Even in the West, Silvio Berlusconi can still rely on his fellow statesmen and even the Catholic Church to overlook behaviour that recalls the most depraved Roman emperors.
So why have we focused this month on the oppression of women in the Muslim world? It is not just a question of scale, vast though it is. Only in this case does mainstream opinion in the West tolerate the intolerable, in the name of cultural relativism. Both Clive James and Nick Cohen tackle various aspects of the problem. But the excuses are, all too often, driven by fear. Those who criticise the treatment of Muslim women are accused of Islamophobia — which means an irrational fear of Islam. The real Islamophobes, however, are those who, for reasons of cowardice, turn a blind eye to the violence that shames Islam. It is no service to Islam to ignore half of all Muslims: the 700 million women whose voices are hardly ever heard.
What do Muslim women want? It is not for a non-Muslim man to say. But I can confidently say what most of them do not want. They do not want to be confined, segregated, silenced or made invisible in the name of modesty. They do not want to be deprived of equal legal rights, or custody of their children, as they are under Sharia. They do not want to be denied an equal education, to live under the tutelage of fathers, brothers or husbands, or to be excluded from participation in public life or worship in the mosque. They do not want polygamy or forced marriage — both illegal but rarely punished in Britain. Above all, they do not want violence: honour killings, rape, beatings, floggings, mutilations and executions. All of these things are done by men to numberless women in the name of Islam.
We are not just talking about the darkest corners of the Muslim world. Take, for example, the barbaric practice of “female circumcision”, or female genital mutilation (FGM), as it is more properly called. Up to 140 million women in Africa alone, according to Unicef, have suffered FGM — the great majority of them Muslims. Even in Europe, Muslim women are not safe: two years ago the Metropolitan Police estimated that 66,000 women were at risk in Britain. One London midwife says she treats up to 500 victims a year. Yet the British authorities treat the problem with almost cavalier disdain. An Act of Parliament was passed in Britain against FGM six years ago, but still there are no reliable statistics, no co-ordinated strategy and few prosecutions. It is the same story with forced marriage: despite the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which came into effect last year, girls and young women continue to be removed from education, taken abroad and coerced into the misery of marital servitude. Some 400 cases a year come to light in Britain; many more do not. As for polygamy: by treating multiple wives as legitimate in the welfare system, the government has in effect decriminalised it. Yet monogamy is fundamental to Western civilisation; without it, not only the status of women but the foundations of a free society would collapse. Polygamy means retribalisation.
In Britain alone, the Association of Chief Police Officers estimated in 2008 that every year, 17,000 women are victims of honour crimes, ranging from assaults and kidnappings to murder — some 35 times higher than the official figures. This huge disparity between the reported and the actual incidence of honour crimes is a measure of how far the Muslim community is still in denial. But non-Muslims, too, have preferred to look the other way. Humanity and compassion, not to mention self-interest, dictate that this is a battle that must be won. For men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim, there can be no compromise with misogyny and murder.