Rahaf Mohammed’s epic escape and rescue have once again demonstrated the pressing need for humanity to join together to protect human rights irrespective of caste, color or creed. The incident exposes the shallow thinking of social influencers who denigrate would-be allies of the most vulnerable Muslims and dissidents by disseminating the cliché that women of Muslim heritage should be left to deal with their troubles on their own, without the interference of non-Muslims.
People advocating that non-Muslims stay in their lane include well-known Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy: “Unless you are a Muslim woman shut the f**k up about the veil. This is our conversation,” and senior lecturer at Sydney Law school, Ghena Krayem: “Muslim women do not need to be saved by others, nor do they need you to speak for them.” Such commentators should bear in mind that they alone could hardly have had sufficient impact to have helped Rahaf—at least not without the assistance of millions of people, including ex-Muslims, reformers and infidel Westerners.
Many paid lip service to Rahaf’s cause, but attempted to use their advocacy to strip her of the most (or only) effective means of rescue: the world’s attention. Such commentators rush to the defense of Muslims when their alleged victimhood consists of mere offense. Such actions do nothing to protect tolerant Muslims (who by definition can withstand dissent from their faith).
Rahaf’s case, like many others of its kind, would have ended in catastrophe, had she been left at the mercy of her fellow Saudis or so-called spokespersons of Islam. It was no coincidence that the majority of those who rushed to rescue the poor girl were non-Muslims, ex- and secular Muslims, while the flag-wavers of conservative Islam were busy celebrating hijab day in the West or chose to look the other way (as so often) throughout Rahaf’s ordeal. Courageous Australian journalist Sophie McNeil, on receiving the news that a Saudi teen had been detained in Bangkok after fleeing her country, immediately flew to Bangkok and barricaded herself in with Rahaf. She provided moral support for her, remaining with her until the UN team arrived.
McNeil is one of many who believe in challenging injustice and in standing in unconditional solidarity with oppressed women struggling to be free from so-called modesty culture. Her transnational feminism contrasts sharply with the attitudes of the identity politicians who police the borders around Islam. Identity activists, who dominate the social discourse, place inordinate importance on (often involuntary or superficial) differences such as religion, skin color or ethnicity. The same academics and activists who chastise Westerners for othering Muslim women are often the first to issue the contradictory demand that non-Muslims keep out of the issues that most adversely impact liberal Muslims, while implying that Islam’s internally contested customs and doctrines are the unique property of Muslims and that non-Muslims must exclude themselves from the debate. Human rights activists and liberals should not fall for this sort of petty virtue signaling, which creates divisions among people. Rahaf’s escape from religious slavery serves to highlight the fact that people who are trapped in the quagmire of politicized religious power need solidarity and unconditional support, not identity politics, if they are to survive their circumstances.
This incident has further laid bare the farcical masquerade of Saudi Arabia’s claim to be reforming the Arab world. Saudi’s superficial attempts at reform have not resulted in an attenuation of its human rights abuses, which continue in the guise of religious edicts. On the one hand, the Saudis have paraded their progressive image before the eyes of the world, by allowing women to drive and visit cinemas—but only after first arresting and physical abusing the activists who led the country’s campaign for women’s rights. Guardianship laws, one of the main sources of Saudi women’s oppression, remain in force. The so-called Saudi reformation has proved to be a farce, which only serves to sell a positive image of the men in authority there to the rest of the world.
By contrast, the Tunisian government’s decision to grant women an equal share in inheritance is a victory for human rights. This revolution stems from transnational human values, within a secular, rather than religious, framework. Tunisian women have long been denied an equal share in family inheritance under Islamic laws. Under the stark influence of strict Islamic jurisprudence, discrimination against women has been normalized. A long period of conflict and anarchy finally forced the country to appreciate human rights. Today, Tunisia is emerging as the first ever progressive Arab country. It seems committed to human rights and equality before the law, unlike many of its Arab neighbors.
In Egypt, the institutional rejection of a bill that would have provided men and women with equal inheritance rights has proved a further setback to the reformation process in the Muslim world. In a blow to Muslim women’s rights, Egypt’s Mufti Shawki Allam asserted that granting women an equal share in inheritance violates sharia law. He commented: “In Islam, ijtihad (independent reasoning) is not employed where Qur’an and Hadith are considered unambiguous with regard to the matter in question.” This attitude reflects the way in which self-appointed community leaders explicitly define Muslim women’s rights in terms of religion, culture and ethnicity. They employ religion to undermine women’s liberation and to bully them into submissive silence.
We can also see this mechanism at work in the case of female genital mutilation: a ritual abuse that is not only endorsed by culture, but also supported by some religious sources. According to one estimation, more than three million girls are at risk of FGM each year. Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, currently on bail following two accusations of rape, once blatantly supported Imam Shaker Elsayed, who unabashedly recommends female genital mutilation to prevent “hypersexuality.” Ramadan commented, “we let the people know these are internal issues, these are discussions that we want to have among ourselves and it’s not for you to decide … what are priorities.”
Extremists play the identity card and use virtue signaling to derail discussions about women’s rights and to protect their interpretations of Islam from criticism. This insiders know best strategy allows them to isolate and silence reformers and to represent their archaic practices to outsiders as all-pervasive and generally accepted within the community, thus stripping those within the religion of any external support. By reducing the discussion about Muslim women’s rights to their preferred religious discourse, extremists effectively shut down women’s liberation within the Muslim world.
The prevailing identity narrative that non-Muslims are not Muslim enough to talk about Muslim traditions fails to address crucial issues plaguing Muslim communities from within. Opinions about Islamic tradition and its parameters vis-à-vis individual civil liberties are more polarized than ever, yet the insiders know best trope supports the political fiction of a unified Muslim community. If a univocal Muslim community does exist, it has been achieved through the silencing and intimidation of dissident voices, the same voices that many non-Muslims refuse to ignore. This identity politics tactic has allowed important debates related to women and minors to remain unheard. The proclamations of the extremists often appear to go unchallenged by others within the community, when in fact their critics have merely been silenced—and Western identity politicians have colluded with the censors. Heated discussions about an array of issues—veiling; female genital mutilation; gender segregation; the use of strict Islamic jurisprudence to resolve family matters; women’s exploitation at the hands of sharia councils; the brainwashing of gullible youth through sermons and curricula that contain misogynistic, anti-Semitic and homophobic material; and triple talaq divorce—have all been conveniently brushed aside on the pretext of Islamophobia, racism and/or bigotry.
Seemingly liberal identity politicians describe a conservative code of life as a matter of choice and denounce all progressive non-Muslim voices, discrediting them on the basis of skin color, ethnicity and/or religion, in order to block all shades of genuinely liberal dissent. These identity activists perform valuable PR work for the religious right, an authoritarian movement, which perversely poses as a victim group, while enjoying a dominant, indeed hegemonic, grip on public discourse, as well as influencing the West’s main political parties. This conservative Islamic movement is gradually insinuating itself into formerly liberal and secular legal institutions both in Europe and in the United States, where religious conservatives now form a majority in the Supreme Court.
When human rights violations are taking place within a religious community on such a massive scale, we all have a moral duty to intervene and to call out the perpetrators. Weirdly, many non-Catholics on the liberal left have no qualms about doing this in the case of the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals, but are conspicuously silent on the subject of Islamic institutions.
Most women of Muslim heritage living in Muslim-majority countries—and even in the West—are trapped by archaic traditions rooted in religion and culture. Many of them are voiceless and will need our unconditional support to be able to break their shackles. One of the bravest of these women—Rahaf—has, at great personal risk, placed herself at the forefront of a courageous struggle taking place in both East and West. Muslim women are fighting in defiance of religious doctrine, which fences them in and which burdens them with massive responsibilities, without any proportionate rights.
By comparison with conservative religious societies and sub-cultures, secular societies free from the influence of politicized religion are better placed to guard women’s rights and ensure equal treatment for both sexes. It is therefore imperative to shift the framework of this entire discussion of Muslim women’s rights from a religious and identity-based discourse to a modern human rights context, in which all individuals are protected, regardless of caste, creed or color. Secular values protect religious freedoms as well as freedom from religious coercion. As such, they provide the fairest and best protection for everyone’s human rights.