Speaking out for Muslim women in the West


BERLIN — Death came for Hatun Surucu at a cold bus stop here three years ago. The 23-year-old was the sixth Muslim woman murdered by a relative in Berlin in as many months for being “too western.”

Hatun had divorced a cousin she had been forced to marry by her Turkish-Kurdish family when she was 16. She had stopped wearing a headscarf, and was living with her 5-year-old son independent of her family. She was training to become an electrician and dating German men.

That last detail was probably why her (then) 18-year-old brother killed her.

He allegedly bragged to his girlfriend about what he’d done. One can only wonder at the patriarchal irony: bragging to his girlfriend about killing his sister for having a boyfriend. He was sentenced to prison for nine years and three months.

This past December, Aqsa Pervez was a bit younger when she died. The Pakistani-Canadian was just 16-years-old when her father strangled her in their home in Ontario, Canada, and then called the police to confess. Her friends said she had argued frequently with her strict Muslim family — including over wearing the hijab, or headscarf, which she would remove once she was at school.

And for the Said sisters — 17-year-old Sarah and 18-year-old Amina — death found them on New Year’s Day in the back of their taxi-driver father’s cab, where he left them after shooting them. Family members say their Egyptian-born, Muslim father was given to fits of violence, threats, and gun-waving rants about how Western culture was threatening the chastity of his daughters.

In the so-called “clash of civilizations,” Muslim girls and women are the biggest losers.

When Muslims in the West are not in the headlines for the latest terror threat, they are scrutinized for how poorly they are integrating into their respective societies. In Europe they are generally considered dangerously ghettoized, but they are thought to be more a part of things in North American society.

Regardless of geography, the Muslim girls and women above were murdered by their relatives for integrating too well. Others will die until there is a difficult resolution about Muslim girls and women that for too long has been denied and hidden beneath layers of knee-jerk defensiveness — by western Muslims and cultural relativists in the face of rightwing anti-Muslim hate.

To see what I mean, just “Google search” Aqsa Pervez.” Right wing commentators call her death an “honor killing,” suggesting every Muslim father is ready to murder his daughter for taking off a headscarf.

I took off mine after nine years of wearing it and I’m still here.

Some Muslims insist it was “just” a case of “domestic violence,” as though religion and culture had “nothing” to do with Aqsa’s murder. Beyond these interpretations, liberal writers exhort us not to judge the “culture” of others.

The term “Muslim women” is a flashcard that ignites furious arguments that have more to do with political positions and very little to do with the women themselves. Their voices go unheard — until they end up in the headlines as murder victims.

Muslim women will continue to suffer until we confront the toxic cocktail that is equal parts an ugly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and a patriarchy forced upon too many Muslim women and girls in the West.

Canadian Muslim writers Tarek Fattah and Farzana Hassan provide an example: A Montreal mosque recently posted on its Web site a warning to the effect that if young girls took off their hijab, they could end up getting raped and having “illegitimate children.” Other risks of not wearing hijab are said to include “stresses, insecurity and suspicion in the minds of husbands” and “instigating young people to deviate towards the path of lust.”

When a mosque in Canada offers such hateful messages, the terms “honor killings” and “domestic violence” miss — and hide — the point. This mosque teaches a culture of hate and incitement that must be condemned.

Germany, a country where a painful history has meant at times an absurd reluctance to criticize minorities, provided an example last year of how ludicrous and dangerous culture relativism can be.

Frankfurt judge Christa Datz-Winter refused to grant a fast-track divorce to a German Muslim woman who had complained that her husband beat her. The judge said both partners came from a “Moroccan cultural environment in which it is not uncommon for a man to exert a right of corporal punishment over his wife,” and she cited passages in the Qu’ran that she said sanction physical abuse.

She was removed from the case.

I am waiting for the removal of clerics and imams, who incite hate and violence with their messages about hijab. I am waiting for Muslim families to stop disowning European Muslim women for marrying non-Muslim men. And I am waiting for the end of a sometimes deadly choice Muslim women — victims of violence — have had to make in a post-9/11 United States, when calling the police could mean the deportation of a husband, a brother or a father.

The clash of patriarchal cultures — from the perspective of a Muslim woman in the middle — offers a too-familiar oppression and abuse, covered up by an equally too-familiar system of denial.

It is heartening to hear of shelters opening in the United States with the needs of Muslim women in mind. But unless we confront and resolve these difficult issues, not enough girls and women will make it to those shelters.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Copyright ©2007 Mona Eltahawy / Agence Global


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