Woe Unto Some Muslim Women

Yesterday the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia announced that the kingdom’s girls are, in the eyes of men and Allah, ready to marry at the age of 10 or 12. Rebuking those who called for the servitude marriage age to be raised, he noted that Islamic law doesn’t oppress women and cited the old ones as proof: “Our mothers and grandmothers got married when they were barely 12. Good upbringing makes a girl ready to perform all marital duties at that age.” That surely settles it.

While polite attention is fixed on Saudi women and the prohibitions against driving or competing in the Olympics, several disturbing articles have appeared this week which put the spotlight on women in Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan. In Why Do They Hate Us, Mona Eltahawy pulls no punches:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.”

What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

After this opening salvo, which presumably starts with Egypt because Eltahawy was born there and was recently raped by Egyptian police, she tours other Arab countries, all united to one degree of another in the abuse of women and use of Islam to justify it.

Photo by Aaron Goodman for Foreign Policy

As might have been expected given the incendiary nature of Eltahawy’s article (and provocative photos such as the one above), the blow-back has been substantial. Angry critics argue that Eltahawy painted with too broad a brush and has oversimplified the issues and causes. Undoubtedly she did oversimplify both the issues and the causes. If this ignited a debate, is it did, it seems a good thing.

As might also have been expected, some critics were quick to argue that the problem isn’t religious. Max Fisher, for instance, proclaims this in his title of his Atlantic post: “The Real Roots of Sexism in the Middle East (It’s Not Islam).” As a titular matter, this is correct. Because there is no essential “Islam” and “Islam” is not a reified thing, “Islam” can’t be a cause or root. But there are interpretations, constructions, and deployments of ideas that its practitioners call “Islam” which helped develop and maintain sexism, misogyny, and abuse. Despite declaring “Islam” innocent and blaming colonialism for sexism-abuse, even Fisher recognizes this:

The colonial rulers who conquered Muslim societies were skilled at pulling out the slightest justification for their “patriarchal bargain.” They promoted the religious leaders who were willing to take this bargain and suppressed those who objected. This is a big part of how misogynistic practices became especially common in the Muslim world (another reason is that, when the West later promoted secular rulers, anti-colonialists adopted extreme religious interpretations as a way to oppose them).

While there may be some or substantial truth to this, Fisher seems to be saying that colonial rulers promoted men who justified sexism-abuse with religion, and that anti-colonialists “opposed” this by adopting even more extreme religious interpretations. Under this strange scenario, women get colonial abuse coming and anti-colonial abuse going, all justified in the name of religion or “Islam.” By Fisher’s own account, these constructions and uses of “Islam” cannot be dismissed as a cause.

From the fire of the Middle East we go to the frying pan of Pakistan, where Zara Jamal reports things aren’t any better. In To Be a Woman in Pakistan: Six Stories of Abuse, Shame, and Survival, we glimpse a small world of suffering. Jamal prefaces the six stories with this odd observation:

Westerners usually associate the plight of Pakistani women with religious oppression, but the reality is far more complicated. A certain mentality is deeply ingrained in strictly patriarchal societies like Pakistan. Poor and uneducated women must struggle daily for basic rights, recognition, and respect. They must live in a culture that defines them by the male figures in their lives, even though these women are often the breadwinners for their families.

Is Jamal suggesting that the abuse of these women is a byproduct of free-floating or traditional patriarchy? If so, my questions to her would be how did this patriarchy develop and how is it maintained? It surely isn’t by vague obeisance to tradition or patriarchy. The “mentality” and “culture” that Jamal mentions are substantially anchored in and justified by a particular reading of Islam, even if she wants to minimize this or not mention it. While questioning and complicating standard narratives is good, complexity needn’t eclipse reality or truth.

In a piece which probes closer to the core of these issues, we have Karim Sadjadpour’s The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets). In the past, I’ve sometimes thought that these kinds of societies should be analyzed using a Freudian approach. As Sadjadpour shows, this can bear some fruit:

Ayatollah Khamenei contends that the health of the family unit is integral to the Islamic Republic’s well-being and is undermined by female beauty. Although to some this worldview is fundamentally misogynistic, Khamenei sees men, not women, as untrustworthy and incapable of resisting temptation:

In Islam, women have been prohibited from showing off their beauty in order to attract men or cause fitna [upheaval or sedition]. Showing off one’s physical attraction to men is a kind of fitna … [for] if this love for beauty and members of the opposite sex is found somewhere other than the framework of the family, the stability of the family will be undermined.

Interestingly, the word Khamenei employs against the potential unveiling of women — fitna — is the same word used to describe the opposition Green Movement that took to the streets in the summer of 2009 to protest President Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection. In other words, women’s hair is itself seen as seditious and counter-revolutionary. Even so-called liberal politicians in the Islamic Republic have long fixated on this issue. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president, who has spent the past three decades exiled in France, reportedly once asserted that women’s hair has been scientifically proven to emit sexually enticing rays.

Against this backdrop of repression, temptation, and domination, other countries are attempting to gauge whether the Iranian government is fundamentally rational or irrational. Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, the ayatollahs continue wrangling with their other great fear — that Western sex will invade Iran and the revolution will eventually become limp:

Khamenei’s vast collection of writings and speeches makes clear that the weapons of mass destruction he fears most are cultural — more Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga than bunker busters and aircraft carriers. In other words, Tehran is threatened not only by what America does, but by what America is: a depraved, postmodern colonial power bent on achieving global cultural hegemony. America’s “strategic policy,” Khamenei has said, “is seeking female promiscuity.”

All this leaves me wondering: What it is about some men in some countries that makes them so fearful of women? When personal weakness and insecurity marry themselves to domestic, religious, and political power, the results aren’t pretty.

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7 thoughts on “Woe Unto Some Muslim Women

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    You are just bashing ‘normal’ because by sheer chance, you were raised in a rather bizarre (as in very new and unusual) tradition.
    In the patriarchal states of ancient Greece and Rome, the male head of house had the power of life and death over all children and females. In the Middle East as well, strong patriarchal traditions date to the Bronze Age or earlier. Islam did not start these traditions, and abusing women is hardly new. Keeley and Diamond both report a common custom for matrimony within traditional communities is to raid a neighboring tribe and snatch a young woman. You want her? Take her! Unusual is treating women (or anyone weaker or less well armed) consistently with respect.
    Men, it seems, are normally insecure, and that aint pretty.

  2. Cris Post author

    Hardly. When I started writing the post I thought I’d comment on how ironic it is that supposedly “modern” (i.e., post-Neolithic) societies can be so backwards when it comes to women and sex. It’s ironic because if historic hunter-gatherers serve as any guide to the past, then that past was relatively enlightened when it came to both. Women in supposedly “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies had it much, much better than women in many modern societies. The development of property rights in post-Neolithic societies was bad news for women all the way around.

    And comparative analyses aside, I’m not a relativist when it comes to these issues: abuse is abuse is abuse, no matter where or when.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Alice was told of the exploits of the Walrus and the Carpenter on her adventure ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and reflected on the characters: “I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.”
    “He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.”
    “That was mean!” Alice said indignantly. “Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.”
    “But he ate as many as he could get,” said Tweedledum.
    After a pause, Alice began, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—”
    As explained above, those noble tribesmen made common the practice of equating kidnapping and rape to marriage. That, I suggest, was the habit the Bronze Age (possibly earlier) practice of locking away the women was developed to protect against.
    That aside, ten thousand years of institutionalized Neolithic female abuse is enough to make it ‘normal’.
    Just say’n: Good behavior don’t come easy! (and standards are constantly changing!)

  4. Cris Post author

    If we are talking about the status and treatment of in-group women, as I have been, then the ethnohistoric hunter-gatherer record for women is quite good, better than most post-Neolithic societies. If we are talking about the treatment of out-group women (or out-group anyone), as you are, then all bets are off. Humans generally have a horrible record of out-group treatment.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    I have long assumed that the poorer treatment of women in the post Neolithic was a mark of the stronger ‘economy’ (ie – the ‘semi-mechanized’ food production allowed for surpluses). This created a community where less productivity by any one individual ‘outside the house’ could be tolerated, but also a situation where ‘more children’ was an advantage as well. Locking away, hiding the women appears to increase their child output while reducing (virtually all) of their other economic productivity. It also appears to foster abuse, particularly for those women who do not wish to be hid away.
    With modern medicine reducing infant mortality, it is once again, strongly beneficial to get women back into the mainstream economy – despite how some men hate sharing authority after so long holding nearly exclusive power. I suspect economic necessity has done more for women’s rights than liberal hearts.

  6. Delene Luna

    I think that the Islam can put a stop to the cruel law of removing their gentials. Just get together and capture several men. Do unto them as they do unto you. You will have to have a very good
    plan but it will work if you can get enough women to help out,
    Remove the mens gentials, and let them bleed to death or whatever happens to them they will never forget it.
    thanks to you and good luck,

  7. Pingback: The Nightly View: Thorny questions about reincarnation. The status of women in Pakistan.

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