During her recent Chatham House lecture on ‘Womens Human Rights in the 21st Century’, Cherie Blair highlighted the issue of equality between men and women in society. She also used the opportunity to chide religions and cultures for inequality towards women across the world. Many of her examples related to Islam and Muslim countries.
There are serious conerns about the focus of her argument and whether she is best qualified to address the plight of women.
She cited rules on divorce and custody of children in Egypt as examples of this claiming they favour men and may be down to an interpretation of Islam at the hands of men. Interviewed on BBC radio 4’s Today Program, she said such laws in Egypt ‘had a long way to go’. She also expressed her views about other Muslim countries including Saudia Arabia not allowing women to drive and focused on the niqab as a problem saying it did not give women the opportunity to express themselves because their faces could not be seen.
The worst suffering for women in the Islamic world seems to have been lost on her – problems of insecurity and poverty. In Iraq and Afghanistan women are bombed, widowed and orphaned and there is no security for women in the Muslim world, a situation that has been dramtically worsened by the war on terror. In developing countries, poverty, exploitation in sweat shops and malnutrition are rife, all exacerbated by policies imposed by institutions like the IMF and World Bank, high interest loan debt and exploitation by big business.
As to her suitability to address the issue, Mrs. Blair’s championing of women’s rights leaves her open to accusations of hypocrisy. In over 10 years as first lady, Mrs. Blair holidayed in Egypt several times as a guest of the brutal Mubarak regime. During those Downing Street years she achieved little publicity for the cause of women’s rights in Britain. Rather, it was for her internal feuding with her husband’s inner circle and the media, her own financial affairs and accusations of impropriety that grasped the nation’s attention. Indeed, sexual exploitation of women and salary inequality is rife in Britain but few would remember any speeches on these subjects.
Although she targetted Islam and Orthodox Judaism, she was less critical of her own Catholic Church which forbids the ordination of women. She did not for instance address the fact that the Catholic Church forbids women from using condoms even when their husbands have been infected with HIV.
While it is evident that Muslim women, whether here in Britain or in the the Muslim world know all too well about the oppressive force that is sometimes meted out in the name of culture and tradition such as forced marriage, they have sought also to reject Western liberal values which seek to equally suffocate women’s roles as mothers or wives and only attaches importance to them behaving like men both in work and leisure, in order to get ahead.
There is a resurgence amongst Muslim women in rejecting both sets of values and calling for the Islamic political system, the Caliphate, in the Muslim world which will safeguard their honour and dignity and provide a justice which will rid them of both inequality and expoitaion. In Indonesia last summer, one of the largest conferences calling for the return of the Islamic Caliphate system saw an unparalleled turn out and participation of Muslim women. Just one example of such a resurgence.
31 October 2007