The Subjection of Women: 21st Century-Style

Commentary, Civil Liberties, Frontier Centre

The recent murder charges against Mohammad Shafia, his second wife and 18-year-old son in the alleged “honour killing” of Shafia’s three girls and their step-mom, bring into relief the status of women around the world. Tragically, the alleged Kingston murders are a reminder that the emancipation argued for by John Stuart Mill in the 1869 essay, The Subjection of Women (co-written with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, or, as some assert— she with him), is far from realization for too many women.

I’ve taught a number of university classes and the young Muslim women do exceptionally well. I don’t know if that’s because they have parents that push them to succeed, or whether they appreciate Canada’s opportunities. It might be both.

Insofar as the Kingston murders become an example of the entrenched attitudes of some Muslim males, there is a double tragedy; where the bias against women exists, both the women and their societies lose out.

For instance, one young Muslim woman I know came from a relatively more liberal Muslim country but still prefers to not settle back home. Male attitudes towards her gender are the reason.

It doesn’t take long to find recent examples of women’s suffering beyond with plenty of criticism from those in Muslim society.

A female Sudanese journalist, Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, now faces 40 lashes in Sudan for the “crime” of offending that country’s decency laws—al-Hussein wore pants. She has noted that thousands of other women have endured such punishment without protest and publicity—which is why she will publicly protest, this in an effort to change the law.

In France, in 2004, an imam in Lyon, Chirane Abdelkader Bouziane, was deported after he told a magazine reporter it was permissible for men to beat their wives—so long as they avoided blows to the upper body. (Apparently France, unlike Canada with our ridiculously restrictive court judgments, can actually deport such people.)

There are worse and more violent examples of predatory male behaviour and discrimination.

In Pakistan, in 2006, the government caved in to fundamentalists and amended rape laws; it is now all but impossible for a woman to get a successful rape conviction—a woman who claims to have been raped must produce four witnesses.

In the case of Rona Amir Mohammad—Shafia’s first wife (portrayed as an “aunt” after the Afghan family moved to Canada), Shafia confiscated her passport, wouldn’t let her use the phone, and threatened her with beatings, this according to her brother.

According to one newspaper account, one of the now-dead daughters, 19-year-old Zainab Shafia, was beaten by her father and brother; she had earlier also been threatened with death—this after the 19-year-old developed a relationship with a young Pakistani man; her father disapproved.

Fortunately, there are plenty of dissenters within the Muslim and Arab world. In 2007, the Middle East Media Research Institute published a selection of cartoons from Arab newspapers which sympathetically portrayed the plight of women in Arab societies. The cartoons (which can be found at came from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Egypt.

One Syrian cartoon shows a couple on stage with the man in the spotlight; the woman remains in the dark—symbolic of women in general in Arab society. A Saudi Arabian cartoon portrays a boy and girl at dinner with a large chicken leg shared between them but the girl only has access to the bare part of the fowl’s leg—boys feast while girls are denied . Another Syrian cartoon shows a woman hooded and in chains—Guantanamo Bay-prisoner style; an illustration from a Jordan newspaper displays a woman in a bird cage with the following inscription: “Some of our Customs and Traditions.”

Muslim women who find it difficult to advance against family or societal pressure have an ally in John and Harriet Mill who admitted it was difficult to challenge entrenched opinions; they also thought it “useless” to complain that those with the prejudicial attitudes should bear the burden of proof.

The problem was not that defenders of the status quo lack an ability to reason but that rational faculties were too often overridden by something more powerful: irrational prejudices. The prejudiced, wrote Mill, had “too much faith in custom and the general feeling.”

It is hard to reason people out of their deeply- held biases—that was the problem the Mills faced in the 19th century and what many Muslim women face now.