On the front pages of newspapers around the world, we are now privileged to witness the extraordinary strength of women oppressed by fanatical forms of Islam. In Iran, these women are emerging as our heroes. Young and old, they are willing to expose themselves to imprisonment, violence and potential death in order to achieve liberation. In Iran, they are leading the charge for regime change and thus the end of one of the evilest dictatorships of this century.
There is no sign that these women are slowing down. Yesterday, Vida Movahed, who became known worldwide for a 2017 photo of her standing on a platform in a Tehran street without a veil, with a white scarf raised in protest, was arrested for a third time. In Afghanistan, misogyny reared its ugly head, as the Taliban government banned women from university education and working with local and foreign NGOs.
It is remarkable that today’s loudest cry for freedom and democracy is coming from one of the most oppressed and vulnerable populations in the world—women in Muslim countries. Theirs is not only a struggle for those rights and freedoms that, since World War II, we have considered humanity’s birthright. In fact, the seeds of this revolution were sown as early as the seventh century, when the first Islamic laws restricting the status of women were enacted. In our time, these iron-fisted laws that define women’s clothing, gender roles, culture, freedom of movement and much else are, at last, under siege. A great revolution is stirring, a liberation movement that the Muslim world has never seen before.
Of course, the condition of women around the world has often been problematic in many ways, including in the West, but as the great Middle East historian Bernard Lewis has posited, this has had particularly detrimental effects on the Muslim world. He believed that the sacrifice of women in favor of a hierarchical vision based on the principle of submission had terrible consequences. In particular, it led the Muslim world to waste its best resource in the fight to defeat ignorance and misery. It turned the Muslim man into a dominating, patriarchal and often violent figure, whose primary victims were women. The latest statistics have borne out Lewis’ theory, such as the World Economic Forum’s 2021 report on gender issues, which found that the 15 countries that are most oppressive to women, along with eight of the 10 most dangerous, were Muslim-majority nations.
Islam was founded on the principle of the equality of all human beings, and women were recognized as subjects with certain rights, however limited. Such limitations existed in all the Abrahamic religions, but Judaism and Christianity eventually moved towards genuine and expanded equality. Islam, however, has become a reactionary force, imposing discrimination, inferior status and extensive restrictions on all aspects of a woman’s life. It built and is still building a patriarchal and misogynist regime based on the idea of male superiority. Iran and Afghanistan openly use the Quran to justify this, citing a sura that says men, as natural superiors, are the designated “protectors” of women. It is a short step from this to total male dominance, and worse still, the idea that male dominance is a good thing that cannot be questioned.
The West is often accused, including by various Muslim women’s movements, of being imperialist, ethnocentric and, above all, Islamophobic. This is a very imposing accusation, since it effectively interdicts all discussion, meaning Islam cannot be criticized as Christianity or Judaism may be criticized. The charge, in effect, demonizes any realistic debate over the oppression of women in Muslim countries; even when, as in Iran, female Muslims are heroically rising up against it.
If we want to help these heroines, then we must insist on talking about them and the reasons for their uprising honestly and straightforwardly, and face down the accusation of Islamophobia. We must face reality, because the oppression of women in the Muslim world is the reality, and it is now being challenged as it has never been before.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of Jewish Lives Matter.