(Above: nunsploitation, an ongoing activity since way before Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem painted The Monk and the Nun in 1591).
You have to feel sorry for Islamic moderates, in a world where fundamentalism has the oil dollars and Saudi Arabia has done its best to export Wahabism around the world.
That's right, one of America's key Middle Eastern countries refuses to allow women to drive cars or to vote, and insists they get dolled up in gear suitable for a camel-ride in a desert, but with stuff all to do with the modern world. And of course last month Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan matched the Saudis by offering total control to Shiite men over their women.
Faced with this kind of situation, Randel Abdel-Fattah does her best in Rich and just legacy tainted by 'McFatwas' in The Age to extol the virtues of moderate Islamic faith, but this is the best she can come up with:
Fourteen hundred years ago a man in the tribal, backward, misogynistic Arabian dessert (sic) championed the rights of women to spiritual, practical and sexual equality, to inheritance, divorce, education, property rights, even pre-nuptial agreements stipulating, should the bride wish to, the right to housekeeping. The essence of his message was to transform the individual's ethical and moral character.
But why I wonder should I pay any more attention to what a man had to say 1400 years ago, than the attention I refuse pay to a man who said his piece a couple of thousand years ago.
At the heart of both religions there remains a desire for god-bothering and rule following and power brokering and theocratic tendencies that means Islamic and Christian preachers have more in common than the average secularist - just get them talking about the evils of drink or the evils of sex, or the evils of sin and sinners, and you'll see what I mean.
And really a better situation for women, and for gays, and for other minority groups, has only come about in the west as the god botherers have singly and collectively been banished to a corner for their hate therapy sessions.
These days you rarely see nuns strutting around in medieval garb and that's because the very concept of heading off to a nunnery has been called into question so often. Personally I don't have a problem with a flock of women running off to live together, but the downside was that the church always made sure that men had the last word in running whatever institution housed the women. Meanwhile if you wanted to pick a favorite nun stereotype - whether a Fellini movie, or a nun with a ruler or a nun in congress with Satan in The Devils - you'd be flooded with an abundance of choices. So it goes.
It's just as hard a fight back for a feminist-sounding Islamic moderate:
That message has clearly fallen on closed hearts in places where women are denied their fundamental rights and treated as second-class citizens by sex-obsessed men who can only conceive of women as temptresses. When men cease to project their own insecurities on women, and rehabilitate themselves by actually following the example of the Prophet rather than pretending to, then perhaps the real Islam will reveal itself and the travesty of condoning rape in marriage, and allowing forced burqas and driving bans will end.
Well actually Randel gets herself into a logical inconsistency here, as earlier she'd noted that Islam has no church, no person or institution to embody God's divine authority. There is simply no authoritative centre other than God and Prophet Mohammed. Both are represented by texts, which must be interpreted: first, the Koran, and second, the documented sayings and traditions of Mohammed.
So what we have now is the real Islam, since who's to say that a genteel middle class westerner has any more insight into the way things should be or how women should relate to men than a villager or goat herder? God has been strangely silent these last hundreds of years on all kinds of matters, so what to do?
After all, doesn't the Koran say that women have rights similar to those of men, but men are a degree above them? Aren't men promised women with wide lovely eyes, or some such, in the garden? Isn't the Koran in fact littered with the same kind of issues as confront Christian women forced to face a text written a long time ago, by men with unremarkable male preferences, which contains plenty of clues suggesting men stay in charge of the show? Don't get me started on Paul.
How else to explain the way only a mythical Pope Joan got a go running the Roman church?
For all that Randel runs a nice line in chopping down the blasphemous who pretend to know the divine will and the will of God (surely the reason the texts were left behind), and calls out the appalling manipulation of Islamic texts in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as insolent and arrogant, she doesn't have any compelling alternatives on view.
Sure, Islam might be reduced in some minds to McFatwas and a telephone hotline which provides a quick (she says idiotic) answer to what's lawful and unlawful, but offering me up a complexity of doctrines, a diversity of opinions, and an enormous amount of disputations over a wide range of issues doesn't cut it for me.
For at the heart of it you have to believe in God and an afterlife, call it an alternate heaven, but a heaven all the same, and if you don't happen to be a true believer, then you don't get in. It's the same kind of pyramid ponzi scheme as pitched by Christians, the Mormons and even heaven help us, the Scientologists (though if you pay them enough you get super clear in this lifetime).
There's a precious daintiness amongst liberals about the Islamic faith, mainly because the religion is given an unmercifully hard time by the right wing commentariat, who in turn conspicuously fail to give received truths of a Christian kind any kind of hard time at all (and as a result a deep vein of hard core Pellism and Jensenism currently runs through our declining Christian flocks).
But at the end of the day the way to construct a sensible and civil society, in which women get a fair go, will only come about when we get less religion, not some kind of fair minded, even handed attempt to reduce Islam to the kinds of teachings we might expect at an Anglican garden party where cheese and cucumber sandwiches go with a nice cup of tea. Give me the fundies, at least you know where you stand.
As usual, the intertubes has the answer, with an annotated koran/quran for sceptics, along with equally sceptical annotations on the bible and the book of Mormon (available here).
And now to end with an advertisement for Ken Russell's madcap film The Devils, based on the equally interesting book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon? Sure, why not. Let's be even-handed in denouncing exotic religious dress sense for females.
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