Dare We Stand Up for Muslim Women?

It's the smell I remember. Shahnaz's face -- what was left of it -- reeked of a day old barbeque, left out in the rain. Her flesh was a mess of charred meat: her skin, the soft flesh of her cheeks, and the bones beneath had been burned away. Her nose was gone. Her lips hung down over her chin like melted wax. Her left eyelid couldn't close, so it watered all the time in an endless stream of tears. Shahnaz -- who was 21 years old -- had been punished by having acid thrown in her face. Her crime was to be a Muslim woman who wanted to be treated as equal to a man.

Shahnaz loved education -- especially science, and poetry. But when she got married -- at the insistence of her family -- her husband ordered her to stop schooling and start breeding. "You are a woman, that is your only job," he said. But she refused. She wanted to work for herself, and enrich her mind. So she kept going to school, despite his beatings and ragings and threats. So one day her husband and his brothers carefully gathered up battery acid, pinned her down, and hurled it into her face.

She ended up in the Acid Survivor's Foundation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I saw her earlier this year. In Bangladesh, acid attacks on "uppity" women are epidemic, peaking in 2002 with more than 500 women having their faces burned off. Fewer than 10 percent of the attackers are ever convicted, because juries and judges say the women bring it on themselves by wearing 'revealing' clothes, or refusing to obey men.

Munira Rahman, director of the foundation, explains: "From the late 1980s women were increasingly getting jobs in Bangladesh. Women were suddenly more independent, and they could start to turn down marriage proposals and choose for themselves. This is the backlash from men who see women as property." It is just one tactic in a global war to keep Muslim women at heel. In Saudi Arabia women are kept under house arrest, banned from driving or showing their faces in public. In Afghanistan, the Taliban massacre teachers who dare to educate girls. In Iran, women are stoned to death for adultery. In Somalia, women's vaginas are butchered, with the clitoris cut out and the remains crudely stitched up. These are not freak exceptions: they are often state policy.

It is here, in our open societies, that the freedom of Muslim women is slowly being born. Last week Amina Wadud became the first ever woman to lead British Muslims in prayer. All over Europe and the US, Muslim women are pushing beyond a literal reading of the Koran and trying to turn many of its ugliest passages into misty metaphor. Yet our support for these Muslim women fighting to be free is hobbled -- both when it comes to ordinary people, and when it comes to governments. Many of us feel awkward talking about the rights of Muslim women because we have overdosed on multiculturalism.

We ask nervously: Isn't it just their culture that women are treated differently? Isn't it a form of cultural imperialism to condemn these practices? The only rational response is to ask: Whose culture do you want to respect here? Shaznaz's culture, or her husband's? The culture of the little girls learning in a Khandahar classroom, or of the Taliban thug who bursts in and shoots their teacher? The culture of Amina Wadud, or of the misogynists protesting outside? Muslim societies are not a homogenous block -- and it is racist to pretend they are.

Our governments are equally hobbled from supporting Muslim women -- for a very different reason. They claim to oppose the Taliban or the Iranian Mullahs because they abuse women. But when it comes to Saudi Arabia, they declare the just-as-vile regime "our close friend" and lavish cash on it. Why?

You can glimpse the answer by looking at the little-told story of the writing of Iraq's constitution. In the original draft drawn up by the Iraqi political parties in 2004, there was a guarantee of equal rights for women -- alongside a clause stating that Iraqi oil belongs exclusively to the Iraqi people. The Bush administration panicked. In the bargaining that followed, the US government demanded an opening of the oil fields to foreign companies -- and in return they haggled away all women's rights, allowing Shariah courts run by misogynist mullahs. While we as a society are addicted to oil, our governments will always put petroleum before feminism. While we suck on the Saudi petrol pump, smearing rhetorical oestrogen onto our bombs looks like an ugly trick.

So how do we practically side with Muslim women like Shahnaz and the tens of millions like her? Any answer has to involve three steps. First: no more bogus 'respect' for fundamentalism within open societies. If you literally follow an ancient Holy Text -- whether it's the Koran, the Bible or the Torah -- you will hold disgusting views about women, and you should expect to have them criticised and mocked. By raising critical questions, we help the women inside Islam who are trying to turn the ugliest passages into metaphorical steam.

Second: kick our oil addiction. Until we do that, we will only ever see Muslim societies through the bottom of an oil barrel. Third: Once we're no longer junkies, we can pressure our governments to create a programme of real economic empowerment for Muslim women. My friend Irshad Manji, the Muslim feminist, has called for the EU and US to fund a big programme of microcredits -- small, no-interest loans -- for Muslim women across the Middle East to start their own businesses or get a decent education. This would slowly give them a sliver of independence with which to reinterpret the Koran (or leave it behind). This isn't only morally right: It helps us too. How much can jihadism -- an ideology committed to enslaving women, Taliban-style -- spread in a society where women are free to argue and answer back?

The battle for equal rights for Muslim women is the great civil rights cause of our time. Do we want to sit it out -- or do we want to stand between Shahnaz and her acid-wielding husband and say: Enough?

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To read more of his work, click here

You can donate to the Acid Survivors' Foundation online, and save women's lives. Click here.