Sex and shame and barter

by Yule Heibel on November 3, 2004

What do we have in common? Dutch filmmaker and writer Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam on Nov.2 by a Muslim fundamentalist who didn’t like how van Gogh depicted the treatment women under Islam in his film Submission. Within days of the film’s August airing on Dutch television, van Gogh received death threats and had to accept police protection. What numerous newsreports have downplayed or left out — and what The Toronto Star (to its credit) did report here — is that van Gogh’s film was based on a script by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is only too familiar with serious threats on her life. She has been forced to go into hiding on several occasions in the past two years, and is presumably under police protection right now. Ali’s part is critically important, for van Gogh’s murder has a history rooted in male violence against women. Theo van Gogh‘s assassination by a fundamentalist zealot should highlight a problem faced by women the world over. It’s a problem that most especially affects, first, women who live in societies ruled by men who revel in misogynistic paranoia typically dressed up as religion; and, second, women who have moved to the west from misogynist societies, but who fail to get the proactive protection (i.e., guaranteed legal rights) they need to thrive in western societies. Western politicians, propounding the holy grail of multiculturalism without clearly understanding what it was in our societies that allowed us to move to a position that allows us to accept multiculturalism, try to appear inclusive and tolerant. However, addressing violence against women entails going head-to-head with some very sacred cows; it means defending certain ideals which might discomfit those whose conception of multiculturalism resembles the supermarket aisle — a bit of this, a bit of that. Instead of standing up to those who abuse what emancipation, individual liberty, and human rights should mean, the shopper mumbles something about “respecting” other traditions. Of course, he finds it especially easy to mumble when it’s just women who are being beaten, raped, sold off into “arrangements,” ritually mutilated, and kept prisoner. Violence against women passing as religious or tribal “custom” or “tradition” is easy to ignore. One simply “rationalises” the oppression as a practice we should be “tolerant” of.

That’s when we need iconoclasts who can come along to rattle a cage or two. That’s what van Gogh did. That’s why he got killed, and that’s why Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to live with threats to her life. What Ali wants is integration of Muslim women into Dutch society. What she instead witnesses is women being kept prisoners in a ghetto that calls itself Religion, and that endorses systematic mistreatment of women. She knows whereof she speaks: born in Mogadishu, she underwent genital mutilation as a child, fled Somalia’s civil war with her family to Saudi Arabia (where she was virtually a prisoner in her own home), Ethiopia, and Kenya. When her father tried, in 1992, to force her into an arranged marriage with a cousin living in Canada, she ran away en route, deplaning in Germany to take a train to Holland. There she worked her way into Dutch society, jobbing as a cleaner and, after she mastered Dutch, studying political science at university. She initially joined the Labour Party, but became disillusioned by their wishy-washy multicultural stance on the problem she has now dedicated herself to solving as a member of the Dutch parliament: the oppression of women, especially Muslim women, who come to the west with their families, but who remain imprisoned in Islamic and tribal customs completely at odds with all the rights that women in western societies have fought for and won. Why should they continue to live without those freedoms if they are recognised legal immigrants in their new countries?

[Ali has pressed] for the emancipation of Muslim women and document[ed] how thousands, living even here, were subjected to beatings, incest and emotional and sexual abuse.

To the surprise of many, she became a leading voice condemning the government’s support for multiculturalism, programs costing millions of dollars a year that she considers misplaced because they help keep Muslim women isolated from Dutch society.

Then Ms. Hirsi Ali, 32 [in 2002], began receiving hate mail, anonymous messages calling her a traitor to Islam and a slut. On several Web sites, other Muslims said she deserved to be knifed and shot. Explicit death threats by telephone soon followed. The police told her to change homes and the mayor of Amsterdam sent bodyguards. She tried living in hiding. Finally, last month, she became a refugee again, fleeing the Netherlands.

“I had to speak up,” she said, in a telephone interview from her hiding place, “because most spokesmen for Muslims are men and they deny or belittle the enormous problems of Muslim women locked up in their Dutch homes.”

Her ordeal has caused an outcry in the Netherlands, a country already uneasy with its recent waves of immigrants and asylum seekers, now representing almost 10 percent of the population. Many Dutch see the threats as an intolerable assault on the country’s democratic principles. The threats have also intensified a fierce debate — one that can be heard these days across Europe — about what moral values and rules of behavior immigrants should be expected to share.

“I’ve made people so angry because I’m talking from the inside, from direct knowledge,” she said. “It’s seen as treason. I’m considered an apostate and that’s worse than an atheist.”
She was shocked when, as a university student, she held a job as an interpreter for Dutch immigration and social workers and discovered hidden “suffering on a terrible scale” among Muslim women even in the Netherlands. She entered safe houses for women and girls, most of them Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, who had run away from domestic violence or forced marriages. Many had secret abortions.

“Sexual abuse in the family causes the most pain because the trust is violated on all levels,” she said. “The father or the uncle say nothing, nor do the mother and the sisters. It happens regularly — the incest, the beatings, the abortions. Girls commit suicide. But no one says anything. And social workers are sworn to professional secrecy.

More than 100 women a year have surgery to “restore” their virginity, she estimates in her published work. While only 10 percent of the population is non-Dutch, this group accounts for more than 60 percent of abortions, “because the Muslim girls are kept ignorant,” she said. Three out of five Moroccan-Dutch girls — Moroccans are among the largest immigrant groups — are forced to marry young men from villages back home, to keep them under control, she said.

A year or so ago, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s case might not have attracted so much attention. But the mood in the Netherlands, as in much of Europe, changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In the month that followed, there was an unheard of backlash against the nearly one million Muslims living in the Netherlands, with more than 70 attacks against mosques. Sept. 11 also gave politicians licence to vent brewing animosities.

Among them was Pim Fortuyn, a maverick gay politician who was killed in May, apparently by an animal rights activist. He said out loud what had long been considered racist and politically incorrect — for example, that conservative Muslim clerics were undermining certain Dutch values like acceptance of homosexuality and the equality of men and women.

What Mr. Fortuyn did on the right, Ms. Hirsi Ali has done on the left. Many in the Labor Party, where she worked on immigration issues, were shocked when she told reporters that Mr. Fortuyn was right in calling Islam “backward.”

“At the very least Islam is facing backward and it has failed to provide a moral framework for our time,” she said in one conversation. “If the West wants to help modernize Islam, it should invest in women because they educate the children.”

To do this, she argues for drastic changes in Dutch immigration policy. The government, she says, should impose Dutch law on men who beat their wives and daughters, even if the Muslim clergy say it is permissible. It should also end teaching the immigrants in their own language and stop paying for the more than 700 Islamic clubs, most of which, she said, “are run by deeply conservative men and they perpetuate the segregation of women.”

Her views, and the death threats, have divided Muslims, who account for most immigrants here. Almost 20 Muslim associations have condemned the threats, but at the same time faulted her for criticizing Islam. Hafid Bouazza, a Dutch-Moroccan author who in the past has received letters saying he will burn in hell for his writing, said the threats were shocking. “No criticism of Islam is accepted from women,” he said. “Muslim women are particularly vulnerable.” [More…]

Sex + money = power. Men who want power try to subjugate women in order to control their sexuality. From the latter derive many things, including lineage, inheritance, legalities concerning wealth distribution, and so on, as well as direct threats or boons to the economic security of the household. That is, nubile girls must be kept “under control” (the means ranging from various moral platitudes to outright incarceration) because their sexuality brings either benefit or catastrophe to the household. If they have sex with the proper people (“good” boys who marry them, arranged husbands, etc.), their nubility, attractiveness, and fecundity will contribute to the overall health of the household body. If the girl’s sexuality is “shameful,” on the other hand — that is, if her fecundity results in illegitimate births that plunge either the girl or her family into social and financial disgrace, if she brings the “wrong” boy home, if she “uses herself up” so that “good” boys will never be interested in her, if she doesn’t do what her father or mother want when they arrange a marriage for her (in which her nubility and fecundity is literally a market value), then her sexuality is a liability. Shame is thus intimately connected to household economy. Shame on you if what you do brings us to rack and ruin. In the bigger picture, it is impossible to separate sex and money, simply impossible. One of the most vicious ways men have of ensuring their control and power over female sexuality is religion. That’s what Ali is pointing at, and that’s why her life is threatened by religious men who can’t stand hearing what she has to say, and that’s why Theo van Gogh was killed. Ali is right when she says that investing in women is crucial for all societies if we want human emancipation to proceed apace. Currently, women continue to collude actively in their own oppression, typically because of economic (money, again) reasons. That’s why a mother and her sister will pin a 4 or 5 year old girl to the floor of a filthy lady witch doctor’s hut, sit on her legs and arms as the cutter butchers the girl’s genitalia, oblivious to her screams of pain. Why do they do it, these women? Because if the girl isn’t cut, she won’t …find a husband. If she doesn’t find a husband, she will herself be condemned to being destitute and she will be useless because she won’t be putting her fecundity in the service of a patriarch/ household. That’s why women collude to lock girls up, keep them under veils, because if they appear “immodest,” they won’t find husbands. Repeat after me: if they don’t find a husband, the girl will be a burden to her family, she will be useless, etc. etc. That’s why women (mothers) collude in keeping their daughters stupid and uneducated, because a girl who is smarter and more educated than her intended husband (if she gets that far) will end up scaring him off, and, repeat after me: if a girl scares off her intended and is left husband-less, she will be a drag on society. Ali is also not making friends among the multi-culti set, but really, it’s about time more people spoke out. Here in Canada, we’ve come uncomfortably close to accepting Sharia law in Ontario:

“I came here to escape Sharia,” one woman told me. “Under it, a woman is worth half a man. He can divorce her and she has no rights.”

Another woman who was tortured in Iran told me the very word Sharia made her shiver. To her it is synonymous with a brutal form of authoritarianism, which discriminates against women.

These Iranian exiles are creating a considerable PR problem for Mr Ali and his supporters.

But there are women who speak out in support of Sharia too. [Ready? Now we meet the collaborateurs…]

In Mr Ali’s front room, he introduced me to eloquent and educated Muslim women who accept that Sharia has a bad name because of how it has been interpreted. [The collaborateurs come from an academic set that has studied, but hasn’t experienced reality in all its messy permutations.]

“This is a chance for us to develop a progressive and tolerant form of Sharia, one that is consistent with 21st Century notions of gender equality,” so a female PHD student told me. [I have a PhD, but at least I stuck to irrelevant things like art history; this Phd student, on the other hand, wants to intervene in the lives of the poor and oppressed, as well as those who thought they would find a level of safety guaranteed by law in this country. Help!]

“But how do you get round the fact that women do not have the same rights as men?” I asked.

“Well, they could,” said the PHD student. “I think women should be able to get as much as men out of a divorce.” [Do I hear the sound of money???]

Mr Ali wants the Sharia courts to be used to negotiate pre-nuptial agreements, putting women in the driving seat. [Yes, I do.]

“But inheritance law is unfair,” I said, “women always get less than men.”

“That is because women’s outgoings [sic] are less than men’s as the man must always support every woman in his family, so it is fair he gets more,” I was told by a chorus of female voices. [Sure, and let’s pin the girl to the floor and operate….] [More…]

This is a violation of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it’s absurd that, under the guise of “tolerance,” we should allow men to exempt some women from the rights and freedoms guaranteed all women in Canada. That’s the injustice that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is fighting against in Holland, too, when she calls for the full integration of immigrant groups into their new societies, and when she demands that Sharia law should not be allowed to operate in the Netherlands. Now, here’s the big bonus question: what group endorsed the attempt to allow Sharia law in Canada? Lawyers? Marketers? Housewives? Cardealershipowners? Nope. Just a religious group, B’nai Brith. And the evangelicals probably aren’t far behind. Ladies, watch your backs. You are meat for sale, especially for the patriarchs. I posted a follow-up entry on Nov.4, link here, and another on December 10/04 here.


elck November 5, 2004 at 6:43 pm

It’s an excellent essay, and it brings an essential (and underexposed) aspect of Van Gogh’s murder to the debate.

Two complaints: you can do better than “filthy lady witch doctor’s hut” which is a phrase unworthy of even a nineteenth-century English journalist, and I think perhaps you misunderstand the word “sharia”, which is a much more conmplex amalgam of culture and law than the western media would lead one to believe.

Otherwise, a great article on a sadly necessary subject.

Thank you.

Yule Heibel November 5, 2004 at 9:06 pm

Yes, you’re right that wasn’t a nice turn of phrase, but I had in mind a program (I think the journalist was Canadian, at any rate she was a woman who at the time had a 4-year old daughter herself) about genital mutilation where the girls really were taken to a filthy hut to be sliced up and sewn up. And the other women really did sit on them to pin them down. And it really was an old woman, who in some other capacity acted as some sort of “wise witch,” who did the cutting — she didn’t have any specific surgical training, or any kind of antiseptic, or anything. The screams were heartbreaking, for a few did scream even though they had been indoctrinated for months beforehand that they were going to receive a great “honour.” Many of these little girls, these sweet beautiful little girls who hadn’t hurt a fly, went into shock or developed infections. Some even died. All of them were changed forever. And for what? So they would be marriageable. It’s so fucking unbelievable to me that I don’t even want to “rationalise” it: clitoris, labia (inner and outer) — cut off, then the sewing, and the long-term consequences that come from it. It’s torture.

As for sharia law, whether or not western media want us to believe this or that about it, it’s also simply true that Amina Lawal nearly suffered execution by stoning (first she was to be buried up to her neck) for “adultery.” Luckily, due to diplomacy, this act of torture was averted (the Canadian gov’t had a couple of good links, form letters to copy and send, to avoid sending a rant to the Nigerian men in power that would just stiffen their necks). Islam needs to reform itself, starting with getting the men who are defining it to rethink.

It’s a sexual neurosis to put women into such an inferior position. The Dutch police have finally revealed the contents of the 5-page letter that was pinned to the ritually-slain body of van Gogh. The letter is directly addressed to Hirsi Ali, threatens her, tells her to die, and then insinuates that Jews run the Netherlands, and that Ali is making common cause with “them.” A classic stew: anti-semitism with more than a soupcon of conspiracy theory tossed together with blatant misogyny, sexual delusion, and persecution mania that everyone is out to destroy [fill in the blank, in this case: Islam, The One True Faith].

I remember coming across a couple of articles recently — but unfortunately didn’t bookmark them — that addressed the need for internal islamic reform, and that there were countries (I could be completely off the mark here, but I think Malaysia was mentioned as exemplary) where this is happening. I’m putting my money on those people, but I also want more people on the (western) left to speak up before the (western) right hijacks this murder and the consequences flowing from it. We’ve got our homegrown “Christofascists” who are just chomping at the bit to suck up grist for their “war on terror” mill. One thing that I’m noticing is that since the police have released the letter, there’s a bit more emphasis on Ali, but mainly the story is being spun as an example of Islamofascism, as out-of-control Muslim terrorists. Now that the idiot murderer’s anti-semitic delusion is revealed, it becomes even more of a universal-i.e.-men’s issue, but I’ll say it again: this particular murder and its history is a women’s issue. If we treat it as a women’s issue, we can avert turning it into grist for the Christofascists; if we leave it to the male-dominated press to define, it’s going to end up in the propaganda heap.

Ok, you’re right. I am a bit sorry about that unfortunate turn of phrase. But I want to see the left talk about what they (we) are willing to defend. Some things I won’t negotiate; I’ll call the oppression of women barbaric, backward, primitive, anti-human-rights, and anti-progress even if it gets me in trouble. I’ll call attention to how women collaborate in their oppression; I’ll do my best not to call them witch doctors, even if their official designation of “medicine wise woman” sticks in my craw.

Thanks for leaving a comment — you’re a brave soul to do so. This topic and how I’m writing about it is probably giving a lot of people the creeps.

Yule Heibel November 5, 2004 at 9:11 pm

And ps: if the Christian Reconstructionists get their way, we’ll be in deep doo-doo here, too. They want to subject abortion providers to the death penalty, and possibly bring Biblical punishments back into vogue. (Execution for homosexuals, anyone??) Feminists need to meet across this madness of fundamentalism and say, “enough.” Those bastards (regardless of which faith they follow) really do want to push us back into the dark ages.

maria November 6, 2004 at 12:14 am

Yule: I wanted to leave a comment. What kept me from doing so wasn’t fear, but exhaustion. I am still exhausted and not much good in marshalling support for the points you make.

Nevertheless, I am now aware of not only what happened, but also of a largely invisible frame that throws a different light on the debate.

Thank you for doing all this reserach and for writing this up for us — especially during this week!

Yule Heibel November 6, 2004 at 3:30 am

Don’t worry, Maria, I know you’re out there — and I hear you about the exhaustion. This constant spiraling is wearing me out, too. Anyone see any ground yet, or is there a ways yet to fall?

elck November 8, 2004 at 5:00 pm

Hey Yule, thanks, for a detailed response to my concerns!

I think we agree that the extent to which Islamofacism is woven into the fabric of Islam itself (rather than being merely an extremist form) requires dispassionate investigation.

I’d even take it further and say that there’s something about religion qua religion that makes people (usually the male kind) want to be mean to (and control) other people (usually of the female kind). Well, either it makes them do it, or it seriously facilitates the process.

Again, bravo.

Yule Heibel November 9, 2004 at 1:56 pm

Thanks, Elck. I worry about my immoderately worded responses, but sometimes …. Well, there’s a long story behind my disdain for women as collaborateurs, not something to get into here.

I don’t really care if people want to practice any religion — what I care about is (a) when they start telling other people that it’s the “True One” and (b) when it’s a stick with which to keep women in line. I worry about how people will consider religion as though it were somehow “true,” hence keep it in a separate social category, instead of seeing how it’s interwoven with every other social thing out there, eg. economics, women’s rights, etc. It’s the only thing that people can practice collectively while telling themselves it’s private. We made some inroads for a while by showing that the private is the political (hence social), but somehow that’s being rolled back. Scary scary, if you’re on the side of Enlightenment.

Oh, and I saw on the news (google) online that a number of Muslim sites in Holland were set on fire — how appropriate, on the Kristallnacht anniversary (Nov.9) that Dutch bigots would go out to torch the schools, mosques, and perhaps even homes of the Others. Now the event if fully in a vortex of us-them “values,” of something that has nothing to do anymore with women’s rights. It’s been hijacked completely by the idiots on both sides — religious fanatics here and xenophobic bigots there.

I’m just so discouraged and angry over how women are elided again and again so that men can have their “issues,” their fucking “culture wars,” their political crusades. I read this on the lefty blogs, too, and it makes my heart sink. For eg., Bush used the fact that a 19-year-old woman was the first voter in Afghanistan as political propaganda to fan support for his wars, and yet you don’t see the men jumping on this because it’s a co-optation of feminist efforts. No, they jump on it because it shows that Bush is retarded, or evil, or whatever, but never never as something he’s doing to hurt women. Everytime one of them ridicules Bush’s use of that 19-year old woman, he (and it’s typically men) should also point out that society hasn’t gotten friendlier for women, that it’s a sham to put that young woman on a pedestal. Yes, women have more rights now in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan isn’t Iraq. What Bush’s use of that 19-year old woman voter should provoke in lefty men is a reasoned account of why it’s propaganda to cite her, and why it’s a co-optation of feminism. That is, in Iraq things have gotten much worse for women, and that’s an issue we should be analysing and critiquing. But no, as soon as the atrocities mount, the women (who in civilian ranks bear the brunt of the worst of it) are forgotten, and the men try to outdo themselves in who can shout the loudest.

I’m not bitter, really. But I feel we won’t ever move from the spot (which is now a giant hole) if we don’t put women’s emancipation front and centre.

Must go and reread some Rosa Luxemburg, I think.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: