The woman question

Posted: Jan 04, 2002 12:00 AM
While the image of men shaving their long beards and women uncovering their faces after the rout of the Taliban was gratifying, we now seem in danger of edging into cultural imperialism. Too many reporters from Afghanistan are sneering when a woman appears in public swathed in the burka. They explain to viewers that some women are still apparently "too fearful" to show themselves in public. Perhaps. But surely an alternative explanation is possible: Some women in Afghanistan may share the Taliban's extreme views on the matter of female comportment. And if they do, this is none of our business, is it? There is no doubt that the Taliban regime was among the worst in the world. One million Afghans fled rather than live with its cruelty. Starvation was rampant. Religious fanaticism proscribed everything from education for girls to music and movies. Any number of Afghans had limbs lopped off for stealing -- though many stole because they had nothing to eat. Still, we didn't start dropping bombs on Afghanistan because they oppressed women and enforced a radical interpretation of Islam on their people -- as tempting as that might be. Our quarrel with them was that they harbored terrorists. It was the good fortune of the Afghan people that we liberated them in the process of eliminating a threat to ourselves. But in our triumphalism about freeing Afghanistan's women from the medieval burka, we are losing sight of the point. The point was coercion, not belief. The Taliban were oppressors not because they believed in the burka, but rather because they gave Afghan women no choice. Many religious restrictions that people voluntarily undertake would be considered barbaric if imposed by the state. What if Catholic states denied their people meat on Fridays, or required some women to become celibate nuns? What if Israel forced all Jews to observe the dietary laws and to refrain from travel, work,and even use of electricity on the Sabbath? But all of these restrictions and many more are cheerfully shouldered voluntarily by the devout. Surely it is no more our business to tell Muslim women that they should doff the burka than we should tell Catholic nuns to shed their habits? It happens to be the case that most Muslims are not so extreme as to require women to walk around looking like little tents. But most Muslims do believe -- along with traditionalists of other faiths like Judaism and Christianity -- that female immodesty is incompatible with piety. Most Muslim women wear head scarves to conceal their hair and refrain from wanton displays of flesh. The subject of female modesty is a delicate one, and we are certainly free to express our opinion that the Wahabbi practice of shrouding women from head to toe goes too far. And certainly we should express our disgust at a system that forbids women to be educated and enforces dress codes with public beatings and even executions. At the same time, religious people of all faiths have a point when they recoil from our popular culture that sends images of an undulating Brittany Spears and a scarcely covered Jennifer Lopez all over the globe. Other cultures would be correct to believe that we've drawn the line way too far in the other direction. But they see the worst of us. Our popular entertainment and many aspects of our culture have become vulgar and degraded, but in other ways we have resolved The Woman Question far better than other societies. Despite lip service about women's equality, most of the former communist countries treated women very shabbily. In many parts of Asia and Africa, very young girls are forced into prostitution while governments look the other way. And in the Islamic world, well, Bernard Lewis -- one of the foremost scholars of that region -- believes that the woman question may lie at the heart of Islamic backwardness. The Islamic world, he reports, has been wondering for four centuries how the infidels managed to surge ahead of them. One answer may well be that Muslim countries deny themselves the energy, imagination and skills of half the population. It may well be a secret of the West's success that it liberated women. But let's not indulge the idea that 1,000 years of women's progress was achieved so that Jennifer Lopez could display her breasts.