The most important human right in our lifetime
If we consider the quantity of people affected and the quality of the effect, there is no greater injustice in the world today than the denial of equal rights for women. I’m talking specifically about women in fundamentalist Muslim countries in the Middle East. I am also talking about women in fundamentalist Catholic countries in Latin America, although the situation in the Muslim world is worse.
Add in the negative effect upon men. I for one find it painful to spend any time in a country that regards its women as a sub-species of homo sapiens. I cannot enjoy a few hours in such places, not even in their airports on my way somewhere else. How can any male person be happy when there are women in his vicinity who at that very moment in time are the victims of barbaric discrimination?
But what about the feelings of men from Islamic countries who come to the United States for college or graduate work? Don’t they feel equally unhappy in the presence of American women? No, they don’t. They enjoy it here very much. And they acclimate themselves almost overnight to our egalitarian culture and “groove” with it.
I did some work a few years ago for some women who were in “Divided Families,” as Ted Koppel called it his Nightline show that interviewed me. The scenario is more or less the same irrespective of the Middle Eastern country we’re talking about. An American woman meets an Arab in the United States, they get married, she converts to Islam, and they eventually move to the husband’s home country. Here’s a typical story told to me by one of my clients. The man she met in engineering school was a “real Omar Sharif type”—dashing, sophisticated, charming, and totally attentive to her. He shared fully in their household chores, was a great dad when they had a child, never argued with her, and worked out their minor problems on the basis of mutual respect and understanding. When they arrived back at his familial home in Riyadh, he started beating her. He locked her in her bedroom, placed tin foil over the windows, took away the light bulbs, and left her in the sweltering darkness. No food, a glass of water, two or three days of this.
I repeat, this is a typical story. All my clients, and all their friends who married Islamic men, had almost identical experiences.
The young wife would next seek out the grandmother figure of the family group. The matriarch would give her friendly advice: just please your husband and do everything he says. Everything will turn out just fine. But, the young woman asks, what about the beatings? “He still loves you. He is only disciplining you.”
Another of my clients (I call them clients because I had a confidentiality relationship with them though my work was pro bono) could stand her situation no longer. With meticulous planning, she left her house one morning when her husband went to work, made it to the school where she had excuses prepared to take her children home, got into a car driven by a friend, and made it to the American embassy in Riyadh. The Americans working in the embassy could not have been more sympathetic or helpful, she told me. She did not understand why it was taking them so long just to put her and her children on a plane to the United States; she had the money for the tickets. Cables hummed from the United States to Saudi Arabia and back. Finally, on the fourth day, two Marines assisted her and the children into a Jeep. She asked if they were going to the airport but they said nothing. They pulled up in front of her home, where her husband was standing there, glaring at them. She looked at the soldiers. “We’re sorry, ma’am, we’re only doing our job.” They left her and the children there and drove away.
Clearly there are two totally different Weltanshauungen here: the Western worldview and the Muslim worldview. They seem remote from each other both in space and in time. Is communication between the two even possible?
The lawyerly thing to do is to begin by trying to understand the other side’s point of view. I have a few thoughts about this which I’ll post tomorrow.