Is the price of honor the blood of innocent women? This is the one question that you ask repeatedly as you read through of Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. Jan Goodwin, a reporter and activist, has in this book chronicled her journey through ten Muslim nations of the Middle East and Africa to give readers an idea of what the militant face of Islam means for the millions of Muslim women. Her narration of the plight of these women is saddening indeed.
Traveling across the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Egypt, through several nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait, Goodwin met and talked to women from all walks of life. Ordinary citizens, women scholars of Islam, women working as successful professionals and women of royal families spoke of their experiences ranging from facing inequality to gross violation of human rights. In Pakistan, the Hudood Ordinance sets the value of a woman’s life as half of a man’s and charges rape victims with adultery; a repressive regime in Afghanistan encourages men to kill disobedient women and victims of rape in cold blood to save the family “honor”. In Iran, showing a few strands of hair from under her head scarf can cost a woman eighty whip lashes, while Saudi Arabia enforces strict restrictions on driving, employment, veiling and travel of women -- all this in the name of religion. Goodwin quotes several Islamic scholars who cite passages from the Koran to show that such brutal treatment of women was never sanctioned in Islam. There have often been translations and interpretations from the original verses to favor a patriarchal system. Some women Islamic scholars that Goodwin came across have therefore immersed themselves in Islam to understand the primary sources and, as one of them put it, “fight for their rights with the very weapon currently used against them---the Koran.”
What seems strange is that these laws were not in force in most Muslim countries in the Seventies. Why then, almost two decades later, did these states suddenly clamp down on their women to completely control their lives? To answer this, Goodwin delves a little into the political scenario that falls into the same pattern in these countries. Ruled by incompetent and tyrannical dictators and despots who are charged with corruption and economic inequities against them, not to mention severe human rights violations, the common people have turned increasingly to religious fundamentalism to solve their problems. The governments unwilling to oppose popular religious leaders try to divert attention from the main issues by clamping down on women. To pacify religious zealots, these governments then sanction excesses against women in the name of culture and religion. Yet creating an Islamic society and making womenfolk invisible behind the chador and chardiwari (the veils and the four walls) as President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan envisioned, has not stopped the men from being “tempted and led astray.” If anything, it has had the opposite effect. Goodwin, covered head to toe in a chador, quips, “Muslim cultures constantly strive to negate women’s sexuality, yet I was never made as aware of mine as I was in an Islamic country.”
The fighting spirit of the women in these countries is what stands out in this book. Threatened, traumatized, raped and imprisoned, most of them have refused to be cowed. Nawal El-Sadawi, Egyptian writer, physician and activist, who has been jailed on several occasions and receives death threats from fundamentalist groups, continues to run her feminist magazine and organization, and criticizes misogynist policies. Others are more militant. National Council of Resistance in Iran, run by Maryam Rajavi, mobilizes Iranian women and boasts of artillery, tank units and rocket launchers manned entirely by women.
It seems that the only way out of this cycle of fundamentalism, violence and human rights abuse is genuine reform, both in economic and political spheres. If democratic choices are available to the people and there is a rise of the moderate leadership, some stability might return to the region. But it would take decades of democracy and economic freedom to produce a society based on genuine parliamentary process and accountability to its people. All these may still be insufficient to guarantee equal rights to women. As Soud Al-Sabah, a royal of the Al-Sabah family of Kuwait, says in her poem
It is not democracy when a man can talk about politics without anyone threatening him,
It is democracy when a woman can talk about her lover without anyone killing her.