Obama in Cairo: On women, religion and feminism

8 years ago

When President Obama uttered the words “women’s rights” during his
speech at Cairo University last week, my ears perked up. The fact that
a US president is putting women’s rights up there on the international
agenda — on par with peace in the Middle East, no less — is indeed
historic. That he has the guts to say to a room full of Egyptian men
that women’s rights in the Muslim world are a topic that needs
addressing, was quite a thrill. The fact that there was some applause
after he made that opening statement, “the sixth issue that I want to
address is women’s rights,” was absolutely startling. Signs of change,

But when Obama started to outline the details of his vision for
women’s rights in the Muslim world, that’s when I started to bristle.
Because although issues of education and literacy are obviously vital,
these issues barely skim the surface of what Muslim women have to face.
But more than that, Obama’s underlying philosophy guiding his approach,
one that is nestled in the cultural relativism that tells people to
look the other way when women are hurt in the name of religion, signals
a very troubling trend in gender, religion and politics.

I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.

So first of all, what view that a woman who covers her hair
is less equal? With all due respect, as someone who has been studying
and writing about women and religion for some time, I can honestly say,
what the hell is he talking about?

What I think he may be referring to is the claim made
primarily by religious people that liberal feminists are condescending
towards women who choose a traditional lifestyle. I’m pretty sure
that’s what he’s talking about. But even if that’s the case, it’s a
bungled statement. Liberal feminists do not look down on women who
cover their hair, but see the cultural demands placed upon women’s
bodies as wrong and unfair, and a violation of democratic principles. A
woman can certainly choose to cover her hair, but the type of rhetoric
that accompanies religious demands for female body cover are often very
damaging for women’s freedom, health and overall well-being.

Obama continued in the next sentence:

But I do believe that a woman who is denied an education
is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women
are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Okay, I don’t entirely understand this either. What is he trying to
say? The first sentence was condemning people in “the west” who see
hijab-clad women as inferior. Now the “but” we were expecting was not
an exploration of how hijab can humiliate women, but about the
importance of education. Did I miss something? What’s the connection?
His message seems clear: Okay guys, you can keep the hijab but make sure your girls get an education. And with that he skipped right over an entire world of issues around women’s body in religion.

I wonder, why bring did he up hijab in his opening if he wasn’t
going to talk about it at all? I think he was just trying to score
points with those who disagree with liberal feminists. He was trying to
say, okay, I hear your point. Those liberal feminists can be really
mean and offensive to you. So forget that — let’s talk about education.
The inferred, unspoken sentence in between is where he talks, man to
man as it were, about those annoying liberal feminists.

In case the thousands of Egyptian men in the audience did not hear
clearly enough that Obama was trying to say, “Hey, I hear you guys,” he
made himself perfectly clear in the next sentence:

Now let me be clear, issues of women’s equality are by
no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh,
Indonesia, we’ve seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead.
Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects
of American life and in countries around the world.

Did Obama just say that Muslim countries are better to women than
the US?! Are we to understand that since the late Benazir Bhutto was
head of Pakistan and Hillary Clinton recently suffered a sexism-filled
loss in America, that women are better off under Islam?

Let’s talk about this for a moment.

What about the fact that in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive?

Or that the first four women in history were only last month elected to parliament in Kuwait?

Or that according to rankings of the International Parliamentary Union,
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman are ranked LAST in the world because they
have ZERO women in government? And that they are followed closely by
Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon?

Actually, Egypt, the country in which the hall full of men applauded
at “women’s rights”, there are a total of 8 women out of 442
representatives in the upper parliament — a total of 1.8%
representation. Egypt, in fact, ranks 134 in the world in terms of
gender and politics. That’s pretty low. Even compared to America’s
ranking at 73. Sure, Mr. Obama, you have plenty of work to do. But
let’s face it, the Muslim world has even more work to do.

And we’re just talking about democracy and basic rights. We haven’t
even gotten to honor killings, genital cutting, polygamy or child

Dutch-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, interviewed by Jeb Golinkin for the New Majority, said as follows:

President Obama’s speech didn’t do much for Muslim women. He defended
their rights in Western countries to wear the hijab. He didn’t touch on
Muslim women being confined, being forced into marriages or being
victims of honor killings: These traditions and principles in the Koran
and in Islam are being practiced in the West. He didn’t address that. I
think he was just appeasing the Muslim world because …they have these
notions that Muslim women in Western countries are not allowed to wear
the headscarf or cover themselves. I mean you can wear whatever you
want in the United States.

In other words, Obama’s post-modernist, relativist stance offers
protection for those who wish to oppress women. That is their way. It
is their culture. Let them do it.

Obama is ultimately a man talking to men about women. Women are
still objects and outsiders. And women’s freedom is the price to pay
for improving relations between men in America and the Arab world.

Hirsi Ali continued:

In Egypt where he spoke, women who do not wear their
veil in public are subjected to very obscene remarks on the street and
even sexual assault. Nowadays, even if they are covered they become
victims of the same things: That is, in public, in Egypt, as a woman,
you run 80% of the time the risk of being assaulted simply because you
are a woman walking down the street. They are forced into marriages;
their testimony in countries where Sharia is law is just half of that
of a man. They can be divorced with no rights. They need guardians, a
married guardian or they cannot sign any legal papers. The President
simply did not address Sharia or Islamic law in relation to women.

Obama, then, ignored the really important issues like women’s basic
rights and safety. He did it in order to make nice with a room full of
Arab men. Once again, women’s rights, even when given lip service, are
relegated to last. As Phyllis Chesler wrote,
“I fear that President Obama does not understand the difference between
a free choice and a forced choice; the difference between womens’ human
rights and the subordination of women in the name of religion.” Indeed.

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