PBS NewsHour recently featured a story on an Indian organization – Apne Aap (On our own) – that goes door-to-door to rescue girls from sex trafficking. They are focused on helping “the Last girl re-gain control of her destiny. The last girl is poor, female, low-caste, and a teenager. Additionally, she may be the daughter or sister of a prostituted woman or a victim of child marriage or domestic servitude.” In support of this mission, Apne Aap works to establish and defend “four essential rights” – legal protection, education, a dignified livelihood, and safe and independent housing. The PBS NewsHour story features the organization’s founder, Ruchira Gupta, as she negotiates an additional year of schooling for a girl previously withdrawn so that she could be prostituted by relatives. Even that single year of additional education can make the girl stronger, Gupta explains, and it is one more year she gets to spend not being raped.
As prior posters to this blog and media worldwide have noted, the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre reignited a debate that has been flaring off and on for years; namely, whether freedom of expression should be limited, among other things, by religious sensibilities (or sensitivities, as some might say). Not always but often, this debate is framed as one of Westerners (especially those in the U.S., where free speech has very few legal limits) versus Muslims. Thus, it was particularly interesting to note a recent Washington Post article by Asra Q. Nomani, a former WSJ reporter and author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. In that article, Nomani charts what she identifies as a 10-year campaign led by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and others to police Muslim and non-Muslim critics of Islam under the guise of combatting “Islamophobia”. The tactics she describes have the effect of “quashing civil discourse”, preventing much needed conversation about the meaning and future of Islam. Nomani, who has received death threats, calls for renewed attention to ijtihad – the Islamic law concept of critical thinking and interpretation. Her analysis is not uncontested, but it is an important contribution to the debate and worth reading.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring, is now the largest source of foreigners fighting with the Islamic State. Prior to the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government maintained a half-century of aggressive secularism, banning the veil and most displays of piety, as well as jailing thousands of suspected Islamists. After the uprising, the moderate Islamist-led government introduced new religious freedoms, which were then exploited by Islamist radicals to incite violence. The government has responded by emphasizing public security, and this in turn appears to be generating repression and anger that further fuels the cause of the radicals. The lesson to be learned here is not that religious freedom is a cause of radicalization in Muslim-majority countries, but rather that when populations are denied religious freedom for extended periods of time, they become more susceptible to the destabilization of peaceful religious practice in favor of violent religious extremism.
In what is being hailed as a rare victory for female victims of sex crimes, a judge in Kabul has sentenced an Afghan mullah to 20 years in jail for the brutal rape of a 10-year-old girl in a mosque. Although the mullah threatened to kill the girl and her family if she told anyone, she suffered wounds that could not be hidden. In a country where victims of sexual assault can themselves be prosecuted and sent to jail, this is a notable and important win for justice.
Meanwhile, in Iran, a 26-year-old woman sentenced to death for the 2007 killing of her alleged rapist has been executed. The woman, Reyhaneh Jabbari, claimed that the killing took place in self-defense during a sexual assault. The sentence had been protested by human rights groups and Iranian activists, and the U.S. State Department condemned the execution, questioning the fairness of the trial (including reports of confessions made under severe duress and possibly torture).
Today’s edition of the Washington Post tells the story of a 14 year-old Yazidi girl and her childhood friend, who were “given as gifts” to an ISIS commander and a cleric, respectively. Their experience – including such vicious elements as attempted rape, abuse, beatings, and a terrifying but ultimately successful escape – recalls the practices of Islamic militants in Nigeria and elsewhere, where women and girls are kidnapped, enslaved, forced into marriages, and brutally assaulted. It is important to note that men and boys are taken too, often killed or forced to fight for the militants. Yet the pervasive pattern of violence against women and girls is especially disturbing, and it does not end in conflict zones. As Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, notes, there are thousands of forced marriages and threats of forced marriage in the U.K. every year, and when the targeted women and girls resist, they can end up dead. Defeating ISIS and combatting Islamic militancy is essential not just to protecting national security, but also to protecting the human dignity of women and girls everywhere. So, too, must we work to stop the cultural practices that sanction and perpetuate such violence.