Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin &
Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam Today

Thanks to Christopher Hitchens’ column in Slate, we have all heard about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “arresting and hypnotizing beauty” and we have been urged “to go out and buy” The Caged Virgin. But if you’d rather read a critical review of the book, perhaps you might be interested in my essay in the June 19th issue of The Nation. The piece is about the ever-popular topic of “Women and Islam”™ and specifically addresses Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin and Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam Today. Here’s an excerpt:

These days, being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the “burden of pity.” The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.

Radical Islamist parties claim that the family is the cornerstone of society and that women, by virtue of their reproductive powers, are its builders. An overhaul of society must therefore begin with reforming the status of women, and in particular with distinguishing clearly their roles from those of men. Guided by their “true” interpretations of the faith, these radicals want women to resume their traditional roles of nurturers and men to be empowered to lead the family. If we protect women’s rights in Islam, they assure us, the umma, the community of believers, will be lifted from its general state of poverty and backwardness.

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the Egyptian writer and activist who has exerted such a powerful influence over the radical Islamist movement, fervently believed that Muslim women belonged in the home. In his 1964 book Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), Qutb wrote that “if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children” and, whether on her own or by pressure from society, seeks to work in jobs such as “a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company,” she will be “using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings.” This, he claimed, would make the entire civilization “backward.” The misogynistic philosophy has proved enticing, finding advocates among Muslims throughout the world. Between 1989 and 1991, for instance, Abbassi Madani, the red-bearded founder of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front Party (FIS), often referred to women who refused to cover themselves with a hijab as “sparrow hawks of neocolonialism.” His co-founder, Ali Belhadj, claimed that there was a simple solution to the country’s high unemployment rate: turn over the jobs of working women to idle men. Madani summarized his program: “The system is sick; the doctor is FIS; and the medicine has existed for fourteen centuries. It is Islam.” Reducing Algerian women to birds of prey, and their faith to a pill: These are good indicators of the depth of intellect within the leadership of the FIS.

Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about “our plight”–reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that “the fatal obstacle” to the country’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization” was Islam’s degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century, for now we have George W. Bush, leader of the free world, telling us, before invading Afghanistan in 2001, that he was doing it as much to free the country’s women as to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Five years later, the Taliban are making a serious comeback, and the country’s new Constitution prohibits any laws that are contrary to an austere interpretation of Sharia. Furthermore, among the twenty-odd reasons that were foisted on the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, of course, the subjugation of women; this, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi women were educated and active in nearly all sectors of a secular public life. Three years into the occupation, the only enlightened aspect of Saddam’s despotic rule has been dismantled: Facing threats from a resurgent fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shiite, many women have been forced to quit their jobs and to cover because not to do so puts them in harm’s way. Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone’s guess.

This context–competing yet hypocritical sympathies for Muslim women–helps to explain the strong popularity, particularly in the post-September 11 era, of Muslim women activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji and the equally strong skepticism with which they are met within the broad Muslim community. These activists are passionate and no doubt sincere in their criticism of Islam. But are their claims unique and innovative, or are they mostly unremarkable? Are their conclusions borne out by empirical evidence, or do they fail to meet basic levels of scholarship? The casual reader would find it hard to answer these questions, because there is very little critical examination of their work. For the most part, the loudest responses have been either hagiographic profiles of these “brave” and “heroic” women, on the one hand, or absurd and completely abhorrent threats to the safety of these “apostates” and “enemies of God,” on the other.

You can read the rest of the review here.