Abuse of women is sadly endemic by Parvez Ahmed*

February 21, 2011, Monday/ 17:18:00

Amidst all the euphoria about Egypt’s peaceful revolution, the news of CBS news reporter Lara Logan being sexually assaulted fell like a ton of bricks. The people of Egypt, especially its youth, have been such an inspiration that any hint of deviant behavior understandably elicits gasps and should provoke soul searching. Sadly, the incident is not that isolated.

A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights shows that 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women reporting being sexually harassed. Six in 10 men admitted to such behavior. How is it that in Muslim societies, which often pontificate about conservative values and use such values to advocate gender segregation, women are denied the most basic of dignities?

The Islamic scripture is unequivocal that the proper treatment of women is a cornerstone in developing personal piety and societal harmony. In chapter 9 verse 71, the Quranic paradigm is clear: “The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His Mercy: for God is Exalted in power, Wise.”

Expounding on the subject of gender relations, noted Islamic scholar Jamal Badawi writes: “Under no circumstances does the Quran encourage, allow or condone violence (against women). In extreme cases … it allows for a husband to administer a gentle pat to his wife that causes no physical harm to the body nor leaves any sort of mark. …. In the event that dispute cannot be resolved equitably between husband and wife, the Quran prescribes mediation between the parties through family intervention on behalf of both spouses.” Badawi is attempting to contextualize the Quranic verse 4:34. And yet many Muslim religious leaders do not place this verse into its proper context, making it ripe for abuse both at the hands of Muslim men and by those who blame Islam for all that ails the Muslim world.

Contradictions between the teaching in sacred texts and the reality on the ground are not limited to Egypt or the gender-segregated and repressive Gulf states. In Turkey, four out of 10 women are physically abused by their husbands, according to a recent study titled “Domestic Violence against Women in Turkey.”

To be fair, abuse of women is not exclusively a Muslim problem. The same day that the Lara Logan story broke, news media also reported that female members of the US Navy were alleging the cover up of widespread rape. A US Justice Department study shows that one in six American women are raped during their lifetimes. Nearly half of all murders of women in the US are committed by a romantic partner. Abuse of women is just as problematic in conservative Muslim societies as they are in the liberal West. This underscores the need for less finger-pointing and ought to provide the impetus to collectively address the issue.

The abuse of women in Muslim societies is particularly jolting because of its stark contrast with the normative teachings of Islam. I often have the privilege of speaking to people of other faiths about Islam and Muslims. Such contradictions are what most troubles my audience and why they continue to harbor negative opinions about Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia cannot be overcome by merely preaching Islam. It will require Muslims to live Islam and their societies to reflect Islam’s values and ethics. While Muslim preachers rail against those who prevent women from wearing headscarves or hijab, they are largely silent on the endemic abuse of women. While Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, are quick to defend gender segregation as a way to “protect” women, they have taken few measures to stem the pervasive mistreatment of women in their own backyards.

In the general gloom and doom of the Middle East, once again it is the educated and enlightened Muslim youth that is providing a ray of hope. Visit the Facebook page titled “Lara Logan: An apology from Egypt.” The messages of apology seem heartfelt. Many Egyptians are rightfully ashamed of this ignominy. My fervent hope is that they turn this moment of shame into motivation for positive change that eradicates this “social cancer.” Can Arabs and Muslims once again turn their hopeful eyes towards Egypt in leading the path to civilization? CNN producer and camerawoman Mary Rogers gives voice to the hope of many, “Perhaps it will be people power -- the same people power that brought down a regime -- that will successfully combat sexual harassment. But the only real protection women can have is when the attitudes of men change.”


*Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright scholar and associate professor of finance at the University of North Florida.

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