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Thomas Paine
Deism versus Islam

Women the Future of Freedom

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Weekend Australian August 26, 2006

Also see Saudis behind beheadings, conspiracy theories, and Saudi TV

One of my heroines is Samira Ahmed, a 24-year-old girlishly pretty woman with large, brown, doelike eyes, dark, curly hair and a smile that seduces even the gloomiest of faces to lighten up and smile back. Besides her good nature, she is inquisitive and has a strong will to be her own person. Born to a family who left Morocco in the early 1980s and settled in The Netherlands, she is one of 10 children.

In the (northern) summer of 2005, I attended her graduation ceremony at a training college in Amsterdam. Samira received a diploma for pedagogy and a record 10 score (the highest possible) for her thesis.

This is the celebratory side of Samira's story, for there is also a tragic side. When I arrived for Samira's graduation I was received like all the other guests in a reception area just outside of the auditorium where the ceremony was to take place. I noticed the happy class, a total of 35 students, gathered in clusters around coffee stands. Family and friends accompanied them, chatting, carrying gifts and flowers wrapped in cellophane. Proud fathers and mothers, flushed siblings teasing their red-faced brothers and sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends happy just to be there to witness an achiever in the family.

On Samira's stand none of her family showed up: no brother, no sister, no cousin, no nephew, no niece. Two years earlier, Samira had to sneak away from home because she wanted to live in a student house like her Dutch friends Sara and Marloes. At home she had shared a bedroom with some of her siblings and had no privacy at all. Every move she made in the house was monitored by her mother and sisters; outside the house her brothers kept watch. They all wanted to make sure that under no circumstances would she become Westernised.

Samira had endured terrible physical and psychological violence at home. Her family always had a pretext to question her, go through her stuff and forbid her from setting foot outside the house. She was beaten frequently. There were rumours in her community that she had a Dutch boyfriend. The beatings at home became harsher. Samira could bear it no longer and left. Soon afterwards, in the summer of 2003, she got in touch with me. I went with her to the police to file a complaint against her brothers, who had threatened to murder her. According to them, Samira's death was the only way to avenge the shame she brought upon the family for leaving their parents' house.

The police said they could do nothing to help her except file the complaint. They said there were thousands of other women like her and it was not the police's duty to intervene in family matters. Ever since she left, Samira has been in hiding, moving from house to house and depending on the kindness of strangers. Mostly she is brave and faces life with a powerful optimism. Samira reads her textbooks, does her homework, and turns her papers in on time. She accepts invitations to student parties from Sara and Marloes and makes an effort to enjoy herself.

Sometimes, however, she has a sad, drawn look on her face that betrays her worries. Once in a while she just weeps and confides that she wishes her life were different, perhaps more like the lives of her Dutch friends. Today, however, on her graduation day, she is glowing, clutching her diploma and returning the kisses of her friends. Her worries are far from over, though. She has no money; she has to find a job, and with her Moroccan name that will be far from easy in The Netherlands; she has to find another new place to live; she lives in an unending fear of being discovered by her brothers and slaughtered by them. This is no joke, for in just two police regions in The Netherlands (The Hague area and the southern section of the province of South Holland), 11 Muslim girls were killed by their own families between October 2004 and May 2005 for ''offences'' similar to those committed by Samira.

In my mind, there are three categories of Muslim women in Dutch society. I suspect that this distinction applies to other European Union countries with large Muslim populations as well. First, there are girls such as Samira: strong-willed, intelligent and willing to take a chance on shaping their individual futures along a path they choose for themselves. They face many obstacles as they try to assimilate in Western society and some may lose their lives trying to attain their dreams.

Second, there are girls and women who are very dependent and attached to their families but who cleverly forge a way to lead a double life. Instead of confronting their families and arguing about their adherence to custom and religion, these girls use a more tactful approach. When with family (in the broadest sense of the word, which also includes their community), they put on their headscarves and at home obey every whim of their parents and menfolk.

Outside the home, however, they lead the life of an average Western woman: they have a job, dress fashionably, have a boyfriend, drink alcohol, attend cocktail parties and manage to travel away from home for a while.

The third group are the utterly vulnerable. Some of these girls are imported as brides or domestic workers from the country of origin of the immigrants with whom they come to live. Some are daughters of the more conservative families. These girls are removed from school once they attain puberty and locked up at home. Their families get away with this form of modern slavery because the authorities rarely take notice of these young women. The girls have often been brought up to be absolutely obedient: they perform household chores without question. Their individual wills have been bent to the servitude taught at their parents' house and put into practice in their husbands' homes or the homes of the people who import and enslave them. They can hardly read or write.

When they marry, they generally bear as many children as their individual fertility allows. When they miscarry, most of them view this as God's will, not as a lack of proper health care, which they are usually prevented from seeking because of their families' religious reasons.

For a while now I have been asserting that the most effective way for European Union governments to deal with their Muslim minorities is to empower the Muslim women living within their borders. The best tool for empowering these women is education. Yet the education systems of some European Union countries are going through a crisis of neglect, particularly with regard to immigrant children. We are paying the price of mixing education with ideology. However, let me stick to the important subject of freeing women from the shackles of superstitious belief and tribal custom.

The biggest obstacle that hinders Muslim women from leading dignified, free lives is violence--physical, mental, and sexual--committed by their close families. Here is only a sample of some of the violence perpetrated on girls and women from Islamic cultures:

  • Four-year-old girls have their genitals mutilated: some of them so badly that they die of infections; others are traumatised for life from the experience and will later suffer recurrent infections of their reproductive and urinary systems.
  • Teenage girls are removed from school by force and kept inside the house to stop their schooling, stifle their thinking and suffocate their will.
  • Victims of incest and sexual abuse are beaten, deported or killed to prevent them from filing complaints.
  • Some pregnant victims of incest or abuse are forced by their fathers, older brothers, or uncles to have abortions in order to keep the family honour from being stained. In this era of DNA testing, the girls could demonstrate that they have been abused. Yet instead of punishing the abusers, the family treats the daughter as if she had dishonoured the family.
  • Girls and women who protest their maltreatment are beaten by their parents in order to kill their spirits and reduce them to a lifelong servitude that amounts to slavery.
  • Many girls and women who can't bear to suffer any more take their own lives or develop numerous kinds of psychological ailments, including nervous breakdown and psychosis. They are literally driven mad.

A Muslim girl in Europe runs more risk than girls of other faiths of being forced into marriage by her parents with a stranger. In such a marriage -- which, since it is forced, by definition starts with rape -- she conceives child after child. She is an enslaved womb. Many of her children will grow up in a household with parents who are neither bound by love nor interested in the wellbeing of their children. The daughters will go through life as subjugated as their mothers and the sons become -- in Europe -- dropouts from school, attracted to pastimes that can vary from loitering in the streets to drug abuse to radical Islamic fundamentalism.

European policy-makers have not yet understood the huge potential of liberating Muslim women. They are squandering the single best opportunity they have to make Muslim integration a success within one generation. Morally, governments need to eradicate violence against women in Europe. This would make clear to fundamentalists that Europeans take their constitutions seriously. Now, most abusers simply think that Western rhetoric about the equality of men and women is cowardly and hypocritical, since Western governments tolerate the abuse of millions of Muslim women when they're told it's in the name of freedom of religion.

Muslim women such as Samira would make sure to prepare their own children for a life in modern society. These women would plan their family with a chosen partner. This planning reduces the chances for dropouts among their children. They value education and would emphasise its importance for their children. They value work and aspire to make a contribution to the economy. They would provide the greying European economy with the human resources it needs instead of adding to its social welfare rolls.

The children of successful Muslim women are more likely to have a positive attitude towards the societies in which they live. They will learn at an early age to appreciate the freedom and prosperity they live in and perhaps even understand how vulnerable these freedoms are and defend them.

Why are European leaders so slow to appreciate the great role Muslim women can play in a successful integration of immigrants in the European Union? Some blame can be attributed to the passivity of universities and non-governmental organisations in addressing immigrant women's rights. The academic community unanimously condemns violence against women, whether it is committed by family or the state, but it has been negligent in investigating and providing the necessary legal framework and data to help policy-makers make women's rights a priority.

In spite of having Arab and Islam faculties, most universities in Europe serve as activist centres to further the Palestinian cause, instead of research and teaching centres for Muslim students. Non-governmental organisations are embarrassingly silent on this fight for human rights. Oh, yes, there is one in Norway that pays attention, Human Rights Service, run by a brave, determined woman, Hege Storhaug. But in the bigger countries, no NGO yet monitors the number of times an honour killing is committed in a member state, or the number of times a girl is circumcised, or the number of times a girl is removed from school and forced into a life of virtual slavery.

However, there is room for some optimism. Awareness is growing in Europe about the breadth and persistence of violence against Muslim women and girls, justified by culture and religion, committed by family. Some governments have acknowledged that they should take action to fight against this and all types of violence against women. Yet we are a long way from conditions where girls such as Samira can lead a life without fear. What a waste that Europe is blind to this golden opportunity that lies at its feet.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.

 


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