The place is New York. The date is November 10, 2008. Thousands of women, and men, have come to attend the Glamour Women of the Year awards. There are tall women and slim women. There are powerful women and women in Gucci gowns. Amongst the 10 recipients are powerful names like Hillary Clinton, Nicole Kidman and Condoleezza Rice.
And then there is one recipient who wears plain clothes and doesn’t speak English. She is the 10-year old Yemeni, Nojoud Ali. At 10 years of age she has already been beaten and raped by her husband, and divorced.
Nojoud was eight years old when she was married off by her father to a man in his 30s. Now Nojoud’s father claims that the man “was a criminal, a criminal. He did hateful things to her. He didn’t keep his promise to me that he wouldn’t go near her until she was 20”.
Nujood got her divorce, but based on the principles of Islamic Sharia law, her husband was compensated, not prosecuted. Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200. The human rights lawyer who represented her donated the money. (Source)
We all know Nojoud. A determined little spirit who went against her people’s century old custom of child marriages to older men and boldly told a judge that she wanted divorce from a man who beat her and raped her. In her own words the man “insulted [her]”.
Watching the news item on CNN two years ago the only word that stuck out to me and yelled louder than any word can possibly yell was “ He insulted me”.
I don’t believe in comparing Muslim women with non-Muslim women. I don’t want to talk about rights Islam has or has not given women. Women are abused and oppressed in every society, in every country. And that does not exclude the Muslim world. The problem is that only the voice of the Muslim women who are not oppressed is heard.
A woman lawyer and a humanist judge took notice and helped Nojoud get divorce from her husband but according to her cultural laws she had to pay a literal price to get divorce. Yet we still like to claim that Muslim societies are not oppressing women. Is it not oppression that a man with two wives and 16 children sells his daughter to a man three times her age because he can’t afford so many children? Is it not oppression that the man the child is married to rapes her and beats her? Is it not oppression that the child herself recognizes that she was insulted? Is it not oppression that the woman who gave birth to this battered but self-respecting child does not speak even once on CNN’s report? Is it not oppression that we see this mother only as a slit in a black shroud in one scene?
How can you be “married off” when Islam as the most modern religion gives women the complete right to accept or refuse a proposal? Yet, young girls are “married off” everyday, sometimes when they are not even old enough to know what is happening.
They are oppressed even in the fast-developing Arab countries because while their men can marry anyone they like from any country they like, these women can only marry men from their country. And if they defy the traditions, customs, and state laws and go on to marry a man from another country, they are stripped of all legal rights and of their nationality. They cannot inherit or own any land, business or property in their country. Is it not oppression?
There are many Nojouds who are bearing the heavy weight of their much older husbands. There are Nojouds who are beaten and raped. Despite being given the right by religion, there are Muslim women who are not allowed to marry whom they like. They are not allowed to wear what they want, work or study. There are Muslim women who are insulted everyday. And most don’t even know it because we refuse to acknowledge their oppression.
The danger is when we refuse to accept that Muslim women are oppressed because we fear that we will belittle Islam, although such oppression has nothing to do with Islamic doctrines. Thus, we only help to perpetuate oppression. We empower abusive men and women by claiming that all is perfectly fine in the lives of Muslim women. There would have been no need for Muslim Feminism if Muslim women were enjoying full rights given by Islam and were not subjugated by their society. This is where the job of the Muslim feminist starts. A Muslim feminist does not belittle Islam, s/he only tries to show what Islam promised and society denied.