reforming islam? ida lichter

While ground battles rage in Syria, and with unrest in Libya and Egypt continuing to occupy Western focus, another war beneath the surface of media attention continues to rage within muslim countries closer to home. Outside Middle Eastern centres of conflict, too little attention has been paid to reforms daily fought by Muslim women across the globe for equality and freedom from violence. Into this setting, Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers redraws our attention to the separate bravery of women- both secular and religious- to gain basic individual freedoms. “Many have not been given a significant voice,” writes Lichter,

 There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organisations, particularly in muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk.

It is their plight western feminists are in danger of betraying through a respect of ‘culture’ above individual rights, says Lichter.

Her prodigious research highlights individual women reformers through concise biographies in the specific settings where the rights to vote, drive, dress, and resist the abuse of religiously sanctioned violence form an often life and death struggle. This approach adds to the scope of literature examining Islam in general and corrects the singular image of a unified Islamic ‘world’. Within this frame, whole regions are shown in the flux of competing forces, women’s lives hinged precariously to the outcomes of political and religious conflict.

Women’s rights, says Lichter, should be made central to our future foreign policy. Current instability threatens even supposedly ‘moderate’ religious countries. Neighbouring Australia, where Lichter lives, Indonesia’s 86% Muslim population comprises the largest Islamic country in the world, with 12.7% of the world’s total identified Muslims.

Prior to 1945, the Dutch colonial government was largely in support of the Indonesian women’s movement, which had emerged in the twentieth century.

Despite being a signatory to UN conventions against gender discrimination at a national level, the process of achieving gender equality in Indonesia has become more difficult since its independence.  With Islamic separatists threatening to break from its power, the national government ceded much of its authority since 2001 through regional autonomy laws, divesting power to local and more traditionally inclined groups. These have tended to frame patriarchal practices through literal interpretations of Islamic scripture. Local sharia by-laws, enforced in 16 of 32 provinces, have restricted women’s economic opportunities, freedom of movement, dress, and roles in public. Qur’anic punishments have surfaced among these regions, most notably in Aceh, which in 2009 legalised stoning ‘adulterers’.

Through its Marriage Law (1975) the government allowed for fatwas (religious legal edicts) to be governed from a local level. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Womens Association for Justice records rising levels of polygamy and child marriage in some areas despite official restrictions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites religious encouragement of child marriage and female genital mutilation as main causes of Indonesia’s maternal death rate, among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Alongside reformers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia) and Wafa Sultan (Syria),  Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers also chronicles feminists that have fought for equality on a religious footing, such as in Indonesia. Indonesian feminist groups like Rahmina and Musawah have tried to situate their political objectives on religious grounds, in part responding to Islamists’ use of religion to enforce oppression. Rahmina’s director Erdani ascribes the rising influence of Islamists in Indonesia to Saudi funded Wahhabists, who have used regional instability to further political ends.

Part of groups like Rahmina’s attempt to bring about equality through re-readings of Islamic scripture may also be tactical. Indonesia has not been accommodating of secular feminism where it contradicts state-based authority. As Lichter notes, Gerwani, one of Indonesia’s largest women’s groups, was banned for its association with the communist party (PKI). Thousands of its members were raped or killed as part of an anti-communist purge by Suharto’s forces. Rahmina’s own re-focus attempts to debate its contextual interpretations of Islam against equally ‘authentic’ gender-biased religious law.

Re-readings have forcefully critiqued popular Islamic texts, in arguing for women’s representation during the 2001 election of Sukarnoputri, a female head of state, and in advocating for religiously sanctioned domestic violence to be criminalised. Despite its more delicately waged successes in fighting for equality in Indonesia, Rahmina’s approach has also risked further reinforcing the role of religion and its interpretation as a basis for Indonesia’s civil legal structure.

Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers corrects the impression of silence on the part of reformers throughout the Islamic world, and demonstrates more than ever the need for modern reformers in the West, including governments, to chorus these voices against oppression, and make use through aid and diplomatic efforts the opportunities these reformers represent.

Freedom for women in Muslim countries would unlock the potential of half their populations and provide a resource for social and economic development.

Lichter’s inspiring catalogue of voices should encourage modern reformers aswell as alarm readers to the fragile opportunities for progress now at risk ♦

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is available from Prometheus Books. Ida Lichter MD is psychiatrist and frequent columnist for online news-site HuffingtonPost.


gay war hero memory at code red


[ An earlier version of this article, ‘Code red for WWII code breaker’ appeared in the May-June 2012 issue of The Western Independent ]

Alan Turing, WWII codebreaker.

Away from the fierce naval gun battles and front lines of History’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy calculating sums that would save millions of lives.

Australia is missing among World War II allied countries marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. The British code-breaker used mathematical logic to decipher the wartime German ‘Enigma’ device. Nazi generals used the random code machine, thought to be ‘unbreakable’, to send secret battle plans.

Historian Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine, says Turing’s contribution was central to the Allies’ success, saving potentially millions of lives during WWII.

“Turing devised the technique for automating the cracking of the naval Enigma code,” Dr Watson says.

“Historians generally agree the code breaking work shortened WWII by up to 2 years.”

Watson, ‘The Universal Machine’

These simulations also enabled Turing’s contribution to the first modern-day computer.

“The requirements for handling massive  amounts of data quickly meant it became obvious the process needed to be mechanised,

“If the war hadn’t forced these requirements then I think the development of the computer, both in the US and the UK would have been much slower.”

University of Wollongong digital communications lecturer Teodor Mitew says Turing’s genius lay in simulating all the mathematical possibilities of the Enigma device. The intelligence proved decisive to the Allied forces in crucial naval battles.

“His contributions are incalculable, yet he remains a largely unknown figure in Australia,” he says.

The Turing Centenary Advisory Report lists WWII allies Canada, France, Britain, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and The United States among 13 nations to host commemorative events this year marking the centenary of Turing’s birth. No Australian events have been listed however.

“The reason Turing has not been commemorated in this country has been his relative obscurity and the secret nature of his contributions,” Dr Mitew says.

“Put simply, these don’t fit the heroic war narrative our general public has been fed.”

Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian reported on a petition signed by 21,000 British citizens urging their government to posthumously pardon Turing’s criminal record for homosexual activity recorded shortly after his war service. The petition was unsuccessful, but the centenary has brought renewed efforts to obtain the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a vote in parliament. As of this writing, 35,000 citizens have signed. Moves have also been underway to feature Turing on the £10 note.

Various biographical accounts detail Turing being forced to undertake ‘chemical castration’ for his homosexuality under threat of a  prison sentence. In 1952, he was removed from his official position. He died two years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.

Dr Mitew says it is “just not enough” that Australians have forgotten about Turing’s life-saving work.

“You have this intellectual giant, with contributions ranging from philosophy through mathematics [to] computer science, and biology,” he says.

“Due to political and historical reasons he has been pushed into complete obscurity.”

Dr Watson says Australians, many of whose lives Turing helped save, should honour his services to the Allied war effort and urge the British government to pardon Turing’s criminal conviction.

“The law under which he was convicted was unjust and I think society would send a clear message by pardoning him – Thanks, you deserved to be treated better.” ♦

[ Photos courtesy Dr Ian Watson. Excerpts from Turing’s Computing and Machine Intelligence previously featured in imodernreview article ‘a new turing test’ ]

should Australia have a Bill of Rights?

Geoffrey Robertson, The Statute of Liberty

Australia does not have a Bill of Rights, a comprehensive statement setting out the basic rights and freedoms of all its people.“A Statute of Liberty”, says celebrated human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a Melbourne festival in April,

…is an idea I wish to celebrate and whose time has come in every advanced democracy in the world.


Geoffrey Robertson QC is Australia’s foremost proponent of a Bill Of Rights. Photo by lewishamdreamer

Australia’s Constitution inherits and retains traditions from British common law, preserving a separation of powers between parliament, its monarch and judiciary. This reflects Australia’s former role as a British colony, he says. Unlike the US, Australia’s constitution does not vest individual rights in personhood. Some guaranteed rights – limited rights to a trial and codified prevention of an official State religion, are explicit but few. They are examples designed to ensure civil liberty as a whole, but do not reflect civil liberties as they apply to individuals: you, me, citizens of Australia.

Parliament has signed many international human rights treaties but these are non-binding. As the High Court Justice Kirby remarked,

Australia’s constitutional arrangements are peculiar and now virtually unique among common law countries. 

New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada have each adopted a Bill of Rights. Even Britain adopted the EU Convention – whole –  into its domestic law.

Presently, parliament is virtually unrestricted in passing laws that constrain many rights and freedoms that Australians have come to feel are proper and generally specified in other free societies.

Courts in Australia have interpreted implied rights from some of the terms in its Constitution. There is an implied – though not guaranteed – right to vote. Robertson argues that due to more recent High Court decisions, there is an at least implied freedom to discuss political matters, though nothing that equates to the protections of the US first amendment. Australia’s free speech protection is upheld only against a difficult standard, a level of speech “necessary to maintain the system of representative and responsible government”.

Critics have long argued that judges are ‘unelected’ and that parliament is the peoples’ representative body. Bills of Rights have been put to parliament before however, and been dismissed. It is Robertson’s argument that rights cannot be the prerogative of any one body to endow, but of all bodies to recognise. It is a courts’ proper role, he says, to interpret laws as they apply to individual cases, uniquely placing them with the capacity to recognise cases of injustice.

It may shock many to learn the Constitution does not guarantee equal legal protection. This omission is as antiquated as it was deliberate: many of the constitutional framers rejected proposals that might put an end to existing “colonial laws that limited the employment of Asian workers”. The Constitution also permits to this day specific laws with respect to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.” This racial inequality was encouraged by Edmund Barton, later Australia’s first prime minister. In 1898 Barton argued equal protection clauses, which he disfavoured, would limit the government’s power. In his words, the power was necessary “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured and inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.”

Geoffrey Robertson, Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights

It is a power incompatible with modern democratic values.

Robertson’s book Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights notes the government has actually defended this position in recent times. It has made use of this adverse provision in overturning many human rights and heritage protections. In Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) for example, the High Court observed its current scope would not have been able to prevent the forcible racial assimilation policies by the government in the last century.

Only in the absence of a Bill of Rights, could a moral injustice such as racially discriminatory laws be overlooked in favour of legal precedent. Such are the limits Statute of Liberty makes clear in regards to common law.

Currently, the Australian state of Victoria (2006) and its Capital Territory (2004) have instituted bills of rights, which have improved policy making and created a dialogue between courts and parliament. Such bills should be encouraged and copied in other states. To prevent them from being encroached or overturned, there should be a federal bill protecting Australians nationally.

Such a bill would recognise rights in personhood, protect against individual rights abuses, and improve Australia’s record in acting on its treaty promises to the international community, says Robertson.

A Bill of Rights would define Australia as a modern nation of individuals, and recognise the distinguishing national character of a people born, and entitled, to live freely ♦

Geoffrey Robertson introduces The Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights in this Radio National excerpt. The book is available from Vintage Books and ABC stores. [Pictures sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]

the macho paradox: jackson katz

Jackson Katz, Anti-sexist activist, Speaker, Author Filmaker. Photo from Jackson Katz website

Think you’re an innocent bystander? Think again. According to renowned anti-sexist campaigner Jackson Katz, sexism and violence fuels the ‘tough guys’ image that culture projects on men in all cultures. This tough guise leads men to assert themselves on women and weaker males in order to be ‘masculine’.

The dangers of ‘masculinity’ in this form to society should not be underestimated. As Katz notes,

In the US alone, over 85% of people who commit murder are men…90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men, 95% of serious domestic violence is perpetrated by males, and it’s been estimated that nearly 1 in 4 men will use violence against a partner in their lifetime.

Violence is only the most extreme outgrowth of a pervasive culture that projects the aggressive physical dominance of the male, Katz’ research suggests. Learnt early in development by boys through family and community, the ‘tough guise’ of the male is over-represented in all major media forms.

Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help served as the Secretary of the US Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence from 2000-03.  Through co-founding the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (MVP) Katz has become the leading internationally recognised educator in preventing gender violence, especially through his work addressing sporting and religious groups as well as the military. He is also a regular columnist for online news site The Huffington Post.

Katz, J. (2006) The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men hurt Women and How All Men Can Help

The title of his book however, points not only to the perpetrators and victims of violence. The key innovation of Katz’s approach to addressing male violence is in using what he refers to as the ‘bystander approach’. Katz’s lectures, films and book aims to empower you as a bystander to take part in preventing sexism and violence.

This approach gives cause for re-examining the role many of us unwittingly play; tolerating the sexist joke, standing mute in the diminishing of women, not seeking to help defend a male abused because they aren’t perceived as ‘masculine’.  It is also a practical guide to action, a role all can play in becoming  modern activists.

Most believe that in order to intervene in a potentially violent situation, you have to choose between doing nothing, or in physically intervening at personal risk. 

Positively, there are multiple points between these poles: Jackson Katz lists 10 important steps we, and particularly male peers- a powerful influence- can take. They are freely available at and form an important modern resource for helping end culturally sanctioned abuses. Among them; the invocation to NOT be silent when abuse appears likely or indicated, and address the issue either by talking with the abuser or someone empowered to talk with him.

A bystander can also gently and privately ask the victim if there is a way to help.

Men need to read [Katz’s] book. Not only because it will make the world safer for women, but because it will free men to be their true selves.

Eve Ensler, Author, ‘The Vagina Monologues’

Katz asks us to no longer fund sexism by purchasing sexist media (some mens’ magazines for example), and to defend others against sexism, homophobia or discrimination. By “raising the cost” of prejudice and violence, Katz says, we make it that much harder for physical dominance to enforce its culture in your society.♦

The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006) is available from Source Books. The short film Tough Guise (approx. 7 mins) explains the connection between popular culture and male aggression. Jackson Katz’s 10 steps ‘What Men Can Do’ can be found here.

the long backlash: susan faludi

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Susan Faludi’s 1991 ceiling-breaking book Backlash.

With devastating force and intricate research,  Backlash rose to bestseller, demolishing a barrage of news and pop-cultural messages seeking to undercut women’s equality.

Found on TV and in almost every major newspaper, studies and cautionary news items attempted to suggest women had reached it all: workplace equality, reproductive and financial independence. Pedalled alongside: that women were now increasingly unhappy, desperately alone, barren, ‘burnt out’ and frustrated. Hollywood film joined to sell the cultural idea that women were ill-equipped outside traditional household roles.

It took Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to identify these trends as fully and as rivetingly as she has in Backlash, dissecting the sexism, and consequently the flawed messages and data that underpinned the present culture’s cultural onslaught. It’s findings? There simply wasn’t the evidence behind such early-1990’s myths as the great ‘man shortage’ or women’s supposed deficiencies in math. What science would in fact point out: women were happiest either single or postponing marriage, saw greater financial and personal success through education and were healthiest by far pursuing own career goals.

Under cover of science however, new myths undercutting feminist gains continue to be reported by major newspapers and media, demonstrating as ever the vital modern relevance of reading the strategies uncovered by Backlash.

Backlash points to a remaining need for vigilance, research of the culture industry’s dominant claims and misrepresentations, and directs its hard-hitting questions to the roles placed upon both men and women.

We hear the cultural messages all the time, but – Backlash: the Undeclared War on American Women need not be an ‘undeclared’ any longer. Backlash is an effective weapon with which to arm and fight within it ♦

[Susan Faludi is also author of Stiffed, a sensitive narrative on modern masculinity, and The Terror Dream, examining post 9/11 political myths]

celebrating reason: ayaan hirsi ali

They were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel: My Life

 Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ardent feminist, atheist and best-selling author. Her autobiography Infidel details her escape from a life of oppression under her Muslim clan in Somalia to live in the comparatively secular West, first in The Netherlands, where she became a member of Parliament, and later as a political activist and founder of the AHA Foundation in the United States.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, AHA Foundation, Author and Rights CampaignerHirsi Ali will be attending as one of the keynote speakers at next year’s Global Atheist Convention A Celebration of Reason to be held in Melbourne Australia. (April 12-15) The event is expected to attract 4000 convention goers, and include other freethinking speakers, including authors of The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great, journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Hirsi Ali has endured death threats, not for escaping an arranged marriage in her ‘home country’, but from Islamic extremists in Europe for her screenplay of Dutch filmmaker Theo VanGogh’s documentary Submission, which details the subjugation of women in Islamic societies. Theo Van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street.

On fleeing Somalia she writes,

I [had] escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies- Allah’s societies- were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

Ali’s roles as parliamentarian and activist for the plight of women and political refugees, and brave storyteller, will offer listeners to the Global Atheist Convention much to ponder. They will owe the greater measure of gender equality in the West that allows Hirsi Ali’s intellect to be read, heard and appreciated, the benefit gained from her insights and experience of life under tyranny. The audience will no doubt acknowledge the generally secular nature of Western democratic society for Hirsi Ali’s ability to critique the dogmas and rules that oppress populations of, curtail opportunity for, millions throughout the un/developing world.

One question remains; what role can Australia play in gaining the wisdom, intelligence and fierce bravery of those seeking political asylum to our shores, as Hirsi Ali had in Europe? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy both for they and us, if like the regimes they attempt to escape, we not accept and reward the contributions they have to offer? To turn away and turn them away?

Next year, Australians will owe Ayaan Hirsi Ali for coming so far to celebrate reason. That would indeed be lucky for us, and a responsibility to share with others ♦

[Quotes also taken from Ali, A.H. (2007) ‘How [and Why] I Became an Infidel’ in Christopher Hitchens Ed. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer. Hirsi Ali is also author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason and Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations]