I can scarcely tell you how pleased I am to be speaking at such a highly-needed conference: one devoted solely to women’s issues. Coming to Washington, D. C., for this conference is a double pleasure to me. Not only is it my first time to speak at such an event, but because sharing with you helps alleviate a medical condition I acquired in the United States of America.
Can you guess what it is? Even as a medical doctor it took me years to sort out the symptoms of my disease. I have “survivor syndrome.”
You see, I was born and raised in a culture that deals with women very harshly. During my thirty-two years in Syria, I witnessed firsthand countless acts of violence and cruelty against women. While practicing as a physician, I saw and treated numerous abused women who had been raped and severely beaten–all with the tacit approval of their families and the laws of sharia. Although from a good family that encouraged me to study, I faced internal and external restraints that daily stifled my life and virtually imprisoned me.
Then I was set free! From the first week I arrived in this country, I felt how privileged I was. I received the gift of dignity. I had human rights I had never experienced before.
Can you believe that in spite of my doctorate, because I am a woman, in my own country I was not considered mentally fit to be the guardian of my children? Under sharia law, the guardian of children must be male–the father or, failing that, a male relative.
My husband preceded us to America. How were my children and I to join him since under sharia law I was refused passports for them? My “unfit” mind devised a plan. In our town there lived only one relative of my husband. My husband had never introduced us because he considered the relative morally “unfit” for my acquaintance. But although both alcoholic and ill-natured, this relative had the right credentials: he was a man.
Thus, I bribed a drunken stranger with money, equivalent to a dollar, to act as the guardian of my desperate family. The desperation was created not by nature or disaster but by sharia law.
What a relief to be released from such absurdity! Daily, I lived free and enjoyed every minute of it. However, over time I started to feel guilty. I remembered the women left behind– patients, friends, family, and acquaintances–millions of women, not only in my country but throughout the Muslim world, for whom liberty like mine was scarcely even imaginable.
Over time, the guilt grew to paralyzing proportions. It consumed me mentally and emotionally. At the same time, I was delighted with every aspect of my new life in America. Little by little, guilt and freedom inspired me to fight back.
I had to hope, and I had to act. First by writing, then by speaking out, I began to fight for those who have no voice–for those I left behind under sharia law.
Others before me have tried to bring reforms to the Muslim world. But I was the first person of Muslim background to proclaim on Arabic-language television that Islam itself is the problem. The road I have taken is dangerous, but I do not let fear control my life or distract me from reaching my goal.
Do not think that I am here to incite anyone against Muslims. Muslims are my people. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to peel off my own skin and be anything but a woman from a Muslim country, an Islamic culture.
In my speaking engagements across America and in Europe, I have found that well-intentioned people in the West are woefully, and at times willfully, ignorant not only of the treatment of Muslim women but of its cause. They point out that women are mistreated in every culture, as if that explains everything. Their desperate hope that the mistreatment of women has nothing to do with Islam causes them to turn aside without learning the truth.
But today I am asking you to take a closer, serious look at the way women are treated under sharia law. I am here to unmask the true face of Islam toward women: it is a hateful and intolerant ideology. To understand the situation of women under Islam, you must clearly see that the principles of Islam promote abusive practices.
In other words, the abuse of women in Islam is legal. It is not only legal, but it comes from laws directly out of the Qur’an and teachings of Muhammad.
I can understand the reluctance to believe that this could be true and the disinclination to speak against such a world force as Islam. I faced this reluctance myself. But can you imagine my frustration when people who have never lived under Islam or its teachings deny the truth, the reality I know?
Here we are in this beautiful capital of the United States of America, Washington, D.C. To say that the principles of Islam have no relationship to the treatment of women under Islam would be as nonsensical as claiming that the Constitution of the United States has nothing to do with the way America’s government runs.
Every day, most people live in denial of the reality of uncomfortable things like death. I can’t. I’m a physician. I’ve seen death “up close and personal” time after time. It is the same with Islam. I’ve read its teachings in the original Arabic and seen the results in the societies it shapes. I can’t go back to a fairyland view that it treats women fairly any more than I can deny that cancer eats flesh and kills its victims.
Perhaps you think that I am making wild accusations based on only faulty evidence– what they call “weak hadith”–but this is not the case. Islamic scholarship has determined which teachings of the faith are most reliable. In both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, teachings against women are at this level. For example, both tell us that Muhammad said, “Women are deficient in mind and religion.”
Now you see the basis for my not being considered a reliable guardian for my own children. Can you believe that the level of the authority of this saying is equal to that of the teaching that prescribes how many times a day Muslims must pray?
This clear law from Muhammad hurt my family. But now I am thankful for its clarity because with it, we can clearly prove that Islam is wrong. In a free society, women are anything but deficient in mind: in America now there are more women in university than men, and in every corner of the world women are more faithful in religious practice than men.
I could give you many similar examples of antiwoman teachings in Islam.
- There is nothing more hateful to men than us.
- We are of crooked character, like a rib.
- We are domestic animals and half-devils.
- People ruled by a woman will never be successful.
Ali, the father of the Shiites, went beyond even this to tell men not to spend time with their wives and children but to leave them to Allah.
In response to criticism, it is claimed that Islam offers us hadith, or principles, that are said to honor women. But these don’t positively affirm equal rights or come close to undoing the damage of principles we have already discussed. One of the favorites is: “The key to paradise is at the feet of the mother.” What cruel irony! This seeming compliment casts the responsibility of promoting the system on the very shoulders of those it most abuses.
Time after time, I have seen how women have been indoctrinated to believe that even their abuse is fair and justified, because it is what Allah wants.
Lara Logan, the CBS journalist who covered the Egyptian revolution in the spring of 2011 broke the silence on this subject on 60 Minutes, sharing the sexual violence that was inflicted on her as a female, foreign journa
list in the field. She stated that the Egyptian mob that assaulted her “really enjoyed my pain and suffering. It incited them to more violence.”
For many Westerners, this is a vivid window on the shocking treatment and continuous harassment of native, as well as foreign, women in Egypt. This practice persists due to Muslims’ mentality that women are possessions of men and do not belong in public. To add salt to this wound, Muslims blame the victim for supposedly falling short of Islamic restrictions on dress and behavior.
Unfortunately, in her interview, Logan submitted to the demands of political correctness and was careful not to use the words Muslim or Islam in connection with her horrific sexual ordeal.
Let me share with you only a few personal stories. These are tales that only affirm Logan’s deplorable episode and prove the pervasiveness of the abuse of women in the Muslim world.
My own niece was forced to marry her cousin when she was eleven and he was over forty. Her marriage was valid under Islamic sharia because the prophet Muhammad married his second wife, Aisha, when she was six years old and he was over fifty. My niece was terribly abused for many years and didn’t have the right to ask for a divorce.
I remember as if they happened yesterday the times when she would escape from her husband’s house to her father’s, begging him; “Dad, please let me stay here. I promise to be your maid to the last day of my life. He is very abusive; I can’t take this torture any more.”
Her father would reply; “It’s shame for a woman to leave her husband’s home without his permission. Go back, I promise I will talk to him.”
At the age of twenty-eight, my niece committed suicide by setting herself on fire, leaving behind her four children.
While working as a physician in Syria, I witnessed many crimes committed in my society under the justification of Islam. Once, when I worked in a small village, a woman in her late thirties came to my office complaining of nausea, vomiting, and back pain. An examination revealed that she was three months pregnant. As soon as I told her the news, she collapsed on the chair and began to scream, smacking her face, “I beg you doctor, I beg you to rescue me from the mess I’m in. My son will kill me. I don’t care about my life. I deserve to die, but I don’t want my son to dirty his hands with my blood.”
“What is wrong, Fatima?”
“I’m a widow. My husband died five years ago and left me with four children. My husband’s brother rapes me every day in exchange for feeding my children. If he knew I was pregnant he’d provoke my son into killing me rather than be exposed to public disgrace.”
“How old is your son?”
“He’s fifteen. Doctor, I’m begging you! He’s still young, and I don’t want him dirtying his hands with my filthy blood!”
I sent her to see a gynecologist. When she came back to see me about two weeks later, she looked undernourished, fatigued and ill. “What is it, Fatima?” I asked.
“I came to thank you. I got rid of the fetus, but I almost died! They performed the operation to remove the fetus without sedating me, and the pain I experienced nearly killed me.”
“He did it without an anesthetic! Why?”
“I didn’t have enough money to pay for the drugs to numb me, so the doctor had to operate without them.”
Tragically, these accounts I shared with you are not isolated stories. They signify the tragic stories of millions of other Muslim women all over the world, including in Europe and here in North America. On a daily basis, numerous Muslim women suffer domestic abuse, rapes, and honor killings. These stories are too frequently ignored by Western women. In the worst-case scenarios, some here in the West persecute those brave ones who dare to speak up and expose the gloomy reality of violence against Muslim women–and the harsh reality of sharia in general. They also forbid our culture from labeling the Islamic discrimination and persecution of women for what it is.
Accordingly, let me challenge those who are on the wrong side of history: How can a Muslim woman raise a fair-minded child when she is oppressed herself? Certainly, a male child who grows up watching his mother being disrespected, marginalized, and abused will almost inevitably have a distorted mind capable of cruelty–even the sort of cruelty inflicted by that mob upon Lara Logan. Is that not a dilemma that affects the West’s relationship with the Muslim world?
When a woman living under Islamic sharia immigrates to a free Western country, it can become a completely transformative path, as it was for me. Now I am free. I don’t have to allow my rights to be abused by any religious or political authority. In the United States, I’m a person, equal to all others.
I, for one, do not take my rights for granted, and therefore I will continue to fight to protect these rights, not only for myself but for all other Muslim women.
We as citizens of the free world must have the moral courage to expose and fight Islam’s totalitarian abuse against women. We must not stifle our language. We must use the appropriate vocabulary to call things by their rightful names. We must continue to press for moral clarity, for open intellectual discourse with precise definitions of our goals against the goals of our adversaries.
The bitter situation of women under Islam’s sharia doctrine should not be ignored. Real victory can take place only in the spirit of genuine inquiry, transparency, and the fearless pursuit of truth. It is as clear as daylight. A culture that doesn’t respect half of its population will never thrive and prosper!
When I was living in Syria, I cried often because I suffered. Now that I am free, I still cry, for all other Muslim women all over the world. I dream of a future when all Muslim women can savor a taste of my freedom. This is a dream that should be granted for all humanity, and our job is to be unrelenting in pursuing that objective.
Wafa Sultan is a noted Syrian human-rights activist who has lived in the United States for the past twenty years. She is the author of A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).