The Afghan withdrawal debacle has highlighted the difficult situation faced by Muslim women. While Taliban leaders are sometimes characterized as being seventh-century Islamists, their views on sharia law are not so different from many other traditional Middle Eastern societies, something the American feminist community has been reluctant to confront.
Most recently, there has been little public criticism of sharia law in Gaza. A decade ago when it was being first implemented, there was some serious concern. A 2010 study found that 77.1 percent of Gazan women have experienced violence of various sorts. However, subsequent press coverage downplayed the adverse effects of sharia law. A 2014 New York Times story highlighted how “[m]any young women attend one of the several universities, eventually graduating to become writers, engineers and doctors.” Other reports stress positive changes: “Palestinian feminist and human rights movements have registered several important achievements over the past years in terms of addressing legal and structural discrimination and advancing democracy.” And articles increasingly shifted the main source of the problem from sharia law to Israeli occupation.
These reforms, however, are limited. In Gaza, sharia courts are the primary arbiters of disputes. The Hudson Institute reported,
The courts, presided over by Hamas-appointed judges, wielded Islamic jurisprudence to make judgments. … Hamas also created “Palestine Islamic Scholars Association” branches across Gaza. These entities, which also lacked sufficient legal training, employed up to eight religious scholars per branch. In many cases, their judgments were Hamas’s political edicts.
Earlier this year, Gazan courts ruled that women could not travel abroad without being accompanied by a male guardian. While this ruling was reversed by the West Bank Supreme Court, it was sent back to the Gaza courts for adjudication. At the same time, Hamas personnel beat up a female reporter for not wearing appropriate head dress; and a Gaza resort was destroyed because it allowed mixed-gender concerts.
Most troublesome, honor killings continue. In 2013, 27 such murders were reported in the West Bank and Gaza. In 2019, there was a particularly gruesome honor killing in the West Bank; one of 18 reported there during that year through September. US feminists have publicly ignored these transgressions and instead put their political efforts into vilifying Israel. A letter signed by 120 women’s studies departments condemned “indiscriminate bombing of Gaza” and stated:
As gender studies departments in the United States … We center global social justice in our intersectional teaching, scholarship, and organizing. … From Angela Davis we understand that justice is indivisible; we learn this lesson time and again from Black, Indigenous, Arab, and most crucially, Palestinian feminists, who know that “Palestine is a Feminist Issue.”
This anti-Israel approach was reflected in past feminist-led condemnations of pink-washing: Israel’s advertising of its positive environment to attract gay tourist while covering up its discriminatory policies towards the Palestinians. Indeed, the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at the City University of New York ran a conference that centered on condemnation of Israel’s so-called pink-washing efforts without once mentioned the problems the LGBQT community faces in the West Bank and Gaza.
Why does the feminist community so easily lapse into vilification of Israel rather than condemning the ongoing misogyny in traditional middle-eastern Muslim communities. Certainly one component is the need to be part of the anti-colonial movement but there is also the fear that any sustained efforts to publicize the shortcoming in traditional Muslim societies would be attacked as perpetuating Islamophobia.
This fear among US liberals was evident in how they responded to the uptick in anti-Semitic actions after the recent Gaza war. They demanded that any condemnation of anti-Semitism be linked to condemnation of a rise in Islamophobia, as typified by the statements of Senator Bernie Sanders and the Chancellor of the City University of New York. This was similar to their response in late 2019 when anti-Semitic assaults spiked, leading to four killings in the NYC area.
However, a deeper problem is their defensiveness as a result of mainstream feminist organizations continuing to be dominated by white professionals. This was why leadership of the 2017 Women’s March was turned over to non-white women who had not been significantly involved in feminist organizations: Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour. All of these women had shown animus not only towards Israel but to Jews. Perez and Mallory reportedly told Jewish feminists in preparation for the 2017 Inauguration protest march that Jews needed to confront their own role in racism as they “bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people.” These attitudes as well as the link between Mallory and the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan were ignored because of the need for white feminists to show solidarity across racial lines. Eventually, this faulty leadership was exposed but too late to sustain the larger feminist movement that had been formed.
Hopefully, the magnitude of the impact of the Taliban takeover will force feminist organizations to change their priorities: focusing on the shortcoming of traditional Muslim societies not simply in Afghanistan but throughout the Middle East rather than vilifying Israel. While they may not be able to change things for Afghani women surely feminist pressures can impact on the situation faced by those in Gaza and the West Bank.