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Uprooting age-old customs from within Add to ...

Ingrained cultural mores - especially those pertaining to women - are often impervious to criticism from without. Yet, it often takes a heinous event, rooted in those very mores, to shake attitudes from within. These reverberations can then uproot age-old customs, leading to social change.

In Pakistan, the case of Mukhtar Mai comes to mind. In 2003, she was ordered gang-raped by a tribal village council in retaliation for a perceived tribal slight. The council sought to inflict shame upon her and her tribe. The incident would have remained hidden had it not been for the village imam who spoke out against the monstrosity during a Friday sermon. The sheer brutality of the attack, combined with the brazen arrogance of the council members, caused an outrage in Pakistan like never before.

Syria is now beginning to face the dishonourable custom of "honour killing," following the tragic case of 16-year-old Zahra al-Azzo. At the age of 15, she was kidnapped from her village outside Damascus and raped. After the perpetrator was caught, Zahra was placed in a women's prison by authorities who feared her family would "restore" the family honour by killing her. Instead, Zahra's cousin, Fawaz, offered to marry her. Everything seemed fine. Until her brother broke into their apartment one morning and stabbed her repeatedly as she slept. That evening, her family celebrated.

Usually, it is taboo to mention the killing. Yet Zahra's case touched a public nerve. Lawyers, Islamic scholars and government officials forged a public campaign to change laws and attitudes that protect honour crimes. Under Syrian law, an honour killing is not murder, and the man who commits it is not a murderer. The Grand Mufti of Syria condemned honour killing in unequivocal terms, reminding the public that the Koran does not differentiate between women and men in its moral laws and requires sexual chastity of both.

In Egypt, a 13-year-old girl recently bled to death while undergoing genital mutilation at a village clinic. The government immediately shut down the clinic and banned all medical practitioners from any involvement in such activities. The villagers (men and women) reacted in anger, insisting on maintaining the practice in spite of the recent death. This set off an intense nationwide debate, leading to a powerful public campaign to stop female genital mutilation. As in Syria, women's groups, the government and religious officials combined efforts to confront centuries-old attitudes head-on. Female circumcision is a common practice among Egyptian Christians and Muslims. It is linked to the notion of female "purity": Without it, a woman may be considered "unmarriageable."

The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs issued a booklet explaining why the practice was not called for in Islam; Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, declared it haram, or prohibited by Islam; Egypt's highest religious official, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, called it harmful. A national hotline was set up to answer the public's questions about genital cutting.

After a century of trying to eradicate the practice, it seems the tide is turning. The biggest hurdle in the way of eradication has been the taboo against publicly discussing female genital mutilation.

There is a similar evolution under way in several West African countries, where Islamic scholars and health-care workers have worked in tandem to address the harmful consequences of this practice. Communities are now taking collective action to abandon the centuries-old tradition: Nearly 2,000 villages in Senegal have formally declared that cutting will no longer be allowed.

These tectonic shifts in attitude elsewhere have implications in Canada, as well. Especially in light of the case last month, where a Carleton University student who was sexually assaulted issued a clarification that, contrary to news reports, she had not been raped. Initial accounts described a brutal attack: An unknown assailant entered the lab where she was working, broke her jaw, knocked her unconscious and then sexually assaulted her, leaving her hospitalized for days.

Thereafter, the student identified herself as Muslim and issued the clarification to save herself from the stigma of rape. In certain cultures, this can have an adverse effect on marriage prospects. While few in the Muslim community know the woman's identity, some rightfully asked: Why should a victim of sexual assault carry any guilt about rape? This woman needs support and comfort from her community, not stigmatization. National and local Muslim organizations issued statements calling for her support, and condemning the stigma of rape.

For once, this taboo subject has been broached from within. But where are the imams and religious leaders? As in Syria, Egypt and Senegal, their voices are essential for changing disturbing cultural attitudes towards rape and abuse. After all, Prophet Mohammed punished those who molested women, without ever stigmatizing the victims.

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