One child, one teacher, one pen and one book

Posted on July 18, 2013 in Inclusion Debates – opinion
JULY 17, 2013.   By Robert Sibley, Ottawa Citizen

It’s been said that the most dangerous thing in the world is an idea whose time has come. If that is true, Malala Yousafzai is the greatest danger to the Islamist cause.

In October, a Taliban gunman shot the Pakistani girl point-blank in the head for campaigning on behalf of girls’ education. Late last week, after a near-miraculous recovery, Yousafzai addressed the United Nations in New York on her 16th birthday and told her attackers their tactics of oppression by bullet would not work. “Let us pick up our books and pens,” she said. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

Those words may well come to be regarded as the death knell of Islamic fundamentalism in the same way that Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King’s courageous rhetoric inspired opposition to apartheid and racial segregation. The secret to defeating fanaticism that sends planes crashing into buildings, plots to blow up trains, and sends deluded young men and women to their deaths on jihadist missions may well be education, particularly the education of women.

In her speech, Yousafzai called for “a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism.” The Nobel Peace Prize nominee said “the extremists were afraid of education. That is why they’re blasting schools every day.”

She’s right. In places where radical fundamentalists or ultra-conservatives gain power, the emancipation of women can be seriously stymied or, as in the case of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, seriously reversed. If (when?) the Taliban regains power in Afghanistan you can bet women will again be outlawed from appearing in public unless fully veiled and girls’ schools will be closed.

This attitude certainly doesn’t hold throughout Muslim world, whether in the present or the past. Muslim intellectuals argued for women’s rights and the right to an education more than a century ago, observes Bernard Lewis, the well-known scholar of Islam. An Egyptian lawyer, Qasim Amin, published a book in 1899 entitled The Liberation of Women that was widely influential. In the 1920s, Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern-day Turkey, repeatedly argued on behalf of women’s emancipation.

Such enlightened views have been under attack in recent decades with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, warned against allowing women to teach adolescent boys, saying it would lead to immorality. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted regime has pushed a more traditional attitude toward women that has been denounced as misogynist. In Cairo and Istanbul, as I’ve seen for myself, more and more women wear the full-body chador whereas a decade ago it was common to see women, maybe most, bare-headed and wearing western-style clothing.

There is a long pedigree to the enforcement of modesty (at least as defined by the clerics). An 11th-century Muslim philosopher, al-Ghazali, in his tome The Revival of the Religious Sciences, argued that a woman “should stay home and get on with her spinning … and (be) ready to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs at any moment.” A millennium later, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who is widely acknowledged as the godfather of Islamist terrorism, was horror-stricken at the immodesty of and deference to women he encountered as a student in the United States in the late 1940s. What most offended him about American women, as he later wrote, was their “thirsty lips, bulging breasts, smooth legs.” He denounced “that animal freedom which is called permissiveness, that slave market dubbed ‘women’s liberation’.”

I imagine most westerners, inculcated with notions of equality and rights, are, to say the least, puzzled by such a disturbed psyche. For radical Islamists, however, women’s emancipation is the dividing line between modernization and Westernization. As Lewis points out, even jihadists want modern technology, especially weapons and communication devices, but they don’t want the West’s cultural ideas, among which is the notion of women’s rights. “The emancipation of women is Westernization; both for traditional conservatives and radical fundamentalists it is neither necessary nor useful but noxious, a betrayal of true Islamic values,” he writes in his 2002 book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. “It must be kept from entering the body of Islam, and where it has already entered, it must be ruthlessly excised.”

The attack on Malala Yousafzai was an act of excision. The attempt to silence her was a blow against Westernization and everything it represents.

Of course, she isn’t the only target of this hostility. According to a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, more than 80 per cent of women reported being victims of sexual harassment. In the words of American-Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, “women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.”

Self-righteousness can be deadly even in Canada. Last year in Toronto, Peer Khairi, a near-illiterate Afghan immigrant, was convicted for the 2008 killing of his wife Randjida Khairi — he nearly decapitated her — after she’d had the temerity to want a more Western way of life for herself and her daughters.

It’s hard to extract anything positive from such horrors, but if there is, it is that Khairi, like Yousafzai, represents a new force in Islam as it struggles to come to terms with modernity. I expect more and more Muslim women will be willing to assert themselves even at great risk against those who think, in al-Ghazali’s words, they “must not be well-informed.” They are the great hope for Islam.

Robert Sibley is a senior writer for the Citizen, attached to the editorial board. His new book, The Way of the 88 Temples, will be published in September.

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