Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Weapon

Every now and again, I come on something that I feel I can't even begin to address. Every now and then, I come on something that I have to address. This is both:

Samira Ahmed Jassim, 51, is accused of recruiting more than 80 women to become human bombs, including 28 who carried out attacks.

She has apparently confessed to helping to organise the rape of young women. She would then play on the shame associated with victims of rape in Iraqi society to convince the women to become suicide bombers as their only means of escape, according to a prison interview with the Associated Press.

What do you say to this? What can you say? Talking about the oppression of women within certain Muslim cultures, as a non-Muslim, American feminist, is always difficult: Islamophobia is such a real and huge and seething undercurrent in American society that any critique risks feeding into that. Specific criticisms of specific practices are co-opted and used to feed a vast and indiscriminate hatred of each and every Muslim person on the planet. I always think of the months after 9/11, and how, immediately following that attack, the vastly anti-feminist, anti-woman Bush administration began to repeat and distort feminist arguments about the plight of women under Taliban rule. As if they cared; as if they, or America in general, had any interest in working to assist Muslim feminists in resisting oppression prior to this sudden (feminist! liberating!) desire to kill thousands of Muslims.

I also think about how, when nations go to war, they project the worst within themselves onto the enemy, the Other: THEY hate women, THEY want world domination, THEY are allowing themselves to be guided by a blind, illogical, and oppressive fundamentalism. WE would never do that. It's become steadily more customary for anti-feminists to attack American feminists by asking why we're claiming to be oppressed, when Muslim women (all Muslim women, usually, in these arguments) clearly have it so much worse. As if the existence of misogyny within other nations precluded the existence of it within our own; as if blatant sexism precluded subtle sexism; as if one male-dominated culture (ours) could ever truly remedy male domination elsewhere. As if these very arguments were not sexist and did not erase the agency of Muslim women by failing to take note of Muslim feminists who work to resist their own oppression, and by framing sexism as a problem best solved by big strong American men with guns.

When I look at this, I see it within the context of history: rape has always been a weapon of war. When nations go to war, women are invariably raped. Americans, like their enemies, rape when they go to war. You've seen the photos from Abu Ghraib; no-one could miss the unavoidable message of sexual assault and humiliation, intended to "feminize" the prisoners, to destroy them in the same ways that women are destroyed. We have done worse. We have done it to our own. Here, as in the cases of Lavena Johnson and countless other American female soldiers, the crime comes from within rather than from the apparent enemy, but then, women are always treated as enemies within a culture intent on maintaining complete male domination. The only difference is that this was done to accomplish a specific military objective, rather than simply to ensure male domination within the culture, or for fun.

This situation does not arise from problems inherent to Islam, but problems inherent to misogyny, which made every single aspect of this situation possible. Women's lives were appropriated, made use of, and discarded by an oppressive male regime. Women's sexual autonomy, psychological health, and basic humanity were violated in order to advance the interests of a regime which views them as essentially worthless except insofar as they serve to achieve male goals. Samira Ahmed Jassim, a woman, achieved a position of security and power within a misogynist society that was only possible because she agreed to be complicit in the oppression of women, betraying sisterhood in the most fundamental way imaginable, keeping herself safe by selling other women out. None of this is unique, nor is it alien to someone who has spent any time studying male privilege and male domination. When I look at this, I see why it is necessary to oppose misogyny: not Muslims, not even the patriarchal oppression within some Muslim cultures, but male domination itself, at home and everywhere. It is never harmless; it can always, if unchecked, lead us to atrocities like this.

Because the only way to prevent crimes made possible by the oppression of women is to stop oppressing women:

Female suicide bombers have become a weapon of choice for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Iraq over the past year because they can more easily penetrate the defences of the increasingly competent Iraqi security forces.

They are able to bypass the many checkpoints across the country, which are typically manned by male guards, because social rules prevent men from frisking women.

To counter this loophole the authorities have been recruiting more policewomen and female guards, but they are still too few.

The more power women have within a society - the more education, professional presence, safety, autonomy, and authority we accord to women - the less power misogyny will have as a weapon intended to tear that culture and its people apart.

That's it. That's all. That's the truth, no matter where you're standing.

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