culture · domestic violence · feminism · Identity · islamic feminism · violence

Theories: Social Construction and Islamic Feminism

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At first glance the case of Sahur appears as if it is easy to analyze but as I read the linked article in depth I realized how complicated the case has become as knowledge of the events gained worldwide coverage.  There are various patters of rights violations and domestic abuse that opened the door internationally in a call for social change in Afghanistan; though only time will tell if changes called for will actually occur.  In this paper I examine the various aspects of the case as related to interpersonal and international conflict.  Several theories are applied to the case itself in order to more fully understand the inner workings of the inherent conflicts.  This case in particular calls heavily on Social Constructionism, Feminist theory, Islamic theory, and international human rights theory.  I detail these theories and how they help in analyzing the Afghanistan case and also discuss the limitations and weaknesses of these theories.  The goal of this paper is to create a foundation to better understand why this conflict occurred and how it may be resolved, through the examination of Afghanistan society and social interactions.

Social construction theory is dependent on the belief that our everyday social experiences and interactions are a result of implicit social agreements, institutional practices, and our collective action – thus we in essence are constructing our own social reality.  Our behavior, language and our culture creates our social sphere, our reality is socially defined.  Berger and Luckmann (1991) believe that our reality is both subjective and objective and that our social world eventually becomes habitualized or routine and embedded within society in which we live and interact.  The question that must be asked within this realm of thought is whether men and women behave in ways because it is the nature of their gender or because they are socially programmed by their culture and society at large?  In this case we must acknowledge that Sahki, a man, is violent and abusive toward women.  Are men, Sahki in this case, then inherently violent or taught to be violent through their social interactions?  In the case of violence toward women in Afghanistan it is evident that this concept is socially programmed and institutionalized.  A massive conglomeration of patriarchy exists within Afghanistan that drives the phenomenon of violence toward women.  This patriarchy is not inherent in humanity but learned, it is a socially constructed reality; it has become a part of the fabric of society in Afghanistan.   Social constructionism does have its theoretical drawbacks when employed in cases of violence and abuse.  Primarily, the concepts of historical roots of these social constructions are wholly ignored.  We overlook how they were built out of the experiences of individuals and groups within the society as constructed over time (Hamilton, 1998).  Additionally, many theorists argue that social constructionism ignores the nature of basic human behavior (Sokal & Bricmont, 1998).   Which once more begs to ask, are men violent by nature?

Feminist theory is an obvious choice when it comes to analyzing a case of domestic violence in a country known for mistreatment of women because of learned patterns of patriarchy.    This genre of theoretical ideas are used to explore the various facets of women’s relationships within societies as well as evaluate these experiences form the point of view of women.  There are three important facets of adversarial relationships that must be examined in conflict: inequalities in class, status and power (Kriesberg, 2007).  Feminist theory allows us to uncover the inequalities in status and power between men and women within society.  Louis Kriesberg writes “the unequal distribution of power, status or access to goods and services. . . is widely regarded as the basis of conflict” and “Feminism deconstructs established systems of knowledge by showing their masculine bias and the gender politics framing and informing them” (Lengermann & Neibrugge, 2010).  There are several branches of Feminism that can be applied to this case.  First is Cultural Feminism that looks at the institutional structures, systems and scripts within a culture that marginalize women.  It is well known that there are many male dominated structures within Afghanistan that seek to marginalize women, most notably the Taliban.  However, there is a cultural attitude derived from certain interpretations of the Qu’ran that women are essentially different and thus “othered” by the patriarchal Afghanistan society.  Additionally Liberal Feminism can be used to analyze this case as it emphasizes that women are not second-class citizens, fights against the system of “othering” and through activists and authors such as Jessie Bernard directly addresses the concept of marriage as the idealized lifestyle for women (1982). Gender oppression theory addresses the issue of domination of women by men, in which men deliberately seek to create and sustain a patriarchal society (Berger & Luckmann, 1991).  Radical feminism also addresses patriarchy but informs us that it is an inherently violent system, which uses rape, abuse and prostitution to establish male power and control women (Berger & Luckmann, 1991).  

The theories described above contribute significantly to the analysis of this case however there are several weaknesses with feminism when applied to non-Western spheres.  A primary problem with feminist theory exists in consequence of the fact that the majority of feminist theory has been created by Western, First-world theorists.   Despite the diversity within feminist theory a considerable number of theorists have focused only on first-world issues anticipating that, eventually, the thoughts and practices would trickle-down to other societies.  Additionally many feminists call for a sisterhood of solidarity to combat patriarchy yet a myriad of issues arise from this concept as women in “third-world” nations have incredibly different experiences than women in “first-world” nations (Bruno, 2006).

At this point I will stop briefly to address the case in regards to feminist theory.  Sahar Gul was thirteen years old when she was married, via her stepbrother and his wife, to a thirty-year-old man, Ghulam Sakhi.  It is important to note that the legal age of marriage in Afghanistan is 16 or 15 with father’s consent (Bowley, 2012).  Bowley writes that the stepbrother’s wife “resented” Sahar’s presence and urged the marriage contract to take place.  Within this first glance of the case we can easily see some type of interpersonal conflict that occurred between the young girl and the older woman, though there are no details as to what caused the resentment.  Sahki’s first wife had already left him after being abused by her husband and his mother for not bearing children.   This point illustrates the radical feminist theory that men will use violence in order to attempt to control women.  It is obvious in further reading of the case that Sahki intended to use his second wife as a prostitute, drugged and raped her and abused her continuously.  Additionally, marriage is an economic arrangement in many locations.  In this case it is evident as Sahki not only paid $5000 for Sahar but also intended to use her to make money as a prostitute.  Marriage, according to Jessie Bernard, creates a sense of powerlessness, dependency and servitude for women, illustrated well in this case where a girl, a child in essence was forced into a marriage with an much older man who abused and used her.  To Sahki it appears the concept of marriage is to have a female servant that could work for him and bear children.  

There are many who believe that within the world of Islam the sole realm of women is to care for the husband and bear children, that the rights of women in Islam should not be identical to the rights of men in Islam (Mutahhari, 2009).  Murtaza Mutahhari wrote in 1966-67 about the rights of women in Islam and specifically spoke of the un-identicalness of the rights of men and women: “Islam is not against the equality of men and women, but it does not agree with the identicalness of their rights” (Mutahhari, 2009).  This argument is an excuse to continue the unequal treatment of women within the world of Islam, as Sahar Gul experienced in Afghanistan.  Mutahhari continues to argue that the “world is not exactly alike for men and women” and as such cements his hypocrisy in his writings.  Sahar Gul’s experience obviously illustrates the cultural belief that men and women are actually completely and innately unequal in Afghanistan.

The young girl, as a wife and essentially slave had no rights while she was under the control of Sahki and his father, God’s representatives on earth according to some Quranic interpretations.  Asma Barlas argues that interpretations of the Qu’ran that place God as Father in Heaven and subsequently provide reasoning for men to believe that the father represents God on earth are inherently flawed as God is never subjugated to the concepts of “father, son or husband, masculine or feminine” in various translations of the Qu’ran (Barlas, 2002).   Additionally, since 9/11, there has been a significant increase in the concept of “female ijtihad” a sense that women must “struggle to reclaim the physical body and soul to enhance dignity and social status.” (Yasine, 2009).  At the heart of the problem, once again, lies an intense patriarchy that prohibits women from accomplishing ijtihad while under the violent control of their fathers and husbands.  

This new feminist Islamic theory can contribute directly to an evolving social world for women in Islamic nations providing insights into accomplishing forward movement in humane treatment and equal rights.  However it is essential that these concepts be more fully defined and structured by Muslim women. Fundamentally, they must reconstruct the social architecture that exists within the world in which they live.   The aforementioned goal, however, is not likely to be achieved in a timely manner in the current political and social environment, by virtue of the social structures that are currently operating.  Islamic theory can be critiqued on several levels, first is the evident patriarchy in traditional Islamic theory as illustrated by Mutahhari.  Despite the mask of moving toward equality it is well defined within his writing that he does not believe in the equality of women.  On the other hand Islamic feminism is relatively young and must build significant momentum, gaining appreciable support from women within Islamic communities, before detectable changes can be noticed.

The aforementioned theories apply to the interpersonal aspects of conflict within this case yet there is a compelling international aspect that must also be considered, human rights and the concept of intervention.  If “the denial of human rights is a denial of peace,” (Barash, 2000) how then do we promote human rights in a world where events such as the abuse of women continue unchallenged?  The first step must be to increase public awareness not only of the events but also of the concept of jus cogens (just thought).  The worldwide sense of responsibility must be renewed and enhanced through education and dialogue.  Attention must be paid to territories that are failing to fulfill their responsibilities.  State sovereignty implies that states have responsibilities that include protecting the rights of people to have their most basic needs met, basic decencies protected and the right to be “reasonably secure about prospects of survival.” (Barash, 2000).  Franklin Roosevelt also defined four freedoms (speech and expression, worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear), which he believed needed to be protected at any cost (Hayden, 2001).  If a government fails to provide the most basic of human rights and attempt to secure the most basic human needs the global community has the responsibility to work toward a greater understanding of the issues involving the state’s failure and to act if necessary.  In this case, however, Afghanistan public officials intervened and Hamid Karzai “called for swift justice” and a Kabul court found Sakhi and his associates guilty of the abuse. Yet a serious question remains – what will happen as “international money dries up” (Bowley, 2012) and interest in Afghanistan wanes as coalition troops withdraw over the next year?   This is one of them many poisons of international human rights theory.  There is no one group solely dedicated to policing international human rights violations.  Afghanistan may or may not prosecute various instances of domestic violence according to how the event is or is not portrayed internationally.  There is no entity to ensure that Afghanistan will provide its women with equal protection under the law illustrating how truly hobbled human rights theory is in practice.

The case of Sahar Gul is not easy to address theoretically.  As we search for superior ways to analyze a case such as this women languish in poor and violent conditions.  Theory can only take us so far in the search for answers to domestic violence on an international level.  We must look deeply at the interpersonal aspects of conflict that create elements of domestic violence and allow them to be perpetrated continuously.  It is vital that we address the socially constructed patterns of inequality and violence in regards to the treatment of women in Afghanistan.  As theorists we must use blanket ideas of feminism and Islamic feminism to address these issues and discover the underlying and historical constructs that allow acts of violence to continue.  Finally, we must allow international human rights theory to guide us in the responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves.  But once more, theory can only lead us so far in the search for answers to cases of violence like Sahar Gul’s.

 

Works Cited

Barash, D. (2000). Approaches to Peace. Oxford: Oxfired University Press.

Barlas, A. (2002). Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1991). The Social Construction of Reality. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard, J. (1982). The Future of Marriage. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bowley, G. (2012, August 11). Wed and Tortured at 13, Afghan Girl Finds Rare Justice.

Bruno, J. (2006). Third World Critiques of Western Feminist Theory in the Post-development Era. University of Texas at Austin. Austin: University of Texas at Austin.

Hamilton, C. (1998). Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of HIstorical Invention. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hayden, P. (2001). The Philosophy of Human Rights. Saint Paul: Paragon House.

Kriesberg, L. (2007). Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lengermann, P. M., & Neibrugge, G. (2010). Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics (2nd Edition ed.). (G. Ritzer, Ed.) College Park: McGraw Hill.

Mutahhari, M. (2009). Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. (R. Euben, & M. Zaman, Eds.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sokal, A., & Bricmont, J. (1998). Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Picador USA.

Yasine, N. (2009). Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought. (R. Euban, & M. Zaman, Eds.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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