UN Conference Celebrates “Women in Islam”
Among others, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto spoke at a conference honoring “Women in Islam” on the occasion of International Women’s Day. It was held at the United Nations as part of the 67th Commission on the Status of Women.
The foreign minister made it his mission to dispel “myths” about the treatment of women according to Islamic doctrine: to demonstrate that, in fact, Islam demands the good treatment of women and does not consign them to the role of second-class citizens. Among the points he made were, in direct quotations:
“Islam was the first religion to give rights to women.”
“Islam treats women as human beings in their own right, not as chattel.”
“Islam forbids injustice against women.”
The minister went on to cite examples of women throughout the history of the Islamic world who made positive impacts and strove for societal advancement — including his mother, former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, who tried to bring Pakistan in a more secular and modern direction before her loss of power in 1997 and assassination in 2007. Throughout his speech, he advocated for continued advancements in gender equality both in Pakistan and around the world.
Ministers from other Islamic countries spoke as well, including the UAE’s minister of state, who argued, like Bhutto, that extremism, not true Islam, relegates women to a disfavored and subordinate status, which “Islamophobes” then take advantage of to tar Islam as a whole.
Bhutto, as the son of Pakistan’s first female prime minister (who was, at least, more committed to secularism and equality than recent administrations), may well be sincere in his desire to advance women’s rights in Islamic and non-Islamic countries alike. But the attempted whitewashing of Islam’s legacy on women’s rights, both from him and other speakers at the event, obscures important details on just about every facet of this subject.
Take the issue of the hijab, something prescribed to women specifically according to Islamic doctrine, the mandatory wearing of which 1 in 10 Muslim women are subject to. Or take the pervasive culture of violence against women common in many Muslim-majority societies: “honor killings” which occur even in the West. Despite the foreign minister’s touting of Pakistani government initiatives to promote female-led startups, Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in which to exist as a woman.
It is not solely an extremism problem: it is a religion problem.
Suppression Efforts of Pakistan’s Women’s Marches
Every year, Pakistan’s “Aurat March” — Women’s March — takes place in various cities, aiming to highlight injustices and demand safety and equality for the nation’s women in social and legal life. This International Women’s Day, it was the case again — “despite efforts by authorities in several cities to block” them.
From this year’s, online videos show “several police officers baton-charging participants.” Though these officers were purportedly suspended, clashes between official efforts to suppress the non-violent gatherings and the protestors were once again a theme. In Lahore, city authorities had reportedly initially “refused to provide security” for the event — “despite allowing a ‘modesty’ countermarch to go ahead.”
There may be no better contrast demonstrating the dissonance between foreign minister Bhutto’s claim that Islam respects women and the backlash with which these marches are always met in Islamic countries, including Pakistan.
Qur’an “Desecration” in the UK
A Qur’an was damaged at a UK school, and — unsurprisingly — a weeks-long incident involving death threats and blasphemy accusations has ensued.
In West Yorkshire, a reportedly autistic 14-year-old boy apparently brought a Qur’an to school as part of a juvenile dare. At some point, the book was “dropped,” causing minor cosmetic damage. This “desecration” earned him death threats, and the school suspended the boy and his three friends involved in the dare — even going so far as to chastise them for failing to show proper respect to the holy book.
Police got involved and actually recorded what happened as a “hate incident,” though also finding that (at least) no crime was committed. The same designation does not appear warranted for veiled threats from religious activists in the eyes of authorities.