Many Iraqis are seething with anger over the devastation in their country. It should not be a matter of surprise, then, if one angry individual, who thinks he is a journalist, seizes the opportunity that a press conference with the visiting American President’s valedictory visit offers, to make a gesture utterly unworthy of any journalist, and hurls his shoes at George W. Bush. That the shoes fail to meet their target is not the point; the lame-duck Bush may no longer be Goliath, but Muntadher Al-Zaydi is certainly no David.
Arab Street, predictably, hails Al-Zaydi as a hero. Cobblers queue up to claim that they have made those shoes. Cobblers of the Arab world unite: You have nothing to lose but your shame. Their collective claims show once again that while defeat is an orphan, success has many fathers.
More astonishing is the conduct of one particular father. Saad Gumaa of Egypt has gate-crashed the cobblers’ convention, and offered Al-Zaydi the hand of his 20-year-old daughter, Amal. The young woman has dutifully said it would be an honour to marry such a hero.
Think again: Replace the daughter with his servant, a slave, or a bonded labourer, and the primitive, misogynist, and antediluvian attitude of the patriarch become crystal-clear. Did he value his daughter at all, and if so, how? Did he ask her if she wants to marry when she is still a student? Did he even consider if she had a say? What about her choice? For that Egyptian father, his daughter was valuable property; her choice, if she had one, did not matter.
This is hardly unique. Here in Britain, forced marriages are considered serious enough to require state intervention, following spirited efforts of non-government organizations such as the Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism. Recently, Humayra Abedin, a 32-year-old doctor, secured a court order preventing her family from removing her from Britain without her consent, because she was forced to marry a man in Bangladesh against her will. A Dhaka court asked her parents to cooperate with a British court injunction allowing her to return to London, if she wished, and she did. According to the BBC, last year the British Foreign Office’s forced marriage unit dealt with at least 1,300 such cases.
Dr Abedin is lucky; there are cases of physical and sexual abuse against women who defy their parents and marry men they’ve chosen. Some have been murdered. In a chilling essay in the London Review of Books, author Tariq Ali recounts a sad tale from his own family in Pakistan. In late October, Ali’s uncle’s granddaughter, Zainab, 18, was shot dead by her brothers, Inam and Hamza, because she had a lover and continued to see him, despite being warned not to do so. She was killed while she was talking to her boyfriend on the phone; her body was buried before a first information report could be lodged. Family honour prevailed; Zainab’s choice had clashed with the family’s plans for her. Ali wants the murderers to face trial. He concludes: “Traditionalists have always considered love to be something that brings shame on families: Patriarchs should be the ones to decide who is to be married to whom, often for reasons to do with property.”
Denying choice to women is not unique to Islam. In the US, some Mormon sects consider women’s primary function to bear children, and they must marry the men their elders choose for them at the right time (usually soon after puberty). The politically divisive issue of abortion is appropriately couched in terms of choice—but whose? That depends on who you think owns a woman’s body. (The woman herself, who else?) In that case, it should be her business whether, and when, to get pregnant, and what to do if she does get pregnant.
Hindus need not feel smug. The very notion that a bride gains worth only if she brings the proverbial microwave oven, custom kitchen deliveries, refrigerator and colour TV, giving those suitable boys “money for nothing and chicks for free,” tells us a bit about the “value” the society places on the worth of its sisters and daughters.
I grew up in an apartment next to a wedding hall in south Bombay, where music groups played tearful songs during the bride’s departure to her husband’s home. I remember one such song:
Dikari?to paaraki thaapan kahevaay;
Dikari ne gaay, dore tyaan jaay.
(The daughter is a deposit that belongs to the one she will wed;
The daughter, like a cow, will go, wherever she is led.)
Maybe there are cow-worshipping Hindus who feel the appalling metaphor honours their daughters.
For the sake of those daughters and their sisters around the world, where are the chappal-throwers who can attack discredited ideas that continue to deny choice to half the humanity? Who will cast the first stone in this intifada, or kranti, or revolution?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org