Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First They Came for the Women

Lubna Hussein is a Sudanese journalist who is on trial for wearing pants. As absurd

as that may sound, if she is found guilty she will be whipped 40 times tearing her skin into

a bloody pulp. She was arrested in July when the Public Order Police (I swear that is their

title) raided a cafe in Khartoum and arrested her and twelve other women for violating

the nation's indecency law. Ten of the women have been convicted and whipped already,

but Hussein and another woman decided to fight the law in court. Hussein would receive

40 lashes, but says she will take 40,000 if necessary to abolish the law.

Other than protecting the lives of my wife and family, I can't think of anything else

so precious to my principles for which I would allow myself to be tortured like this. My

admiration of her courage knows no bounds.

There are a number of reasons why the plight of Ms. Hussein is important. First, if

we want to identify societies that represent a possible threat to our national security; we

need to look at those who have a terrible human rights record, and in particular, oppress

and degrade women and refuse to grant women equal rights. If we look at Pakistan or

Turkey, we see nations with large Muslim majorities, but also nations that have recognized

the rights of women (yes they could be better, but so could we).

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, bells and whistles should have gone off in

Washington, D.C. They immediately imposed Shariah Law and women were treated as

third class citizens. It was only a matter of time before we would have to confront them.

How women are treated is like the canary in the coal mine. It's an early warning device.

Despite this, the role of women in many of these countries is rarely at the top of our

priority list when dealing with them. When President Omar al-Bashir took over the Sudan

in 1989, and imposed Shariah Law and a crackdown on women; it should have drawn

immediate condemnation from the West. It did not. Since Bashir assumed power in a

coup, he has given aid and comfort to al Qaeda (including accusations of protecting Osama

bin Laden); and is now under indictment by the World Criminal Court in the Hague for

his role in the genocide against members of the Tutsi tribe, in which as many as two million

people were massacred. Why is it that oppression of women so rarely stirs us to act and

then usually too late?

Ms. Hussein says the indecency law is not supported by the Quran. She challenges

any government official or cleric to show her a verse in the Quran that speaks of whipping

women because of a dress code. This brings up the second reason this story is important.

It once again raises the specter of religious fundamentalism. If how a nation treats women

is a sure indicator of a future clash with our values, fundamentalism comes in a close second.

It doesn't matter if it is Islamic, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalism. Religious

fundamentalism and the denigration of women's rights go hand in hand. Religious

fundamentalism is antithetical to intellectual rigor, pluralism,, and democracy. Religious

fundamentalism tolerates no dissent and allows for no market place of ideas to compete

against each other. One of the worst decisions of the Bush administration (and it's tough

to single out just one) was to write a constitution for Iraq which allows Shariah courts

to have the last word on all laws passed by the Parliament. This will eventually lead to

a clash between fundamentalist and secular forces which could easily tear fragile alliances

apart and return wholesale violence to the nation. If Iraq begins to oppress women again,

what will the response of the United States be?

We face our own fundamentalism in this country. They want to impose their view

of morality on the rest of us. These fundamentalists have fought a rear guard action

against the expansion of women's rights for more than forty years. They would be

comfortable with American indecency laws; and they would be happy to control what

we read, movies we see, television we watch, and conversations we engage in. They are

a direct threat to the freedom we enjoy under the Bill of Rights.

Whether you read Hebrew scriptures, Christian scriptures, or the Quran; it is clear

that ethical behavior, kindness, love, and care for others are themes that run through

all these. Oppression, intolerance, prejudice, injustice are themes that run consistently

through fundamentalism. We have to be willing to stand up for great traditions and

reject those who would use God or Allah or Yahweh to push their own perverted agendas.

A woman in the Sudan is willing to put her body on the line to challenge radical

fundamentalism, and this country should be doing everything it can to support her. This

is not the time for diplomatic niceties. This is the time to realize that a nation that will

whip a woman for wearing pants is a nation we will eventually have to confront in the same

way. Lets start now. What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals.

Please send them to lionoftheleft@gmail.com

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