Friday, March 09, 2007

If You Don’t Believe Me Take a Look at The One You’re With

One of Andrew Sullivan's posts on International Woman's Day:

The Saudis celebrate:

The 19-year-old Saudi woman was abducted by a gang of men wielding kitchen knives who took her to a farm where she was raped 14 times by her captors. Five men were arrested for the rape and given jail terms ranging from 10 months to five years by a panel of judges in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif, near the teenager's hometown.

But the judges also decided to sentence the young woman, identified only as "G," to 90 lashes. "G" was told by one of the judges that she was lucky not to have been given jail time. She said yesterday that she would appeal against her sentence.

The woman told the Saudi Gazette that she tried to commit suicide because of her ordeal and was beaten by her younger brother because the rape had brought shame on their family.

Is it Islamophobic to call this barbarism?

No it is not. That is barbarism pure and simple.

However, it would be Islamophobic to pretend that the Islamic religion, or the Muslim world, has a monopoly on brutality toward women. And it would be hypocritical to criticize this behavior from an ahistorical vantage point that fails to acknowledge the legacy of similar behavior in our own Judeo-Christian society. Rape is an epidemic in the Judeo-Christian world (to attempt an analogue) and has been for millennia. Further, physical violence against women continues at, for lack of better word, a barbaric pace. The sad fact is, we could comb through news reports in anywhere in North, Central and South America (Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.) and come up with equally chilling tales.

So why even frame the issue in religious terms?

In fairness to Sullivan, I'd say his critique probably centers around the institutional/cultural response to the crime in general, and the victim in particular. The men in this instance (and all too frequently) got relatively minor sentences, while the victim herself was punished with lashings as well as beatings from her close family members.

According to these criteria, the Judeo-Christian world has made progress beyond what is seen in places like Saudi Arabia. But much of this progress has been relatively recent, and we could hardly claim to have rid ourselves of the vestiges of this ugliness.

The Judeo-Christian world has a long and shameful history of treating rape and violence against women as less than criminal. We, too, have partaken (and continue to partake) in victim blaming as a means of coercion/punishment. The credible fear of societal stigmatization and backlash leads to the continued under-reporting of rape and other sexual assaults.

One doesn't even need to go back as far as witch burnings and the like to take note of institutional misogyny in the Western world. Consider that under American law from just thirty years ago, the rape of one's spouse was not even considered a crime (and for decades after in some jurisdictions, it was considered a lesser crime). Then again, under American law women used to literally be considered their husband's property (chattel), so a little thing like spousal immunity for rape would not be an aberration.

Which is not to capitulate to the status quo in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else where women are under siege in such a way. Nor should we go mute in the face of this brutality simply because it is being carried out under the auspices of other cultural or religious norms. There is no excuse. The behavior needs to be criticized for what it is, without equivocation.

Yet I question the value of emphasizing the religious component. In focusing on the religious aspect as a primary means of explaining this phenomenon, it becomes too easy to slip into ungrounded, exceptionalist thinking that only feeds the clash of civilizations furnace. Justifiable outrage becomes a vehicle for the demonization of an entire religion or people when the sad truth of the matter is that these crimes and institutional attitudes toward women span every religion, culture, temporal and geographical barrier. John Lennon wrote an all too accurate song about this phenomenon.

Progress is possible, and some regions and cultures have without a doubt made advancements in certain areas at a faster rate. Such is the nature of liberalization, and the underlying economic and political forces that drive it. This should not be ignored, but rather highlighted from the perspective of educating and providing positive examples. It becomes harder to achieve a fruitful dialogue, however, when the problems are approached from an overly sanctimonious, or bigoted, position that can be easily undermined with a brief look back at our own recent past.

This might all sound like too fine a point to be making, but it is important to remember the motive behind critiquing such behavior. Better to make it about protecting women than breeding a backlash of bigoted intolerance under the banner of something noble.

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