By Joshua Holland, AlterNet.

Apparently, they're a couple of decades behind the "liberal" West, and not so stuck after all. Before 9/11/01, the media relegated stories about women in Islamic societies to page B27, below the fold. Ever since 9/12/01, those same stories have screamed from the front pages in 100-point type. The shift in discourse coincided with the launch of Bush's global "War on Terror," when various hawks began using the plight of women in Islam to illustrate the supposed perfidy of our "enemies," and to justify a series of military "interventions" -- invasions -- by Western powers.

In the United States, there's now an almost universally held belief that most women in Islamic societies face wretched persecution and that Islam itself is wholly to blame. But there's scant empirical evidence to support the claim -- mostly, we're treated to detailed reports of horrific abuses in theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the fact that just six percent of the Muslim world live in those two countries. If you ask average Americans how they came to their beliefs about how badly women suffer in Islamic societies, most will reply that "everyone knows it."
But I've seen no empirical data to suggest that an Islamic majority itself correlates with the subordination of women better than other co-variables like economic development, women's ability to serve in government, a political culture that values the rule of law or access to higher education. In other words, you can use a comparison of women's status in Saudi Arabia and Sweden to make an intellectually weak argument for Western superiority, but there's little support for the notion that women living in "traditional" Islamic cultures enjoy a lower social status than those in orthodox Christian, Jewish or Hindu communities, to name a few examples. Think of the perfectly backwards Eastern Orthodox Church, the largest Christian communion in the world. Or consider the country where women may be brutalized more terribly than in any other, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is 70 percent Christian and 10 percent Muslim. Or go to Utah, where tens of thousands of Mormon fundamentalists believe that women are literally the property of their fathers or husbands. Of course, Mormon fundamentalists are the exception that proves the endless benevolence and equality of the West, while whatever despicable caricature of justice perpetrated on a woman by the House of Saud is breathlessly recounted as emblematic of Islamic culture as a whole.
Comparing the “Muslim world” to the rest of the world poses an intellectual problem — how does one even look at the role of Islam in a society, specifically, rather than dozens of other variables that might influence women's outcomes?
I'd expect, for example, the structure of a country's economy to play a far greater role in determining women's status than the religion of its people. There's quite a bit of research showing that in service and manufacturing economies -- those of wealthier states -- women enjoy a great deal of personal freedom and autonomy, civil and political rights and access to higher education. That's because of the high value of their labor outside the home, in the workforce. Women earning their own bread out in the working world demand, and require, full political rights and legal protections. In poorer economies, most of which have large agricultural sectors and many of which rely on extractive enterprises -- oil, mining, etc. -- women tend to suffer a much lower social status, because their labor is more valuable coerced and sequestered close to home. That's a structural, rather than a "Clash of Civilizations" explanation of women's varying outcomes in different countries. It's the latter view that I find little evidence to support.
None of this is a defense of Islam, or women's place within it -- I have little love for religion, any religion, and certainly no desire to defend any religious rites or customs. It's about our loose definitions of the problem and tendency to idealize the "liberal" West.

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