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Women's One World

Fundamentalism: Oppressing Women in the Name of God

By Marcia L. Mason

"As she lay on her hospital bed, battered, bruised, and blinded in one eye, Rula, aged 29, heard her doctor say: 'I pity the husband: the poor man now has to live with a one-eyed wife.'"
-Arab doctor about Palestinian woman patient

"A woman needs her husband's permission to leave her home, even to attend her father's funeral."
-Head of the Iranian regime's Judiciary, Mullah Yazdi

The octopus of Islamic fundamentalism: Iran

"From Tehran, the beating heart of theocracy, the octopus of fundamentalism has extended its blood-drenched tentacles into Islamic states and Muslim societies around the world. It is the main threat to global and regional peace," said Iranian Maryam Rajavi, the keynote speaker at the Women's Human Rights International Association's Conference on "Women, Voice of the Oppressed" held in London, June 1996.

While exploiting the religious beliefs of more than one-billion Muslims, the fundamentalists promote expansionism, "exporting crisis and discord," Rajavi said.

"Inherent to the fundamentalists' nature," continued Rajavi, "is a foreign policy that consists of meddling in the affairs of Islamic countries, issuing fatwas to murder foreign nationals and launching terrorist operations abroad. They spend huge sums on armaments of all kinds, especially weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. It is hostile to the most important global peace initiative in the Middle East, and its policies and actions serve only to nourish warmongering extremists and fundamentalists."

According to Rajavi, these policies, under the cloak of religion, have nothing to do with Islam. "They are the peddlers of religion and exploit the name of Islam to advance their sinister, inhuman objectives."

Rajavi affirmed that Islam is the religion of peace, freedom, liberty, equality, love, mercy and liberation. The fundamentalist mindset, however, is one of vengeance, enmity and ignorance and is "at war with human values and world peace."

Rajavi told the audience that one key in the struggle against fundamentalism is women taking a leading role against the "misogynous, inhuman mullahs" of Iran. She called on women throughout the world to form a world coalition against fundamentalism. Such a coalition would doubly serve the movement for equality and the effort to uproot sexual discrimination.

The way to propel that movement forward is to link it with a progressive political movement. That movement must guarantee that women share a role in its leadership and decision-making processes and that they play an equal role in issues of economic management. Through such a movement, women could be active and visible in an international arena as they take on fundamentalism.

About twelve years ago, according to Rajavi, locked in a life-or-death struggle against the rule of the mullahs, the Iranian Resistance movement realized that it needed women's "sense of responsibility, their willingness to learn, their commitment to discipline, their impressive decisiveness, and their...selfless devotion."

Rajavi said that members of the Iranian Resistance movement first tackled their own misogyny through a sort of "internal revolution." The first changes from re-evaluating their own values were the new relationships among women. The second was the immediate effect of liberating the men.

Needless to say, Rajavi pointed out, in a world of discrimination, men, too, are "...enslaved by a domineering and authoritarian attitude. To deny the humanity of those human beings closest to him-his mother, sister and wife-must not a man first negate his own humanity?"

In contrast to Khomeini, who never recognized women's minimum rights, Iranian women's rights and freedoms are unequivocally and specifically recognized in the platform of the National Council of Resistance (NCR) and the provisional government, as well as in a specific declaration ratified by the NCR on the freedoms and rights of women.

It might be noted that the Koran describes a more favorable description of women than is generally realized. According to the Shirkat Gah Newsletter of Pakistan (Vol. VI, No. 3, 1994), "In the beginning of things, the Koran's Eve was not, as for Christians and Jews, the belated product of Adam's rib; the two were born equal, 'from a single soul.'" This is what the Islamic women are fighting for-to reclaim their historic equality.

"Return women to middle ages": Afghanistan's fundamentalists

After September 27, 1996, things changed dramatically for women in Kabul, Afghanistan. Before that date, women held forty percent of the government jobs; were seventy percent of the teachers; comprised over one hundred of the physicians in the maternity hospital; and were eighty-five percent of the staff in an orphanage of eight-hundred children. After the Taliban seized Kabul, all that changed. There are only ten women physicians in the hospital and a handful of women to care for the hundreds of orphans-so Diane Sawyer of U.S. television's ABC network show "20/20" found when she covered her story "Under the Veil."

The fundamentalist Taliban enforce their mandated laws with an "iron fist." They insist that all women, when in public (including physicians, nurses and patients), wear veils completely covering their head, face, wrists and ankles to "preserve their modesty." If they do not, they risk arrest.

A group of Afghan women - professors, doctors, linguists, and engineers - defiantly risked beatings by talking to Ms. Sawyer about their lives. Virtually under house arrest, they are not allowed to earn income and are forbidden to take a job or go to school. Defiance of the rules means beating or arrest.

The women told Sawyer that the Taliban are uneducated zealots from the countryside who roam the streets brandishing their rocket launchers and rifles, often bursting into shrines and beating women with sticks. These same gangs have broken into homes, confiscating "modern" goods such as VCRs, photographs or western style dress. Women are hiding books for the next generation of women, who may never see an education.

Women's new mandated "uniform" is the chadre or bouka-a dress, gown and veil with a screening patch to see through - that pulls over the head and is wrapped around the body when women leave the home. This cumbersome garment is not easy to wear, certainly impossible to work in, causing women to stumble and fall as they walk. Women can't leave their homes without the approval of a man, cannot ride buses with men, and can be sentenced to death for adultery.

The women said a large girl's high school is now closed and locked because the Taliban say there's really no point in educating a girl after age 8.

Those suffering the most are 35,000 brave Kabul widows, the legacy of all those men killed in war. They are not allowed to work, even though they are the sole support of their children. Some live in bombed-out buildings, many of which stand near active land mines. These women live in abject terror that their children will starve. "We are treated no better than dogs...our veils conceal our tears." Afghanistan is still a country in the middle of a war.

One of the senior Taliban mullahs interviewed by Sawyer said, "A woman is like a rose-to be smelled at home not in the street." He reiterated that according to their religious Islamic rules, a Muslim woman is forbidden to expose her hair or face, that there should be separate systems of education for girls, and that women can go to offices and to school "if purely for women."

He expressed surprise that western nations were shocked at the treatment given Afghan women. "After all," he said, "they [the Taliban] should be embraced for the good they've done-less looting in the streets of Kabul, and they've closed down the camps that used to breed terrorism." He wondered why people cared so much about the state of women when "order" has been restored.

Islamic and Christian fundamentalism: two wrongs

Christian "fundamentalism," an early 20th-century term, began in the U.S. between 1910 and 1915, according to the Shirkat Gah Newsletter of Pakistan (Vol. VI, No. 3, 1994), in reaction to the sweep of liberal Biblical scholars who had introduced the literary-historical method of interpreting Scripture. To counter this, an insistence on a literal interpretation of the Scriptures and a strict moral code of behavior was instituted.

Islamic "fundamentalism" began in the 1970s as a way to return to the roots of the Islamic identity and safeguard it against the encroaching values of secular and consumeristic Western culture. However, under fundamentalism, the positive aspects of reclaiming rightful traditions can easily be lost, as fundamentalism's absolute certitude can easily descend into intolerance and fanaticism.

The problems arise because literal interpretations ignore the development of a universal social and moral consciousness over the centuries that is neither anti-religious nor materialistic, e.g., that which led to a universal condemnation of human slavery.

While many in the West are agonizing over the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, not enough attention is being paid to the growth of the religious right in their own backyard. Although the media prefers to call them "conservative Christians," U.S. fundamentalists hold a worldview that makes them ideological blood-brothers of the Islamic fundamentalists. The "moral majoritarians" take a hard line against abortion and homosexuality, oppose Darwin's theory of evolution, and argue that there is a "genetic predisposition" for men to be family heads.

Christians who insist on a strict interpretation of the Bible have effectively taken over the Republican parties in Texas, Virginia, Oregon, Iowa, Washington and South Carolina and have made significant advances in several other states.

Fundamentalism seeks to silence resistance through death. In Bangladesh, the fundamentalist maulvis put fatwas on the writers Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie. Nasreen triggered the ire of Islamic fundamentalists by reportedly suggesting that Islam's holy book, the Koran, be overhauled in order to give women more protection, and Rushdie incurred their fury when he wrote his novel Satanic Verses. The maulvis also condemned local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for their involvement with the "Satanic West."

Rajavi warned that the issue of fundamentalism is a key political problem confronting Islamic nations and the most critical foreign policy problem facing many other countries. Therefore, a common front against fundamentalism serves the interests of global peace.

What is to be done?

The present political system of nation-states as well as the U.N. are helpless against such insidiousness that hides behind religious and cultural mores, distorted as they may be.

Human rights, as clearly stated in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), offer no cultural or religious exceptions or waivers to those human rights. Therefore, forcing fanatical fundamentalism on people is in violation of the Declaration-"All humans beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; they are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood" (Art. 1); "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude" (Art. 4); and "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy...asylum from persecution" (Art. 14).

Betty Burkes, president of the U.S. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), named women's oppressor as "cultural patriarchy." Women need, she said, to contradict that internalized oppression, thus empowering themselves to act. Only then will women effectively go to the next steps-building communities among women, organizing locally to act globally, speaking out publicly, finding ways for women to link (Beijing was such a model), and building bridges to other organizations.

Rajavi calls on women of the world to rise up in solidarity against the octopus of fundamentalism. But without the protection of world law and a world court, how can the women, even in solidarity, survive the inevitable backlash of genocidal violence that would result?

Marcia L. Mason is a Quaker, peace activist, world citizen, and World Syntegrity Project alumna who lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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