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Eric Grigorian/Polaris

A woman's turn

Lifestyle/Technology | Wafa Sultan finds it harder to prick the American than the Arab mind on the problems with Islam

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

NEW YORK-I'm sitting across from Wafa Sultan in a midtown Manhattan deli while Christmas muzak ("Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" variety) plays. She's in New York to promote her book, A God Who Hates. It's a memoir of her life under Islam and a polemic against that religion, which she doesn't believe can be reformed. She knows this isn't a message Americans want to hear: "It's hard for you to believe that people can be evil."

Her position is politically incorrect and in December wasn't garnering much media interest. That was different from her experience in 2006. Then she was already well-known in the Arab world for her writings about Islam. The television network Al Jazeera invited her to appear on a program to discuss links between terrorism and Islamic teaching. "I was so happy to do it," she says.

She was not in the same studio as the host and another guest, an imam who came originally from Algeria: "I was shocked to find I was debating." The debate took place in Arabic, with the imam calling her bad names and interrupting her constantly. "The host asked me to sum up my thoughts. He gave me two minutes. I began to speak and the imam interrupted again. I said to him in Arabic, "Shut up. It is my turn."

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She explains the significance: "It was the first time in Islamic history a woman on national TV told a man, and not only a man, but an imam, 'Shut up, it is my turn.' And I found out that the most interesting part of the statement was 'it is my turn,' because women in the Islamic culture don't have a turn."

The debate circulated on YouTube. ABC and The New York Times covered it. Wafa Sultan became a recognizable figure and a target of extremists. In California she has to hide her identity when she goes out, donning a wig and sunglasses. In Europe she needs bodyguards: "I gave a speech in Paris a year ago and I felt I was on the West Bank. Seventy-five percent of the audience was Muslim."

Sultan's critique of Islam grows out of her own experience growing up in Syria, where she was one of 12 children raised in a Muslim home: "I came from a very oppressive culture, especially as a woman. I had no rights or hand in my own destiny." She did have the advantage of coming from a relatively secular family and living in a small city on the Mediterranean with a large Christian community.

The interaction of those communities made the form of Islam in her hometown less strict. She was able to go to medical school and eventually become a psychiatrist. Despite her professional success, Sultan found Syria to be an oppressive place to live as a woman. In 1989 she moved to the United States with her husband.

Sultan uses words like brainwashed to describe the power Islam exerts over the people who live under it. She says Islam uses fear to control people: "You're not allowed in the Islamic culture to ask, you have to take whatever is taught without any questions. You aren't allowed to leave Islam, to convert to any other religion."

Sultan describes how the brainwashing affected her mother and a sister. Her mother came to California after not seeing her for seven years: She "gave me a very hard time in America. She was not used to freedom." If Sultan asked her husband for a glass of water, her mother would lecture her: "She was a maid to her husband. She hated to see me a free woman."

Sultan says her mother would tell her, "You're just a woman. You're just a piece of woman. Do you think you're going to make any change?" Sultan's mother, like 70 percent of Muslim women, is illiterate: "How are you going to change their minds? She has never read. She believes whatever she hears."

One of Sultan's sisters also visited. Sultan tried to engage her in conversation about Islam. The sister refused, saying, "Walls have ears." Sultan still can't believe it: "In my home, thousands of miles from her house, she wasn't able to speak her mind. She was brainwashed by fear."

When I told Sultan about one educated American woman who had converted to Islam, she reacted dismissively: "She has never lived in an Islamic country. Does she know how Muhammad treated women? How can she explain that Muhammad married a 9-year-old girl when he was 54? How can she explain that Muhammad forced his son to leave his wife for him and he slept with her the very same day [he] beheaded 800 men in one night and slept with the Jewish woman Sophia the very first night he killed her husband, her father, and her brother? How could a very educated woman explain these acts toward women? I would love to ask her this question. Maybe she's like my mom and has never gone deeply into Islam."

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