From the book  NOMAD  by  Ayaan Hirsi  Ali

All  black  and  large  letting  is  mine  -  Keith Hunt

Dishonor, Death, and Feminists

On New Year's Eve 2007, in a suburb of Dallas, an Egyptian man, Yaser Said, shot his nineteen and seventeen-year-old daughters in the back of his taxi. He then parked in the driveway of a hotel and absconded, leaving their bodies in the cab.

Amina, the older girl, had been awarded a $20,000 scholarship for college; she had dreamed of becoming a doctor. She told her friends that her dad was angry because she had refused to marry the man whom he had chosen for her, who lived in Egypt. Her father, who came to America in 1983, was enraged to learn that both his daughters secretly dated American boys, Eddie and Eric, whom they had met in school. 

Yaser Said was known to be fanatical about his daughters' virtue. He made them stop working at a local grocery store after months of monitoring their movements; their former coworkers said he had watched the girls clock in and out like a stalker. He had physically hurt both girls before. There were reports by family members that he had threatened to kill them for going out with boys. Their mother, an American woman from a troubled family, who married Said at the age of fifteen, told police that on Christmas Day she and the girls had fled their home in Lewisville because she feared he would kill them. "Me Mina and my Mom r running away!" Sarah Said texted a friend. "My dad found out abt Mina and is goin to kill us."

But a few days later their mother relented. She took Amina and Sarah back to Lewisville and persuaded them to go to a restaurant with their father, so the three of them could talk. About an hour later the younger girl, Sarah, called 911 from her cell phone and said she was dying.

I found all this out on the Internet. The story filled me with pity and rage. These girls were so promising, cut down so senselessly. Both of them were good at sports, popular; their MySpace pages, which I pored over, showed they were striking beauties, bright-eyed, taking funny poses, though I thought I saw a sadness in Amina's eyes.

I had had to flee my family, to escape my fate as a Muslim girl. Alone in Europe, I cast aside a destiny of confinement and threats. I severed the bloodline that my grandmother imprinted in my mind. I rejected the notion that I was intended only to serve and honor others all my life, and in time I will cease to feel the pain of being called a traitor. 

But these teenagers were born in the United States. It should have been easy for them. They had told their friends how frightened they were; they predicted what was going to happen. But nobody took them seriously, because nobody believed it could happen in America.

I was scheduled to go to Texas in February 2008 to give speeches at the University of North Texas and at a meeting of the World Affairs Council in a Dallas hotel. I thought that I would learn something about the murders; I assumed that people would be talking about them, since they had happened barely ten miles from the hotel where I was staying. 

Everywhere I went I asked about them. But almost no one seemed even to have heard about the killing of Amina and Sarah Said. 

To my relief a lone journalist nodded at the mention of it. But others were perplexed. An honor killing? In Dallas? In Texas? In America? They didn't know. They were earnest, horrified at their ignorance. (Americans, if they don't know about something, will often just say so, with great innocence and frankness, which still surprises me. As a Somali I was brought up to feel ashamed if I didn't know something and to try to hide it.)

The murder of the Said sisters had in fact received very little attention in the local media. Almost all the articles that were written were careful to state that it hadn't been an honor killing, and that, even if it had, honor killings had nothing at all to do with Islam. Every article quoted Amina and Sarah's brother, a scrawny nineteen-year-old named Islam Said, who said, "Why is it every time an Arab father kills a daughter, it's an honor killing? It didn't have anything to do with that."

This was apparently enough for the reporters to dismiss the notion that the girls' murders represented an honor killing. Even the FBI shied away from the term, at first stating on its website that Yaser Said was wanted for an honor killing, then withdrawing the term after criticism by Muslim groups.

This, of course, is just how self-censorship works. We do not wish to offend. We fear the perception that we might be acting disrespectfully. And we fear the possibility of retaliation.

But you will never solve a problem if you don't look at it clearly. Ignoring the role that honor—and Islam—almost certainly played in the Said sisters' murders will only allow more murders to happen. If you don't talk about it, other people won't be able to spot the signs. Insight into the pattern that eventually leads to murder is an aid to educators, social workers, law enforcement officials, and neighbors and friends of potential victims.

So what exactly is an honor killing? 

An honor killing happens when a girl shames her family's reputation to the point where the only hope for them to restore that honor is to kill her. 

Her offense almost always relates to sex. She has been alone with a man who is not a relative, or she has resisted a forced marriage, or she has been going out with a boy of her own choice. The offenses can be even more trivial. 

Possibly she is completely innocent and is simply suspected of having violated the clan's code of honor. 

In August 2007, a Saudi man beat and shot his daughter to death for going on Facebook. The event was publicized only seven months later, when a cleric cited it as evidence that the Internet was damaging Islamic morals. (He showed no concern for the victim.) The father is unlikely to receive any significant punishment for murdering his daughter. 

In July 2008, a Saudi court sentenced a female chemistry student to 350 lashes and eight months in jail because she had a "telephone relationship" with one of her professors.

The killer is usually the father or brother, someone the girl has grown up with and knows well. Imagine the skulking, fearful life of a girl who knows that if she so much as meets a boy she likes without a chaperone, this may be her fate. Imagine the terror of seeing your own father walk up to you with a gun, a knife, or a cord. Imagine the killer: a man tortured so powerfully by his daughter's shame that in order to live up to his clan's twisted sense of right and wrong, he takes up a gun or a knife and kills the girl he has raised, whom he once dandled on his knee and helped to take her first steps.

This is not an ancient custom, long forgotten, like medieval witch burning.

Every year at least five thousand honor killings are committed around the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund, which adds that this is a conservative estimate. 

Most of them take place among communities from or in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, all of them Muslim countries. Not all the victims are Muslim—honor killings do also occur among Sikhs and non-Muslim Kurds—but most of them are Muslim.

This is the crucial element in honor killing, what distinguishes it from random, individual crimes of passion: 

it is most often approved by the wider community. As a parent, you will be excluded from society if you "permit" your daughter to "misbehave"; mothers will be sneered at, fathers will be seen as impotent, weak, freakish. You will be redeemed only if you put an end to your daughter's misbehavior.

In 2006, in a BBC poll of five hundred young immigrants in Britain (many of them Muslim, but also some Hindus and Sikhs), one in ten said honor killings could be justified. No such poll has been taken in America, and I am not trying to say that Muslims who live in the United States necessarily would say the same. But the fact remains that honor killings do happen in America.

Five months after Amina and Sarah Said were killed, in the town of Henrietta in northern New York a twenty-two-year-old Afghan man stabbed his nineteen-year-old sister because she had disgraced their family and was a "bad Muslim girl," according to court documents. She was going to clubs and wearing immodest clothing, and planned to leave the family home. As I read more about it, I learned that the case was the second in four years in the same county in which a Muslim man had killed or tried to kill a family member in order to restore his own honor. 

In April 2004 Ismail Peltek, an immigrant from Turkey, stabbed and beat his wife to death and wounded his two daughters at their home in Scottsville, five miles from Henrietta. He told investigators that he was attempting to restore his family's honor after his wife and one daughter were sexually assaulted by a relative and the other daughter was "sullied" by a medical examination.

In July 2008 in Jonesboro, a suburb of Atlanta, police investigators reported that Chaudhry Rashad, a Pakistani man, who owned a pizza parlor, admitted to strangling his twenty-five-year-old daughter, Sandela, with the cord from an iron, because she wanted to leave the husband he had arranged for her to marry in Pakistan. According to the police, Sandela had refused to continue living with her husband in Chicago and had returned to her parents' house, where she told her father she wanted a divorce. According to one report, "When the police arrived, he stated that he did nothing wrong." A photo of the victim posted on the Internet showed a pasty-faced, uncomfortable-looking girl with a look of anguish in her eyes.

In February 2009 in Buffalo, New York, a forty-seven-year-old Muslim businessman who had set up a cable TV station to "promote more favorable views of Muslims," beheaded his wife, who was seeking to divorce him.  Muzzammil Hassan had previously been very violent, and Aasiya, the mother of his two young children, had just obtained a protection order banning him from their home.

In every case American police, officials, and reporters seemed to bend over backward to avoid the heinous words honor killing, as if a change of label could transform these horrific killings into ordinary domestic crimes. 

It made me wonder: Were there no organizations in the United States that could look at these issues? Not that I planned to start one at that time—I had had my fill of politics. But, I thought, someone needs to do something; there should be some kind of activism under way, some kind of visibility, some kind of group.

Honor killing is not a random expression of a personal madness. 

The murders of Amina and Sarah Said in Irving, Texas, were punishments for those two girls' perceived infringement of a cultural order. Although that order is old and brutal and comes from far away, it can operate in Dallas or Henrietta or Atlanta as lethally as anywhere else.

When I read about honor killings I am haunted by the certitude that something, many things, could have been done. There were plenty of signals that, in hindsight, could have set alarm bells ringing in Irving long before Yaser Said picked up his gun. A clear and well-established pattern of beliefs and behavior is involved in all these cases. 

Is there an urgent need to try to recognize this pattern and prevent these killings? Are we talking about how to do this? No. Why not? Why the hell not?


When Muslim women face not just oppression but violent death, why aren't the feminists out protesting these abusers? Where are the great European and American campaigners who powered the contemporary movement for women's equality in the West? Where, to take just one example, is Germaine Greer, author of such classics of Western feminism as The Female Eunuch? Greer believes the genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context. Trying to stop it, she has written, would be "an attack on cultural identity." She goes on:

The African women who practice genital mutilation do so primarily because they think the result is more attractive. The young woman who lies unflinching while the circumciser grinds her clitoris off between two stones is proving that she will make a good wife, equal to all the anguish of child-bearing and daily toil …. Western women, fully accoutered with nail polish (which is incompatible with manual work), high-heeled shoes (disastrous for the posture and hence the back, and quite unsuitable for walking long distances over bad roads) and brassieres …. denounce female circumcision without the shadow of a suspicion that their behavior is absurd.

What, you may wonder, does Greer have to say about honor killing? In December 2007, at a lecture she was giving in Melbourne, Australia, on Jane Austen, an Australian writer named Pamela Bone asked Greer if she saw any parallels between the concept of family honor in Austen's Pride and Prejudice and the concept of family honor in Middle Eastern societies today. She then asked why Western feminists seem so reluctant to speak out against things such as honor killings. According to Bone, Greer answered, "It's very tricky I am constantly being asked to go to Darfur to interview rape victims. I can talk to rape victims here. Why should I go to Darfur to talk to rape victims?"

When Bone answered, "Because it's so much worse there," Greer asked, 'Who says it is?"

Bone explained that she had been to Darfur and assured Greer that the situation there was worse. 

Greer responded, 'Well, it is just very tricky to try to change another culture. We let down the victims of rape here. We haven't got it right in our own courts. What good would it do for me to go over there and try to tell them what to do? I am just part of decadent Western culture and they think we're all going to hell fast, and maybe we are all going to hell fast. But we do care. We do oppose these things. We are all wearing white ribbons this week [a reference to an international campaign to eliminate violence against women], aren't we? A lot of good that will do."

In her article about the incident in The Australian, Bone shrewdly observed:

"Behind Greer's enthusiastically received comments is the dreary cultural relativism that pervades the thinking of so many of those once described as on the Left. We are no better than they are. We should not impose our values on them. We can criticise only our own. . . . Odd that so many old feminists think racism is worse than sexism."

I read and reread the piece, which a friend forwarded to me, and thought, Tricky? "It is very tricky to change another culture"? 

What has happened to Greer and her core values? It is truly absurd for someone like Greer, who is schooled in philosophy, not to see that the element of choice is crucial to distinguish between the behavior of an adult "victim" of the pain of fashionable shoes and the pain of a child who is truly a victim of violence. It is unconscionable for her to refrain from speaking out against honor killing because it would be "tricky" to challenge the culture that condones it.


Feminism developed in the West. It is a child of the Enlightenment, the period that developed ideas of individual liberty. But even before the Enlightenment, even at its darkest, Western culture was kinder to women than the tribal Islamic culture of the Arabs. 

To be sure there were practices in Europe and America such as labeling women "witches," then torturing, drowning, or burning them. Domestic violence, stigmatization, and the exclusion of women from public roles and participation in government were also common. Reading the lives of the women of the past frequently makes me speechless with rage and pity. The belief that women are fickle, irrational, and unreliable appears to have once been almost universal, as was marriage as a practical business transaction between families, conducted by male guardians. Western history is full of the tragic stories of child brides.


But there are differences between Western culture and that of other civilizations. Women and men in Arabia, China, India, and Africa may have dreamed of liberation from their respective shackles. Perhaps they discussed ways of changing the minds of their oppressors and even organized and rebelled against subjection. But it was only in the West that the ideas, words, organizations, and successful revolutions of liberty actually saw the light of day. 

The story of feminism, or at least feminist thought, is also, at first, largely a story of aristocrats. Young men and women were permitted to mingle (although under strict rules and with chaperones). In many European societies following the Middle Ages daughters were permitted to learn to read and write, to study history, music, even philosophy, if only to be capable of conducting witty conversations on social occasions. 

Rather than memorizing traditional stories and poems, which was my grandmother's and her grandmother's education, with the rigid moral aim of preserving the habits and customs of our forefathers, Western women could go one decisive step further: they could construct logical arguments and ideas of their own.

Western women during and after the era of the Enlightenment were able to lament their inferior position. They were able to do this in a language and a manner that made perfect sense to some of the men of their time, notably John Stuart Mill. Daughters of the Enlightenment, like the English Mary Wollstonecraft and later the American Margaret Fuller, were pioneers of feminism in the West. Among the original feminists' first demands was the plea that the institutions of higher learning be open to women, or at least that colleges be established and reserved for women.

Sadly, some Muslim women who are now lucky enough to benefit from a high-quality education at these same institutions choose to defend the image of Islam over the rights of women. 

Such educated women (and I have met many) are still the lucky few. High-quality education is closed to millions of their fellow countrywomen. They boast of their privileges: their university education, their experiences with liberal fathers and brothers, their designer accoutrements, and their freedom to travel without the watchful presence of a guardian. 

But they ignore those underprivileged masses with whom they purport to share a religion and a culture. 

Some take it one step further: they claim that the subjugation of Muslim women is "folklore," that it happens only in remote, obscure villages, in just a few countries. All this, they claim, is on its way out, a leftover from history, nothing serious, nothing to worry about.

When slavery divided their nation, American feminists grasped the immorality of the arguments used by the slaveholders. They denounced slavery, but they took their reasoning one step further to also indict the values that justified the treatment of women as property. 

It is ironic that many educated Muslim women are so well able to condemn the principles used by foreign imperialists a century ago to dominate colonized countries but shy away from addressing the moral framework that underpins injustices against their own -Muslim sisters.


The civil rights movement in the United States provided another opportunity for American feminists to side with African Americans who were denied their rights because of the color of their skin. And again these feminists stretched the argument beyond discrimination on the basis of color. They stood up to their husbands, fathers, brothers, teachers, and preachers; they argued that, if discrimination on the basis of color was wrong, then it was equally wrong to discriminate on the basis of sex. If the laws of the land were going to be changed and policies adopted that protected the civil rights of blacks, then the laws should be changed and new policies adopted to protect the civil rights of women too.


In passionate debates on decolonization in Europe, many European feminists stood alongside the "freedom fighters" who strove for nationhood and independence. The reasons for self-rule were clear to them. 

And they did not waste the opportunity to point out that, if once-colonized people could be trusted to govern their collective destinies, then so could women be trusted with their individual destinies.

All these were conflicts of principle. All of these struggles addressed the consequences of denying men and women their freedom. All these struggles were won essentially by revealing the immorality of the opposing arguments, whether they invoked the Bible or long-held feudalistic traditions. (Those who wanted slavery, civil rights abuses, and misogyny to continue all used religious arguments.) These arguments were revealed, reviled, and ridiculed, and eventually the laws that institutionalized inequality were repealed.



Yet, paradoxically, because these struggles were all fought against white men they helped fix in the minds of most people the simplistic notion that blacks, women, and colonized peoples can be victims only of white male oppression. Having sided with other movements of social revolution, such as the movements for national independence in Southeast Asia and minority rights of all kinds, particularly the fight against apartheid and for the Palestinians, feminists began to define white men as the ultimate and only oppressors. White men had engaged in the slave trade, apartheid, and colonialism as well as in the subjugation of women. Nonwhite men were, almost by definition, seen as members of the oppressed.

As a result, the plight of Muslim women—indeed all third-world women who are oppressed in the name of a moral framework of custom or creed created and maintained by men of color—has largely gone unchallenged. 

A few nonprofit organizations address it, to be sure; the World Bank, for one, has grown more self-confident in condemning the subjugation of Muslim women. But the massive public effort to reveal, ridicule, revile, and replace old views has not yet begun.

In fact a certain kind of feminism has worsened things for the female victims of misogyny perpetrated by men of color. 

My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff-Sommers, calls this "the feminism of resentment." This is the position of "feminists [who] believe that our society [read, Western society] is best described as a 'male hegemony' a 'sex/gender system' in which the dominant gender [read, white male] works to keep women cowering and submissive." These feminists of resentment refuse to appreciate the progress Western women have made, from the right to vote to the punishment of those who try to harass women at work. They see only the iniquity of the white man and reduce such universal concepts as freedom of expression and the right to choose one's own destiny to mere artifacts of Western culture. They thus provide the men of color with an escape route. If the king of Saudi Arabia is questioned about the laws in his land pertaining to women, he merely demands respect for his faith, culture, and sovereignty, and apparently this argument suffices.

Because these Western feminists manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group's culture, the situation of Muslim women creates a huge philosophical problem for them.


There are 13.5 million women in Saudi Arabia. 

Imagine what it's like to be a woman there: you are essentially under permanent house arrest.

There are 34 million women in Iran. 

Imagine being a woman there: you may be married legally when you are nine; on the order of a judge, you may be lashed ninety-nine times with a whip for committing adultery; then, on the order of a second judge, you may be sentenced five months later to death by stoning. 

This is what happened to Zoreh and Azar Kabiriniat in Shahryar, Iran, in 2007; after being flogged for "illicit relations" they were then tried again and found guilty of "committing adultery while married." The punishment they were to receive for adultery was death by stoning. Their sentence was recently confirmed, on appeal.

There are 82.5 million women in Pakistan. 

Imagine being a girl there: you grow up knowing that if you dishonor your family, if you refuse to marry the man chosen for you, or if someone thinks you have a boyfriend, you are likely to be beaten, ostracized, and killed, probably by your father or brother, who has the support of your entire immediate family. You're also liable to be jailed on the grounds of the Huddud, laws of Islamic transgression.

Imagine being a girl in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia—any one of twenty-six countries around the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific. 

Your clitoris has been cut, as well as your inner labia, and the opening of your vagina has been sewn together. Even though excision is not mentioned in the Quran, most of the 130 million women alive worldwide who have undergone this brutal ritual are Muslim women.

Virginity is the obsession, the neurosis of Islam. 

Wherever there is a Muslim community, forced or coerced marriage, even child marriage, is common, even in families who are relatively educated. Like domestic violence, most people consider it normal. Men are the guardians of their daughters. A girl is therefore the property of her father, who is entitled to transfer that property to the husband he selects. Child marriage is also a logical outgrowth of the Muslim fixation on female purity: if you marry her off early, as soon as possible after menstruation, she won't have time to damage your reputation and devalue your goods. The reality of this can be extremely bitter: imagine a thirteen-year-old girl transferred to the arms of an old man she has never seen before.

Child marriage is illegal in Western countries, of course, but other aspects of the Muslim oppression of women can readily be imported into both Europe and the United States. 

The fact that honor killings can occur in Texas, New York, and Georgia makes the virtual silence of Western feminists on this subject all the more bizarre and deplorable.

Western women have power. They are now firmly established in the workforce. 

They have access to contraception, to their own bank accounts, to the vote. They can marry the men they choose, or choose not to marry at all, and if nature allows it, they can have as many or as few children as they want. They can own property, travel wherever they choose, and read any book, newspaper, or magazine they wish. They can have an opinion on the moral choices of others and express that opinion freely, even publish it.

In the West the notorious glass ceiling within most professions has been cracked, though not altogether removed; we can now surely make time for some more vital issues. 


If feminism means anything at all, women with power should be addressing their energies to help the girls and women who suffer the pain of genital mutilation, who are at risk of being murdered because of their Western lifestyle and ideas, who must ask for permission just to leave the house, who are treated no better than serfs, branded and mutilated, traded without regard to their wishes. If you are a true feminist, these women should be your first priority.

We women in rich countries have an obligation to mobilize to assist other women. Only our outrage and our political pressure can lead to change. 

We need to push the situation of Muslim women to the top of the agenda. It's not enough to say it's shocking, it's appalling, and to condemn only individual acts. We need to challenge and bring down the tribal honor-and-shame culture as codified in the Islamic religion.

Organizations from within those communities will lobby and litigate to change the subject, then will plead vulnerability and victim-hood. Their advocates among the multiculturalist intellectuals and appeasing politicians will support them. It's essential that we maintain awareness that what we women advocates are talking about are two distinct value systems between which there is no possible compromise.


Muslim women are not the only group of women who are oppressed. As I wrote in 2006, in an article for the International Herald Tribune, between 113 and 200 million women around the world are demographically "missing," and every year between 1.5 and 3 million women and girls lose their lives as the result of violence or neglect because of their sex. Female babies and young girls in many parts of the world, not only Muslim countries, die disproportionately from neglect. The brutal international sex trade in young girls kills uncounted numbers of women. Roughly 600,000 women die giving birth every year, and domestic violence is a major killer of women in every country on the globe. "Gendercide" takes many forms, but for most of these suffering women, the major issue is poverty.

The subjugation of Muslim women, by contrast, is a matter of principle.

What can be done? 

First, we need a worldwide campaign against the values that permit these kinds of crime. Cultures that endorse the denial of women's rights over their own bodies and fail to protect them from the worst kind of physical abuse must be pressured to reform. They should not be treated as respectable members of the community of nations. Today human rights activists are frustrated in their work; they are denied access to data and are intimidated or ignored. A serious international effort must be made to record and document violence against girls and women, country by country, and to expose the reality of their intolerable suffering.

But the more pressing business is what feminists can do now to prevent an alien culture of oppression from taking root in the West.

In America too Muslim girls may be pulled out of school by their parents, violently punished at home on a routine basis, obsessively watched over and forcibly married and even murdered in the name of honor. 

Such basic, brutal violations of women's rights must be confronted head-on and effective measures to protect Muslim girls urgently devised. Ignoring the problem means abandoning the next victims to their fate; even worse, it means abandoning the core values that sustain Western society. This is what Americans can learn from Europe's experience with Muslim immigration: we simply cannot compromise our own principles by tolerating honor killing, female genital mutilation, and other such practices.


In Holland and the United Kingdom organizations have been set up to educate the police, schools, and other government agencies about this specific type of domestic violence. 

However, citizens and officials still find it difficult to talk about these issues without being accused of Islamophobia and racism. 

In Holland, for instance, I called for a control system on female genital mutilation to be put in place. Such a system was developed, but on a voluntary basis, which is absurd, because a mother who is convinced that she is doing what's right according to the sacred custom of her heritage will not come forward and say, "I've just committed an act that will send me to prison for fifteen years."

Well-meaning people sometimes look at me kindly at this point and perform the emotional equivalent of patting my hand. They are rarely impolite enough to actually say so, but they clearly believe that this battle is a hopeless one: there is no way that half the current Muslim population around the world can be freed.

I choose not to adopt this defeatist approach. 

I believe the honor-and-shame culture can be discarded. 

To think otherwise is to define Muslims as incapable of growth and adaptation, and I can't think of anything more pejorative and racist. To effect real change will undoubtedly require massive shifts in attitude, the dismantling of a whole infrastructure of religious thought and tribal values. But in order to achieve this we desperately need a new feminism that will attract Muslim women. The militant anti-male discourse of some feminist leaders is abhorrent to me and, I think, a perversion of the message of Mary Wollstonecraft. Feminism in the twenty-first century needs to move on, to bridge the gap between Western women and those they've left behind. Just as the world's free thinkers and lovers of liberty once banded together to support the fight against apartheid, we should be banding together to support the rights of women in Islam.


As I watched the 2008 presidential and vice presidential election campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin on TV—both of them contending for two of the most powerful offices in the world—I eagerly waited for the moment when they would talk about what they planned to do for other women, longing for the moment when someone would ask the question, demand a serious debate on the rights of  Muslim women. It never happened.

Now Hillary Clinton is secretary of state; before her, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright held that office. It appears a silent consensus has emerged in Washington that the Department of State should be headed by women. Some people complain that this is a half measure, to placate us women, because what we really want is the presidency. But I disagree. I believe having a woman as secretary of state represents a huge chance. It means that an American woman will sit down with the leaders of the rest of the world, including the Arab world, the Muslim world, and be treated not merely as an equal but as the representative of the world's only superpower.

The liberation of women is like a vast, unfinished house. 

The west wing is fairly complete. Most of us who reside in this corner enjoy privileges such as the right to vote and run for office. We have access to education, and we may earn our own living if we choose to. We have managed to convince most legislators on this side of the house that domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape are crimes for which the perpetrator must be punished. We have reproductive rights over our bodies and our sexuality; although a girl's parents and teachers and community leaders may coach her, they make no attempt to coerce her into or out of a relationship with a man (and recently, even with another woman). Prospective mates may woo and worship but must swallow their pride if a girl rejects them.

Like all homes, the western side of the house is not always run smoothly. In some cases, the house rules are not enforced. Girls' complaints of domestic violence are ignored or denied or the perpetrator gets off with a warning or a punishment far less severe than the harm he has inflicted. Other women may feel that they do not receive equal compensation for doing the same jobs as their male colleagues; still others find themselves hitting a glass ceiling. Thus some women seek to furnish the house with more rules and to smash all the glass ceilings.

Go to the east wing, however, and what you find is worse than unfinished. 

Parts of it have been started, then abandoned, and are now falling into ruin. In other parts, every time a wall is put up someone comes and bulldozes it down. In what would have been beautiful courtyards there are shallow graves of nameless girls who died because they were not seen as worth feeding or treating for a common, curable illness. 

In the east wing girls are transported as property by their parents, often when young, to gratify the sexual urges of adults. There are girls working the land, fetching water, tending to livestock, cooking and cleaning from dawn to dusk with no pay for their labors, while others are beaten by their closest family members with impunity. Young women die while giving birth because they lack the most basic hygiene and medical care.

In some corners of the east wing mothers are not always delighted when they learn they are pregnant. A doctor will check whether the unborn child is a girl or a boy; if it is a girl he accepts the wretched mother's payment and removes it, and if she cannot afford the abortion, the child, once born, is suffocated or left alone to die. This abortion of girls is so systematic in some rooms of the east wing that you will find numerous boys without mates to marry them.

Closer to the middle of the east wing most women are banished from the public rooms and hallways, and if they can be glimpsed at all they are covered from head to toe in dark and ugly garments. 

Many never learn to read or write; they are forced into marriage and seem to live pregnant ever after. 

They have no reproductive rights. If raped, they must shoulder the burden of proof, and in some rooms women and girls as young as thirteen are flogged and stoned to death in public for their disobedience in sexual matters. In the eastern side of the house some people are so terrified of a woman's sexuality that they cut the genitals of girl children, mutilating and branding them with the mark of ownership.

These days many people from the east wing find their way to the other side of the house, even if it is only to the cramped servants' quarters. Here in the west wing the fate of girls in the east wing seems far away. And while the girls in the west wing remain preoccupied with creature comforts like the shade of paint, the size of the chandeliers, and the shape of the hedges in the garden, not to mention that bothersome glass ceiling, men from the east wing claim western rooms for themselves, where they can practice eastern habits.

I was sitting in my office in New York, high above the great, intense hub of the west wing, fantasizing that the wealthy women of the West would one day band together to make the liberation of the hovels of the east wing their greatest priority. They would surge forward to build a new edifice of freedom, strength, and plenty for the East, knocking down the old hovels and opening the visible and invisible prison doors to allow their sisters to see the light of day.

That is my dream. But frankly, I do not know if Western feminists have the courage or clarity of vision to help me realize it.





Keith Hunt