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The true victims of religious extremism

August 26, 2011

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Polygamist Warren Jeffs (C) is flanked by Las Vegas Metro Police SWAT officers during an extradition hearing at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, in this August 31, 2006 file photograph. – Reuters Photo

He is a polygamist religious leader who married many women, including underage girls, and raped a minor. He banned parades, dances and magazines like the Sports Illustrated and Car and Driver and yet revelled in the company of multiple wives.

If this description brings to mind an Arab sheikh or a Taliban leader, you are way off the mark. The man is neither an Asian Muslim of Arab or Afghan descent nor is he from a primitive society. Rather, he is Warren Jeffs, 55,  a Caucasian who was heading the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in America. The Christian sect, with a membership of 10,000, preaches that “polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.” But Mr Jeffs’ idea of reaching to the heaven was pretty botched up, with him marrying and raping underage girls.

Testifying against Mr. Jeff, one of his former followers, Ms. Ezra Draper said the leader set such a trend that “… FLDS men began taking brides younger and younger after Jeffs took over the polygamous group in 2002.”

But in his controlling and dominating attitude towards women, Jeffs is not alone. A few days ago, the Indian press reported that Maoist guerillas are sexually abusing their female comrades in arms. An ex-female commander of Maoist group, who had surrendered to the government, narrated her ordeal of how she was sexually abused over the years.

The stories bring to fore the fact that it is not only primitive societies where misogyny is prevalent. In many fundamentalist religious movements--be it in the US, Europe or on anywhere else—it always boils down to owning the women or changing their status equivalent to a piece of chattel. Whether it is the al Qaeda of the Middle East, Taliban of Afghanistan-Pakistan, or Mr. Jeff’s FLDS, their whole ‘revolution’ takes inspiration from the lives of medieval kings who always had many consorts and sexual slavery, usually of women taken as part of loot after wars, was rampant.

In many fundamentalist religious movements – be it in the US, Europe or on anywhere else—it always boils down to owning the women or changing their status equivalent to a piece of chattel. – AFP Photo

Consider the concept of baraat (bridegroom’s marching band) for instance. It comes from the old tradition when the girls had to be taken after conquering the bride’s family. This why the baraat used to comprise of males only and most of them armed: it is carried on as fun and ornamentation now. The origin of Sithnian (???????) — Punjabi cursing songs by which the women from the bride’s side welcome the bridegroom’s party—has also come from the same origin, signifying the baraati as an invading gang ready to ‘snatch’ the girl. With the passage of time the men from bride's side gave up combating but the women, usually better carriers of tradition, kept protesting. The women, knowing that marriage is another kind of slavery where the ownership changes from father to husband, could be another reason for the continuation of these cursing songs.

In this backdrop, it is not surprising that the revival of old religious values and popping up of fundamentalist religious sects in the modern times are usually focused on limiting the freedom of the women. Mr. Jeffs or Mr. Arab sheikh, chauvinist Pakistani, Khalistani Sikh or part of Hindu saffron type (encouraging revival of Satti in India) are all the same when it comes to the status of women. It is the women who bear the brunt of rising fundamentalism or extremist religious movement. Many, even enlightened and progressive men, have sympathies with obscurantism in the name of geo-strategic policies. The mindset of male domination is so prevalent that even the Maoists, who are supposed to be gender blind, are committing sexual crimes against their own comrades.

The female plight, specifically, in the fundamentalist movement, should be acknowledged and no one nation or country should be singled out as the scapegoat. Rather, a distinction should be made between societies/countries where the state sanctioned ideology encourages such abuses and those where it is a marginal phenomenon. A Texas jury on August 9, 2011 sentenced Jeffs to life in prison plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two girls he claimed as "spiritual" brides.  While Jeffs has been handed down a severe punishment by the US judicial system, such cases are ignored in countries like Pakistan where state ownership of religious ideology and brainwashing of masses is causing honour killings, live burying of women and gang rape. It is about time we do away with the values that flourish hatred against women and restrict their freedom.

Dr. Manzur Ejaz is a poet, author, a political commentator and a cultural activist. He is a Doctor of Economics and currently lives in Washington DC.