Goodwin details Arab women's woes

by Tracy Landers | 5/28/02 5:00am

Jan Goodwin, an award-winning journalist who in 1995 published an account of her travels through 10 Arab countries, shared her haunting experiences of the repression of women in the Arab world in a crowded Carpenter Hall last Thursday night.

Her speech, as well as her book, entitled "Price of Honor," detailed the powerful effects that the rise of extremism has had on Islamic women. Not looking to comfort her audience, Goodwin did not shy away from describing the suffering of many Muslim women whom she had met during her journey.

"In Pakistan, women who are raped go to jail for having sex outside of marriage," Goodwin said. She also spoke about the increase in honor killings -- the assumed right of male members of a Muslim family to murder female relatives who are suspected of adultery -- which Arab governments have done nothing to stop.

Families "marry girls off to keep them safe," Goodwin said, explaining why so few women are educated in Arab countries.

Goodwin, to demonstrate the oppression she was describing, dressed two female Dartmouth students in the face- and body-concealing garments that many Arab women are forced to wear. She called the clothing, which she wore throughout her travels, "stifling and dehumanizing. It turns bright sunny day into night."

Unlike clothing worn by Muslim women for centuries, this confining clothing has been required since 1979, after an extremist attack on Mecca. According to Goodwin, the Saudi Arabian government diverted attention from the cause of the attack -- the rise of Islamic extremist groups -- by reducing the freedom of female Muslims.

"Controlling one half of the population makes it much easier to control the other half," Goodwin said, adding that this had been explained to her by Saudi Arabian leaders.

"Women are the canaries in the mines ... Their very visible repression has nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with Islam," Goodwin said, emphasizing that Islam is not an essentially misogynistic religion. She told the audience that the prophet Mohammed actually worked for his first wife, and that his message encouraged sexual equality and respect.

"Sadly, Islam has been hijacked for political reasons," Goodwin said.

This point did much to relieve the fears of Muslim audience members such as Asya Mu'Min '00, who said that she was concerned that Goodwin would make generalizations about Muslim peoples' behavior.

Mu'Min said she was thankful of Goodwin's recognition that that Muslim repression of women is "culturally and politically centered."

The international reaction to "Price of Honor" has been similar to that of Mu'Min, which both surprised and relieved Goodwin and those who published the book.

"My editor was concerned we would turn out to be another Salman Rushdie," Goodwin said. However, many Arabs praised her book, saying that the only thing wrong with it is the fact that it wasn't written by an Arab Muslim.

Many of the people in the Dartmouth audience were shocked and disturbed by the book's message, and their sentiments came out in the questions they asked of Goodwin.

"So depressing" was the way one audience member characterized Goodwin's speech. He went on to ask what Americans could do to engage in the issue.

"Change has to come from within. Muslim women must learn what the Koran says," Goodwin responded. She said female illiteracy was one of the major problems facing the Arab world, in which grassroots female education programs are just starting to take hold.

Goodwin also mentioned the American "lust for oil" as a contributing factor to the unrest in the Middle East. "Next time you want to buy an S.U.V., go out and buy a nice little economy car," Goodwin suggested to those in the audience who asked for concrete ways they could help.

In a Women's Studies class held on the Green last Friday, Goodwin explained that inspiration for the "Price of Honor" came from her own attempt to alleviate the suffering of Muslims, which she had seen and written about for many year.

Leading the Save the Children human rights organization of Afghanistan for four years, Goodwin was brought painfully close to the reality of female repression in 1988. At that time, one of the servants in Goodwin's home in Afghanistan was a nine-year-old girl named Maria. The strong friendship between western reporter and Afghan girl led to Maria's going to school for the first time.

Physical abuse from her father and Maria's sale into marriage to an old man with two wives ended their friendship. By the age of 12, Maria was surrounded by "the walls of purdah" -- the Muslim word for "seclusion" -- and Goodwin has never seen her again.

Goodwin said her struggle and failure to save Maria -- at one point she said she considered kidnapping the girl and leaving the country -- prompted her to quit work in the non-profit world and return to journalism.

"It broke my heart," Goodwin said after her speech.