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Human Rights Before Religion

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by siawi2 (Date of earlier publishing: 17 November 2009).

Source : The Guardian, 26 September 2009

Have we forgotten to protect women in our bid to accommodate practices carried out in the name of Islam?

by Seyran Ates

Worldwide, women and children are among those most affected by human rights abuses; women and children make up the majority of victims of domestic violence; it is mainly women and girls who are deprived of an education, or even denied an appropriate position in the labour market despite a good education; political opportunities for women are still minimal, despite active and passive suffrage. This is the case regardless of culture or religion. In this sense, achieving gender equality is one of the greatest political challenges of our century.

This standardised picture requires one qualification. Without wishing to relativise violence and human rights abuses or create a hierarchy, there are grave differences between what has already been reached in some countries and a standard that can be denoted as stable. While women and girls in western countries generally no longer, for instance, have to worry about whether or not they are allowed to work or go to school, or whether they will soon be married off to a cousin or a much older man, this is still a reality for countless women in most Islamic countries and in South America, Asia and Africa.

This global perspective is necessary to understand the particular situation for many Muslim women and girls in European countries, especially those who live in parallel societies. In a plural, open and liberal society such as Germany, different cultures and religions jostle together so closely that conflicts are unavoidable and solutions supposedly hard to find. The fear of ostracising foreign cultures and religions and stoking xenophobia has led to a politically precarious situation, in which every criticism of Islamically justified misogyny can make you a racist, an enemy of Islam or even a Nazi. Such labels are thrown around with abandon.

Those who still dare to criticise religious practices in the Islamic community or other cultures often receive death threats or are the victims of a character assassination. In both cases, the aim is to strike from public discussion the issue of violence against women done in the name of Islam or some other understanding of cultural values. Some wish to do so because they are themselves rightwing (Islamic fundamentalists and/or nationalists), others (those who are allegedly political correct, leftwingers and do-gooders) because they are afraid that such criticism will play into the hands of the xenophobic rightwing Germans. But silence plays into their hands even more. The elections in Austria and Switzerland are good examples of this.

Five years ago, almost no one in Germany wanted to speak openly about arranged marriages, genital mutilation and honour killings. The hijab has led to strong political polarisation since roughly 1998. It is fast becoming a matter of course to see it in the street and it has changed something – people are talking more and more about the issues. Yet just as German women in the 70s had to put up with a lot of political malice, because they demanded women’s centres and talked openly about violence, these days we have to put up with hearing that the public debate over the subjugation of women in the Islamic community is more of an insult to Islamic women than a help.

In Germany’s recent past, in the kaleidoscope of cultures and religions in this multicultural society, many people have forgotten that human rights must come before religious practices. I do not say that as a critic of Islam – I don’t know why people label me as such – no, I say it as a practising Muslim and human rights activist, who lives in a democratic state and would like to continue to express her opinion freely.