When we hear the words Islam and women in the same sentence, we’re tempted to imagine a burqa, hijab or niqab. Women in the Middle East are treated poorly; this is undeniable. But a more pertinent question is whether this is down to Islam and the misogyny that some argue is deep-rooted in the faith, or whether other factors are at play.

Ali’s Story

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is known for generating the most controversy amongst Muslims in the modern-day world for denouncing Islam and its said intolerance and incompatibility with liberal values, has been tackling this issue with her books on women and Islam.

Ali’s history makes her comments significant. As a child, she was forced into genital mutilation, then sought asylum in the Netherlands after escaping an arranged marriage, and now doesn’t go anywhere without security because of threats made by extremists.

While some call her an Islamophobe, she calls herself an infidel. But, her comments on the deep-rooted sexism in the Middle East and its roots within Islam are what make her such a fascinating character.

Her bookPrey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, showcases her views. She claims immigration from Muslim countries is the reason for the erosion of the rights of European women. Islamic men, who only know gender-segregated lives, immigrate to the West with their rigid mindsets that threaten the hard-won freedoms of women.

The root of the troubles is that these men are still attached to the ideals of their previous society where women’s modesty is enshrined in the law and their identity is only revealed to their husbands. To reinforce her point, Ali cites the case of the German judge who released an accused rapist on the grounds that he did not understand western women’s self-determination because he was a migrant. This for her is proof enough of the certain danger from male Muslim immigrants.

However, closer examination reveals an oversimplification of the issue. For instance, Ali is dismissive of such factors as anti-immigration laws that create hostile environments for migrants, the presence of poverty, housing issues, and alienation from religious life that can all serve as perfectly legitimate causes of the failure to integrate into a new society.

Besides this, many of Ali’s statistics are carefully cherry-picked to present false narratives that suggest Arab and Islamic countries are the main perpetrators when it comes to the erosion of women’s rights. She conveniently ignores that we also see many misogynistic practices present in majority-Christian countries like the Central African Republic, South Africa and even much of South Asia. The Atlantic’s Max Fisher points out how in Tunisia, a misogynistic country in Ali’s eyes, 27 per cent of its legislature are women, surpassing the US’s 17 per cent.

Sexism is a Global Issue

A little research is all it takes to understand that sexism is not exclusive to the Middle East’s, Muslim-dominated countries. Western societies have struggled with sexism just as much and continue to do so. Reproductive healthcare in America is still under threat despite 48 years since the passing of Roe vs Wade by the Supreme Court to legalise abortion.

In 2019 and 2020, ‘heartbeat’ bills which looked to ban abortion at six weeks were tried out. Many women do not even know that they are pregnant at this stage. Yet here we are. Today, in states like Georgia, doctors are threatened with an ‘abortion murder’ charge if they proceed with a termination after six weeks.

These laws were endorsed by former president Donald Trump, setting a dangerous precedent on the extent to which the state can interfere with women’s rights. America, a country that claims to be the land of the free, is openly invading the rights of its own citizens. Some have defended the Supreme Court’s recent ruling as a positive step that aims to divorce religion from politics. However, using religion as an excuse to stamp on women’s rights is simply not good enough.

A 2018 report from The Guardian found that four women were being murdered in Brazil every day. Data collected by the Atlas of Violence 2020 finds that the same country saw a woman being murdered every two hours in the same year. Globally, 12 million girls get married before 18 — that’s 33,000 girls a day. Adding to the data, the US still doesn’t provide any form of paid maternity leave.

Personal Biases Aside

Just like Ali, I too have cherry-picked the above statistics to present a narrative that I would like you to hear.

To say there is no problem in the Islamic world where women’s rights are concerned would be a falsehood. But to suggest that sexism is exclusive to Islamic countries would be equally false.

Misogyny is not just an Islamic problem. Liberal countries face it, Arab countries face it, and Asian countries suffer from it too.

The 2011 World Economic Forum on national gender gaps lists Arab countries in the bottom 25. Many South Asian and African countries rank higher. Nonetheless, we know that sexism is not exclusive to the Arab world.

To place Islam at the forefront of sexism would be to make a factual error. There is a multitude of reasons why sexism persists across the globe. Gender-segregated societies cause a great deal of harm to women and must be fought. Perhaps that’s the most important argument to be made here; one that supports the liberation of all women — Muslim or otherwise.

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