By: Charlotte Hayes
“To Muslim women’s rights activists fighting for equal access to mosques as part of a broader campaign for reform — from equal education for women and girls to freedom from so-called ‘honor killings’, the president’s visit to a mosque that practices such blatant inequity represents a step backwards.”
That was from Asra Q. Nomani and Ify Okoye in the New York Times. They were referring to President Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore Wednesday, the first visit to a U.S. mosque he has made as president. Nomani and Okoye stood outside protesting the president’s choice of venue.
“While the free world awaits a Muslim reformation, the leader of the free world shows blatant disregard for gender equality by visiting a mosque that treats females like second-class citizens,” said Pakistani-Canadian activist Raheel Raza, author and cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement.
Looks like President Obama picked the wrong mosque to honor with his presence.
The Muslim women weren’t the only critics of the choice. It was widely noticed that the Islamic Society of Baltimore had some questionable connections. A former imam had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and to the Virginia mosque where radical Anwar al-Awlaki preached before becoming an Al Qaeda affiliate operative in Yemen, where he was killed by a U.S. drone strike.
While the New York Times piece dealt with mosques in the U.S. in general, the authors did point out that at this particular Baltimore mosque, girls (all of whom wear headscarves) and boys as young as eight are rigidly segregated from one another. The facilities for girls are vastly inferior to those for boys. According to the New York Times article, in an estimated two thirds of U.S. mosques women and girls are “segregated in dark basements, sparse balconies, separate rooms and even behind shower curtains in the ‘sisters’ section,’ listening to Friday sermons piped in through shaky sound systems and watching them, if we are lucky, via TV screens. It’s too often only on ‘interfaith’ occasions like the president’s visit that women and girls get to step forward into the ‘brothers’ section.’”
In light of this, Nomani and Okoye see the president’s visit as a slap in the face to Muslim women. The content of the President’s remarks was similarly disappointing. He had the chance to speak up for Muslim women and talk of the Western tradition of women’s rights, but he chose to ignore this in favor of depicting American Muslims as being under siege in our prejudiced society.
“Around the country, women wearing the hijab have been targeted,” the president said at the mosque.” We’ve seen children bullied. We’ve seen mosques vandalized. Sikh Americans and others who are perceived to be Muslims have been targeted, as well.”
The Sikh incident, sickening though it was, happened in the immediate aftermath of September 11 and, as far as I can tell, has not been repeated. There simply has been no outbreak of violence against Sikhs in the U.S. It is inexcusable if children are bullied or mosques vandalized, and there have been isolated reports of the latter. The president is right to speak of these things at a mosque, but he is also obligated–if he wants to do more than use the event to make Muslims angry over Donald Trump and earn votes for Democrats–to speak truly of assimilation, especially regarding the treatment of women in Muslim cultures.
A poll last year of 600 U.S Muslims nationwide by The Polling Company for the Center for Security Policy found that 51 per cent of those surveyed agreed “Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to sharia.” Sharia is notoriously short on rights for women, unless, of course, you consider it a right to be stoned for adultery. The push for Sharia in the U.K. was such that no lesser a non-Muslim than the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, proclaimed its eventual official adoption in parts of England as “unavoidable.”
It should be avoidable in America if we have the will to speak up about it. We have a right not to want a legal system that is vicious to women imported into our society. We have a duty to promote assimilation, and that everyone in our society must embrace a basic respect for women’s humanity. We’ve seen what failure to do so looks like with the vicious attacks on women in Cologne and other European cities by men from the Middle East and North Africa. After a series of rapes by foreigners in 2009-2011, the shell-shocked Norwegians sought to bridge this cultural divide by providing “no means no” courses for asylum seekers from the Middle East. Good luck with that, Norway.
This is an area in which real presidential leadership could make a difference. He could have told the mosque that men like their former imam scare the dickens out of us–and with good reason–and he could have called upon Muslims to reject their “war on women.” Instead of slyly portraying the rest of us as thugs who treat hijab clad women badly, he could have talked about the need to treat all women with respect, and this must include women who do not where the hijab.
President Obama did make a rather tepid plea that members of the mosque reject “extremism,” but he focused his criticism almost entirely on American society. If you listened to or read the president’s words, you could be forgiven for seeing American Muslims as surrounded by a sea of venom and bigotry–in fact, I’d argue that the president has officially given Muslims the most coveted status in our society–victim status.
Like many of his forays into Islamic relations, this was a lost opportunity. After all, there are real victims in Muslim society, however, whom President Obama pointedly ignored on Wednesday: the women.