Myth and Misconceptions Revisited [Archives:1999/42/Focus]

October 18 1999

By: Dr. Azza Ghanem
Professor of Psychology
In response to my previous article ‘The myth of oppressed Yemeni females’, Mr. Alan Suit raised the issue of genital mutilation of females F.G.M, execution for the adultery, and the veil in his letter to the editor. I do believe in freedom of speech, thought and judgement but it should be based on facts and truth rather appearance and emotions.
Let me first clarify that I was talking about the specific case of Yemen females. Equally important is the assertion that there is a wide difference between the actual teaching of Islam and what is externally practiced in various Islamic states by Muslims who have at time mixed up customs, traditions and secularism with Islamic teachings. The new trend of Islamic resurgence trying to distinguish between facts and myths, some successfully others are causing great confusion because of either narrow or profuse interpretations. Moreover, there are various sects in Islam which offer differing interpretations in modes of practice, but not in Basic Belief. Some of the major sects are Alshafey, Alhanbaly, Alhanafy, Almaliky and Alshich. For example in the issue of acceptance of a female judge in law, Alshafy, Alhanbaly and Alshiah do not accept female judge. Alhanafy accepts female judge in minor issue such as property but in major such as crime. Almaliky accepts female judge in all methods, such as the democracy of Islam, and no sect should pass judgement in the other sect to avoid dissension and ‘Alfitna’. Even though, the sects are all under the umbrella of Islam, they may use differing the boundaries of basic belief and teachings for example in the case of marriage, the Sunnis insist on declaration of it, while the Shiah approve secrecy of necessary. The problem with modern new democracies and cultures is that they can only judge others by their own line of reference and can not see others points of view. For democracies that is paradisiacal.
I fully comprehend that not only all Muslims women would agree with my views, it is their prerogative. These are always the moderates, the extremely strict and the rebellion in all cultures. For example, in the case of the veil there are those who cover every thing, there are some who dress modestly and cover the hair and there are a few who wear short dresses and uncovered hair. The annoying thing is that some do not due to belief and acceptance but rather as a social tradition.
In my previous article, you misconstrued my intention. I was not offering a polarize for our stance and state of affairs, but rather explanations. Three important issues were raised by you as examples of oppression: female mutilation F.G.M adultery and the veil.
As regards F.G.M, it is no where in Qur’an or the Hadith stipulated as an optional or a mandatory practice to circumcise soon after birth or upon adoption of Islam even as an adult. Yet nobody from the West has even raised the issue as being a crime or unfair to males. Is not this a gender issue ? Why is it only right to patronize Muslims women and not Muslim men ? Islam is not responsible for the practice of F.G.M, but rather the traditions of the Red Sea Basin. The practice is unheard of the inner cities of Yemen and is prevalent along the coastal towns. Moreover, not only are Muslims girls along the Red Sea Basin are circumcised but also Christian girls in Egypt for example. Hence the social mores factor is stronger than religion in enforcing conformity. But it is always easier to use a more obvious correlate such as religion as a scapegoat.
Even more cruel is the practice of closure of genitals of girls in order to avoid sexual abuse before marriage. This is again a practice of the red Sea Basin countries, most of which happen to be Islamic states. But this is not tantamount to designating the practice to Islamic Teachings. I have to repeat this, and I am not apologizing, I am merely stating facts.
Survey have show that some of the reasons given for both circumcision and closure are misconceptions such as: it helps in cleanliness, it helps reach puberty, it curbs sexual desire and pleasure, it prevents adultery, it protects girls from rape, it gives a better chance of marriage, it is customary and traditional, it makes females more desirable, it ensures equality with male circumcision and it is a religious rule.
F.G.M which is prevalent in 20 % of female Yemeni population that lives along the coastland as compared with 90 % along the Egyptian coastal (according to some studies ) will disappear when greater awareness of its detrimental health and psychological effects are realized through education, openness and transparency. I agree that it must be stopped but not through laws which can be “circumcised” but rather through understanding and awareness.
As to the issue of the veil, the details are a debatable issue with many different interpretations portrayal by the different ether of women in Islam countries. as far as I understand, there are the common factors of modesty, covering of the hair, loose long attire leaving no parts of the body showing except the face, hands and feet. But there extreme interpretations in both directions, total courage and no restriction. Perhaps some of the Muslims in America can write about this and explain it further. We need to hear the views of experts.
Now we come to the most arduous of all issue, that of adultery. I would not be qualified to dare explain the Islamic details that exist, and again learned Muslims in jurisprudence can do that efficiently. The only thing I can summarize is that Islam holds equalitarian views and rules as to the punishable of male and female adulteries (look at the verses in the Qur’an). Islam differentiates between punishments for the married and non-married, being the lighter for the latter. It also considers homosexuality punishment as adultery. You have said that Muslim men go to the west to seek indulgence because of our repression or oppressions, I presume. Those are the exception rather than the rule. Western society is not repressed, yet we heard of rapes (of children as well) every day. So who is fault a repressed society or a non-repressed ?
whilst I did say that I was not going to discuss details, I would like to remind the reader that although Islam stipulates execution for the married adulterer, no Islamic country to my knowledge carries out the sentence except in horrific cases of child rape and some sporadic offensive cases such as the well known case of the ‘Arab Princes’. So here we notice a non-espousal of rules. The point irrespective of whether one agree with the magnitude of the punishment – is that men and women are held equally responsible. In practice both are let loose, but more so powerful men. Customs here plays a very prominent role, it is traditionally considered very shameful for women to indulge in relations – let alone sere – outside marriage. But then customs, traditions and social milieu are powerful forces, and carry strange connotation.
Economically one culture may control another, but never morally or spiritually. In the old colonial , the British ruled Aden and had economic power over it but as a British official had “we do not interfere with your beliefs, morals or customs”. Now that colonialism has recede, Globalization not only steps in to fill the economic vacuum and take advantage of it, but it also wishes to interfere with codes and values and it starts with the most vulnerable of all, female issues. If we want to help women, we must start by concentrating on issues that help in their participation in development pragmatically.